Practicing Love, Cultivating Peace

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) translation of the Buddha’s Discourse on Love begins:

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.

Let’s stop there for a moment. In our fractured, violent, partisan, and often cruel and unjust world, attaining peace within one’s self is an appealing promise. Equally appealing is the idea that peace is available for all those around us, including across North, Central, and South America, across Europe and Asia, across the Middle East and Africa. Everywhere! No exceptions. Just imagine!

The Discourse goes on to clarify how to do it:

And this is what he or she contemplates:

“May everyone be happy and safe, and may all hearts be filled with joy.

“May all beings live in security and in peace—beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, invisible or 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, cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. 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.”

In an essay on the Metta Sutta (Discourse on Love), Pali scholar Andrew Olendzki raises the question of whether we really have to love everyone, even those we don’t like, even those who have harmed us, even those who are harming others? And he answers:

Yes, the Metta Sutta says, toward everyone, without exception (anavasesa). Metta is to be directed toward all beings (sabbe satta), all who have come to be (sabbe bhuta), with a mind unbounded toward the entire world (sabbaloka), with “no holding back, no loathing, no foe”—even people we don’t like. But why?

Simply stated: metta practice is not about them; it is about you. You do not love other people because they deserve it or because there might be a spark of goodness in the hardest of hearts. The practice of lovingkindness is for cleansing your own mind stream. It is a healthy mental and emotional state, and the more often you can conjure it up and sustain it over time, the better off you are. While radiating lovingkindness in all directions, to all beings, without exception, your conscious mind is bright and luminous, dwelling in a holy or godlike state (brahma-vihara), and your unconscious mind is being subtly transformed such that you are becoming a kinder person, one who will be more disposed to respond with lovingkindness in the future. In order for the intentional development of lovingkindness to reach fulfillment and become truly transformative, the feeling of friendliness has to encompass everyone.

The Discourse ends with an indication of what those who practice this type of meditation can expect:

“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.”

In Teachings on Love, Thich Nhat Hanh says more about the inherent power of this simple practice, even if you are a beginner, even if you can do it only a little bit:

Practicing love meditation is like digging deep into the ground until we reach the purest water. We look deeply into ourselves until insight arises and our love flows to the surface. Joy and happiness radiate from our eyes, and everyone around us benefits from our smile and our presence. …

The Buddha said that if a monk practices love meditation, even if only for the length of time it takes to snap one’s fingers, that monk is worthy of being a monk: “He will not fail in meditative concentration. He will realize the teachings given by teachers on the path. The food offered to him as alms will not be wasted. There is no greater virtue than practicing love meditation every day.”

Reciting the discourse, practicing love, brings me encouragement and hope. For me, it is not a retreat from dealing with the issues and conflicts in my life or in the world, rather it offers a way to enter into them more fully. Practicing love for all is a spiritual orientation, a life path, not an ideology, not a strategy.

Given the world we live in, in certain circumstances, force may be needed, such as to stop domestic violence or an invasion. But even then, as Thay explained in a 2011 Q and A, it can be done as nonviolently as possible:

I think nonviolence can never be completely absolute. We can say that we should be as nonviolent as we can. When we think of the military, we think that the things that the military do are only violent. But to conduct an army, to protect a town, to stop an invasion of a foreign army, there are many ways to do it. And there are more violent ways, and there are less violent ways. You can always choose.

Maybe it is not possible to do it 100% nonviolent, but 80% nonviolent is better than 10% nonviolent! See? So don’t ask for an absolute.

This Thursday evening we will begin our meditation period with a reading of the Discourse of Love. And then, once we have settled, we will practice offering love to one or more individuals who are close to us, who are around us, who are distant from us, who upset us, and even to someone who we believe has caused or are causing harm to us or to others.

In our Dharma sharing, we will explore what arose for us when we practiced this love meditation. What was easy and opened us wider? What was difficult and closed us down? What have we learned about unconditional love?

You are invited to join us.

Below is an excerpt from Thay on helping our hearts to grow.

And among the announcements is a new one for New Year, New Me — Still Water’s New Year’s Day Online Gathering.

Sending you warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

From Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh 

When the Buddha’s son Rahula was a young novice monk, the Buddha advised him to practice being like the Earth and its oceans and rivers. No matter what people pour onto the Earth, whether milk, flowers, or compost, the Earth receives it all. Why? Because the great Earth is vast and has the power to transform everything into soil, plants, and flowers. If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into the river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace and transform.

If our hearts are big, we can be like the river. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, the same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform. So the big question is: how do we help our heart to grow? With practice, your heart will become infinitely large like the heart of the Buddha, capable of embracing the whole cosmos.

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