Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Trouble with Universal Love

     In the Pali Buddhist texts one will occasionally find an exhortation to radiate love to all beings, i.e. actually to love all beings in the universe, without exception. The most well-known such admonishment is the Mettā Sutta. Other religions also teach love for all beings. But, needless to say, almost nobody achieves total success at this.
     Christianity, although rather more heart-oriented and love-oriented than traditional Theravada Buddhism, has experienced some strange deviations from this teaching of universal love. Even some of the early saints taught that, yes, we should love our enemies and bless those that curse us, as Jesus taught, but the enemies of the Church should be hated. We should love our personal enemies, but not the enemies of Christ. Thus the exhortation to love one's neighbor as oneself would apply only if one's neighbor is also a Christian, preferably a Christian belonging to the same sect as oneself. Recently Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar has seen a similar deviation, with monks teaching love for all beings—except for Muslims, plus maybe Indians. So the teachings of the Buddha are shelved for the sake of religious bigotry, racism, resentment, and general xenophobia. But the scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism obviously teach that, yes indeed, we should love absolutely everybody.
     One less obvious deviation from universal love has been endorsed by such wise persons as, for example, Mahatma Gandhi. This version is succinctly stated as "Love the sinner, but hate the sin." For instance we should certainly feel love for Adolf Hitler, but not for the fact that he started World War II and precipitated the violent deaths of several million people. This seems like an enlightened approach to loving everybody (loving the sinner without the sin, that is, not causing millions of violent deaths). But it seems to me that this approach is based upon a rather confused abstraction, based upon sloppy thinking or unthinking dogmatism, or both.
     How should we love Adolf Hitler? As an abstraction completely divorced from his personality and his actions? And if so, what is left of him to love? Do we say that Adolf had a soul that was his true essence, and which had nothing to do with his volitions, not to mention his crimes against humanity? It's true that some schools of Hinduism endorse the idea of a soul or Atman which makes no decisions and is ultimately perfectly pure; but this is Brahman, or God, and we all share that same one. So loving Adolf like that would simply be loving God, with Adolf himself falling completely out of the picture. There are probably other religions and/or philosophies out there that claim that our essence is not a unified Godhead on the one side, but not associated at all with our misdeeds on the other; but I don't see how such a disembodied abstraction could be loved as the person named Adolf Hitler. 
     Or do we distill out the good parts of his nature, and then hate or ignore the rest? Adolf was certainly an interesting guy. He very probably loved his mother. He probably also loved his dog (even though he killed it, or had it killed, before he committed suicide in the bunker). He had enough gallantry and tender feeling for Eva Braun that he married her the day before they died. He won two medals for bravery in WWI, and obviously was not afraid to risk everything in his determined endeavors to attain his goal. He was arguably a political genius also, albeit a very flawed one. Plus he was a vegetarian who didn't smoke or drink, not even drinking beverages with caffeine. Do we love him for these virtues and ignore all the messy details about his desire to exterminate Jews and other "subhumans" like Slavs and pacifists? Do we love the parts of his personality that were not filled with his Lucifer-like pride and his craving for self-glorification at all costs? If so, then we would be dismembering him and not loving him, but only a part of him. 
     There are some systems, like Christian Science and the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, which assert that anything is real to the extent that it is good; and thus badness is an illusion. So we could say that Adolf's good points were more real than his bad points, and then use that as a way of disregarding the bad. But if we follow this attitude with logical rigor, we will wind up at the conclusion that Adolf himself was an illusion. As Buddhism teaches, any "self," any being at all, is ultimately illusory. So if we are functioning at the level of loving all beings (including Herr Hitler), then we are still functioning at the level of beings who operate in this world, and who might plunge the world into the most catastrophic mass mortality in human history. Like it or not, if we are going to love all beings, we are going to love people like Adolf Hitler too, and that includes his personality and his actions.
     It is very common for people to say things like, "I love him—I just don't love what he does." But personally, I don't see how this is possible, unless we manage it through the aforementioned abstract sloppy thinking. Many years ago I had an epiphany while reading a book on Buddhist logic, which inspired the writing of the first Dharma essay I ever wrote. I realized that our mind works in such a way that we artificially distinguish between the spatial aspect of an entity and its temporal aspect—thus we think in terms of subject and predicate, noun and verb. And so we consider a person and that person's behavior to be two entirely different things. But the distinction of an entity and his/her/its behavior is illusory; it is an artifact of the idiosyncrasies of human perception. 
     Consider it this way: If two things necessarily arise at the very same place and time, and cannot possibly be separated or arise independently of each other, then those two things are really just the same thing, except perceived in two different ways. Thus a person and his or her behavior are necessarily inseparable, and are thus just two ways, spatially and temporally, of looking at the very same phenomena. One might reply that our behavior in general may be necessary, but our specific behavior is not necessary, because it is volitional, and thus optional, in accordance with Free Will. So then Adolf could have chosen not to invade Poland, for example. But this "Free Will" appears to be a logical impossibility, based upon ignorance, bad logic, and religious prejudice. I've discussed this sticky issue in greater detail elsewhere (for example, "The Notion of Free Will," posted 8 July 2012), but I'll sketch out the main line of reasoning.
     Either an event (like our friend Adolf deciding to invade Poland) has a cause, or it doesn't have a cause. That is resting pretty much on the bedrock of logical certainty, so if we reject this statement, then we reject logic—which is always an option, although any kind of persuasive reasoning would thereby be flung out the window. So an event has a sufficient cause, or causes, or it doesn't. Now, if it has a cause, then it is determined by that cause, and is not free. On the other hand, if it doesn't have a cause, then it occurs essentially at random; and although randomness may be called a kind of freedom, it apparently is not what people are talking about when they speak of Free Will. Totally random behavior would be more like an epileptic seizure than the actions of a reasoning, conscious being. Besides, Free Will implies an autonomous entity, or in other words a self, which a good Buddhist cannot reasonably endorse. This last argument may only apply to Buddhists though—Buddhists do not have Free Will. I won't belabor this issue, so I'll just arrive at the conclusion that Hitler's personality traits, decisions, and behavior were just as essential to who he was as his body, or whatever else people would be inclined to identify as "Adolf Hitler."
     Consequently we arrive at the troublesome idea that if we are to love all beings, we must love their thoughts, feelings, and behavior also. If we love the sinner, we must also love the sin. Not only should we love all beings, we should love absolutely everything in the entire universe, including Jews, Slavs, pacifists, and genocide. Not to mention warriors and wars, thieves and thievery, prostitutes and prostitution, factories and pollution, mosquitoes and insecticide.
     One important notion to bear in mind is that loving somebody doesn't mean that we necessarily want to imitate them. A mother can dearly love a child who writes on the wall with crayon or eats mashed potatoes with his fingers, without herself wanting to write on the wall or eat mashed potatoes with her fingers. Just because we love something doesn't necessarily mean that we want to follow along with it. And even though, as I repeat again and again, the essence of love is acceptance, we can lovingly accept something without necessarily endorsing it. So it is possible to love Adolf Hitler, and thus also love the effect he has had upon the world, without endorsing genocide, or German opera music.
     My standard example of this is a flat tire. Let's say a person who loves everything is driving her car (which she loves), and suddenly gets a flat tire. Well, she doesn't sit there thinking, "I accept that the tire is flat, so I'll just leave the car here by the side of the road with a flat tire forever and ever." What she does is accept that the tire is flat, and also accept that the thing to do now is to get out of the car and change the tire. She accepts that her hands and blouse will probably get dirty, that she might even break a fingernail, and that she will be late for whatever appointment she was going to. So we can love the world the way it is while still actively fixing what is broken. A mother can dearly love her only child and still discipline him. 
     The thing is that we can't accept what we are ignorant of, and so we can't love what we are ignorant of, even though love is ultimately effortless. We can't let go of what we're ignorant of either, despite the fact that letting go is also effortless. So understanding is key. 
     The other thing is that to the extent that we understand somebody, we love that person. It goes both ways. We can't really, fully know another person until we knock down all barriers and let them into our chest. Then we see and feel the reasons why they are the way they are. We see that that person, like everybody else, is doing the best he can, and is trying (and failing) to be happy in the best way he knows. We see the connections that made them that way and keep them that way. We may not want to be like them, but we can see how they also, like all else, are a manifestation of divinity, or infinity, or perfection, or "God." The only thing that allows us to hate is barriers, alienation, and ignorance. All of those are one thing.
     So long as we are surrounded by Pink Floyd's Wall, we are closed off and profoundly ignorant, and cannot fully love anybody. If we are fortunate, at least we'll have a door or window knocked through the wall so we can love at least one other person as fully as we can. But when the whole wall comes tumbling down, and we are open and sensitive to everyone and everything around us, completely vulnerable but, paradoxically, completely invulnerable at the same time, then not only do we love absolutely everybody and everything—we ARE Love. 

we really ought to love this guy


  1. Mr. Reynolds how does one get out of their head and into their heart?

    Thank you for this post and others - wheels do turn in ways beyond expression.

    1. Mr. Remonster, this is an unusually serious comment coming from you.

      One method for developing a retarded heart is, according to an old book by Ram Dass, to do mindfulness of breathing while trying to feel as though the breath is going in and out of the heart. This at least, as far as I can tell, would make us more aware of feelings in that region.

      The two things I have found in my own experience which are very effective in heart-opening are: 1) Doing ayahuasca ceremonies, and 2) Associating with wise and very heart-oriented people, especially women. But trying to figure it out doesn't work, because that's just so much more head. Ask a wise woman.

  2. i lie to myself
    and to my friends too
    if i want your girl
    i'll lie to you too

    1. Ack! The Subhumans? I always considered that to be an unnecessarily bad rhyme. It could have been:

      And if I want your girl
      Then I'll lie to you

      Ah, punk rock on a Dharma Blog. Decline and Fall. Be well, if not peaceful.