June 1, 2020
What Is Love?

By Bapu Vaitla


‘Love is to see the self in all the world.’


Twenty-two years ago, on an early autumn day at Green Gulch Farm, Norman Fischer gave a talk about pain.”All suffering,” he said, “s a reflection of mind.” It was a sunny morning, the air filled with the hum of dragonflies and the smell of fresh bread, and Norman’s words were easy to believe. Surely pain could not originate from a world this lovely; surely our own heads were to blame.

But I challenged Norman. I’d arrived at Green Gulch for the farm apprenticeship a few months earlier, soon after returning from India, my first trip to my birthplace since I was a child. The reunion with family was sweet, but the scenes of poverty stunned me —flimsy straw houses exposed to monsoons and mosquitoes; desperately ill people sleeping on sidewalks, clothed in rags; the hunger. Most of all, the hunger. Families living on two meals a day of watery rice and lentils. Children far too short and light for their age, continually ravaged by gastrointestinal infections. Zen teaches of a perfect universe, sullied only by the delusions of mind, but I didn’t see how the physical pain of children fit into the grand design.

So I asked Norman: “All suffering? What about hunger? What about disease?” I remember him looking at me for a few moments, then closing his eyes and sighing. It seemed—or maybe I imagined—that a little bit of grief passed across his face, perhaps sparked by a memory. He looked at me again and said, quietly but firmly, “Yes. Even hunger, even disease.” He waited for my reply, but I was confused and had nothing to say. I trusted Norman’s wisdom deeply; he’d shown his caring and insightful heart many times before. He’d considered my question and given the truest answer he could muster—but I didn’t understand it.

I’ve thought about that exchange many times over the years. I’m still not sure I fully understand what he meant, but two notions keep floating to the surface. The first is the core Zen teaching that all suffering literally does arise in the brain. Hunger is a bodily sensation that comes from nutritional deficit, but the feeling of hunger—and thus the suffering attached to it—is the mind’s interpretation of that sensation. The same is true for all other kinds of physical pain.

The second idea took longer for me to grasp. The physical suffering of children is preventable. It persists only because adults are so mired in their own mental suffering—their desires for wealth, power, sex, and everything else—that they fail to notice. They fail to love. Norman was right. Even the raw bodily pain of a child’s hunger originates in someone‘s mind, and that someone is us, the voters, the consumers, the neighbors.


‘Love is being met with a dustpan when you’re holding a broom.’


I recently completed the winter ango at Tassajara, my first practice period since leaving Green Gulch over two decades ago. I’ve spent much of the intervening time in academia studying how good social change happens—specifically, researching the political and cultural forces that improve children’s lives. In India, Ethiopia, Brazil, and other countries, I’ve felt again the shock of seeing poverty manifest, especially among children.

But I’ve also seen remarkable things: vaccination and prenatal care programs that save millions of lives, staffed by tireless health workers receiving almost no pay; political movements led by women that push child well-being to the top of the policy agenda; villages taking care of families whose lives have been ravaged by natural disaster.

These stories differ in the details of who’s involved, the solutions employed, the obstacles overcome. In nearly every situation, though, trusting relationships are at the heart of good change. I’ve watched cash-strapped communities overcome forbiddingly complex problems by simply thinking together, working together, trying together, day after day. Conversely, I’ve seen well-funded, technically sophisticated projects fail because small cracks of misunderstanding—poor communication here, a difference in values thereâ—grew into massive fractures, with no trust to fall back on.

A better world comes from committed cooperation, and cooperation is sustained by trust. But how do we build that trust, especially in an age of deep divisions of identity and ideology?

Many human spiritual traditions converge on a simple answer: we tell stories of love. We acknowledge Norman’s answer. We notice how our mental narratives cause pain to ourselves and others. We try to understand the conditions under which love emerges—the kind of love that opens our eyes to the suffering of children—and then we tell stories of how human beings created love in the past and how we can build it in the future.

I went to Tassajara to ask my fellow monks about their stories of love, and to sit with my own experience of love. As part of this journey, a small group of us asked each member of the sangha for their personal definition of love. Some of the forty answers we received are interspersed throughout this essay (and you can read all of the answers here.)


‘Love is the canyon wren; love is a heartfelt apology; love is a shared umbrella in the rain.’


What is love in the time of coronavirus?

The ancient image of Indra’s net—each of us a jeweled node in a net, reflecting every other jewel—becomes less metaphorical as science gradually reveals the shape of reality. Cooperative networks are everywhere inside our bodies: trillions of cells working in exquisite harmony; a parliament of genes encoding a common structure; molecules dancing in catalytic cycles; and, at the heart of it all, mysterious attractive forces binding the fundamental particles of the universe together.

Networks extend outward from our bodies as well. We are deeply dependent on other living beings—partners, family, neighbors, microbes, plants, animals—as well as beings whose sentience we have yet to appreciate: the mountains, rivers, atmosphere. Our true body is vast. Love would seem to be the appropriate response to all this: love for a self that contains marvelous worlds, love for the web of interbeing.

Hard as it is to accept, Covid-19 is part of this web. Viruses are strange beings, occupying a liminal space between life and non-life. Like life forms, they metabolize energy and replicate; but unlike other life forms, they do so by hijacking the cellular machinery of other organisms. “Hijacking,” of course, is a word laden with human disdain. One could also say that viruses are masterpieces of genetic parsimony, a high-water mark of elegance among natural selection’s creations. However you label Covid-19, though, this at least is clear: it wants to exist as much as any being on the planet.

And the virus also teaches us about the darker side of interdependence. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, a pathogen originally resident in another animal species. Human activity triggered the major zoonotic epidemics of the recent past—HIV-AIDS, the Ebola virus, various strains of influenza. Ebola outbreaks, for example, are linked to deforestation. Many of the devastating flu epidemics of the 20th century originated in domestic livestock and poultry. We don’t yet know the history of Covid-19, but human disturbance of animal (probably bat) habitat likely enabled the virus to spill over into our bodies.

Break a jewel in Indra’s net, and our bodies reflect the shattering. The question now is: will our fear lead us to double down on the illusion of separateness—razing ecosystems with even greater urgency, closing borders to the brown and poor? Or will we rededicate ourselves to the recognition of interbeing, transforming our political and economic institutions accordingly?

The hard truth is that pandemics will keep coming, some with far greater ferocity than Covid-19. Evolution is one thing viruses and bacteria do better than anything else on Earth. We can limit the damage by building an equitable global public health system, designing safer, more humane livestock and agricultural systems, and protecting the natural world. This is what responding to Covid-19 with love would look like. But is that the story we’ll tell?


‘Love is accepting yourself in the dark’


Love of other beings in Indra’s net is hard; self-love is even harder.

When I was eleven years old, my father, brother, and I moved from a working-class, multi-ethnic neighborhood of Chicago to an extremely rich, almost totally white school district in the San Fernando Valley of California. We lived in a small apartment tucked in the corner of a town filled with mansions; my dad slept on the living room floor for seven years to give my brother and I a room of our own. Meanwhile, other parents at my school celebrated their children’s birthdays by giving gifts of new BMWs, full-size trucks, and, in the case of at least four girls, plastic surgery.

On top of typical teenage insecurities, I felt desperately poor and ugly, unable to participate in the status displays, unwilling for fear of rejection to look for friends within the white culture. I did my share of excluding as well, participating in the homophobic and weight-shaming culture of the school, trying to divert the hurt I felt to others.

Self-love was long in coming, a story to be told elsewhere. But memories of my own struggles helped me think in later years about social change, cooperation, and trust. Love for others, and thus our ability to alleviate suffering in the world, is very difficult to sustain without genuine self-love. Fear is always waiting to rule us, to write our thoughts. When it does, relationships start to fall apart; we hurt ourselves and we hurt the people we need.

My own definition of love is born of a teenage memory. I played a lot of basketball growing up; it was a refuge from all the other parts of my life I didn’t like. During the summers, I’d play all day, and when night fell most of the other kids went home—the park where we played didn’t have lights near the court. But I usually stayed, shooting hoops by myself for hours in the dark. I stayed for many reasons: to work on my game; because I didn’t have much to go back to, with a father who was always either working or consumed by anger; because seeing a shot go in made me feel like I could control at least one thing in my life.

Those reasons are all true, but most of all I stayed because I felt like I belonged there. I felt like my body was doing what it should be doing. I was at home, and that’s the best way I can put the feeling of love into words—a child shooting jumpers in the dark, finding steadiness inside a world that always seemed to be shaking.


‘Love is showing up, over and over again, until it’s clear: it’s okay, I’m here, you’re safe, I’m with you.’


The asking is part of the answer, perhaps. I felt deeply loved during the winter ango at Tassajara, and I found it easy to give love.

Perhaps more than any other moment, the practice period opening ceremony embodied this feeling. That January morning was bitterly cold. Our procession stumbled from altar to altar, shivering. I remember watching my breath rise as Paul stepped forward to offer incense in the lower garden. My gaze lifted to the sky and I gasped in delight at the stars—it was a stunningly clear night, and the Milky Way was everywhere.

I thought: the cosmos is unimaginably vast, and somehow I ended up on a living planet, maybe the only one anywhere. I thought: of all the bodies across four billion years of evolution, somehow I find myself in a human body, capable of self-consciousness and wonder. And finally I thought: I am healthy, safe, and loved. I am loved.


‘Love is the state of rest.’


About the Author:

In 1998, Bapu Vaitla went to Green Gulch Farm as a farm apprentice. Twenty-two years later, he came back to San Francisco Zen Center to participate in the 104th practice period at Tassajara led by Ryushin Paul Haller. After the practice period, Bapu returned to his work in the Sacramento area where he is finishing a book on the evolution of cooperation, in both nature and human society, and where he is working to address the rising homelessness in Yolo County.

He is a visiting scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and a visiting lecturer at the University of California-Davis. His core interest is the relationship between human cooperation and child well-being: why people decide to work together (or not) for mutual benefit, and the effects of these decisions on public policy, cultural change, and ultimately the lives of children. He was born in India and grew up in California. He holds a BA in Nature and Culture and an MS in International Agricultural Development from UC Davis, and a PhD in International Relations/Political Economy from Tufts University.