Thich Naht Hanh’s “love”

Thich Nhat Hanh writes somewhere that our practice should be such that every action, at every moment, is an expression of love.

By practice he may refer not only to his own Buddhism but to that which we do (anyone does) in the course of life, regardless of belief or ethics. Practice is that which constitutes whatever we do. By love is meant that perfect harmony with reality that permits us to be conscious or aware of our attentiveness toward our selves and to beings around us, living or inanimate, all part of a linked whole. With this consciousness, then, what we do is “love.”

To be conscious of each action (and thought, for that matter, if willfully expressed as an action of mind) seems to be a super-human effort, too scrupulous, too difficult, as if blocking out reality rather than perceiving it. This objection arises because we assign reality only to that which is outside us, that which is objective versus subjective, that which is hard and unflinching and even painful. We are already too aware of this criteria, the objection will run, so that now the flow of thought and action should be synchronized, not in the subjective and soft but in active participation in life and society.

To this rationalist line of argument, participation in what is around us constitutes the only requirement, the only source of life and energy, constitutes our very being. The rationalist argues that we define ourselves by the degree of this involvement or participation, not by our consciousness or “love” of anything, by by the degree of input over things that we hold, by our power or exercise of will. We are not to merely to look at things in contemplation, runs the argument, but actively involve ourselves in the affairs of the world if we are to be fully human.

Though this is a rationalist view, the argument is noticeable in Western thinking in general, including religious thinking derived from Aristotle and Plutarch, where involvement becomes social duty, the complementary counterpart to the rationalist’s economic and political pursuits. A whole civilization has been constructed on the premise that action yields progress, and progress yields leadership and power to those who can afford them, and service from those who cannot.

All of this is opposed to the natural and to the natural world. The rationalist is not concerned with harmony but dominance. We are accustomed to activity not as nature but as culture, such that culture comes to oppose nature, to the point of a military preciseness in opposing nature’s realm. Everything is transformed into prey, into sources of fuel and power, whether objects or people, whether living or inanimate, whether beautiful or expendable, whether threatening or simple and benign. This concept of society is then projected back on to nature, “red in tooth and claw” — when in fct it is human society that is red in tooth and claw, not nature.

To the modern world, social life is to make conquests (“goals and objectives”), to compile lists of pretend friends, to make money, to acquire things, to manipulate people, to consume relentlessly. Such is the extrapolation of reason unmitigated by reflection.

In contrast to the world, where anything above a whisper is already too loud, there is what Thich Naht Hanh calls “love.” Here we must wisely distinguish his term from the sentimentalism that is not part of the core definition. To the world, ruthless and consuming, love is merely the option of circumstance and disposal of events. This view is conveniently still too separate from the larger context of nature.

Rather, love is the quiet harmony within a spectacularly complex universe. Love is that practice that wants to be within that harmony. Indeed, that practice does not want or desire but falls into or becomes part of that harmony by its mere turning. The perfection of that turning is love, and the result is a gradient harmony.

By becoming conscious of what we do and say and imagine and contrive, we can monitor our thoughts and actions, we lay ourselves out and open and apparent to the inquiry of consciousness. We begin to identify our “practice” and can thus go about reshaping it in the practice of making each moment significantly aware not just of ourselves by ourselves in the larger whole. True practice then becomes not forced or effort but indistinguishable from our daily life. But to be at this point of harmony!

By our solitude we automatically open eye and ear to this complexity. We must dispose ourselves to it. Our response need only be to grant each action the quality of attunement. Love is no more than this: that we reciprocate to that which constitutes what is real.