Life in China does have its perks. In my neighborhood is a small DVD shop. I plead total ignorance as to whether these ridiculously inexpensive discs are officially licensed releases or not. After all, what do I know about what Chinese DVD releases are supposed to look like? How do I know that the awkward Chinglish description which reads like an arbitrary excerpt from a website review is not what Sony Pictures has approved for the overseas market? My copy of The Avengers lists the production credits for Titanic on the back of the case … but how do I know that this isn’t the result of some massive marketing strategy born of an in-depth study of the East Asian love of romantic slop? Zhende, jiade? (“Genuine, or fake?”) As a lowly Roman prefect once asked, “Zhende? What is zhende?”
So the other night I watched the new Russell Crowe film The Water Diviner, which hasn’t been released in American cinemas yet, but is available on DVD here. My copy has an English title, an Italian description, and embedded Korean subtitles. (Again, how do I know this isn’t merely an official nod to multiculturalism and globalization by the production company?) The film is good, and I recommend it to you (when it finally hits theaters in your country and you have to throw down twelve bucks to go see it – suckers.) But what really hit me was the song that plays during the credits, a hauntingly beautiful ballad by one Kris Fogelmark called “Love Was My Alibi.”
Every so often a song comes along that I like instantly, and by “like” I mean “become obsessed with and listen to repeatedly until I’ve memorized every second of it.” Ten years ago this happened when I first heard the Babyshambles’ song “Fuck Forever” from their debut album. That song is as haunting in its utter nihilism and brutal despair as this song is in its soaring heights of heartbroken gratitude. Whatever else I might say about aging, I am in a better place emotionally than I was a decade ago.
So after rewinding the credits to listen to it a second time, I set out in search of an mp3. My first stop was iTunes, of course, because I always opt for the legal download that soothes my conscience with sweet tithes to the record label gods. But the song was not to be found there. So next I googled it, as the devil on my other shoulder whispered hopes of pirate booty on the seas of cyberspace. But it was not there either. The only thing I found was a lot of youtube videos ripped from the end credits, and a few that have the whole song but in a horribly tinny and low quality version. Nonetheless, it would have to be cha bu duo, as we say here in China – “good enough.” After listening to the song a few dozen times or so in the last several hours, I felt compelled to write about it.
The best love songs are those that might just as easily be about God as about a lover; those that blur or defy the distinction between earthly and divine love, sacred and profane. The religious traditions of the world are filled with love songs. I’m not talking about the stuff you hear on Christian radio, where some guy proclaims love for Jesus with about as much real verve as a mall Santa. Rather, I’m talking about the love poetry of saints and mystics, people like Rumi and Dante Alighieri. Both of those men wrote beautiful love poems to God. But this love was mediated by another. In the case of Dante, it was through his muse, Beatrice. In Rumi’s case, it was through his guru Shams.
God gives the beloved to us as a gift of grace, as a means to experience Him because, as the New Testament tells us, God is love. This simple three word formulation that sounds like it came from a Hallmark card is actually an encapsulation of the greatest, most profound mystery. The love that is God is simply too big, too all-encompassing, too all-pervasive, and so all-too-easy to miss or mistake. As my Lutheran catechism class taught me, human beings and their little hearts are simply incapable of fully loving God. Because of this, for the devoted seeker God can manifest as one person, who embodies the divine qualities of goodness, beauty and truth.
This was Dante’s understanding of his love for Beatrice. He met her for the first time when they were children, and he fell in love with her instantly. Although both married other people and they were never able to be together, Dante loved her more than any other for his entire life. Whoever sees in that love only a man’s feelings for a girl sees nothing, because for Dante the appearance of Beatrice in his life was nothing less than a theophany, the appearance of the divine as and through the beloved.* The love we experience for the beloved both is God and is a means to ascend to God. Those wishing to know more about this should study Plato’s Symposium.
For Rumi, his love for God was realized through his love for his spiritual teacher. This is more difficult for Western people to understand, for whereas we are quite used to being melodramatic about the power of romantic love and extolling its supreme virtues, we are not accustomed to thinking in this way about a relationship with a guru. Yet, in all the major religious traditions of the world, at least in their esoteric aspects if not in their public forms, this relationship is held up higher than all others that a person can have. (The Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Traktung Yeshe Dorje demonstrates this point most forcefully in his book Original Innocence.)
I don’t know who Kris Fogelmark is or what he was thinking when he wrote this song. (For that matter, I don’t know if I should be wondering this about him or about Russell Crowe, who is listed as the song’s principal author.) What I do know is that “Love Was My Alibi” has all the earmarks of a song of guru devotion. If that’s not in fact what it is, then it’s all the more remarkable for that. Perhaps something like Carl Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious can explain it then.
Let’s look at the lyrics, as best as I and my friend Nora over at WrittenChinese can decipher them:
Time – will be the enemy
When you’re lost in a world of pain (hate?)
Days go floating by
It just doesn’t change
It just stays the same
Then you came along
Showed me how to start
Now the sun shines in my heart,
The sun shines in my heart
I was so lost
Now I’m found
Like the song they used to sing
On Sunday afternoon
Love was my alibi
All my life long
You made love my reason
You made love my truth
Now the sun shines in my heart
Time – now a friend to me
You make me feel aglow (adored?)
When I look into your eyes
It’s like I’ve never been
Never been loved before
You showed me the way
You showed me how to start
Now the sun shines in my heart,
The sun shines in my heart
The reason the song works so well as a guru hymn is because of the imagery it uses. Everything in the lyrics is a traditional symbol or reference to a dharma teaching. The song opens with a kind of scream, the singer drawing out “Ti-i-i-i-ime” or perhaps “I’ll” which is what all the other lyric transcriptions have. (The latter makes more sense grammatically, but “time” makes more sense in terms of meaning. Kudos to Nora for calling that one.) Either one works, since both time and the sense of ‘I’, of being a separate, isolated individual, will be the enemy when one is “lost in a world of pain/hate.” Maybe it’s not “Time” or “I” but just a kind of primal scream.
The feeling of changelessness is a pretty good indicator of a state of delusion. The nature of reality is that everything is a constant state of change. But our experience of this can vary dramatically depending on whether we are trying to cling to happiness or push away unhappiness, which can either make time seem to speed up or slow down, even grind to halt in the case of extreme suffering. Whether it be pain or hate, the result is the same: restless suffering.
Buddhist teachings describes human beings as being lost in samsara, a Sanskrit word denoting a state of perpetual confusion, like being trapped in a maze or a hall of illusions, unable to find the exit. People try all manner of activities and tricks to try to make their lives better, but in truth, they don’t even know how to start to make real improvement in their condition. The reason for this is that, left to our own devices, the ego will always steer us away from anything that would bring about real spiritual growth, because that is a threat to ego’s perceived existence.
This is especially true for spiritual teachings. Chogyam Trungpa wrote of what he called “spiritual materialism,” the ego’s diabolical ability to convert even sublime wisdom teachings into dung fertilizer for its own nourishment and growth. The world of gurus and religions is overflowing with such people, who substitute the normal egoism of average people for the grandiose egoism of pseudo-spirituality, which masquerades as egolessness. The subtle selfishness of “spiritual” people is often more grossly nauseating than that of people who at least put on no such pretense.
But these “spiritual” people always have an alibi for their despicable and despotic behavior, and that alibi is love. Like an abusive husband, they always claim that everything they do is out of love, is for your own good, even though you don’t understand. These can be the claims of a would-be teacher, or just a would-be good person. I’ve heard enough people say to me or others, “I’m a good person,” that now I pretty much assume they are trying to convince others and themselves because it’s not true. Claims of goodness or of enlightenment always ring hollow unless the person is well and truly a conduit for the highest love, the “love supreme” as John Coltrane says.
The coming of the teacher is a grace, like the coming of a lover. One should be grateful but should not think that one has merited it, for no limited amount of merit can earn the infinite. What does the teacher teach? The Way. That’s what the first Christians called it, before somebody else brought their -anities and -isms to the table. That’s what Laozi called it, even though the first thing he said about it is that nothing can be said about it and it shouldn’t be called anything. That’s what the Buddha called it, and he said that his way, his noble path, had eight components. We can call it the Way of Truth, or the Way of Love. We can call it the Way of spiritual growth, or spiritual realization. But maybe Laozi was right, and it’s better not to try to say too much about it.
In Sufism, God is called the Friend. The one who introduces the Friend to the student is the teacher. When I hear the lines that say, “Now a friend to me / You make me feel aglow / When I look into your eyes / Like I’ve never been / Never been loved before” I feel like I am reading Rumi singing to Shams, and to God. No earthly love can compare to divine love, love that has not been refracted, separated, filtered through the mesh of ego, which the Sufis call the nafs, the “little satan.”
The most important esoteric tradition for all three of the major Western religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – is Platonism. The greatest of the early Church fathers were Platonists who translated Plato’s mystical and rational insights into the language of Christianity. Platonism informed the Hebrew Kabbalah and also Islamic philosophy and mysticism. For Plato, the mind attains union with the Highest Good by use of the rational intellect together with the love of wisdom and truth. His understanding of the human soul was of a tripartite unit consisting of desire, courage, and intellect. But the intellect itself had two parts: a calculating, cognizing aspect which he called dianoia in Greek, and a higher, more mysterious aspect called nous, which was capable of intuiting, directly knowing the highest truth, because that is where it came from. In medieval Christian theology, this became the distinction between ratio and intellectus.
The point of doing philosophy, as Plato conceived it, is to unite one’s mind and heart, through the faculties of knowing and loving, with the Highest Good. He used the metaphor of being trapped in a cave facing the wall. To realize the truth and be set free was to turn around and see the light of the sun.
The sun is perhaps the oldest and most universal symbol for God in all of human existence, whether it is Plato’s understanding of the sun as the visible world’s corollary of the invisible world’s supreme power, or the image of the heart as a flower which opens to the sunlight of God’s love. Such a one who opens to God’s love, who unites with the highest good, becomes a conduit for that love and goodness to burst forth like sunbeams into the world. The heart, rather than being the sickly love-starved organ of an ordinary being, becomes aglow with the light which in truth it always contained, which is no longer impeded by delusion or constriction. Buddhist teachings call such beings bodhisattvas. Christianity calls them saints. Plato called them Guardians. They are those from whom a light shines forth into the world.
St. Paul says that in order for people to become such, a radical change is needed. The Greek word in the New Testament is metanoia, which means something like “change of mind” or “turning” of the mind, echoing Plato. The soul uses its imperfect reason and imperfect love to strive for that which is perfect, and if it succeeds, it undergoes this change, this metamorphosis, this becoming what it is. One’s reason is no longer the ordinary reason of calculations and figuring, but the transcendent logic (from logos, another name for Christ) of love. One’s truth is no longer the truth of deduction and computation, but the Truth which is yet another name for God, the Highest Good, the Way and the Life Everlasting – Love. Then time is just an ornament of eternity. And the sun shines in the heart.
So there you have it. Kris Fogelmark / Russell Crowe: hidden disciple of a spiritual master? Or this author, man with too much time (“Ti-i-i-i-i-ime!”) on his hands and reader of too many books? I’m sure I can’t say.
* Henry Corbin writes, “…the young girl who was for Ibn ‘Arabi in Mecca what Beatrice was for Dante , was a real young girl, though at the same time she was ‘in person’ a theophanic figure, the figure of the Sophia aeterna [eternal Wisdom].”