A prevalent view of many spiritual seekers, it would seem, is that one who is truly enamoured with God must shed all worldly things–the monastic and ascetic tradition is one of self-flagellation and abstinence from physical pleasure and the love of another human being. I understand self-discipline and denial of desires and pleasures is indeed an instructive and, indeed, necessary practice in life. But to withold oneself completely from such things seems to me fanaticism that leads not to God but to masochism, which is simply another base pleasure, which was supposed to have been avoided in the first place. To accept and return the love of another human being is not a denial of God. It is a reaffirmation and mirror of divine love. To partake in worldly pleasures can surely be a distraction–but if the intention of the one who acts is pure, than the actions too are pure.
I am reminded here of the Zen tale of a master and his student who are crossing a river. The master sees a woman who is struggling to get across, and he takes her onto his back and carries her, even though a monk was not supposed to touch women, and sets her down on the other bank. The two monks continue on their way. After a while, troubled, the student finally says to his master as a rebuke, “You carried a woman!” The master chuckles and responds, “I set her down a long time ago. Yet you are the one who has been carrying her all this time!” Or something to that effect, that was my memory of the story. The meaning being that sins of the body are only sins when they are a distraction on the path to God. And they only become distractions when your intentions, the things you hold within your mind, are wrong.
The Sufi mystics of Islam discuss the purpose behind the act of prayer, where to stand, and then kneel, and then prostrate oneself completely is not simply a physical act–that in fact the physical act itself is but a hollow form–it is in the intention and focus of the person praying that the actions take on meaning. The form is but a vehicle for the inner purpose.
You can take that concept further, and see that even all religions and belief systems of the world are simply hollow forms. That all of the manifestations of this world are hollow forms, termed maya by Hindus. To be distracted by the forms, like the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave, is to miss the whole point, the inner flame that gives all the outer forms life. People get so caught up in the game, in the nationalities and jihads and this side against that side, when really all it is is one flame, burning through all. All of the pain and suffering, simply to get to know yourself, which is everyone else. How many paths are there to the Path?
I’ve never understood how Christians, for example, can get so caught up in a name. They point to a passage in the Bible, and say that it is only through Jesus, and Jesus alone, that one can be saved. Yet what is the name Jesus to a God who is beyond name, beyond human understanding, beyond our feeble, petty, selfish definitions? What, really, is a name to any of us except as a means to understanding what is beyond names? God could be called anything and it wouldn’t mean anything because God cannot be named. The very attempt to name God is to create a separation from God, a duality that does not exist. Your very existence, as a separate entity, is a lie. All outer forms are meaningless without remembrance of the inner reality that gives them shape. These very words, attempting even to distance these ideas enough to make them words and ideas, are lies. The reality is beyond everything.