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An excerpt of this piece appears in our July 2009 "For 30 Years
the Best of Buddhism in America: Commentary" retrospective. Here, we present
the piece in its entirety.
To see all of the complete "Best of" commentaries, click here.
Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love
The practice of love, says bell hooks, is the most powerful antidote to the politics of domination. She traces her thirty-year meditation on love, power, and Buddhism, and concludes it is only love that transforms our personal relationships and heals the wounds of oppression.
At a conference on women and Buddhism that took place in spring last year, I was upset because most of the speakers were giving their talks in this serene, beautiful chapel, a place evoking a sense of the divine, a sacred place for the word to be spoken and heard, yet my talk was to take place on a Friday night in an unappealing, cavernous auditorium. Lamenting my exclusion from the realm of the sacred, I complained that I was exiled because I was not seen as a “real” Buddhist—no long time with a teacher, no journey to India or Tibet, never present at important retreats—definitely someone engaged in buddhadharma without credentials. The two companions who had joined me at the conference listened with compassion to my whining. Why did I have to speak in a huge auditorium? Why did I have to speak on a Friday night? Yes, I told them, lots of people might want to hear bell hooks speak on feminist theory and cultural criticism, but that’s not the same as a talk about Buddhism.
Yet when the time came the seats were filled. And it was all about Buddhism. It was a truly awesome night. Sacred presence was there, a spirit of love and compassion like spring mist covered us, and loving-kindness embraced me and my words. This is always the measure of mindful practice—whether we can create the conditions for love and peace in circumstances that are difficult, whether we can stop resisting and surrender, working with what we have, where we are.
Fundamentally, the practice of love begins with acceptance—the recognition that wherever we are is the appropriate place to practice, that the present moment is the appropriate time. But for so many of us our longing to love and be loved has always been about a time to come, a space in the future when it will just happen, when our hungry hearts will finally be fed, when we will find love.
More than thirty years ago, when l first began to think about Buddhism, there was little or no talk about Buddhism and love. Being a Buddhist was akin to being a leftist; it was all about the intellect, the philosophical mind. It was faith for the thinking “man” and love was nowhere to be found in the popular Buddhist literature at that time. D. T. Suzuki’s collection on Buddhism published in the late forties and throughout the fifties had nothing to say about love. Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was the Buddhist manifesto of the early seventies, and it did not speak to us of love.
Even though Christmas Humphreys would tell readers in his fifties publication Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide that “Buddhism is as much a religion of love as any on earth,” Westerners looking to Buddhism in those days were not looking for love. In fact Humphreys was talking back to folks who had designated Buddhism a “cold religion.” To prove that love was important to Buddhists, he quoted from the Itivuttaka: “All the means that can be used as bases for right action are not worth the sixteenth part of the emancipation of the heart through love. This takes all others up into itself, outshining them in glory.” Yet twenty years after this publication, there was still little talk of Buddhism and love. In circles where an individual would dare to speak of love, they would be told that Buddhists were more concerned with the issue of compassion. It was as though love was just not a relevant, serious subject for Buddhists.
During the turbulent sixties and seventies the topic of love made its way to the political forefront. Peace activists were telling us to “make love not war.” And the great preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., elevated the call to love from the hidden longing of the solitary heart to a public cry. He proclaimed love to be the only effective way to end injustice and bring peace, declaring that “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace.… If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
There could not have been a more perfect historical dharma moment for spiritual leaders to speak out on the issue of love. No doubt divine providence was at work in the universe when Martin Luther King, Jr., and a little-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh found themselves walking the same path—walking toward one another—engaged in a practice of love. Young men whose hearts were awakening, they created in mystical moments of sacred encounter a symbolic sangha.
They affirmed one another’s work. In the loneliness of the midnight hour, King would fall on his knees and ask himself the question, “How can I say I worship a god of love and support war?” Thich Nhat Hanh, knowing by heart all the bonds of human connection that war severs, challenged the world to think peace, declaring in the wake of the Vietnam war that he “thought it was quite plain that if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace.” Linking Buddhism with social engagement, Thich Nhat Hanh’s work attracted Westerners (myself included) precisely because he offered a spiritual vision of the universe that promoted working for peace and justice.
In Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices, Jack Maguire sees Buddhism’s emphasis on nonviolence as one of the central features that attracts Westerners. He writes: “Already large numbers of people concerned about such violence have been drawn to Buddhism as a spiritual path that addresses the problem directly. Besides offering them a means of committing themselves more actively to the cause of universal peace, it gives them a context for becoming more intimate with others who are like-minded. It therefore helps restore their hope that people can live together in harmony.”
Significantly, Buddhism began to attract many more Western followers because it linked the struggle for world peace with the desire of each individual to be engaged in meaningful spiritual practice. Coming out of a time when it had been cool for smart people to be agnostic or atheist, people wanted permission to seek spiritual connection.