The Buddhist “Myth of Self” and the Christian “Passionless Love of God”

November 11, 2010

Love in the way we typically think of it in the 21st century is quite a bit different than most generations of people thought of it. Today when Christians talk about God’s love, or say “God is Love,” they may likely be picturing something a bit different than say, Augustine or Aquinas. If God loves creation, it’s a “passionless” love in the emotional sense (passionless in a positive way though). To truly “be in love” with someone you  “need” something from them, you are in a sort of dependant emotional relationship. Even the best marriage or romantic partnership rarely approaches anything of the “purest” love that a Creator or Presence could possibly have for creation. For when we love our partners, our emotions are in gear; we are enthralled with them. Yet God needs nothing if God is perfect. So the love God feels must be something short of passionate, for God can’t require or desire love, or change “feelings.” So when our love for our partner approaches the purest love, the “Godstuff” so to speak, it’s remarkably “passionless” and it’s a type of love we can feel for all of creation and all other people–it’s a love that is regardless of particularity, a love that loves the other for no quality of their own.

Which brings me to the Buddhist “Myth of self.” Often, people assume Buddhism and Christianity are diametrically opposed down to their very world view and core. In many ways this is true; yet while reading Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s work “Mindfulness in Plain English,” I was struck by how what appears to be “passionless” (in the negative sense) and detached is very much like that “Godstuff.” Gunaratana guides his readers through Vipassana meditation which, he says, aims at “chipping away” at the facade around us to peer through to pure reality. A Buddhist yearns for liberation most of all, and passion must be shed to experience that true liberation. If life is a series of ups and downs, if even at our best moments we can’t allow ourselves to be truly happy because we fear our next down, then the Buddhist depiction that “life is suffering” is very practical and far from just “cynical.” In Gunaratan’s view, it refrains from being cynical in that it holds that something can be done about the situation, and the ability to do as such resides in each individual–that is far less cynical than even much of the classic Christian theology that holds that for some people, nothing can be done about their suffering, now or later.

Gunaratana may be more “this life oriented” than much of classical Buddhism in that he is practical about attacking problems now for the benefit of this lifetime, not just later (another parallel to many Christian theologies which have made such evolutions as well). Vipassana is a method to pull out of the ups and downs and to truly live in the moment. It is supposed to result in how you see the entire world–when you look at somone you are to see them as they truly are, void of any hatred, passion, or prejudice. If you look at someone as being no different than you and you truly lose the concepts of “me,” “you,” etc, what really results is a pure and untatinted love. Godstuff.

Christians seek to follow the way of Jesus. Jesus reflected and showed humans Gods love in a way that a One removed Source and Creator could not for those who needed to see this love in the flesh. Jesus did not love out of passion, did not love out of particularity or preference. Jesus loved all and served all simply because of the God they reflected as creations of God.

I am struck when I find these edifying parallels that converge and heighten tensions in two faiths when they arise so unexpectedly. The idea that God is by definition love, but love of  a pure and passionless sort that shows no preference can appear cold without a reflection of what it looks like in the flesh–for Christians it looks like the ministry of Christ, for Jews it looks like the righteousness lived out in covenant for the betterment of the whole world. Seeing the world and life as merely suffering which needs to be broken through can be a very cold idea as well, but what it looks like in practice is not–if prejudices and misplaced desires are shed so that all look like the same essence as you, the love you treat everything with will certainly be warm.

Romantic love is a wondeful thing but it hinges on particularity and self, so the good it delivers is only for the two involved, though when it betters both parties it is good for the world. World Changing love, “Godstuff” as I’ve termed it here, is bigger, bolder and harder to pin down than that. It’s a love that can lead to peace, harmony, change, and nonviolent revolution. Though the language and many of the goals may be vastly different, there is a striking core of shedding false realities, of pulling out of empires, of looking at the world and its inhabitants in a bold new way, and of great care and service found in both Buddhism and Christianity- and both traditions can learn more about that from each other.

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One Response to “The Buddhist “Myth of Self” and the Christian “Passionless Love of God””

  1. Guest said

    This view is dependent upon one’s interpretation of love. I hold that love is a selfless giving, while lust is a selfish taking. To “need” something from someone is characteristic of selfishness; therefore, the “passionate love” you’re referring to is nothing more than lust.

    Love motivates people to give of themselves – think “The Giving Tree.” If that love is matched by someone who is willing to give of him or herself, then it’s mutual. Loving without requiring a return is the ultimate sign of passion and devotion.

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