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Love in Buddhism

Walpola Piyananda Thera

Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, 1990

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Love, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in Buddhism



"Monks, as low-down thieves might carve you limb from limb with a double-handled saw, yet even then whoever sets his mind at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching. Herein, monks you should rain yourselves thus: 'Neither will our minds become perverted, nor will we utter an evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will we dwell, with a mind of friendliness, void of hatred; we will dwell having suffused the whole world with a mind of friendliness that is far-reaching, widespread, without enmity, without malevolence.' This is how you must train yourselves, monks." (1)

'Love' is a concept central to the world's major religions. Yet its meaning may be vastly different from one religion to another, and especially different from any lay meanings of the word love. In Buddhism, there is a concept called the four sublime states, translated usually as loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Many other translations have been attempted, but rather than try to make it fit one of these concepts, I will stick with the general Pali translation of the group of the them, the four 'sublime states' (brahma vihara). Hopefully this talk will elucidate what the Buddhist concept of "love" is.

The word 'metta' is an abstract noun for the word 'mitra', meaning 'friend'. Hoever, it is not defined just as 'friendliness', but as the same love that prompts a mother to love her only child even more than her life, as it says in the Metta-Sutta (Discourse on Loving kindness),

Just as a mother protects her child,

Her only child (with so deep a love)

Even as to risk her own life for its sake,

even so towards all living beings

may one cultivated boundless loving thought. (2)

The practice of the highest life is that of the sublime beings who live a life of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). Hence, these are the highest ways of life (Brahma vihara), or Sublime States, namely: extending unlimited, universal love and good will (metta) to all living beings; compassion (karuna) for all living beings who are suffering in trouble, and need help; sympathetic joy (mudita) in others' success, welfare and happiness; and equanimity (upekkha) in all vicissitudes of life. (3)

The person who has successfully developed these qualities is said to be "one who is cleansed with an internal bathing" after bathing "in the waters of love and compassion for one's fellow beings."(4) When the Buddha's disciple Ananda suggested to him that half of the teaching of the Buddha consisted in the practice of loving kindness, the Buddha said it was not half, but the whole of his teachings.

Metta is an essential part of the Middle Path in the teaching of the Buddha. It seeks to eliminate the three roots of evil, greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and illusion (moha). Metta plays a significant role in the development of moral discipline (sila), meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (panna), which lead the follower to the ultimate goal of seeing things as they really are.

The Buddha explains the distinction between metta, as loving kindness, and pema, or personal affection. Metta is an emotion which is an impersonal detatchment while pema is an exclusive affection. Not only affection but also companionship (samsagga) and fondness (sineha) tend to be based on clinging (upadana). In the dhammapada, the most popular Buddhist text among lay people, it reads "From affection (pema) springs grief, from affection springs fear. For him who is wholly free from affection there is neither grief nor fear." (5)

In his instructions to monks, the Buddha exhorted his disciples, saying "Monks, go and travel around for the welfare of the multitudes, for the happiness of the multitudes, out of sympathy for the world, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of humans." (6)

In his instructions to monks, the Buddha exhorted his disciples, saying "Monks, go and travel around for the welfare of the multitudes, for the happiness of the multitudes, out of sympathy for the world, for the benefit, welfare,, and happiness of humans." (6)

Metta has the characteristic of non-attachment to any one. It implies friendship without sensual affection. The Buddha's boundless love extended not only to human beings, but to all living creatures. One of the earliest Buddhist Metta Suttas says as follows:

May all beings be happy and secure.

May they all have happy and healthy minds.

May all beings, whatever they may be,

Weak or strong, long, stout, medium or short,

Small or large, seen or unseen,

Those who live close by or far away,

Those how are born and those who are to be born,

May they all have happy and healthy minds. (7)

The Buddha renounced his kingdom, family and pleasures so that he could strive to find a way to release mankind from an existence of suffering. In order to gain his Enlightenment, he had to struggle for many countless lives.

As the test says,

"One who to save a limb, rich treasures gave,

Would sacrifice a limb, his life to save,

Yea, wealth, limbs, life and all away would fling,

Right and its claims alone remembering." (8)

This is illustrated in several of the Jataka stories, tales of the Buddha's life.

For example, "When he was an ascetic known as Khantivadi, long ago, once he visited the city of Benares and was staying in a grove. The king of Benares, a cruel person who had no regard for the practice of virtues, a man of materialistic views, met Khantivadi one day in the grove and asked, "What kind of doctrine do you teach, monk?" "I teach the value of patience," said the ascetic. The king wanted to prove it impossible to practice patience, had him flogged with sarongs of thorns but could not make the ascetic angry. (9)

And in another story we read: "In another previous life, the Lord Buddha had been born as a son to an arrogant king named Pratapa. The child was a prodigy. One day the king got angry with the queen who was fondling the babe and could not get up from the seat before him. He grew rough and ordered his servant to lop off hands, feet and head of the infant. But the child didn't get angry wither with his father or with the man who cut his limbs off, but he was impartial to all, towards his father, the man who cut off his limbs, towards his lamenting mother and towards himself." (10)

The Buddha himself instructs us in Samyutta Nikaya, "When the mediator thinks thus of the Bodhisatta's former conduct, his resentment might subside. If he still cannot dispel his anger towards the other person, now he should mediate on the teaching of the Buddha. He has said, 'Brethren, it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother…father…your brother…your sister…your son...your daughter in a previous life of this beginningless cycle of lives." (11)

 As further elucidated in ‘The Buddha’s Ancient Path’ by Piyadassi Thera, Love is an active force. Every act of the loving one is done with the stainless mind to help, to succour, to cheer, to make the paths of others easier, smoother and more adapted to the conquest of sorrow, the winning of the highest bliss.

"The way to develop love is through thinking out the evils of hate, and the advantages of non-hate; through thinking out according to actuality according to karma, that really there is none to have, that hate is a foolish way of feeling which breeds more and more darkness, that obstructs right understanding. Hate restricts; love releases. Hatred estranges; love enfranchises. Hatred brings remorse; love brings peace. Hatred agitates; love quietens, still, calms. Hatred divides; love unites. Hatred hardens; love softens. Hatred hinders; love helps. And thus through a correct study and appreciation of the effects of hatred and the benefits of love, should one develop love."

Love and compassion are closely tied in Buddhism, and the approach to compassion is similar to that of love. Compassion (karuna) is not merely limited to giving materials needs, but acting with a pure motive, without greed, false views or pride. There is a story on the Buddha’s way of helping the sick. He healed the sick with his friendship and out of compassion. In the Commentary to the Dhammapada there is a touching story:

A young man of Savatthi listened to the Buddha, gained confidence in him and entered the order. He became known as Tissa. After a time he fell sick. First small pustules broke out on his body, gradually becoming bigger and bursting, developing ulcers. His fellow monks were unwilling to look after Tissa, and abandoned him. When the Buddha came to know of this, he went to the fireplace and boiled some water. Then the Blessed One went to Tissa and caught hold of the corner of Tissa’s bed. When the monks realised what the Master was trying to do, they carried the patient with the bed to the fireplace. There the Master mad e the monks wash Tissa’s garments and dry them, while he himself gently cleaned the ulcers and washed the sick monk. The patient was refreshed and lay on his bed with a composed mined. Thereupon the Blessed One explained the doctrine to him. With a collected mind Tissa listened and at the end of the sermon attained the highest stage of sainthood and passed away. Subsequently, the appropriate rites were performed and the Buddha had the relics enshrined in a stupa. (13)

Compassion and the other divine states are equally important to all schools of Buddhism. The following quotes are from D. Brandon’s Zen in the Art of Helping, and present the same sentiments in different contexts.

"Compassion has nothing to do with achievement at all. It is spacious and very generous. When a person develops real compassion, he is uncertain whether he is being generous to others of to himself because compassion is environmental generosity, without direction, without ‘for me’ and without ‘them’. It is filled with joy, spontaneously existing joy, constant joy in the sense of trust, in the sense that hoy contains tremendous wealth, richness…

"At this highest level, karuna (compassion) does not attach itself to the intricacies of suffering or to individual human situations. It is involved with the salvation of all living things. It spreads out the map of enlightenment for all who care to look."

"That is the way of the Buddhas. I am very much concerned with those individuals who live around me.

"…Compassion is the complete reflection of overall harmony." (14)

The third sublime state is sympathetic joy or appreciative hoy (mudita). It is the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of others. Sympathetic joy sees prosperous conditions of others, welcomes the happiness of fellow people.

The fourth state is that of equanimity (upekkha). When we achieve it we see all sentient beings as equals. In order to do so, one has to keep in mind that one’s particular relationship with one’s relative, friends, and even enemies is the result of previous karma. Therefore one should not cling to relatives and friends while regarding other with indifference.

As the Ven. Balangolda Ananda Maitreya, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars of this century states in "Development of the Divine States",

"This person, when he (she) was my mother in a previous birth, carried me in her womb nearly ten months, and when I was a baby, she removed my urine, excrement, spittle, snot, all without any disgust. She played with me on her lap, nourished me, carrying me about in her arms. Thus she nourished me with such deep love. When this person was my father in a previous life, he risked his life for me in pursuing the trade of merchant, or of farmer, and did business hard with a view to earning wealth for my sake. And when he was born as my brother, sister, son or daughter, too, he/she treated me with loving care and gave me every possible kind of help for my wellbeing. So it is unjust for me to harbour anger for him merely because of some disagreeable thing done to me in this life." (15)

The love of the divine states can be experienced in daily life. The attitude of loving kindness is like the feeling which parents have for their newborn child, the wish that that child enjoy good health, have good friends, be intelligent and successful in all endeavours. In the same manner one may have loving kindness toward all living beings. When parents see their child seriously ill, they will naturally be moved by compassion and earnestly wish that the child be free from the suffering of his sickness. In the same way we have to experience the feelings of compassion upon seeing the suffering of all living beings. As the parents joy at their child’s success and happiness in life, we should experience feelings of joy at the good fortune of all beings. When grown-up sons or daughters settle down with their family, they begin to have independent lives with their responsibilities. Although parents still have their feelings of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic hoy, they are combined with a new feeling of equanimity. They recognise their new independence and responsibilities in their lives, and do not cling to them.

Buddhaghosa, in his commentary to the Anguttara Nikaya (ii. 204), summarises the working of these sublime states by giving an example form the life of parents and children. He says:

"When a youth is in the womb, the parents think with a loving mind, when will we see our son healthy and endowed with all his major and minor limbs? Then, when this tender creature lies on his back and cries or wails because of being bitten by lice or fleas or because of being bothered by troubled sleep, the parents hear this coise and feel simple compassion. Furthermore, either at the time of his play while he runs and races or at the time he rests, their minds become tender, like a hundred fluffy calls of cotton soaked in the finest clarified butter. The parents’ minds are satisfied and joyous. They have sympathetic joy at that time. Then, when the son is able to provide adornments for his wife and settle in his own house, the parents become even-minded and think, Now our son can live on his own. In this way, they have equanimity at that time."

The basic instruction of the Buddha is the "Eightfold Path", which is divided into the three areas of Discipline, Concentration/Mindfulness, and Wisdom. The three steps of the path dedicated to Discipline are all based on Metta, or Love, namely: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These factors aim at promoting societal harmony. One sutta instructs on how to respect neighbours:

"They should be hospitable and charitable to one another; should speak pleasantly and agreeably; should work for each other's welfare; should be on equal terms with one another; should not quarrel among themselves; should help each other in need; and should not forsake each other in difficulties." (16)

In Buddhism, apparent self-love is a crucial first step. It is a cleansing and purifying of one's mind to be able to love another, without which love just becomes raga (eros). However, this is what is known in Buddhism as "conventional truth", that is, an explanation tailored to the capacity of understanding of people. In fact, Buddhists believe there is no self, just the five aggregates, which are the aspects of existence. As regards the conventional truth of neighbourly love, Buddhism extends it to all sentient beings, not just human beings. As Buddhism has no God-concept, only dhamma, that is, the laws of reality, which are impersonal and not an object of love, (as they are not objects at all), there is no "love" directed at a divinity in Buddhism.

The sublime states in Buddhism are a question of both attitude and practice. One understands the importance of metta (similarly karuna, mudita and upekkha), and then implements it. By practicing metta, one comes to understand it more profoundly.

In practicing the four sublime states, beyond generosity, right action, right speech, and right livelihood, there are specific meditative practices designed to augment one's commitment to them. The meditative exercises are similar to all kinds of meditation in Buddhism, in that they consist of an activity to be carried out with full mindfulness. In the case of metta, the activity is consciously emanating metta to the beings around one. When one becomes increasingly adept at this practice, one will become very calm and peaceful, and will be in a position to understand better the basic Buddhist teachings, and tread along the path to liberation from suffering, Nibbana.

Each of the four sublime states addresses different ills, and helps one further along the paths. Loving kindness eradicates ill will and anger (dosa). Compassion eradicates craving and worldly attachment (lobha). Sympathetic joy eradicates jealousy and makes people less self-centered (issa), and equanimity eradicates clinging and aversion (moha).

The further along the path one is, the more capable cone is of helping others endeavour towards the summum bonum of Buddhism.

As all of the Buddha's teachings, the practices lead to personal growth and enhance the growth of all beings. Living in the world involves suffering; the four sublime states are the effort to relieve the suffering of others while growing oneself. As they are way to the end of suffering and the highest happiness, we can truly say that the four sublime states are love.


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Computer typesetting: Thien An - Thanh Phi

Update: 01-04-2001


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