There is an ancient story, different versions of which appear in several traditions. Essentially it goes like this:

Once there was a Spiritual Seeker who, after mastering many disciplines and enduring much suffering in the world of delusion. arrived at the Gate of Nirvana (or Heaven as it's sometimes called). Before admission, however, he had to pass an examination by the Gatekeeper. First the Gatekeeper checked the Seeker's life records to verify he had kept all the necessary precepts. Not only had the seeker kept all the necessary precepts, he had observed countless supplementary ones as well. Next, the Gatekeeper queried the Seeker about the most esoteric aspects of the highest teachings. But the Seeker was able to answer all the Gatekeeper's questions without hesitation, thereby revealing the profound depths of insight he had attained on the path. Finally, with his clairvoyant vision, the Gate-Keeper scanned the Seeker's heart and mind, looking for any attachments the Seeker might still be harboring for the world of delusion, but he could detect nothing.

"Looks like you've passed all the tests," the Gatekeeper said and was about to admit the Seeker into Nirvana when suddenly he heard a barking sound. Glancing at the Seeker's feet, the Gatekeeper saw a little lame dog jumping up and down excitedly.

"What's this?" The Gatekeeper asked.

"My dog." the Seeker replied.

"But you can't take a dog into Nirvana!"

"You don't understand," the Seeker tried to explain, "this dog has been my faithful companion through all the hardships of the path. I can't leave him behind now."

"Well, you'll just have to. Those are the rules!" The Gatekeeper answered gruffly. Then, noticing a look of hesitation cross the Seeker's face, he adopted a more reasonable tone. "Listen, friend, you've worked very hard to get here. There's only one more step to take and you will be free of delusion forever. All your sufferings will have an end and you will enjoy Eternal Bliss. The only thing you have to do is give up this last little attachment to your dog."

"I don't know," the Seeker said doubtfully, and glanced at his dog.

But even the dog urged him not to forego this golden opportunity. "Listen, O Seeker," he said, "you have already been very kind to me, and I'll always be grateful Please, don't deny yourself Final Liberation on my account."

Suddenly the seeker made up his mind. "I won't do it," he told the Gatekeeper firmly. "If abandoning my companion is a condition for Liberation. then I renounce Liberation." And with that, he scooped the little dog up into his arms. "If you must go on suffering. then I'm going to suffer with you Come on, we'll return to the world of delusion together."

Still cradling the dog. the Seeker started back down the path by which they had come. But hardly had he taken two steps when he found himself once again facing the Gate to Nirvana. He wheeled to the right, then to the left, but no matter in which direction he turned, there was the ubiquitous Gate.

"Is this some sort of trick?" he asked the Gatekeeper angrily. "Not at all," the Gatekeeper smiled. "You've just passed the final test. In renouncing your desire to attain Liberation for yourself alone, you have overcome the last barrier. Delusion has been destroyed. There is no world of suffering to return to. Welcome to Nirvana."

Although this story may seem like nothing more than a childish fairy-tale, it illustrates a fact of the utmost importance for the spiritual seeker: There is no Liberation without Love. For while it is true that Gnosis (direct knowledge of Reality) is the key that opens the Gate, no one actually passes through it unless they give everything to Love. This is why Jesus declared that all the laws governing spiritual life are finally subordinate to two Great Laws: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . . [and] Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." [1]

Nor is this teaching exclusively Christian. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, "whoever loves me without other desires, and has no ill will toward any creature at all, he comes to me." [2] Likewise, the Buddha instructs his disciples "to do no injury to any living being but to be full of loving kindness,"[3] while the great Sufi master Ibn 'Arabi summed up his whole path by saying: "Love is the creed I hold; wherever turn His camels, Love is still my creed and faith." [4]

If one understands that ignorance causes the delusion of self (and its consequent suffering), then it is fairly easy to see why Gnosis puts an end to this delusion and why mystical teachings place so much emphasis on cultivating cognitive insights. It is harder, however, to see what role Love plays in all this. If Freedom is attained only through "knowing, "why bother to cultivate something that seems purely emotional? What does "loving" have to do with "knowing?"

By examining one of mysticism's central paradoxes, we can better understand why the cultivation of Love is so indispensable to the spiritual path. Virtually every seeker is, initially at least, motivated by a desire to free him or herself from suffering and to attain happiness. And yet the very self which desires to end suffering constitutes the root delusion that causes suffering. Therefore, as long as there remains any trace of a 'self' seeking freedom from suffering, suffering will continue and the way to Gnosis will be blocked. It is for this reason that mystical teachings always direct the seeker towards a perfect self surrender. But this injunction only leads to a further paradox, namely: how can the self surrender itself?

Therefore the first task is to locate one's self. Obviously no 'self' can be surrendered unless it can be found This involves an inquiry based on the question "Who am I?" In every experience the seeker tries to determine exactly to whom the experience is occurring. While such an inquiry does not reveal what the self is, it does produce insights into what the self is not—i.e., it is not bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, etc.—all of which are realized not to belong to any 'I' but to be merely transitory phenomena arising and passing in consciousness. But while such insights are absolutely necessary for purifying the mind of delusions, they can also be quite disturbing.

Not having found any 'self', the seeker may begin to imagine that the Reality being sought is a purely negative condition—a total vacuity in which no activity whatsoever occurs. For if there really is no self, what would be the motive for any form of action, spiritual or otherwise? Ruminating in this way, the seeker may fall into a "dark night of the soul," and be filled with inertia and despair. Moreover, if at this stage the seeker has a strong experiential insight into his or her own selflessness it may generate not an expected bliss, but intense fear.

Thus, rather than being relieved of suffering, the seeker midway on the path is apt to find that his or her suffering has actually increased. And to make matters worse, this increased suffering usually produces an even more powerful sense of 'self, because it is during the experience of suffering that the 'self' seems to be most substantial. And yet, despite the appearance of failure, this turn of events presents the seeker with one of the richest opportunities for practice so far. This is why, instead of turning away from suffering (as the worldly person does), spiritual teachings instruct the seeker to "look into it;" for if the 'self' is to be found anywhere, it is precisely here, in the midst of suffering, where the self is felt most vividly.

For many seekers the encounter with this teaching (or rather the realization that it must be taken seriously) signals a turning point. Out of fear some will abandon the path altogether. Others will continue doing their practices but only in a half-hearted manner. But those who take the teachings to heart, and press on to investigate the nature of suffering itself, will make a profound discovery—i.e., suffering is not personal. It does not belong to anyone. Rather, it is a universal feature of all human delusion. Wherever there is self, there is suffering.

Although some may suppose that such an insight would lead to a stoic indifference to the plight of others, its actual effect on the one who experiences it deeply is quite the opposite. Because suffering is no longer felt to be personal (i.e., "owned" by the seeker), all suffering(whether one's own or another's) becomes shared suffering, or "suffering with"—which is what compassion means (from the Latin compat, "to suffer with another.")

Of course, the seeker has been urged to "practice compassion" from the very beginning, but with the insight that "suffering is impersonal," this exhortation is suddenly seen in a new light. Whereas, before the seeker tried forcibly to generate feelings of love and kindness (and usually with only sporadic success), these feelings now begin to flow effortlessly, as a natural response evoked by a common predicament.

Consequently, although the seeker has still not been able to find any 'self, he or she has found something else of inestimable value. Compassion opens the heart to Love, which expresses itself in a spontaneous impulse to alleviate suffering in all its forms. Thus, the question, "What would motivate activity in the world if there were no self?" finds an immediate answer in the seeker's own experience-Selfless Love. And the more the seeker becomes capable of Love, the more selfless actions automatically replace selfish ones. This, in turn, brings new confidence and new joy to the seeker's practice. Joy arises because selfless action is naturally unhampered by any fear of loss or desire for gain, and confidence increases because the seeker begins to intuit that the long-sought-for Reality is not some kind of negative condition as first imagined—in fact, it is not any "condition" at all! Rather, it is the Unconditioned Source of this very Love which periodically floods the seeker with a happiness never before experienced. Thus, instead of being reluctantly pushed towards Liberation by suffering alone, the seeker is now actively drawn to it in a positive way.

Yet, despite this new illumination, which Love brings to the seeker's path, the sense of 'self' still persists (for "suffering with" still implies a plurality of selves.) What's more, as the seeker enters on the final stage, even Love will be temporarily eclipsed With the continued failure of any practice or discipline to disclose a 'self' that could be surrendered, the seeker begins to slip into a profound state of Kenosis (emptiness). Having exhausted every option the will simply dries up, desires vanish, and all efforts cease-including those motivated by Love. And yet it is here, in this emptiness of effort, that the seeker may suddenly discover why no 'self' could ever be found: There was never any 'self' to begin with! In Reality, both 'self' and 'world' are but the imaginary forms in which Consciousness perfectly realizes Itself.

This is the dawn of Gnosis whose revelation, if fully apprehended, terminates all seeking and brings the path to an end. Full apprehension, however, depends on avoiding one last pitfall into which many an overzealous seeker has stumbled. The problem is that with the dawning of GNOSIS there also comes an experience of a Bliss so overwhelming that it can easily be mistaken for the Ultimate Reality of Consciousness Itself. If, instead of identifying with Consciousness Itself, the seeker identifies with Bliss, and clings to it, then the real import of Gnosis will be lost. And while the Seeker may enjoy this Bliss for quite some time, like all experiences, it, too, must eventually pass, plunging the Seeker back into the realm of suffering and delusion.

Bliss, then, is the last barrier, and there is only one way to penetrate it.[5] What is required at this critical juncture is an unconditional self-surrender to the one and only law of Consciousness, which is the Law of Love. When even Divine Bliss can be freely sacrificed in obedience to this Law, then there is not a trace of anything left to cling to and both 'self' and 'world' vanish forever.

Thus, the moment of Absolute Freedom, attained through Gnosis, must in the very next moment be transmuted through Love into an Absolute Slavery—and yet, in Reality there is no contradiction between these two moments, for to be the perfect slave of love is to be perfectly free of self, and to be perfectly free of self is to be the perfect slave of love.

May all beings Realize this for themselves!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1993. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Matt. XXII:37-40
2. Kees W. Bolle, trans., The Bhagavadgita (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), XI:55.
3. Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1921), 126-127.
4. Moulvi S.A.Q. Husaini, Ibn Al-'Arabi: The Great Muslim Mystic and Thinker (1949; reprint, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1977), 99.
5. We are talking here about manifest or experiential bliss, not the unmanifest or inherent bliss of Consciousness Itself.

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