Human love as a ladder to spiritual love Barry Magid February 7th 2015

My son surprised me the other day by asking me if I could recommend a book of philosophy for him to read. After looking at my shelves, I gave him a copy of Plato’s Symposium. It seems to be a pretty good choice, but I think he was surprised that a book of philosophy would concern itself with love. I think that’s understandable, given what passes as philosophy most of the time, both in Western and Eastern circles. Usually we’re used to something much more abstract and unemotional under the heading of philosophy. It’s also reflected in the word symposium itself, which in the Greek meant a drinking party, and as it’s come down to us in English a lot dryer, in both senses.

So as I talked to him about it a little bit, I reflected on how it’s very unusual the way Plato describes erotic love being the first step on the ladder to the love of the good or of wisdom and that in the Greek philosophy there is no sense in which the physical and the erotic, the emotional, are in opposition to the development of spirituality, the way it will turn out to be in Christianity and certainly the way it was in early Buddhism, where celibacy was part of the requirements of monkhood, to be part of the original sangha of the Buddha.

Socrates’ dialogue describes how he was taught about love and wisdom by his teacher, who was a woman, Diotima. We don’t usually hear much about her, although I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis out there somewhere outlining the history. It might be interesting to know more about the female teacher of Socrates. But in this schema there is an acceptance of the naturalness by which sexuality is the bond of young boys and their older male mentors, and that becomes the vehicle to develop into manhood, to learn the virtues of the community and of the older men. Then for some, this will develop into a love of higher things, like philosophy, mathematics, things that are increasingly disembodied, but which do not repudiate the physical and the erotic in the process. Socrates is not described as an assexual ascetic, but rather as someone who has control over his desires, not someone who has completely eliminated them.

In our practice we sometimes, I would say, get this whole relationship between the physical, the erotic, and the emotional and the spiritual very upside down, rather than seeing as the Greeks did that we can use our experience of physical and emotional love as a ladder to extending love and wisdom into other realms. I would say that most typically people come to practice because of the failures they’ve had in the level of emotional human love and look to spirituality as a way to bypass that, to get around the disappointments they felt in themselves and in others, and to look for something that will give them a sense of well-being and satisfaction that isn’t dependent on others. One of the hallmarks of the way we usually speak about love, is that it’s reciprocal, that it requires that we not only love, but that we be loved in return.

I think that in many ways when religion has talked about love, it has taken the route of trying to bypass that need for reciprocity. In Buddhism there is a lot of talk of compassion and of extending compassion to others, and there is very little talk of needing to be at the receiving end of compassion. So often we hear of God’s love being the total, perfect, reliable way of being loved, in a way that human love can never provide.

In sitting, so often, we practice with a desire to achieve a kind of self-acceptance, self-awareness, well-being that will make us autonomous, that will give us the sense of deep acceptance, an ok-ness that we failed to get growing up or from loved ones. Now sitting can do that, up to a point. It’s a half truth. It’s important that we find a way to be grounded in our own experience in our sitting, that we allow each moment to be full and complete, and we’re not looking for anything outside of that moment’s experience. When we settle into that sitting there can be deep satisfaction, deep self-acceptance. Yet we should not use that capacity to settle into that state as a way to bypass our emotional needs, our vulnerabilities, our dependency on others. If anything, part of what we sit with and accept is our vulnerability, our interdependency with others, that we allow ourselves to feel the uncertainty of pain involved in that dependency, the same way we feel the pain in our knee. We’re not going to sit and attain a state that is free of physical vulnerability or of emotional vulnerability.

Our embeddedness in a sangha is an acknowledgment that our practice depends on one another, not just for support and encouragement, but that the very thing we’re practicing with is our relation with one another in a sangha. One of the ways sangha relations can go awry is when everyone in the sangha is oriented towards the teacher rather than towards each other, where everyone thinks the teacher has what they need, has the wisdom, has all the attention that they want and all they want to do is get to be first in line for the teacher’s attention, and then everyone else in the sangha is just a rival for the teacher’s attention, and everyone is afraid that they’re not the favorite, and someone else is getting what they need. People can in one way look like very good Zen students, but still be stuck in a very self-centered form of practice, one that either is hooked exclusively into an idealization of the teacher or grounded in a fantasy of autonomy. What we need a sangha for is as a big mirror of our humanity. Our self-acceptance, often very hard won on a cushion, needs to be extended with deep acceptance of everyone else in the room, and what they’re going through and who they are.

Too often other people are dichotomized either into the category of they’ve got it and I don’t, or they don’t have it so what the hell do I need them for? What we’re doing is practicing experiencing our common humanity, our interdependency, our vulnerability, our mortality. We share all these things, we are these things. Our practice is to learn to love what is.

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