Dear Still Water Friends,
When I was eight years old I didn’t know that one word could mean many different things. I was therefore confused by the word “love.” I knew how to use it in terms of the things that I enjoyed. In my mind it made sense to say “I love baseball,” or “I love boysenberry pie.” I could see how that same meaning might also apply to relationships. We love the people who bring us joy. However, in my family the phrase “I love you” was used not as an expression of enjoyment but as a required acknowledgment of a special relationship, as in “tell your grandmother you love her.” Saying what I was really feeling wasn’t wanted.
When I was twenty I was fortunate to be befriended by a wise retired minister. One day over tea he talked about his wife, who was then in a nursing home. He mentioned that through their many years of marriage his love for her was primarily eros, the Greek term meaning sexual love or attraction. Now his love was agape, the Greek word for a selfless, caring love, sometimes translated as "love of the soul." The contrast was helpfpul to me. It helped me recognize that there was a qualitative difference between the longing and desire I experienced in the context of sexuality and a less selfish caring and concern for others and for the world that I also experienced.
One of the best known explications of agape is contained in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (NIV Bible)
Two decades later, when I became a student of mindfulness, I learned that in mindfulness practice there is a distinction similar to eros and agape. Kہma (Sanskrit and Pali) is untempered sensuous and sexual desire. Maitri (Sankrit) or metta (Pali) is loving kindness, the selfless caring for others. In The Discourse on Love (The Metta Sutta), the Buddha encouraged boundless love as a practice:
Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate Boundless Love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. We should let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below and across. Our love will know no obstacles, our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.
Thich Nhat Hanh defines maitri as the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness:
To develop that capacity, we have to practise looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.
In Southeast Asia many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practising chanting in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite the Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me ‘Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,’ I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have correct understanding.
Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved. (from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings) .
You are invited to join us this Thursday for our meditation and our program. We will begin our discussion focusing on what we mean by love and how we practice love.
Oh, and yes, over the decades, I did outgrow my early confusion and learn to say "I love you" to the people close to me. To me it means "I enjoy your presence, I am thankful you are there, I care for you, It brings me joy to support and nourish you."
Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of The Discourse on Love is below.
Nirvana is Now or Never: A Day of Practice. Sunday, April 1, at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland.
Touching Life Deeply: A Day of Practice. Sunday, May 26, at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland.
Discourse On Love
(Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh)
“He or she who wants to attain peace should practice being upright, humble, and capable of using loving speech. He or she will know how to live simply and happily, with senses calmed, without being covetous and carried away by the emotions of the majority. Let him or her not do anything that will be disapproved of by the wise ones.
“(And this is what he or she contemplates): May everyone be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy.
“May all living beings live in Security and in Peace — beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, visible or not visible, near or far away, already born or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility.
“Let no one do harm to anyone. Let no one put the life of anyone in danger. Let no one, out of anger or ill will, wish anyone any harm.
“Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate Boundless Love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. We should let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below and across. Our love will know no obstacles, our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.
“Free from wrong views, greed and sensual desires, living in beauty and realizing Perfect Understanding, those who practice Boundless Love will certainly transcend Birth and Death.”
—Metta Sutta (Suttanipata 1) from Chanting From The Heart