What do we seek when we look for self-dissolution in the arms of another, when we don’t know where we end and our lover begins? There are well-documented affinities between Christian and other mysticisms on the one hand and the desire to both lose and realise oneself in another person, another subjectivity.1Equally, however, the relationship of the ‘one’ to the ‘all’ represented by the dissolution effected by ecstasy is approached by Zen Buddhism very differently.
Commentators such as Idries Shah have attributed the troubadour tradition, describing the lover’s search for union with their lover, as heir of the Sufi project to humanise the mystic’s journey towards unification with the Godhead by the introduction of sensory, sensual, and therefore material elements.
What these non-Buddhist spiritual and amatory experiences have in common is the conviction that self-realisation can be achieved by ‘self loss’ and envelopment in the love of another, or the Universe (in its pantheistic variant) or ‘God’. This theme was later re-visited by Raoul Vaneigem, in terms of the transformation of social relations to be achieved by revolution, when Vaneigem was a member of the Situationist International.
Zen Buddhism, consistent with its pragmatic approach to realisation of self as part of a universal reality, proceeds from the irrefutable premise that we live and die as we suffer, dream, and experience sensory pleasure, alone. Therefore, attachment to others or to representations of reality (ontologically false because of their status as representations) impedes our ability to be.
This ‘Year Zero’ view of the apparently ‘separated’ love of individuals for each other as exclusivist attachment and materialist obscurer of truth is situated within the (pre-Zen ) Buddhist requirement to exhibit a non-partial ‘loving kindness’ to the universe and that which populates it. However, it t is a strong brew for many tastes used to the ‘warmth’ of romantic love.
Is it a delusion to view others as a means towards self-realisation, in the absence of a total transformation of our relations with all, lovers or not? Is it instrumentalist, demeaning of others’ autonomous subjectivity, and indeed ultimately impersonal? To put it another way, is it feasible to consciously acknowledge the potentialities of a sexual relationship in these terms without reducing the other person to the status of a means to an end?
In the end, as Vaneigem infers, the answer to that must be qualified by the extent to which each party can reach the same state of immersion and consequent fulfilment, and the degree to which the whole experience is perceived as pleasurable and desirable of itself,2
Many questions present themselves, not least the relationship between ‘altruism’ and pleasure. The process is further complicated by the possibility that the experience of pleasure itself may in part be contingent to which it leads to the expression of unrevealed or, indeed, unknown aspects of oneself. However, it also offers the temptation of ludic inversions of daily misery so that, for example, one becomes more ‘powerful’ by allowing the other party to be dominant.
If “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”3,the dissolution and reconstitution of the self in the act of love4 is merely a fractal portion of the universal truth of oneness, and this should ontologically ‘oblige’ us to act as both socialised and autonomous individuals in everyday life.
“Wash your bowl”.5
1 Teresa of Avila’s marriage with Christ muddies the distinction between these two experiential categories somewhat!
2 Loving love for love’s sake.
3 I Am The Walrus, The Beatles.
4 So closely mirrored by the shaman who literally becomes a ‘bag of bones’ before returning to the world whole and at a higher level.
5 Joshu, Zen master.