Monday, April 09, 2007

Love, Fear, Words, Deeds

A friend I know as a truth teller writes in response to the last post, that maybe we shouldn't love everyone, since there are predators. Even more trenchantly, my correspondent questions whether people who say they love everyone can be trusted.

In my mind this raises two sets of problems in the application of the principle of love.

First, of course, is the fact that we live in a dangerous world. Turning of the other cheek is the least frequently applied of all the teachings of Jesus. In the weeks after September 11, I do not recall reminders of this teaching; instead, most pulpits dripped with words of rage and vengeance. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the nation is still paying the price for that sort of sentiment.

Perhaps the reason why turning the other cheek doesn't work is that it's thought of in isolation from everything else. The average churchgoer may be a law-abiding citizen and behave with good manners, but this is not what the point of the challenge to love is about.

Love as described here was unstinting, disinterested merely for the reason that the loved one exists. This is not business as usual except for an hour a week in church.

This involves a whole change of perspective. Here the Buddha's surrender is meaningful. The bodhisattva (or Buddha-to-be) can love everything and everyone without fear because he or she has shed attachments and desires.

So what it there are robbers, no possession matters to the bodhisattva. So what if there are those who would harm the body, it is a passing thing. So what if someone would cause me pain, all the world is full of pain. (One of the Four Truths.)

Granted, I'm not there myself. I'm just saying that I understand why detachment makes sense. Detaching is the ultimate protection. As Janis Joplin put it: "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Or, more conventionally, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt preached from the presidential bully pulpit in 1933: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

It seems to me, then, that we need to add one more qualifier the universal ethical principle: we are speaking of fearless love.

Secondly, when we attempt to establish this goal for our behavior, it must go beyond words. Love is a verb best performed without much fanfare.

The Sermon on the Mount says; "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6,3-4)

"When we give, we should not be attached to the giving itself, nor take too much pride, nor brag about our giving," writes Venerable Tsang Hui in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. "Having wisdom will not give us too much conceit. Only through cultivating wisdom can we cut off our mental defilements."

Our rational mind cannot read into the thoughts and feelings of others, but it can grasp deeds. When words and deeds are at odds with each other, as my correspondent noted, it is evident.

These things are my yearnings, rather than my accomplishments.
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