“I burn, Eve, I just burn.”
I heard these words from a handsome young man from Florida almost 35 years ago. We were talking about what had caused a blonde college graduate, a great swimmer, on the threshold of life looking bright-eyed at all the options welcoming him with open arms, to come to the Zen Community of New York, where he spent most of every day on the floor of a bakery baking and finishing cakes, shrouded in bakery whites, taking five-minute breaks out on the hot pavement in the midst of the summer haze of southwest Yonkers.
He loved it. What he said was: “I burn, Eve, I just burn.”
The same is true about me. All my life, I’ve burned. Once it was for books and writing, then it was for Zen meditation, then it was for Zen-based social action, and now it’s again for writing. That, and the practice of living where each moment is both personal and impersonal, full beyond measure.
The point is, I had and still have passions; I burn. I never experienced Buddhism as the cultivation of detachment. For me, letting go enables me not to walk around dispassionately, but to plunge into every crazy, unfathomable moment.
For most of its years Buddhism was personified by monks, people who walked away from family, sex, money, jobs, and relationships. Yes, some did that because it was expected of them, much like the sons in many Irish families opted to become Catholic priests. Some entered the monastery because it fed them and filled basic survival needs. But the others? What passion animated them? When I read teachings of the great teachers, there’s passion in every word.
At the same time, I know many people who live day to day with very little passion. They may love their children and grandchildren, but other than that they seem to look at the life around them as if it’s all landscape.
They may love a movie, but they don’t love their work. They may love a TV series, but they don’t love this life. They get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and everything in between is remote. They talk about things, they don’t become them.
Maybe they can summon passion against people and things: against Donald Trump, Alabama’s new abortion law, against Muslims, Jews, or immigrants—or against the people who don’t agree with them—but they don’t feel passion for anything. Even if they have, say, passion for human rights and justice, they don’t have enough to do something other than, perhaps, proclaim their opinions to like-minded folks on Facebook.
If it’s a real passion, you’ll do. You’ll become. You’ll feel connected to something deep and alive; you’ll take risks and journey to the unknown. You’ll feel like you’re burning.
I was 35 when I moved into the Zen Community of New York. My peers, getting serious, got married, bought condos, and got jobs with good pensions. My parents wouldn’t visit and referred to my new work as “that place,” as in: Are you still in that place? Friends paid for dinner when I sat with them, but underneath it all felt I’d really gone round the bend.
How did I feel?
One Sunday back then I sat on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River with a fellow resident of the Community. We worked pretty much every weekend, but on that gorgeous afternoon we were able to sit and contemplate the majestic water. A sailboat cruised down the river, stroked lovingly by the sun, and my friend sighed and said, “What I wouldn’t do to be on that boat.” He turned to me: “What about you?”
“I don’t want to be on that boat,” I told him. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”