Since the passing of bell hooks, I have been thinking about love. Throughout her work she tirelessly theorized and educated America on the importance of radical love, and warned of the perils of living a loveless life in a loveless society. Her masterpiece on the subject, All About Love, is a philosophical exploration of the topic which seeks to answer the simple question, “what is love?”. The answer, for hooks, was not simple at all.
For hooks, love was a verb more than a noun, and yet contained many nouns and adjectives; it was an intentional practice rather than a mere feeling, but a practice which encompassed many feelings. For hooks love was more than emotion; love, for her, was both rational and ethical action towards oneself and others, founded on a carefully cultivated, selfless, non-possessive knowledge of love. To define love is to define yourself. To study it is to study yourself, and all others, until both body and mind, self and other, drop away completely. And then, after the ecstasy, the mundane reality, the simple, humble work of love in everyday life. Equal partners in the development of freedom.
What I believe is so inspiring about hooks’ vision of love to so many is that love can be learned. In fact, for the vast majority of us, it must be learned if we are to mature as people and as a society. A lack of love, for lack of positive examples or traumatic conditioning, is not a death sentence. Lovelessness, and its causes, are conditional, rational, and can equally be unlearned.
Hooks, both a Christian and a Buddhist, takes from her religious convictions an essentially spiritual view of love: the practice of nurturing spiritual growth in oneself and others. We all equally possess the capacity, or potential, to love, and yet we do not all access, or actualize this potential equally. We distort or occlude this capacity for love with the proliferation of the infinite forms of ignorance, greed, and hatred. For hooks, never an anarchist outright, but influential to countless anti-authoritarians, including myself, love’s greatest enemy is domination. At her most blunt, she claimed that ultimately, “love and abuse cannot coexist”. It seems, however, that love and abuse share common origins, namely, in the desire to know love, to be cared for, to be seen. Abuse is itself a learned response to lovelessness. It too can be unlearned, from the most intimate domestic setting to, potentially, all of society, including our political institutions. It can be unlearned by knowing and practicing love.
At once love is both the object of our grasping desires, as well as our salvation from them. A lack of love is keenly felt as pain, which is expressed as longing and even anger. Over time, people may learn to abuse others in order to get the care, security, satisfaction they so desire, but in doing so, miss the mark and imprint their strategies on those they abuse. We lack love, and so we seek it with the intention to possess it. But it can only be grasped when grasping is fully abandoned. Love and possession can also not coexist.
Love itself is a vague term, as bell hooks notes. As a concept, it combines many different feelings and activities, such as care, affection, infatuation, respect, attraction, desire, possession, security, and commitment. But underneath it all is a basic, choiceless, selfless love. To demonstrate the existence of such a love and its scope of concern, just observe this video, which depicts the death, or “apoptosis”, of a single-celled organism.
The death and dissolution of a cell into its constituent parts is the most fundamental form of biological death. Our own bodies experience it constantly. Its regular and predictable functioning is essential to our survival as multicellular organisms. Without it, we would be quickly overtaken by cancerous growths and killed. However, this kind of death is normally invisible to us, and thus beyond our sphere of concern. And yet, reading the comments of this video, coming from all sorts of people around the world, we see a common sympathy with this single, simple, mindless cell. User Jack Rose writes, “I was watching and was a bit heart broken myself actually, it was nice knowing I’m not alone [in] that thought. Very interesting that we feel that way.” Aviral Sharma comments, “This truly brings out the most human side of most of us. Fight all you want over politics and everything, but at the end a single-celled organism will make most of us feel almost the same thing. It’s astonishing how simple (and similar) we really are, at the core”.
This is, to me, a demonstration of our Buddha-nature, the utterly empty boundlessness and interconnectedness of our minds. It recognizes itself in others, a self which is universally selfless and instantiated in infinite particular selves, and automatically responds to their suffering with love and concern. The poetic tradition of Buddhism, particularly in certain writers like Kobayashi Issa, imbues this universal concern with a uniquely tender affect:
I’m going to roll over,
so please move,
Nonetheless, Issa, being a human, discriminates, regretfully, despite being fully aware of the selflessness of love:
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
Such a poetics of compassion cannot help but be political. In another haiku, Issa wrote:
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art
Only decades after Issa’s death in 1828, many Buddhists concerned with social issues drew upon this same Buddhist politics of feeling, combining it with new ideas such as humanism and socialism, to intervene creatively and compassionately in society, such as the utopian communalist Itō Shōshin, who explicitly referenced this ethic of “selfless love” (muga-ai 無我愛) in both the name of his journal and the name of the colony that he founded (Muga no en 無我の苑, “the Garden of Selflessness”).
Buddha-mind does not require us to love others unconditionally in the conventional sense. We do not, for example, need to break bread with our oppressors in order to realize it. In fact, it may call on us to oppose them. We may even kill the occasional mosquito. Certainly we must kill countless microscopic organisms with every step, and eat other organisms just to live. To love one another, we do not need to like one another or to agree with one another. In fact, the most loving thing to do in many situations is to raise a ruckus, to make a scene, or to rain on someone’s parade. But even after the revolution we won’t all get along, so we have to find a way to be together in this world in all our diversity and peculiarity. This is a truth also recognized by the anarchists, applied to their pursuit of the revolutionary transformation of society.
Amor y Libertad
In 1925 Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote, “Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force…“
No stranger to conflict, violence, and the class struggle, Malatesta nonetheless affirmed the primary importance of love as a means of realizing an anarchist society: “Hate does not produce love, and by hate one cannot remake the world.” This is an almost perfect paraphrase of the Buddha, speaking some 2,000 years earlier, who is recorded in the Dhammapada as saying “In this world Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, Ancient and inexhaustible.” Love, as demonstrated in this short animated story about Malatesta’s brief career as a pastry vendor, was intrinsic to how he saw the world and acted in it, both as a political activist and in his everyday interactions with people.
True love, using hooks’ definition, cannot coexist with either domination nor possession. True love possesses above all the quality of freedom, the taste of liberation. The Buddha once said the same of his teachings, which, like the world’s oceans, which all taste equally salty wherever you go, has only one taste, the taste of liberation, freedom, and love. Thus, true love, and therefore true dharma, cannot coexist with either domination or possession. In the world, this amounts to negating both domination and possession in the political, economic, ecological, social and domestic spheres of life. Simply put, private property and love, government and love, patriarchy and love, racism and love, exploitation and love — none of these can truly coexist. To quote a certain young adult fiction series, “neither can live while the other survives.”
This is quite apparent in the ways in which dominant institutions of society organize themselves against love. It is in their interest to alienate us from each other and ourselves; to fracture and atomize communities into families and families into individual workers; to make us hate one another; to promote competition and scarcity where none is actually needed. When you see this, it becomes so clear. It does not have to be like this. Love calls us to resistance, to reason, and to choice, responsibility and discriminating wisdom
A Federation of Love
To live and act in the world, we need knowledge of both discriminating and selfless love, and the wisdom to know the difference. The two form a mutually beneficial relationship, a symbiosis. Perhaps, like a lichen, which is a distinct organism formed through the collaboration of a fungus and a photosynthetic algae or bacteria, this union forms a whole which is distinct from and irreducible to its parts.
To describe this whole, I find it helpful to consider the anarchist view of federation. A federation (or confederation, or association, or whatever word you might prefer) is a formal political structure composed of multiple groups or members united for a common purpose. As a practice, a federation “governs”, but is not a government; it is a coordinating body which maintains no authority to dominate its parts. Just like a central nervous system acts to coordinate the parts of the body, or a conductor guides an orchestra, it coordinates groups of people in society through their own voluntary decision making processes. Similarly, a brain, or an imaginary “soul”, cannot easily dictate orders to any given cell or organ. Even the controlling self, supposedly in charge of our volitional activity, is itself an emergent feature of smaller, constitutive mental and physical processes which make up the very fabric of life and nature.
Scientist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin, in one of his most eloquent passages, affirms this confederal view of life in his 1896 work, “Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal”:
“When a physiologist speaks now of the life of a plant or of an animal, he sees rather an agglomeration, a colony of millions of separate individuals than a personality one and indivisible. He speaks of a federation of digestive, sensual, nervous organs, all very intimately connected with one another, each feeling the consequence of the well-being or indisposition of each, but each living its own life. Each organ, each part of an organ in its turn is composed of independent cellules which associate to struggle against conditions unfavorable to their existence. The individual is quite a world of federations, a whole universe in himself.”
True love is at its core unconditional, but to enact love in the world means setting boundaries; it means organizing and opposing those, like the humans overseeing the wars and profiting from the destruction of nature, who we share our Buddha mind with, even though they are probably unaware of this fact. Perhaps, by our resistance we may wake them up. Or perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. They will either get with the program or get out of the way. But it does, at the end of the day, still mean loving everyone unconditionally, as fellow beings, and feeling compassion for them in their sorrow and in their joy. Without doing so, we risk losing sight of our revolutionary ideals, and thus losing touch with the selfless love at their core. To be revolutionary, we don’t have to witness the passing of every paramecia we encounter, or the apoptosis of every bacterial symbiont within our body. But it helps, when we remember to. It refreshes the mind and the heart to rest in this universal, choiceless feeling.
For Buddhists, who rarely if ever speak at length about the virtues of love, it is essential that we realize the unity of bell hooks’ theory of love and the anarchist practice of revolutionary love with our own traditions. As Robert Aitken, cofounder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, once said, “Buddhism is anarchism, after all, for anarchism is love, trust, selflessness and all those good Buddhist virtues including a total lack of imposition on another.”
The connection to the selfless source of love which we gain through practice and study could benefit greatly from the worldly wisdom of loving as a rational, discriminating, ethical commitment, both in our in our interpersonal relationships, and in our revolutionary work, in whatever struggles we may choose to commit to. Making love a foundation for politics is not itself a complete answer to the problems we face, but it may point the way towards more sustainable social movements which are actually social, based in relationships of care, trust, and commitment to one another and to all beings past, present, and future. Where the rubber meets the road, we face a koan-like dilemma: to love selflessly, we must learn to be selfish, but to love selfishly, we must love selflessly.
To end this rambling post, I’ll link to one more video, this time a song by Mount Eerie, which I think lyrically captures this same feeling of selfless love, and its painful, tender complications.
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa
Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal
James Mark Shields, Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan
Errico Malatesta, Anarchy
Robert Aitken, “Taking Responsibility”