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Shambhala Sun | September 2011
You'll find this article on page 28 of the magazine.


Let Me Count the Ways

It was his first kiss, a moment when no one was running the show and no calculations were being made. In so many ways, says JOHN TARRANT, love is like enlightenment. It teaches us how to live down a level, to follow instructions that come from deep inside. 

Question: Why is it like this?

Teacher: It is for your benefit, honored one.

When love strikes, it fills us with an inner glow that everyone can see. We skip through the day humming old Beatles songs, smitten by the swish of a dress, the smile of a bus driver, the old couple holding hands at the light, and the shine on the hulls of upside-down canoes at the dock. Love also wakes us from sleep and does not let us rest; it makes us tear out our hair and run screaming into the night as if attacked by unseen assailants. Love is an enlightenment story available to everyone, and that story includes being attacked by demons as well as being showered with roses. If we widen our gaze, in love, we discover what we like about ourselves and how we want to live our life.

The first time I kissed a girl, her green eyes filled my view, sunlight bounced from the river and off the undersides of leaves; it glowed on the sweat from our skin, mingling quietly; with my arms around her, my wrists resting on the strings of her bikini, she was a bird with angular shoulder blades, my hands hardly dared to close on her skin, and when we kissed we both began to tremble involuntarily.

That was pretty much it for our relationship and the next day, when I bought her a Coke and she said “I like Pepsi,” a fatal rift appeared. Our brief meeting provided me with guidance, though. On behalf of that kiss, I was ready to indulge anything, to forgive anything, to enjoy anything she did. I had been converted to a new religion.

Everyone wants a life-changing experience—something that allows us to see how green is the grass, how fragile are the pear blossoms, how luminous is the girl’s cheek, how disappointing it is to be right or superior to others, and how eternal and welcoming is the moment that is always in flight, never to return. The kiss was personal and particular, and it was a transcendent moment too, a moment when no one was running the show and no calculations were being made.

Buddhism typically holds itself aloof from love, puts love in the too-hard basket, but the difficult bits of life, the exciting ones, are often the gates to what is real and good. The moment of love takes away the walls around the world and a larger aspect of the universe is seen. It is a creative time.

I once asked the Australian poet Judith Wright, “How is it when you write?” She replied, “The pen shakes in my hand.”

In poetry and pop songs, love is fatal, an arrow through the heart. We’re driving in a fast car—too late to stop now, it can’t be reversed—and the old life that hitherto seemed perfectly adequate can now no longer be lived. In the mythology of Zen, too, the image of transformation is that a fire burns you up, or there’s a snake on the path and you can’t avoid it. You lose your life and everything else as well, like the scholar who, on awakening, burned all the notes he had ever taken. Love and enlightenment are both fatal discoveries.

The respectable view is that falling in love is full of delusions, projections, and misunderstandings. But if we reverse that idea, we can ask, how is love actually very much like enlightenment? Let me count the ways…

1. Falling

Love hits people over the head when they are not looking for it, and the same can be said for epiphanies and enlightenments. We fall into them. An opening appears in regular life, and what follows doesn’t necessarily fit in regular life. That opening changes your frame of reference and then, well, anything might happen. Both awakening experiences and falling in love always seem to be followed by a period of sorting things out and discovering the implications of what happened.

One sorting strategy is to spend time trying to repeat the enlightenment by falling in love with a succession of people, or looking for a blissful state in meditation. Efforts like these are hopeless but you can try them anyway.

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