Unconditional love implies that we move away from limits into the realms of the limitless—what we might refer to as freedom.
This kind of loving attention doesn’t have borders and you can’t really know what form it is going to take. Through openness, you might hug someone or you might tell him or her a hard truth, depending on the situation. And this flips too: you might have to listen and digest something difficult because you don’t know what could push you into an internal transformation—a place where your heart opens beyond discrimination. From here, a real friend or friendship might not be what you expect.
A friend or partner is sometimes seen as someone who will comfort us and support our point of view even when we might be pushing against something where we are wrong or over-extending ourselves. We might also like to surround ourselves with people who do just that—who support the mental structure or lifestyle we feel comfortable inhabiting. You could be Christian, a lawyer or a banker and it could feel comforting to have others around you who support your lifestyle choices and who might just be seeking the same thing—a cycle of reinforcement.
This is an interesting thing to notice: do we choose our groups because they help support our internal structure, or are we open enough to flow in and out of the now and be a pillar that listens and speaks with an open heart?
By this I can also mean, do we allow others to hold us back from reaching our own inner vastness? A real friend might be the one who tells us what we need to hear, even if it challenges our cherished beliefs. From this vantage point, openness is essential because when we close down, how can we know a real friend from someone who we are using to prop up our ideas about ourselves? How can we be the open, free mind?
Friends are wonderful. They help us, they love us, and they are part of our lives to hear about our various victories and defeats. I used to think that a friend was like this, and if he or she didn’t fit my preconceived idea of friendship, then something was wrong. I also used to imagine that a best friend could only be someone who was like you, and who “had your back” in all situations.
But if this was the case for me, then where would I be in all this? Might I be limiting myself to something that was comforting—to see the things I “liked” around me all the time? This was too small. Might this definition close me off from something poignant or profound—something capable of changing my life and blowing down my internal boundaries?
If yes, this could mean that those who are very different from me, those with whom I do not agree, might hold the key to something deep and profound waiting quietly in my mind. Maybe a true friend is someone who is capable of changing you. If things, lessons, and friendships come out of an infinite background, then it might behoove us to remain open—to listen, to express the truth and to love.
There is a famous Chinese Zen story where two practicing monks, Hsueh-feng and Yen-t’ou, get snowed-in on top of a mountain pass. Their encounter went something like this:
Hsueh-feng was an interesting, kind man who studied Zen arduously for 30 years. His teacher’s could see something vast in him and they pushed him through their encounters—sometimes supporting him and other occasions, referring to him as a useless black bucket! He had the makings of a great Zen master, but something melancholic and mellow—maybe a subtle, pervasive kind of doubt—blocked his heart from undergoing a true transformation.
Yen-t’ou, on the other hand, was rough and fiery. Once when a group of monks he was traveling with were deeply contemplating the reflection of the moon in a pail full of water, Yen-t’ou came over and turned over the pail. That was his kind of teaching! In this sense, he was very different from Hsueh-feng. Both were kind, excellent students, but in their own unique human way.
When Hsueh-feng and Yen-t’ou found themselves stranded in a small hut on Tortoise Mountain, they had already been friends for quite some time. Hsueh-feng respected Yen-t’ou’s fire and especially his way of bringing out something deep and fiercely honest in others. In the same way, Yen-t’ou respected Hsueh-feng’s infinite patience as well as the cavernous depths of his compassion for nature and for others.
As the hours turned into days, Hsueh-feng meditated while Yen-t’ou lounged and slept. Finally Yen-t’ou said:
“What are you doing? Stop imitating a clay statue. You are going to die meditating all this time! Get some sleep!”
Hsueh-feng touched his left breast and responded, “My friend, my heart is still not at peace.”
Yen-t’ou calmed himself and said, “Well, why don’t you tell me everything about yourself. What is bothering you?”
Hsueh-feng proceeded to tell Yen-t’ou everything—all his years of practice and his close encounters with enlightenment. He told him about the times he had challenged the great masters only to have them find a soft point of doubt in his heart that quickly spread and froze him right in front of them. Hsueh-feng continued to speak for what seemed like hours as the snow fell outside.
Yen-t’ou listened deeply to his friend until, out of nowhere he yelled: “My friend! Haven’t you heard that what enters through the gate is not the family treasure?! Let it flow forth from your heart to cover heaven and earth!”
Upon hearing these words Hsueh-feng said over and over, “Today Tortoise Mountain has finally gained the Way!”
This story reminds me that what I think or what I believe might block me from hearing something through the words and hand gestures of someone that has the potential to open my heart. In the same way, where I refrain from speaking the truth, I might be providing a disservice to someone else—a close friend, a family member or a quick meeting with an elementary school acquaintance.
In Zen lore, a master is often the source of one’s awakening, but here, a friend comes out of nowhere with the words and energy necessary for Hsueh-feng’s opening. Oh, and by the way, Hsueh-feng would go on to be one of the most distinguished teachers in Zen history.
I enjoy seeing an old familiar face sipping coffee or laughing about a hard night. There is so much in what he or she is saying to me and what I say back to him or her. Light softly touches my friend’s face and I am reminded of Tortoise Mountain and of the bizarre and humorous way life manifests out of nowhere moment after moment. This could be a kind of boundless intimacy between all things and may be the way I approach friendships and budding flowers might hold the key to something wonderful, something that is always on the edge of our noses.
Ed: Brianna B.