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21st-Century Buddhism: Love or Wisdom?

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me.




Episode 003:

Love or Wisdom?

If you had to choose, would you rather be loved or respected?

So goes an old parlor game question. It's something of a trick question, for hidden within it there is another question: Are you the type of person who thinks the best feature of human beings is the head, or the heart? In other words, do you think intellect is the most important thing, or emotion? Wisdom or love?

In "The World's Religions," Huston Smith -- in his chapter on Buddhism -- wrote that this question, along with a couple of others, has divided people into two camps since time immemorial. He even implied that division over this question is one of the reasons why Buddhism, early in its development, split roughly into two major schools. Theravada, according to Smith, largely emphasized wisdom and insight into selflessness (anatta) as the means to personal liberation, while Mahayana emphasized love and compassion as the means to collective liberation.

Those are gross over-simplifications of both schools' views and practices. Theravada practitioners spend lots of time developing love and compassion, and Mahayana practitioners spend lots of time developing wisdom and insight into emptiness and the nature of mind. But Huston Smith argued that in terms of how the two schools differentiated themselves and what they considered to be the most important aspect to emphasize on the spiritual path, that is roughly how the chips fell.

The validity of Huston Smith's theory about Buddhism's split into two major schools is doubtful, but contemplating it does raise another interesting point. Within both schools today you can see plenty of examples of both types of people: those who consider love to be the most important thing, and those who consider wisdom to be the most important thing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this distinction can often be seen to fall along gender lines. A quick glance around the Buddhist scene these days reveals a lot of female teachers who heavily emphasize loving-kindness and compassion and other emotional qualities of the awakened heart, and a lot of male teachers who heavily emphasize non-dual wisdom and realization of emptiness and other cognitive qualities of the awakened mind.

That is, of course, another stereotype -- for which you can find plenty of exceptions. Some female Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about wisdom and emptiness, and some male Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about love and compassion. Maybe a few Buddhist teachers, of either gender, even talk about both in equal measure. But stereotypes exist for a reason, and the exceptions don't necessarily disprove the rule of thumb.

Here is an experiment that would be interesting to conduct, to find out whether the gender-difference theory holds water: Pick a certain number of high-profile Western Buddhist teachers from each gender -- let's say, for example, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg, versus Stephen Batchelor, Robert Thurman, and B. Alan Wallace. Listen to a range of their Dharma talks and evaluate their books, scoring each one on a 10-point left/right "flavor" scale (all the way to the left being a predominantly "heart" flavor and all the way to the right being a predominantly "intellect" flavor). The scoring would naturally be subjective, but if you got enough people to participate, and factored out gender bias in the scorers by having a balance of men and women participating, I would expect that the data would reliably demonstrate a flavor difference along gender lines. (Maybe this would only prove that we perceive the teachings according to gender expectations, but that would also be an interesting finding, and worth contemplating.)

I wonder to what degree this is a Western phenomenon. In English and most Western languages, we make a very clear linguistic separation between "heart" and "mind" (and by "mind" we usually mean "head"). The Sanskrit word "citta," on the other hand, covers both aspects: "bodhicitta" is translated into English as either "awakened heart" or "awakened mind." (And which of those translations you adopt already says something about your inclinations.) That a single word could represent both of those human dimensions may seem odd to us, for we are accustomed to thinking of heart and mind as being quite distinct.

But the cultural differences don't stop there. Tibetans, when indicating the "mind," touch the chest, but touch the forehead to indicate "body." English speakers, by contrast, touch the chest to indicate "heart" (or sometimes "body") but touch the forehead (or the cranial cavity in general) to indicate "mind." Thus, the fact that English speakers see "mind" as being so distinct from "heart" arises partly from the fact that we think of "heart" (the emotional dimension of human experience) as being down in the chest but "mind" (the intellectual, cognitive dimension of human experience) as being up in the brain.

Maybe that helps to explain why we see a lot of Buddhist teachers in the West specializing primarily in one dimension or the other. Depending on which side of human nature they identify with most strongly -- the heart or the head -- they naturally emphasize those aspects of the Buddhist teachings that resonate with that dimension. That this split so often falls along gender lines, with a lot of seemingly "emotional" female teachers and a lot of seemingly "intellectual" male teachers, seems like a stereotype, but it often operates according to expectation.

There is evidence to suggest that these tendencies are hard-wired into our biology. A significant body of research has examined the differences between "male brains" and "female brains." Most men tend to have a very male brain and most women tend to have a very female brain, but everyone falls somewhere along a spectrum of brain gender. A few men tend to have a more female brain, and a few women tend to have a more male brain -- but those are the exceptions to the norm. "Aside from external anatomical and primary and secondary sexual differences," says Renato Sabbatini, "scientists know also that there are many other subtle differences in the way the brains from men and women process language, information, emotion, cognition, etc."

The male brain, it turns out, is very good at doing certain things that the female brain isn't -- and vice versa. People with very male brains excel at tasks involving a high degree of spatial awareness, motor activity, hand-eye coordination, and so on, while people with very female brains perform, by comparison, rather poorly on those tasks: thus, for instance, you almost never see any female crane operators or airline pilots. People with very female brains, on the other hand, excel at tasks involving a high degree of empathy, communication and language skills. The female brain processes information using more parts of the brain, while male brain activity tends to be more concentrated.

Thus, neuroscience suggests there are biological reasons why men tend to be more analytical and single-minded and women tend to be more emotional and communicative and oriented towards multi-tasking. It should therefore come as no surprise if a lot of male Buddhists are attracted to teachings that have a sharp, analytical flavor, and a lot of female Buddhists are drawn to teachings that have an open, emotional flavor. (I recently heard one prominent, male Buddhist teacher say that all those teachings about love and compassion are nice, and they're good to practice so that we can all get along better, but they have nothing to do with enlightenment. This struck me as a very male way of looking at it.)

As Buddhists, though, we aren't usually satisfied with just accepting what is dictated by biology and social convention. The Buddhist vision of enlightenment is often depicted as the union of masculine and feminine principles, the inseparability of wisdom and compassion or love. (Side note: oddly enough, in Tantric Buddhist iconography, the compassion aspect is represented by the male figure, while the wisdom aspect is represented by the female figure -- the reverse of what we might expect to see.) At the end of the day, we are left with the sense that this habitual separation between "head" and "heart," "intellect" and "emotion," "wisdom" and "love," is a false dichotomy. It seems to operate on the relative level, but ultimately it has no true existence. Wisdom is the space of love and compassion, and compassion and love are the expression of wisdom.

Enlightenment, in other words, involves recognizing and fully embracing within ourselves both aspects of our being: heart and mind, compassion and wisdom, masculine and feminine. We may have been born within a body -- a prepackaged biological and cultural and karmic situation -- that leads us to emphasize one over the other, but we intuitively know that our truest nature lies beyond the limitations of body and biology and culture and karma. At the level of our deepest nature, we sense that we are not only capable of fully manifesting both dimensions of experience -- we must manifest both, because we are both.

Too much emphasis on cognitive wisdom, realizing emptiness, and non-duality, without love and compassion, makes the mind too hard; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly intellectual, dry and cracked. And too much emphasis on love and compassion, without the wisdom of emptiness, makes the mind too soft; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly emotional, moldy and sticky. Just as in the classic children's story about Goldilocks, we need a path to enlightenment that is not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

But here we've run up against that old "middle way" thing once again. You just can't get away from it in Buddhism. Any time you stray to one extreme or the other, you will be called back to the middle.  


Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey. His work has also appeared on Buddhist Geeks and Rebel Buddha, and in Bodhi magazine. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in a very remote part of Canada.

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