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I Want to Know What Love Is

i want to know what love is from the buddhist perspective

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I’m Scott Snibbe and in today’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, I want to know what love is. If you know the eighties song I’m referencing, I’m really sorry, because it might take you another decade to get it back out of your head again.

My main memories of this song are of being an eighth grader at a Pacific Grove Middle School Valentine’s Day dance, shuffling around the edges of its dark gym, too embarrassed to ask Anna Cooper onto the dance floor. I really hope she’s not listening right now. But if you are, Hi Anna!

Even in those first moments of a 13-year-old’s initial brush with love, there was all this craving and fear I had wrapped up with the healthy need for affection that we all share. I was wanting desperately to be loved, but I was too embarrassed to ask for it. I was scared of rejection, and in hindsight, I was concerned mostly with thoughts about myself and the love that I was craving or fearing, rather than the care and affection that I might offer to someone else.

If you wanted to know what love is in the Eighties, you’d ask Foreigner.

The Buddhist definition of love is very different from the romantic crush of a 13-year-old or even the committed love of a married 30-something.

You’ve probably heard that there are a lot more words for snow in languages where the climate is colder. And, similarly, there are more words for love in the Buddhist vocabularies of Tibetan and Sanskrit and Pali, where maybe the heart is warmer. One of the most revered forms of love in the elaborated Buddhist system of the human heart is called metta or loving-kindness.

Geshe Tenzin Namdak talked about this form of selfless love when we interviewed him last year:

“The definition of loving-kindness as we define it is that all beings always abide in happiness, never be separated from happiness.

—Geshe Tenzin Namdak

The esteemed Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, also offered a definition for a similarly expansive, though slightly different form of love, using a term I had never heard before, the Tibetan word tsewa. As a Buddhist lama who is also a husband and a father, Rinpoche defined this special form of love for us:

“In Tibetan, the word tsewa is what parents have for us. There’s deeply from one’s own heart, the care that is there, which actually is an open hearted experience of a warmth.

Regardless of whether one can do something or not, whatever they could do to enhance your life and welfare. That is the definition of love. And when you have that, there’s naturally some invisible bond that develops.”

—Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

If you’re a parent like I am, I’m sure that you can relate to the selfless feeling of love that you have for your own children. You’d do anything for them, and the thought of your child being harmed is so unbearable that you’d much rather suffer their pain yourself, however severe, then have your child bear it.

How we should treat our children is clear, but how should we treat our partner? A lot of the talk about partners when we’re in our twenties and thirties is making lists of the qualities and requirements that we demand in a mate, and then measuring potential partners against this list. Sure, these might all be admirable qualities, but this list is about what we want from them.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche shared with us how, instead, we can start with our partner to gradually expand our heart to selflessness:

“I think one thing that, I can say with all of the relations with parents or spouse or anyone; children or friends, the focus not being, what can you do for them? In that way, focus externally. If you could actually be there in support of their welfare and their growth, and their life in general, without reservations. You know, I think that really helps a lot to improve the kind of a quality of a relation.

And then at times, of course you could help and you could enhance their lives, and then at other times they have to do it themselves. It’s not like you have it all in control to help everyone you want to, or you have the means. But in the mind and heart being there for their welfare and for their growth and for their happiness.”

—Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

First of all, this is a good reminder that being a truly loving presence for our partner means putting their needs before our own. Even in couple’s therapy, you’ll get this advice.

Where Rinpoche goes further, though, in talking about the tenderness of tsewa, is with his instructions on how to expand that love, so that we don’t just limit it to our family.

When I first learned about these expansive forms of love, it felt threatening and frightening to imagine expanding that special love for my partner to share it with the world. So I find it really skillful of Rinpoche to advise starting being more selfless with your partner; to love your partner in a way that considers their needs above yours.

I think we have all heard this about relationships, that we need to put our partner’s welfare above our own. But really, at least when I look at my own relationship, it’s gummed up with attachment. Just like at my middle school dance, I more often think about what I want from my partner and how she can better meet my needs. I can even get into spirals of rumination at how dissatisfied I am with how she’s treating me than I do about selflessly serving her needs. If I’m honest with myself, I came into the relationship with a certain fantasy of what a perfect partner was, in terms of what she could do for me and not what I could do for her.

So I think what Rinpoche is saying is that we can start our path to selflessness with the person we spend the most time with, our partner. And then we can expand our love further from there.

The idea seems great, but of course it’s hard to put into practice. And this is where some of Buddhism’s meditation and mind training techniques come in. Geshe Namdak shared some of the analytical, logical methods to train our minds that slowly and steadily lead it to this more expansive loving-kindness:

“We try to have this kind of mind of feeling close to all sentient beings. Why? Because all beings want happiness and don’t want suffering. That innate wish we understand. And thanks to the kindness of others, we are able to have our lives, right?

We are so interconnected and interdependent with so many beings on this planet. And because of that feeling of interconnectedness, we also see for them, their need to always abide in happiness; by understanding the view, if you yourself always abiding happiness, how wonderful would that be?

So, if you can have the same wish for all the sentient beings, how wonderful would that be if everybody abides and happiness without making distinctions between background culture or religion whatsoever. So that brings a very constructive emotion, what we call loving-kindness.”

—Geshe Tenzin Namdak

It may seem contrived to use a logical argument to expand our love for all beings, something you might imagine Mr. Spock from Star Trek attempting in a quest to understand human emotion. But this type of logical thought process is what is at the heart of Buddhist mind training techniques. From the Buddhist view of the mind, emotions are seen to simply be other thoughts. And, like Geshe Namdak says, when we think logically from others’ perspectives, we can see that they all want happiness, that none of them want to suffer, that we are all interconnected in these basic needs.

Emotions are illogical, Mr. Spock from Star Trek meme
From both the Buddhist and Mr. Spock’s point of view, emotions are merely other thoughts that can be probed logically. When we think logically from others’ perspectives, we can see that everyone wants happiness, no one wants to suffer, and we are all interconnected in these basic needs.

I asked the great Buddhist scholar Dr. Jay Garfield, who we interviewed last year, about love, and he also emphasized the universality of friendliness and care and impartiality as a basis for the healthy moral foundation of a meaningful life:

“From most Buddhist frameworks, when we think about the overarching principles that structure healthy moral experience, they are principles of friendliness, of care, of a kind of impartiality and an ability to rejoice in the success and the wellbeing of others.”

—Dr. Jay Garfield

The ideal of being such a kind and loving person sounds nice, but how do we become this friendly, caring, kind, impartial person? Geshe Namdak talked about loving-kindness starting with just the aspiration, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was happy?” And then from there our resolve gets stronger, not just imaging, but wishing that, if it were possible, everyone might obtain such happiness. As our practice with loving-kindness deepens, eventually we go beyond thinking how nice it would be, and genuinely commit to being a cause of everyone’s happiness ourselves. When Geshe Namdak talked about the first step of aspiring love, he says it…

“…has this capacity to understand the need and the wish for that to come about. And that’s the first level of how wonderful it would be if all sentient beings always abide in happiness. And then the next line is, May they abide in happiness.

Right. So there’s a kind of a prayer or a wish. And then the third line is taking a kind of commitment to yourself to act in that direction: I will cause that to happen, or I will cause them to abide in happiness.

So, it’s a kind of a mind training that helps us to bring us closer to the beings around us, on this planet and helps us to generate more loving-kindness to all instead of only thinking about yourself.”

—Geshe Tenzin Namdak

These steps Geshe Namdak talks about are called the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, of equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion, and joy. At first we simply try to equalize our feelings for everyone, logically arguing that of course everyone wants to be happy, no one wants to suffer, everyone has the right to food and shelter and justice and safety and affection. This first step is called equanimity, and we talked about in our episode called Spiritual Democracy.

The Buddhist teachings on these Four Immeasurables says that it’s only once we have equalized our feelings toward all beings in this way, that we can then move on to loving-kindness, wanting not only for everyone to be treated fairly, but expanding our heart to wish them every form of happiness possible.

From wishing all beings to be happy, it then comes naturally next to wish that they also be free of suffering. And this third step of the four immeasurables is called compassion.

And finally, the last of the Four Immeasurables is cultivating a joyfulness in appreciating all of the good that others enjoy, and all of the good that they do—without jealousy—finding joy in our friends, in strangers, and even in our enemies.

This expansive idea of love isn’t just for committed Buddhists. Modern psychology and neuroscience also support the notion that cultivating loving states of mind has a tremendous benefit on both ourselves and others. These positive states of mind first and foremost benefit ourselves. They make us feel good and they are even able to counteract the painful parts of life.

Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, talked to us about the neurological benefits of the loving state of mind:

“Neurologically there’s tremendous evidence that emotionally positive experiences of various kinds pull us out of stressful episodes. So they reduce the bad. And also emotionally positive experiences motivate us toward the good, that’s useful right there.”

—Dr. Rick Hanson

Neuroscience and psychology don’t only show that positive thoughts and feelings improve our mental health. Though loving states of mind are effective treatments for mental pain and self-centeredness, the science of mind also seems to validate something deeper: that love is, in fact, an inherent part of our natural state, what psychologists call our resting state. Dr. Hanson shared his thoughts with us on this inherent natural goodness that science itself is starting to validate:

“And if you think of that wellbeing in three elements related to the meeting of those three needs: safety, a sense of peacefulness satisfaction, a sense of contentment and connection in the creature’s way, that is a sense of love. That is our biological resting state. When animals have an enoughness in the meeting of their fundamental needs, as they experience it, when they experience that enoughness, they return to that resting state because, due to very hardcore biological evolutionary processes, this helps animals pass on genes that pass on genes.

So in a purely biological sense, our resting state is indeed characterized by peacefulness contentment and love.”

—Dr. Rick Hanson

Isn’t it an amazing thought that love may be innate not only to us, but to all living creatures. That when we’re not stressed and overwhelmed, we naturally settle back into a contented open-heartedness. That love is our resting state.

So if such loving contentedness is at our core, how do we return to our natural resting state of love?

The techniques of Buddhist meditation say that the path toward this sustained, natural sense of happiness is to move away from the more biased forms of love that are wrapped up with ego and attachment and direct our affection and warmth outward to wishing a state of happiness for all beings; not just for ourselves, our family, our close friends, and those who share our beliefs. But to expand our love to everyone, if only through a quiet internal wish for the happiness of all; that’s the beginning of a path to our own deep, sustainable happiness.

Geshe Namdak elaborated on the benefits of cultivating this natural goodness that may lie dormant within us all:

“If you have that state of mind, it’s a very constructive mind. Right? That wish is very precious. So if you wish that, also then automatically we will act in a much better way in relation to others. That’s because whatever we do physically or verbally is always a mental intention proceeding that activity.

So if you think in that way, then automatically our physical and verbal behaviors will be motivated in a similar way. And that brings a very constructive way forward in our relationships in family life, as well as social and global levels.”

—Geshe Tenzin Namdak

We’ve mostly talked about our family and strangers so far. But in Buddhism there’s also a great emphasis on the way that selfless love manifests between a teacher and a student. In Buddhism they’re usually talking about the relationship between a spiritual student and teacher. But I think all of us who have had great teachers in our lives appreciate not just the knowledge they shared with us, but also the example of their kindness and patience and generosity, the gift of our teacher’s attention and wisdom that wasn’t demanded by a family relationship.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche talked about this love that we feel from our most compassionate teachers:

“That was always what I felt from my own teacher. He’s always there, you know, for my, growth. Always I felt. And I was able to trust that.”

—Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Dr. Jan Willis also praised this selfless love between teacher and student when she talked about the wounds that she overcame from a childhood filled with the pain of systemic racism, when society wasn’t giving her love as a Black woman.

Dr. Willis said that she took the experience of love she received from her teacher, Lama Yeshe, and realized that she could develop her own innate sense of love on that basis. She talks about the greatest gift that we get from our teachers, whether we learn from them face-to-face or through books, is that they ultimately instill in us an unshakeable love for ourselves:

“I know the great fortune I had. I gained confidence that we all have it. We each have this goodness, we have these capabilities.

So I think it takes love to bring it out. But it doesn’t necessarily take love from someone else. I think what a lot of us need is to put down guilt and insecurity and love ourselves, but just allowing ourselves, I think, space to tend to our own wounds.”

—Dr. Jan Willis

In Buddhism they say that love and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both to thrive in life, metaphorically, like the bird needs two wings to fly. Love has a basis in neuroscience and psychological reality, but it also has a basis in physical reality, in interdependence as it manifests even down to the level of quantum physics.

Dr. Jay Garfield spoke eloquently on how, as we understand reality more deeply, love naturally emerges from the wisdom understanding the interdependence of all beings and all phenomena:

“Here’s a way to put it: thinking about emptiness and interdependence is an antidote to thinking about yourself as a self-subsistent object, an independent object that stands over and against the world, to think of yourself as subject, everything else and everybody else as your object of knowledge.”

—Dr. Jay Garfield

So the principle of interdependence, or emptiness, is actually a foundation to understanding that attitudes of separateness and selfishness aren’t just harmful, but illogical. Separateness and selfishness don’t make sense when we inquire into the nature of reality and find everything to be dependent upon everything else, everything interdependent at physical, mental, cultural, and social levels.

We talked earlier about the step-by-step logical process of expanding our heart through the Four Immeasurables of equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion, and joy. Dr. Garfield eloquently connected such daily meditation practices with the benefits of an interdependent view of reality as a source of sanity and healthy morality:

“What’s common to those states is the de-centering of the self; that I don’t think of myself as special. I’ve got a sense of interdependence with others. That enables a healthy moral experience. That’s blocked by seeing ourselves as selves. And it’s enabled by understanding that we’re empty of self.

And so to me, the reason for thinking hard about emptiness, thinking hard about our own emptiness, to thinking that emptiness is interdependence. It’s not like interdependent. It’s not a cause of interdependence. It is interdependence. That when we think that our very nature is interdependence, if we can get rid of the fetish of independence and replace it with the realistic view of interdependence, we get a much saner understanding of the moral landscape.

And with any luck we can become more effective moral agents by seeing the world that way.”

—Dr. Jay Garfield

When we see that our very nature is interdependence, it becomes impossible not to have care and concern for everyone and everything around us. That’s how emptiness and morality relate to each other when you contemplate them in meditation. We realize that they aren’t separate things.

This is where it gets exciting to understand the full scope of meditation’s benefits. Like we’ve talked about in many episodes, there are both calming and analytical types of meditation. The calming types of meditation are focused more on relaxing and calming and stabilizing the mind, working as treatments for stress and anxiety.

Then, once our mind is more focused and calmer, we are able to go further with analytical meditations on loving-kindness and wisdom, to expand our hearts and our moral sphere. Venerable Kathleen McDonald talked about the benefits of coloring our stabilizing meditation with a loving motivation when we interviewed her last year:

“Having the motivation to be more relaxed, more peaceful, healthier, take care of health problems; I mean, that’s not a bad motivation. But a motivation that’s involved with the ego and material gain, fame, and that kind of thing, that’s not the right motivation. Ideally, the motivation for meditation in Buddhism is wanting to change our mind, improve our mind, and be helpful to others, benefit others, benefit the world as much as we can.”

—Ven. Kathleen McDonald (Sangye Khadro)

According to Ven. Kathleen McDonald, it’s the motivation behind our meditation that determines the power it has on us. And a motivation of wanting to help others, to benefit the world as much as we can, is one that ultimately helps us as meditators to achieve true happiness and the deep connections with others that we all crave.

The word for meditation in Tibetan is gom, and it means simply to familiarize the mind. That’s why we meditate as a daily habit and not just as an occasional treatment for mental pain. Daily meditation reinforces our positive states of mind and gradually let the negative ones fade away.

This idea of the changeability of the mind isn’t just a Buddhist belief, but has a neuroscientific basis in the concept of neuroplasticity. Dr. Rick Hanson talks about how this works in our brains:

“All learning involves a physical change in the hardware. Otherwise, there’s no learning by definition, right? We have to change the brain in the process. And you can help your brain change for the better by staying with an experience for a breath or longer, feeling it in your body, and focusing on what feels rewarding about it.

And so we turn to the good, and then we take in the good. This is where positive neuroplasticity comes in. This is where learning comes in. We want to learn in the broadest sense, especially social, emotional somatic, motivational, spiritual learning. We want to learn from our beneficial experiences.”

—Dr. Rick Hanson

It’s worth a reminder here, again, though, that meditation isn’t just a solitary inner personal experience of self-improvement through neural conditioning. To be effective, our kindness and affection and wish for others’ happiness needs to extend not only to family and friends and co-workers, but even to strangers and enemies.

This isn’t easy. Dr. Jan Willis talked about the challenges she faced as she tried to open her heart up to the racists and the violent extremists who she encountered in her life:

“You can’t say, I want to take everyone to enlightenment except this one and this one and this one.

All of this has to happen with love. You know, I marched with King. The best way to transform an enemy is to make them a friend with compassion, with non-harm.

I still think that under no circumstances should hatred be leading the revolution. Besides, it’ll fizzle out. Hatred is not the greatest fuel, not for the long haul. Better to love these folk you’re with and let love fuel the struggle.”

—Dr. Jan Willis

It’s particularly inspiring right now to hear Dr. Willis, who lived through some of the worst racist violence in the civil rights era, talk about how no change in society has been won without love. And how no change in ourself can be won without love.

A few months ago, I watched His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak with the Mexican Actor Eugenio Derbez over Zoom. At the end of their conversation, Derbez playfully asked His Holiness if he didn’t sometimes wish that he could experience romantic love.

The Dalai Lama answered that question by saying how

“…that meaning of love is very much mixed with attachment, such as sexual love. The best love is loving-kindness towards your enemy. The enemy is considered the best teacher of your practice of loving-kindness. This is true unbiased loving-kindness.”

—His Holiness The Dalai Lama

He went on then to say that,

“Usually, people have some anger or discomfort toward some people. Now, toward that person you especially try to develop loving-kindness. Then gradually you develop genuine altruism without attachment. That is genuine kindness, genuine altruism.

So, therefore the enemy that creates trouble for you is the best teacher.”

—His Holiness The Dalai Lama
What did the Dalai Lama say when someone asked him whether he ever wished he could experience romantic love?

I’ve been thinking about His Holiness’ words a lot lately, as I’ve witnessed events and encountered people that make me angry; how The Dalai Lama said that the deepest, truest form of love is love for our enemies.

I’m sure you know some people who consider Valentine’s Day a kind of enemy, people who complain that Valentine’s Day is a consumerist ploy and that we shouldn’t single out one day to treat our partner specially. I used to think of these friends as spoil sports. I always thought it was fun to give flowers and make creative gifts and share a wonderful meal with my partner, if I was lucky enough to have one on Valentine’s Day.

But from this Buddhist point of view, I think my grouchy friends may be right. And Buddhism takes their thought one step further: not only should every day be like Valentine’s Day, but everyone should be our valentine!

So with that thought, we especially offer our hearts to those of you out there who are lonely, cooped up in your apartments, missing the presence and touch of other human beings. May we each find the boundless love within ourselves that encompasses our partner, our family, our friends, and even strangers and enemies.

Thanks for joining us in this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. We’d love to hear what you think of it. If you have a moment, you can share your thoughts on Instagram or Facebook or on our website or our private meditation community that everyone is welcome to join at skepticspath.org.

Our podcast and all our materials are free and ad free, and donations like yours keep us going. So if you have been enjoying our episodes, we are grateful for donations of any size.

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Thanks, as always, to my partner and producer in A Skeptic’s Path, Stephen Butler. We both wish you a wonderful day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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