I wrote my senior thesis in college about love. Specifically, it was a poetry manuscript about desire, clinging, and romantic love vs. Buddhist notions of compassion. I was wondering how it is possible to "truly" love somebody you desire. After I finished that thesis I thought I would never write about love again, because I had exhausted that subject intellectually. But love is a useful tool, and since the human experience of love is so similar to lots of stuff that comes up in spiritual and religious practice, I'm finding it useful to talk about again.
About a year into my stay at the women's monastery, my mother sent me a book called "Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection," by the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson. He describes how all people have "inner gold," the best parts of ourselves, our wit, intelligence, kindness and talent, but that for most people, carrying this gold ourselves is too hard. It's hard to carry our own gold because the gold is so heavy, and so we find other people to carry it for us for a time. Robert Johnson calls this process of handing over our gold to someone else psychological projection, which has kind of become a buzzword in Buddhist communities, but I think for good reason.
Sharon Salzberg wrote that "bright faith" is like falling in love, and I think many of us can relate to her description of her first encounter with Buddhism. In her book Faith she writes:
I arrived in Bodhgaya in late December 1970 and fell in love. I fell in love with the meditation teachers I found there, and with the community of students who gathered around them. I fell in love with the Buddha's teachings. I fell in love with the place. Even discomfort and uncertainty didn't tarnish the romance... This state of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them is known in Buddhism as bright faith. Bright faith goes beyond merely claiming that possibility for oneself to immersing oneself in it. With bright faith we feel exalted as we are lifted out of our normal sense of insignificance, thrilled as we no longer feel lost and alone.
I know this was true for me. I came to Japan and fell in love-- with an old temple, with the mountains, with my teacher, with the practice, even with the cold and the pain. And like most new students I handed over all my gold. Robert Johnson says when we hero worship, we hand over our gold to someone else until we can get strong enough to carry it ourselves. But eventually we have to take it back. Taking back your own gold can be painful because sometimes the people we've given our gold to (the people we fall in love with) don't want to give the gold back. Sometimes we have to slam the door to announce we are leaving. It's difficult to do in a kind and respectful way.
Dharma transmission means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but I'm starting to think that it is really a symbol of getting your gold back. In the beginning, it's necessary to fall in love with a practice and a teacher but in the end we take back our gold so that we can hold it ourselves, by which I mean, we understand that its our own responsibility to act as our best selves as much as possible, to uphold the teachings the best way we can, to give light rather than take it. It's hard and scary for me to really stand in a position like this, but I'm realizing more and more that holding my own gold is something I want to do.
In this sense, mature Buddhist practice is the opposite of falling in love. When we fall in love we give the best part ourselves to something external, thinking it will change us. When we practice well we know that the burden is really on ourselves, and we act from this place.
So practice is really the opposite of falling in love. But love and falling in love are completely different.
Bell hooks defines love as "the action we take on behalf of our own or another's spiritual growth." Speaking about love as an action or a choice is powerful. Martin Luther King said, "I have decided to love," and in saying this he pointed out that he could have decided something else. He could have chosen not to love.
Practice is like this as well. Practice is an action and a choice. It's a choice, moment by moment, to do things in the best way you know how, to meet everything with the best self that shows up. When I write it like that, it sounds so simple, doesn't it? And maybe it is simple. Let's try.