Zen Q&A Is love an essential human quality or a cultural or evolutionary construct? Barry Magid January 11th 2018

CM asks:

Is love an essential human quality or a cultural or evolutionary construct?

BM responds: It's a little hard for me to answer this, because it's not quite clear what it would mean for love to be an essential quality apart from culture or evolution. All our essential qualities are the product of culture and evolution. That is who and what we are, how we become who we are, and what has shaped us. We are essentially cultural beings. We are essentially animals that use language and form families and communities. You could say that we have evolved to be social animals, and to evolve being social means to evolve being bound together by love. This can take many forms, but I think that language, family, culture -- all are ways in which we have evolved to be what we are now.

In Buddhism, certainly as I learned it, there was very little talk of love, per se, but lots of talk about compassion. And I think the difference was that compassion always was something that we were supposed to direct towards others. There were plenty of admonitions to be compassionate, but there was very little talk about the need to be on the receiving end of compassion, very little talk of needing to be on the receiving end of love, and I think that was a very serious omission in the way that Buddhism has been transmitted to us, because it tends to deny very basic human needs, or imagine that somehow practice is going to allow us to transcend our need for love. And in that sense, love was made to be synonymous with attachment, and attachment was supposed to be one of those bad things that was based on self-centeredness and a denial of impermanence, that we wanted to hold on to people or things in the face of the reality of change.

I think that one of the things that has happened as Zen has come to America and become increasingly psychologically sophisticated, is that we realize that non-attachment doesn't mean not forming human connection. It doesn't mean living without love, but it means recognizing the ever-changing quality of our relationships, the fact that our world and other people are simply not going to be under our control. And the practice of non-attachment is not the practice of not loving or not caring, but much more a practice of not clinging, holding on, controlling, demanding that the other exist solely as something that is there to meet our needs.

I think most of us need to practice not just giving love, but allowing ourselves to receive love. We need to practice tolerating the vulnerability that wanting and needing love entails, and that practicing being on the receiving end of love, for us, is as important as practicing compassion was traditionally.

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