The Trouble with Universal Love

     This is an essay that I wrote several years ago, before the advent of this here blog, when I was a monk living in Burma. If I remember correctly I wrote this while stopping temporarily in a little room in a house in Rangoon. Anyway, it addresses a very important issue that most people do not really begin to understand. The essay will eventually, insh’allah, be incorporated into a book entitled Love, Poetry, and the Human Condition: Writings of an Incendiary Buddhist Monk, which will be probably the fifth in a series of which three are already published and available on the monstrosity known as (available here, here, and here). I have been talking about some of the points in this essay recently on my videos, so consider this a kind of supplement, if you please. And yes, seriously, you should love Adolf Hitler.

     In the Pali Buddhist texts one will occasionally find an exhortation to radiate love to all beings, i.e. actually to feel love for all beings in the universe, without exception. The most well-known such admonishment is the Mettā Sutta. Other religions also teach love for all beings. But, needless to say, almost nobody achieves total success at this.

     Christianity, although rather more heart-oriented and love-oriented than traditional Theravada Buddhism, has experienced some strange deviations from this teaching of universal love. Even some of the early saints taught that, yes, we should love our enemies and bless those that curse us, as Jesus taught, but the enemies of the Church, and thus the enemies of God, should be hated. We should love our personal enemies, but not the enemies of Christ. Thus the exhortation to love one's neighbor as oneself would apply only if one's neighbor is also a Christian, preferably a Christian belonging to the same sect as oneself. Recently Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar has seen a similar deviation, with monks teaching love for all beings—except for Muslims, plus maybe Indians or the Chinese. So the teachings of the Buddha are shelved for the sake of religious bigotry, racism, resentment, and general xenophobia, or else just political nationalism. But the scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism obviously teach that, yes indeed, we should love absolutely everybody.

     One less obvious deviation from universal love has been endorsed by such wise persons as, for example, Mahatma Gandhi. This version is succinctly stated as "Love the sinner, but hate the sin." For instance we should certainly feel love for Adolf Hitler, but not for the presumed fact that he started World War II and precipitated the violent deaths of several million people. This seems like an enlightened approach to loving everybody (loving the sinner without the sin, that is, without the causing of millions of violent deaths). But it seems to me that this approach is based upon a rather confused abstraction, based upon sloppy thinking or unthinking dogmatism, or both.

     How should we love Adolf Hitler? As an abstraction completely divorced from his personality and his actions? And if so, what is left of him to love? Do we say that Adolf had a soul that was his true essence, and which had nothing to do with his volitions, not to mention his presumed crimes against humanity? It's true that some schools of Hinduism endorse the idea of a soul or Atman which makes no decisions and is ultimately perfectly pure; but this is Brahman, or God, and we all share that same one. So loving Adolf like that would simply be loving God, with the individual Adolf himself falling completely out of the picture. There are probably other religions and/or philosophies out there that claim that our essence is not a unified Godhead on the one side, but not associated at all with our misdeeds on the other; but I don't see how such a disembodied abstraction could be loved as the person named Adolf Hitler. 

     Or do we distill out the good parts of his nature, and then hate or ignore the rest? Adolf was certainly an interesting guy. He very probably loved his mother. He probably also loved his dog (even though he killed it, or had it killed, before he committed suicide in the bunker). He had enough gallantry and tender feeling for Eva Braun that he married her the day before they died. He won two medals for bravery in WWI, and obviously was not afraid to risk everything in his determined endeavors to attain his goal. He was arguably a political genius also, albeit a very flawed one. Plus he was a vegetarian who didn't smoke or drink, not even drinking beverages containing caffeine. Do we love him for these virtues and ignore all the messy details about his alleged desire to exterminate Jews and other "subhumans" like Slavs and pacifists? Do we love the parts of his personality that were not filled with Lucifer-like pride and craving for self-glorification at all costs? If so, then we would be dismembering him and not loving him, but only a part of him. 

     There are some systems, like Christian Science and the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, which assert that anything is real to the extent that it is good; and thus badness is an illusion. So we could say that Adolf's good points were more real than his bad points, and then use that as a way of disregarding the bad. But if we follow this attitude with logical rigor, we will wind up at the conclusion that Adolf himself was an illusion. As Buddhism teaches, any "self," any being at all, is ultimately illusory. So if we are functioning at the level of loving all beings (including the Führer), then we are still functioning at the level of beings who operate in this world, and who might plunge the world into the most catastrophic mass mortality in human history. Like it or not, if we are going to love all beings, we are going to love people like Adolf Hitler too, and that includes his personality and his actions.

     It is very common for people to say things like, "I love him—I just don't love what he does." But personally, I don't see how this is possible, unless we manage it through the aforementioned abstract sloppy thinking. Many years ago I had an epiphany while reading a book on Buddhist logic, which inspired the writing of the first Dharma essay I ever wrote (available on my primordial website I realized that our mind works in such a way that we artificially distinguish between the spatial aspect of an entity and its temporal aspect—thus we think in terms of subject and predicate, noun and verb. And so we consider a person and that person's behavior to be two entirely different things. But the distinction of an entity and his/her/its behavior is illusory; it is an artifact of the idiosyncrasies of human perception. 

     Consider it this way: If two things necessarily arise at the very same place and time, and cannot possibly be separated or arise independently of each other, then those two things are really just the same thing, except perceived in two different ways. Thus a person and his or her behavior are necessarily inseparable, and are thus just two ways, spatially and temporally, of looking at the very same phenomena. One might reply that our behavior in general may be necessary, but our specific behavior is not necessary, because it is volitional, and thus optional, in accordance with Free Will. So then Adolf could have chosen not to invade Poland, for example. But this "Free Will" appears to be a logical impossibility, based upon ignorance, bad logic, and religious prejudice. I've discussed this sticky issue in greater detail elsewhere (for example, "The Notion of Free Will," included in my book Philosophical Dharma), but I'll sketch out the main line of reasoning.

     Either an event (like our friend Adolf deciding to invade Poland) has a cause, or it doesn't have a cause. That is resting pretty much on the bedrock of logical certainty, so if we reject this statement, then we reject logic—which is always an option, although any kind of persuasive reasoning would thereby be flung out the window. So an event has a sufficient cause, or causes, or it doesn't. Now, if it has a cause, then it is determined by that cause, and is not free. On the other hand, if it doesn't have a cause, then it occurs essentially at random; and although randomness may be called a kind of freedom, it apparently is not what people are talking about when they speak of Free Will. Totally random behavior would be more like an epileptic seizure than the actions of a reasoning, conscious being. Besides, Free Will implies an autonomous entity, or in other words a self, which a good Buddhist cannot reasonably endorse. This last argument may only apply to Buddhists though—Buddhists do not have Free Will. I won't belabor this issue, so I'll just arrive at the conclusion that Hitler's personality traits, decisions, and behavior were just as essential to who he was as his body, or whatever else people would be inclined to identify as "Adolf Hitler."

     Consequently we arrive at the troublesome idea that if we are to love all beings, we must love their thoughts, feelings, and behavior also. If we love the sinner, we must also love the sin. Not only should we love all beings, we should love absolutely everything in the entire universe, including Jews, Slavs, pacifists, fascists, Marxists, and genocide. Not to mention warriors and wars, thieves and thievery, prostitutes and prostitution, factories and pollution, mosquitoes and insecticide.

     One important notion to bear in mind is that loving somebody doesn't mean that we necessarily want to imitate them. A mother can dearly love a child who writes on the wall with crayon or eats mashed potatoes with his fingers, without herself wanting to write on the wall or eat mashed potatoes with her fingers. Just because we love something doesn't necessarily mean that we want to follow along with it. And even though, as I repeat again and again, the essence of love is acceptance, we can lovingly accept something without necessarily endorsing it. So it is possible to love Adolf Hitler, and thus also love the effect he has had upon the world, without endorsing genocide, or German opera music.

     My standard example of this is a flat tire. Let's say a person who loves everything is driving her car (which she loves), and suddenly gets a flat tire. Well, she doesn't sit there thinking, "I accept that the tire is flat, so I'll just leave the car here by the side of the road with a flat tire forever and ever." What she does is accept that the tire is flat, and also accept that the thing to do now is to get out of the car and change the tire. She accepts that her hands and blouse will probably get dirty, that she might even break a fingernail, and that she will be late for whatever appointment she was going to. So we can love the world the way it is while still actively fixing what is broken. A mother can dearly love her only child and still discipline him. 

     The thing is that we can't accept what we are ignorant of, and so we can't love what we are ignorant of, even though love is ultimately effortless. We can't let go of what we're ignorant of either, despite the fact that letting go is also effortless. So understanding is key. 

     The other thing is that to the extent that we understand somebody, we love that person. It goes both ways. We can't really, fully know another person until we knock down all barriers and let them into our chest. Then we see and feel the reasons why they are the way they are. We see that that person, like everybody else, is doing the best he can, and is trying (and failing) to be happy in the best way he knows. We see the connections that made them that way and keep them that way. We may not want to be like them, but we can see how they also, like all else, are a manifestation of divinity, or infinity, or perfection, or "God." The only thing that allows us to hate is barriers, alienation, and ignorance. All of those are one thing.

     So long as we are surrounded by Pink Floyd's Wall, we are closed off and profoundly ignorant, and cannot fully love anybody. If we are fortunate, at least we'll have a door or window knocked through the wall so we can love at least one other person as fully as we can. But when the whole wall comes tumbling down, and we are open and sensitive to everyone and everything around us, completely vulnerable but, paradoxically, completely invulnerable at the same time, then not only do we love absolutely everybody and everything—we ARE Love. 

we really ought to love this guy


  1. What you describe is Buddha's teaching of compassion. Love is a much-abused word, with too much connotation of affection and attachment, as you explain in so many words.

    1. Much like the soul, love does not exist. What love usually means is that one is intensely attached to something sensually pleasant. The vague and defective nature of language and words strikes again.


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