What I love about the juniper tree is that it is a living symbol of non-attachment. In order to survive in its native environment - typically harsh, arid alpine deserts with extreme heat and cold - the juniper tree allows parts of it self to die off as it grows, thereby enabling the rest of the plant to survive and new life to grow. This simple and elegant solution allows the plant to live an average of 350-700 years, and often longer. Today on a hike with my puppy (aptly named Juniper), this beautiful tree and the metaphor it holds revealed to me a fundamental truth of Buddhism (or any other deeply rooted spiritual tradition) that has remained hidden from me for over a decade of study and practice.
That fundamental truth is Love. But, if you’re like me, perhaps not the love you are imagining.
Buddhism is popularly critiqued as being overly stoic, detached, and unemotional. Not surprising for a tradition who’s first core tenant (or noble truth) is that life is suffering. Most people equate the realization of Buddhist values with a being who has surpassed all human emotion, attachments, desires, and foibles and exists in a perpetual state of not really caring about anything. I suspect that if we were actually to encounter a living Buddha the opposite would be true - we would be overwhelmed by their passion, conviction, presence, and the radiant quality of their love. Jesus comes to mind as a (somewhat) more recent living example of this.
New-age and contemporary spirituality are fond of quips such as “All are one” and “Everything is Love.” Experientially I accept these statements as true. There does indeed appear to be a universally accessible experience of unity and Love that transcends all attempts at definition but is best described as Love. Whether these states are accessed through deep meditation, prayer, plant medicines/psychedelics, nature, flow states, or sheer grace seems to make no difference. It’s all the same place. So how do we reconcile this with an ancient tradition that insists life is suffering?
First we have to deconstruct (or rather, release our attachments to) our preconceived notions of the words non-attachment, Love, and suffering. Experiment with the assumption that you have no idea what these words actually mean or entail, and you may begin to glimpse their actual meaning. (Or, more practically, just entertain the notion that our English translations of these concepts are poor substitutes for their original meaning).
For the colonized mind, the most difficult of these concepts to unravel is love. We are born into a culture that insists love equates to happiness, and that any experience or relationship which falls short of the standard of bliss is not true love. While many of us reject this notion on a conscious and cognitive level, it is a different story altogether when it comes to our unconscious beliefs, patterns, behaviors, and embodied experiences around love. On this level we are perpetually and desperately seeking the embrace of unconditional love. This tension between the unconscious belief that love=happiness and the felt experience of actual love is the primary source of conflict in any loving relationship, and the primary barrier to actually experiencing love.
Here’s an example: if you ask a new parent who is courageous (or desperate) enough about their experience to be fully honest, many will tell you that even though the love they feel for their child exceeds anything they previously knew possible, there are still moments where they resent the child or even wish they had never been born. This is the conflict between the unconscious belief of how love should manifest and the actual experience of loving and raising a child. While these feelings are normally taboo to admit and generally produce a great deal of unnecessary guilt, shame, and confusion; they are actually completely normal and central to the experience of growth into love. The reason we grow to love our children (partners, pets, friends, family) so much is not despite the challenges they introduce into our life but because of them. They hold up a mirror to us which shines a light on all of our selfish parts, which can be extraordinary painful; but in so doing (and if we are willing) this mirroring opens us to a deeper, wider, and more expansive experience of life that begins to approximate the true experience of love.
Here is where a reconciliation between “All is Love” and “Life is suffering” begins to make sense. If all is indeed Love, then this must also include our experiences of pain, frustration, anger, resentment, grief, and despair - summarized neatly as suffering. Suffering, however, is more than this. It is not simply the experience of challenging emotions, it is the willingness to experience all of life. We can just as easily suffer our joy as our sorrow (@Bruce Sanguin), as long as we are willing to accept our present moment experience.
Enter the 2nd noble truth: your attachment to not suffering is the cause of your suffering. Put another way: your insistence that your experience of life (the present moment, experience, relationship, being) be anything other than exactly what it is causes pain. A willingness to experience what is, just as it is (non-attachment to suffering - the 3rd noble truth) is the path out of suffering and the path towards true Love (the 4th noble truth). Love is then the expression of everything that is.
Growing into this Love is incredibly painful. Think of the juniper tree again - it literally requires that parts of it self die so that the whole may live. When we fall, step, or jump into true love it frequently feels like we are dying - because parts of us are. Our selfish tendencies. Our rigid habits. Our comfortable and predictable schedules. Our sense of safety. Our understanding of our self, others, and the world. Even if our relationship or experience is 99% blissful, it will still someday end and will bring with it the pain of loss. We can resist the hardships of life and relationships, doing everything we can to escape, avoid, or numb from the experience of suffering; but this would be as futile as the juniper tree trying to hold onto old branches. This clinging would ultimately cause us (or the relationship) to atrophy and die as the conditions around us inevitably change and require a new response from us. Unconditional love requires the release of our requirements for conditions.
Alternatively, we can let go. We can recognize that if all is love, and life is suffering, then love, too, is suffering.
For me, Juniper (my puppy) has been one of the greatest teachers of what love actually includes. The idea of a puppy is insanely cute and romantic - cuddles, play, fluff, companionship, and boundless ‘love.’ These are certainly part of the experience, but so is waking up at 4:30 every morning to go stand outside and wait for her to pee and poop. So is incessant and painful biting. So is sacrificing bike rides, yoga classes, mellow lunch breaks, and late nights so that I can be present with her. So are messes on my carpet, and chewed shoes. So is the anxiety that maybe I’m not a good puppy parent or that I’m doing something wrong, or the new sense of worry and responsibility for care taking another living being. And so is the shock at realizing how much further I still have to go in cultivating my own patience and equanimity. I could hold onto my old way of being, which would create stress and suffering for both of us, or I can open into each moment with her. I can willingly surrender my old way of being in favor of being present in each moment with her; and, as I did this morning, can smile that I am up for the sunrise instead of resent the loss of sleep. I can open my heart to all that is available in the moment - which frequently includes some degree of ‘suffering’.
This is a more mature version of love that I didn’t have access to until I became solely responsible for another being. While I imagine it is a small approximation of being a parent to a human child, it is revealing to me the facets of love that require dedication, responsibility, commitment, selflessness, sacrifice, and flexibility. In this space is growing something new and tender that I never quite knew before. This same possibility is available in our intimate partnerships, friendships, and familiar relationships - if we allow it, and if we are fully open to the suffering of that relationship.
This is also how I am coming to believe that the fundamental truth of Buddhism is not non-attachment, but non-attachment as a path to Love. Jesus stated the same thing when he said “the kingdom of heaven (Love) is at hand (the present moment)” and “It is harder for a rich (attached) man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to pass through a needles eye.” When we release our attachments to how things should be we are available to how they are - which cannot be anything other than Love.