There have been a few times in my life that I’ve experienced genuine, unrequited love. The fresh, raw pain of it is enlivening. As Nietzsche put it, “indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no point relinquish for a state of indifference.” If you have been reading my blog, then you know that I am pretty much always infatuated with someone. I don’t know that I can live without infatuation; it seems so woven into the fabric of who I am. Maybe it’s my insecure attachment style, or my aggrandizement of romance in the meaning of life, but my heart is like a magnet in a junkyard: always finding something to get stuck on.
One of my best unrequited loves was for a soft spoken monk named Uji. I can honestly say that meeting Uji was love at first sight for me, which I have also experienced a few times in my life. The pragmatic side of myself of course doesn’t believe in love at first sight, but that magnetic heart of mine sure does. And boy did I get stuck on Uji.
I first saw Uji when I went to a Zen center for a free workshop on how to meditate. I was late, as usual, and had not thought my day through very well, so I came into the workshop carrying several bags of computer equipment that I did not want to leave in the car, and wearing a tight red skirt with a slit up the side. Uji watched me pile my stuff in the corner before I tried to sit comfortably in the tight skirt while he talked about meditating. He wore a black robe and his head was shaved. His flawless skin glowed with what I presumed to be enlightenment. His gentle, lilting voice was the antipode of chauvinism. He radiated something I’d never encountered before: neutral passion. It was more than love at first sight. I was enraptured. I was slayed. I was spellbound.
Introverted children of alcoholics have an amazing ability to stay perfectly still and quiet for hours on end. We have learned how to freeze and go invisible, which is what I thought mediation was, and so I appeared to be very good at it. Uji took us downstairs to the zendo, and while my classmates fidgeted and coughed on their cushions, I stayed so motionless I could have been dead. I kept my face frozen in a serene expression that I hoped conveyed both my religiosity and my availability. When the workshop ended, I mumbled a thank you to Uji and left. Obviously I couldn’t talk to him.
Thus began my deep, dedicated study of Zen and meditation. For two years I loved Uji with increasing sincerity, but I loved Zen too. Uji was in training to become a priest. He lived at the Zen Center and had taken a vow of celibacy for the duration of his training. Sangha members were explicitly instructed not to dress provocatively around the monks, both male and female. (Oops, there went my red skirt.) But we were also not supposed to wear loud, flashy clothes into the zendo so as not to distract our fellow meditators. In my loose, dark clothes and deer-like stillness, it’s a wonder Uji ever knew I was there, but he did. We struck up a polite, warm acquaintanceship.
Another monk lived at the Zen Center, named Joshishi. Somehow, despite our differences, Joshishi and I hit it off famously and became fast friends. Bright-eyed, exuberant, and lovable, he was far more popular than the shy Uji. He was also an obviously terrible monk. Desire for everything radiated off of him, especially desire for Uji. I didn’t pick up on that at first, because you already know that I fall in love with gay men before realizing they’re gay. So after my inevitable infatuation with Joshishi came and went, I became his confidante, his ear outside the insular world of the monastery.
My friendship with Joshishi gave me deeper access to the monastery. We would meet to hang out, and I invariably got to see some odd sights, like the night I saw the monks and the priest sitting around drinking cans of beer and watching Star Wars. Away from the monastery, Joshishi would fill me in on the gossip: which monks were fighting and why, who was dating who in the sangha, and the scandals that tainted the priests’ pasts. Joshishi taught the high school students’ dharma school, and when his co-teacher left he invited me to fill her spot. We also partnered up to give a presentation to the seminary class I was taking.
The seminary classes were the deepest I went with the monastery. I loved them because they were over my head but I got to be there anyway. And I loved them because Uji always sat next to me. We studied sutras and koans. We spoke in metaphors. His feet were inches away from mine. Actually, Uji had taken to sitting next to me in the zendo, too. Once I realized this, I made it a point to enter the zendo after everyone else and choose a spot that had a free cushion next to mine. Uji would ring the gong once everyone was seated, and then choose his spot from amongst the free cushions. Was it a coincidence that he always chose to sit next to me? Probably not. It happened too often and with too many different variables. Did it mean anything significant? I don’t know. But I found his presence curious and distracting. It became a new condition with which to practice meditation.
I began to wonder if Uji had developed a crush on me. Was it possible? He maintained his stoic countenance throughout the Center, and as hard as I willed him to look at me during seminary, he never did. Unless I was speaking, and then he listened with such intent focus my words sounded like they were echoing inside a giant bell. Whatever I said during seminary class always ended with me laughing nervously and saying, “Or whatever! I don’t really know what I’m talking about.” After class one night, Uji approached me and said, “I think you know a lot more than you realize.” I felt validated and seen. I felt sure that somehow, in some way, we were going to end up together. And he continued to choose the cushion next to me, no matter where I sat.
If Uji was developing a crush on me, I decided that I should do my very best not to encourage it. I took his celibacy vows very seriously. I dutifully went to the thrift store and bought even baggier clothes, which I wore to the Zen Center. In the meantime, I had taken an apartment right next door to the zendo. Joshishi enjoyed coming over and lounging on the floor with my great collection of pillows. Our friendship had become deep enough that he began to share with me his doubt in his monkhood. He wrestled with strong passions and great emotions that could bowl him over and abduct his reason. I could relate. I’ve always felt more than a bit powerless to my feelings.
One day, Joshishi took me to see a house several blocks away that the sangha had bought. The monks all lived in the cramped basement of the Zen Center, and they were fixing up this new house for better living quarters. Joshishi seemed troubled that day, and he waxed on about his difficulties in getting along with Uji. I stayed silent. Uji was bothered by nothing and Joshishi was bothered by everything, but I knew I shouldn’t take sides. He became more and more agitated. Then he went to stand by a window and looked out upon the backyard. The empty house rustled quietly around us. “I’m in love with him, you know,” he said. “I’m so terribly in love with him.” I couldn’t say anything. Then Joshishi turned to me and said, “Uji pointed out to me that I attract desperate people. He told me I should look at that.”
I wasn’t stunned at first, because I didn’t realize Joshishi was talking about me until several days later. I tried to comfort him as best I could, knowing the pain of unrequited love for the perfect Uji. But Joshishi must have had it so much worse. The two of them lived like children in the same house. They shared everything, they did everything together, they took trips into the woods together for days at a time. Worse, Joshishi had told Uji of his love for him, and Uji had responded with stoic compassion and fierce guidance: these were emotions to be accepted but not acted upon. Later, alone, Joshishi’s words rang in my head. You attract such desperate people, such hungry ghosts. That’s what he had called them, hungry ghosts. I had become one of Joshishi’s closest friends, so Uji must have included me in that group. Was I a desperate person? Was that how Uji saw me? What about his comment that I knew more than I realized?
I began to withdraw from Uji, and from Joshishi. I couldn’t help but feel that Joshishi had meant to hurt me a little with that story. I spent more time in my room and less at the monastery. It wasn’t just Joshishi’s comment. My depression had come back, and all the meditating seemed to be making it worse. I sought counsel from the priests, but received only vague, benevolent answers that might have contained great wisdom that I couldn’t access. I spoke with a couple of the senior teachers next, and one of them offered that Zen in particular is not always the best fit for people struggling with nihilstic thoughts, which was where my depressive thinking had headed.
The next 6 months saw me move away from the Zen Center, stop my meditation practice, and get into a serious relationship with the man I would go on to marry. I drifted away from the Zen Center, and from Joshishi. A few years later, Uji took a break from his vows so he could marry a woman from the sangha that I knew to be a close friend of his. Joshishi fell in love with a man from the sangha and left his life as a monk to be with his boyfriend. Oh love, how you work your way into our best plans and screw everything up.
Every once in a while I visit the Zen Center to meditate, sip tea, and chat with the few faces I still know. Uji is always there. He is beautiful as ever, but we don’t have much to say to each other. He will always seem perfect to me, and I will probably always feel a little like a hungry ghost, driven by my hungry heart.