February 15, 2018

Is Love Really All You Need?


When Friends Center Director Wess Daniels asked me to say a few words about love at our Guilford LOVE Valentine event, the Beatles first came to mind:

“Say the word and you’ll be free.

 Say the word and be like me.

 Say the word I’m thinking of.

 Have you heard the word is love?”

Or maybe, “Love is all you need.”

Or perhaps an American marketing genius said it best: “Love — it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

But I’m sure Wess had some higher leading in mind, so that drew me to John Woolman. An early American Quaker and abolitionist, Woolman was a particularly compassionate human being. He was full of love for fellow beings who were oppressed and treated unjustly. Born in western New Jersey, near Philadelphia in 1720, he agonized over the fact that the land he and his community lived on was rightfully that of the Delaware tribe, who had given up their home in return for a paltry sum and moved into the western wilderness. 

By 1763, Woolman’s musings about injustices endured by Native Americans at the hands of European colonists eventually compelled him to visit the Delaware tribe in their new home near the banks of the Susquehanna River. He embarked on his arduous, horseback journey over mountains and through swamps during the dangerous final days of the French and Indian War. Just before Woolman departed, British colonists had been killed not far from his destination. 

But that didn’t deter him. He was drawn by the spiritual strength of Native Americans, and in the midst of perilous travel he asked himself what exactly his motives were in seeking to visit them.  He recorded the answer in his journal: 

“Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if (perhaps) I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth amongst them.”

“Love was the first motion.” The source of John Woolman’s motivation was compassionate love. And when he finally met the Delaware and joined them in silent worship, he found a deep kinship with them that transcended language barriers and fostered a sense of unity.

But of course Quakers didn’t corner the market on compassion.  Buddhists have long revered bodhisattvas, enlightened beings: those who — motivated by compassion for their fellow humans — work tirelessly for the enlightenment of all. They vow not to enter Nirvana until all beings can enter Nirvana as one.

The epitome of a bodhisattvas is Avalokiteshvara, whose name can be translated from Sanskrit as “the one who hears the cries of the world.” Initially, depicted in Buddhist art as a male, from the 12th century on Avalokiteshvara appeared as the mother-goddess of mercy, known in China as Kwanyin and in Japan as Kannon. Sometimes this bodhisattva is depicted with characteristics of both male and female genders. So, in more ways than one, Avalokiteshvara transcended material dualities, including male-female gender distinctions. 

My point is that compassionate love, love for our fellow beings, is in fact transcendent. When we love, care for and look for the good in others, we help ourselves as well; we transcend or rise above and go beyond our normal limitations just as the first motion of love led John Woolman, a Quaker bodhisattva, to perform selfless, heroic deeds on behalf of others. 

Maybe love really is all you need.