The Red Thread of Passion


Koan by Chinese master Sung-yuan (Shogen, d. 1202)

In order to know the Way in perfect clarity, there is one essential point you must penetrate and not avoid. The Red thread of passion between our legs that cannot be severed. Few face up to the problem, since it is not at all easy to settle. But you must attack it directly, without hesitation or retreat, for how else can liberation come?

Shortened version:

Why can’t even the most enlightened person sever the red thread of passion?

The Red Thread indicates our humanness and karmic existence – our individual story and body. But we humans also have the ability to see/feel beyond our individuality and to see a larger sense of humanity, the network of interdependence. Sometimes we get stuck in one side or the other but our practice is to see them as a working whole. We are encouraged to see the truth that they co-arise in every moment. It is not possible to ignore the Red Thread of human life if we are still in a human body with a human consciousness. But, our practice integrates our personal stories with our understanding of a larger reality – universal perspective, Katagiri Roshi called it. Sometimes in the 70’s, Katagiri would call it, cosmic consciousness. But that huge vast cosmic consciousness appears through the phenomenal form of the present moment. Form and emptiness arise together. Where do they arise? Only in this very moment and this very form that is appearing right now.

These two are called in Buddhism, The Two Truths. But actually, they are not two because they arise together, all the time, everywhere.   These opposites we have to weave together for a whole sense of enlightenment. The warp and weft are always present; the absolute and relative, the universal and particular. Our consciousness is the shuttle that has the opportunity to see them woven together and whole. If we can continuously do this, we can call that “enlightenment”.

In early Buddhism, I believe the emphasis was on breaking the red thread of our humanity and leaving the world and become a non-returner. In this belief system, celibacy seems the way to go. These early practitioners felt that there engagement with woman and sexuality would divert them from their primary purpose of experiencing the absolute and never-returning. The Mahayana seemed to change this viewpoint, into wanting to serve, and help humanity see the whole of our life’s situation. Dogen, even more, moves towards finding the inter-connections and the existence of the absolute merged into our ordinary reality.

From Fukanzazengi:

Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is, after all, an everyday affair.

The Tibetans seemed to take this even further by offering a Way that directly includes our sexuality through Tantra or Vajrayana Buddhism. They include women, their consorts, in this but I’m not exactly sure if that means the women have an equal role. Sometimes, I have heard, the women are even elevated.

For me, the uncuttable red thread of passion is the place where my mind is switched. My historic life is very important to me. It’s my life! I only have one. This particular person will never appear again. AND this particular person is part of, and never disassociated from the Whole Works. What a relief in perspective to go beyond our stories. But going beyond our stories, doesn’t mean that we ignore our karma. In fact the opposite is true. We have to take care of our karma and history from the perspective of interdependence.

We don’t negate the events or the moments of our life. But we learn to operate and take care of them from awakened awareness. We change the basis of operations of the mind but are still dealing with the same particulars.

When extrapolating this to sex and passion, I see that I can have these human events in my life but I practice with them and take care of them from the space of awakened awareness – from the space of being guided by the precepts and the paramitas. Using my understanding of the 4 noble truths, I can hold my sexual life with a healthy understanding and refrain from attachments and actions that create harm. I can be the highest evolved human that I can be with ethical integrity.

Ikkyu poems about the red thread.
Ten days in this temple and my mind is reeling!
Between my legs the red thread stretches and stretches.
If you come some other day asking for me,
Better look in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.


Follow the rule of celibacy blindly and you are no more than an ass.
Break it and you are only human.
The spirit of Zen is manifest in ways as countless as the sands of the Ganges.
Every newborn is a fruit of the conjugal bond.
For how many eons have the secret blossoms been budding and fading?


With a young beauty, I am engrossed in fervent love-play;
We sit in the pavilion, a pleasure girl and this Zen Monk.
I am enraptured by hugs and kisses
And certainly do not feel as if I am burning in hell.


Translated by John Stevens
From Three Zen Masters


Most interesting for me is Ikkyu holding up the problem of attaching to either side. He says:

Follow the rule of celibacy blindly and you are no more than an ass
Break it and you are only human.

What I think he means by “only human” is a human still bound by his history and greed, anger and ignorance. Following celibacy blindly is being rule-bound and self-righteous.

So how do we play out our two sides? How do we have a healthy human sexuality with ethical integrity and still come from open, unbounded awareness?