Love supposedly makes us selfless. Yet, does it really? Or is what we call “love” almost always just another form of ego, a lighter shade of self-interest that, nonetheless, has nearly all of the negative qualities of a honestly dark “all I care about is me” attitude?
This is the position of Hubert Benoit, whose wonderful book “The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought” I continue to happily read each morning before meditating while on vacation here on Maui.
Benoit, a psychiatrist, says that love projected outward is idolatrous. All of our previous self-love is transferred to another being, yet the limited qualities of that love remain. The only thing that has changed is the direction of our egotistical self-interest: from within to without. He writes:
This is idolatrous love, in which the ego is projected on to another being. The pretention to divinity as ‘distinct’ has left my organism and is now fixed on to the organism of the other. The affective situation resembles that above [where the Self is loved and the Not-Self is hated], with the difference that the other has taken my place in my scale of values. I desire the existence of the other-idol, against everything that is opposed to him.
Benoit’s astute—and to my mind, entirely accurate—observation came to mind when I checked my email last night and read a message from a man who has been diligently translating my first book, “God’s Whisper, Creation’s Thunder,” into German. Though I sent him a shortened and simplified revision of my book, the time and effort required to produce the translation was considerable.
The man was performing this service on behalf of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), a spiritual organization based in India which publishes metaphysical books in many languages. He wrote to tell me that he was disappointed to learn that RSSB had changed its mind and now wouldn’t be publishing his translation, even in a rough manuscript form.
I was sorry for the aggrieved translator, but not surprised. For I too have experienced with RSSB what normally would be considered a “breach of contract” if the literary service I was performing wasn’t being done with no expectation of monetary reward.
What is happening here with these broken RSSB commitments, in the case of both the translator and myself, is exactly what Benoit warned about: the ill effects of idolatrous other-directed “love” that is as self-serving as love directed inward. The same ego, oblivious of its negative effects on others, operates equally in both circumstances.
The translator and I both were let down by people we trusted to stand by us. In my case, I can speak more strongly and say that I was deceived by people holding a high rank in what is, for all intents and purposes, a religious organization. Though breaking one’s word can’t be equated with sexual abuse of children, a qualitatively similar breach between espoused ethical standards and actual actions is evident both in RSSB and the Catholic Church. Hypocrisy permeates religious organizations whether they be of the East or West, of India or the United States.
In the case of RSSB, those higher-ups in the hierarchy who broke their word would claim that they are doing so on behalf of the guru, or living master, so this excuses everything. As Benoit says, all of the narcissistic demands of the ego still remain when love has been projected onto another person—their apparent locus merely has been transferred from the individual’s own self to the self of another entity. Instead of the ego basking in its own light—which is appealingly honest and direct—the ego enjoys a reflected glory by illusorily submerging itself in another.
“Illusorily” is the operative word here. For what difference does it make if before I thought that I was the center of the world around which all else revolves, and now I have totally identified with some other person, being, concept, or cause who assumes the same egocentric position? Benoit says:
As for the rest of the world, I hate it if it is hostile to my idol; if it is not hostile and if my contemplation of the idol fills me with joy (that is, with egotistical affirmation), I love indiscriminately all the rest of the world.
I still am exalted; I still am special; I still am favored above lesser souls. All that has changed is the felt location of my ego. Before, I knew that it was mine, which made it possible for me to deal with it. Now I imagine that it has largely left me, so great is my devotion to the other through whom I now fulfill my needs for affirmation, respect, reverence, feeling special.
When someone in this deluded state acts wrongly, it can be easily rationalized: “I am acting not for myself, but for God/Guru/country/whatever.” A person can break commitments without any qualms because he or she feels that whatever is being done is in the service of a higher cause.
All can be excused when a person imagines that he or she is acting on behalf of the All.
However, Benoit says that in some people the falsity of maintaining the unenlightened ego by imagining that it has been given over to another divine being begins to be perceived for what it is: a lie.
This man loses little by little his ‘positive’, ‘altruistic’ sentiments. His understanding sees through these clever counterfeits and leads him back will-nilly towards the fundamental egotistical state in which he has always hated that which is not his Self; the state of ‘night’ and of solitude…This man, robbed little by little of all possibility of cheating inwardly, sees himself hounded towards the task of realisation.
The true spiritual quest, in Zen as in other paths, isn’t to become another. It is to become one’s own self, the Self that is identical with the essence of the cosmos. Such can’t be faked. It doesn’t matter what words, concepts, or imaginings I use to try to paper over the gulf that exists between me and what is not-me.
I can say, “I am doing God’s will” or “I am a humble servant of the guru” until my throat is hoarse. And I will still be uttering a lie.
We don’t become pure by painting over ourselves a lighter shade of ego. It’s honest transparency that is needed, a genuine selflessness attained by letting go entirely of the illusory self.