Love is complex in our culture, tied up with finding a single person to satisfy our huge list of needs and dreams who we then grant the exclusive gift of our affection. But love from the Buddhist perspective is simpler, free from attachment. Love, or loving-kindness, is wishing others to be happy.
What is love? Love is complex in our culture, tied up with finding a perfect partner, a single true love to satisfy our huge list of needs, dreams, and wishes, who we then grant the exclusive gift of our love, affection, attention, and time.
In romantic relationships, our real-life partner usually falls short of this idealized partner, and we often only realize this after years together, figuring out that they have as many faults, fears and annoying habits as we do.
Today we’re examining a different type of love: the pure, unbiased form of love that’s part of the Mahayana Buddhist path. It’s a form of love that can be practiced alone or with others, that brings your mind to a joyously happy state, which you can then share equally with everyone—including your partner—but also family, friends, strangers, and even enemies.
The definition of romantic love is almost impossible to put into words. When you look it up, like many definitions, words point back to each other. Love is described as an intense romantic attachment; and romance is described as a deep feeling of love.
The Buddhist definition of love is simpler. In the languages of the Buddha’s teachings, the word for love is maitri in Sanskrit or metta in Pali, and simply mean wanting others to be happy.
Romantic love and the biased love we have for friends and family is a kind of love that typically comes with strings attached. I know from my own relationship that there can be a transactional aspect to love, where I expect something—in fact many things—in return for my love.
When I show my partner affection, I expect affection in return. When I give my time and energy to my friends, I expect the same back from them. When we don’t get the love and attention and affection back from those we offer our love, we often stop giving it and seek out partners, family, and friends who reciprocate.
There’s no reason to feel shameful about this. But it’s useful to become aware of our inner expectations for the conditional love we give. And then, if we have the interest, to probe beyond transactional love to a pure form of love that Buddhism calls loving-kindness.
We said that this form of love has strings attached. And that word, attachment, is key. In Buddhism, attachment is one of the three root causes of our mental suffering; not the healthy, psychological attachment of a child to its mother, or of loving partners to each other, but the attachment that externalizes our sense of happiness onto other people and other objects.
Attachment is thinking we can’t be happy unless other people provide the love and affection and attention that we expect from them.
Attachment in Buddhism is seen as a delusion. It’s understood as a mistaken belief that another person can be the cause of our inner happiness. Attachment exaggerates the positive qualities of another person and believes that if we just had that person in our life, their presence and attention and affection would solve our own sense of incompleteness, fill our sadness, make us happy.
If you want to take on the Buddhist psychological model for the working of the mind, then you accept the hypothesis of Buddhist teachings that attachment is a delusion, one of the roots of our constant, unnecessary, mental suffering. And you look with openness and curiosity at this purer form of love.
True love—or maitri, metta—this purer form of love comes with no strings attached. Love, in this simple Buddhist definition, is unselfishly wishing others to be happy; to be delighted to be in their presence; to offer our affection and smiles and hugs and help freely without wanting anything in return.
Someone once asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche the difference between love and attachment. Rinpoche said, “Love is wanting someone to be happy. Attachment is wanting it to be me that makes them happy.”
“Love is wanting someone to be happy. Attachment is wanting it to be me that makes them happy.”—Lama Zopa Rinpoche
This pure form of love, or loving-kindness is wanting happiness for another person, no matter where that happiness comes from. This form of selfless love can be a part of the love between partners. I feel it for my partner in rare moments of nondiscrimination when I’m free from attachment. It comes out when I do things for her that I don’t really want for myself or our family—that I may even think are a waste of time or effort or money—but I do because I know it would make her happy.
I saw this deep form of love in my mother-in-law when she was dying of cancer. With her last words to her husband, she expressed her sincere wish that he should find another loving partner to happily live out his remaining life. She showed that selflessness of wishing her partner to be happy, even if it isn’t her that makes him happy.
Selfless love is, of course, possible in a romantic relationship. But normally our love is deeply intertwined with attachment, which sours our feelings and makes us feel anger, sadness, resentment, and fear when our partner doesn’t meet our fantasy, when they don’t give us what we think we need.
Thinking to an imagined future on our deathbed like my mother-in-law can help soften these selfish feelings. But there’s an even more systematic way to cultivate this state through meditation.
The beauty of unbiased love as a cultivated state, is that it can be conjured systematically through meditation and reflection. And we can do it even while we’re alone. There are thousand-year-old techniques for cultivating love that work through simple, routine, everyday practices that reveal the unending source of happiness that sustains us and that we can then offer freely to everyone around us.
With this form of love, you have equanimity. You’re happy when you are alone, you’re happy when you are with others. You’re happy when you get what you want from your partner and family and friends. And you’re happy when they don’t give you what you want.
Loving-kindness, this unselfish love, is a natural quality that we all have latent inside us. We can cultivate loving-kindness—and even perfect it—as the foundation of a happy, meaningful life.
Love challenges our biased state of mind
Have you ever walked down the street and noticed, as a new stranger comes into view, that you have a strong emotional reaction to them. I’ve often watched my own mind in this way as I walk down the street. I find it puzzling, wondrous, and annoying in equal measures.
One person will walk by and I will think, “That guy looks so kind, I’d love to get to know him.” Then I spot another person, and just by their face, or expression, or something about the way they move, I feel annoyed by them. “What a jerk,” I might even think, without their saying or doing anything to deserve it. I immediately dislike this stranger.
Another person comes by and I feel a strong attraction to them. I want to get close to this person, to feel their affection, to give them mine. And then the next person makes me scared. I want to get away from them as fast as possible, cross to the other side of the street. I’m worried about what they might do to me if they noticed me, or if we became close.
Now is a particularly useful time to examine and challenge our biased states of mind like this. There are scientific and sociological ways of explaining some of these reactions, especially when they relate to the race or gender of the people we encounter, where the impact of culture and media and stories told over generations biases how we feel toward people that look different from ourselves.
But I don’t find that these explanations wholly explain the phenomenon. I find this instantaneous reaction I have to people one of the deeper mysteries of life. I remember this feeling strongly when I first saw my wife. I saw this woman I didn’t know at all and thought, “That’s the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.” Where did that come from?
Or, there were times when I started a new job or project and saw someone in a big group of new people I was going to work with, noticed a man across the room and thought, “I really don’t like that guy.” And that became the start of a yearslong conflict with this person.
A traditional Buddhist explanation of these spontaneous reactions to people is that they’re a sign of our past karma with that person from a previous life; that we unconsciously recall our past deep relationships with strangers—strangers who were formerly our child or lover or enemy—that spark such strong emotional reactions.
Scientists have other explanations. A cultural psychologist says such biases are wholly embedded in the larger patterns of our culture. That we learn them all, mostly unconsciously, from observing the behavior of those around us.
Evolutionary psychologists point to our tribal evolution that biases us toward trusting people who look just like ourselves. If you pay attention, you might notice that the people you feel instantly attracted to often look a lot like you do.
My wife and I are case in point, where people often mistake us for brother and sister.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a partner who looks just like you, who comes from the same cultural, racial, socioeconomic background. And there are great joys in the deep affection between partners who are in love, even when it’s biased and partial.
“In true love, you attain freedom. When you love, you bring freedom to the person you love. If the opposite is true, it is not true love. You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”― Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master and Buddhist monk
Mindfully examining our bias
But it’s honest and courageous, and also just interesting to openly examine the bias in our love. We can first to become aware of our bias through mindfulness, by simply noticing how we react to people, who we share our affection with, from whom we withhold it, who we immediately dislike, who we ignore.
Later, when this podcast is over and you’re out in your daily life, or watching videos of people on the internet or TV, you can try to become aware of your spontaneous reactions. You can even turn the sound off of the news, a movie, or documentary, and watch how your mind reacts to the moving bodies and faces on-screen in the present moment.
It’s an interesting meditation in itself. You can watch your mind go through these surprisingly strong reactions to strangers, who you know nothing about. It can be helpful not just to watch but to label these reactions, in the three main responses of attachment, aversion, or indifference that we have toward each stranger.
And then, though mindfulness, we can also watch our mind as we interact with those closest to us. It can be painful for me to do this, but I try to watch closely what my mind wants and doesn’t want—its attachment and aversion—as I interact through the day with my wife and daughter and friends and colleagues and neighbors.
What I see is that much of what I feel is based on me: what this person does or doesn’t do for me, what I want from them, what they do that annoys me, what I want them to stop doing. What I often experience is that transactional, biased form of love, and not the selfless one.
When I look closely at those feelings of biased love—love with strings attached—I notice that my mind is agitated. They make me feel uneasy and unsatisfied, like I can’t be happy unless that other person does what I want, or stops doing something I don’t want.
We can’t control the world, and we can’t control other people. Yet we can control our mind. And that’s the motivation for cultivating the selfless unconditional love of loving-kindness, wanting someone to be happy without anything in return, letting go of our attachment.
My Buddhist teacher, Venerable René Feusi, recently gave a beautiful teaching on this loving state of mind. I had a beautiful quote from him that I wanted to share on a description of this loving-kindness:
“Within the mind of non-attachment there can be love, which is the wish for other people to be happy. Love is a happy state of mind. The inner state of bliss pervaded by the joy and warmth of love. But you don’t depend on other people. You don’t depend on the object or person you love. Love is giving freely. You radiate love.”
When love is given freely to everyone you encounter—even everyone you can imagine—it becomes an even greater and more beneficial mental state called Great Love, in Sanskrit mahamaitri.
Lama Yeshe used to call this Big Love. Like Venerable Robina said in our interview in the previous episode, Lama Yeshe was very creative with words, and his way of saying Big Love has a homey, welcoming, down-to-earth feeling that I think is less intimidating and more inviting than Great Love sounds.
Where love is the wish for a few of our loved ones to have happiness, Big Love is the wish for all beings without exception to have happiness and the causes of happiness. It transcends romantic love and even selfless love that we sometimes have in a biased way toward those that are close to us.
Big Love is directed toward the vast expanse of all beings everywhere, expanding even beyond human beings to dogs and cats and cows and chickens and even fish and flies and ants.
One basic definition of life is the ability to move toward things that give pleasure and away from those that cause pain. With Great Love, Big Love, we wish even these animals to have whatever simple happiness they can. And for me to be a cause of that happiness.
The Dalai Lama gave a recent online talk where he explained how, when he wakes up in the morning, the very first thing he does is to redouble his commitment to his ideal of universal love, with a beautiful prayer by the Buddhist Saint Shantideva:
For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
So shall I too remain,
To dispel the miseries of the world.
You can how His Holiness’ morning wish is wrapped up with a deep belief and commitment to future lives. And whether or not you believe this is possible, imagine being able to make that commitment: to commit not just this life, but millions and billions of lives, dedicated only to helping others to be happy; to I myself being a cause for their happiness.
That’s the kind of daily reflection on love that ends up being this deep, reliable cause of happiness. You can see it in the Dalai Lama himself. So many world leaders are angry, stressed out, grumpy, and impatient. But not His Holiness. And I feel strongly that this is because he grounds his every thought and action in this universal concern for others: Big Love, Great Love, Universal Love.
“May all beings have happiness and its causes” is a simpler way to say this, the first line of a common Buddhist prayer. You’re saying this at the end of a yoga class when you recite the Hindu mantra, “Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu,” which also means “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.”
“Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu”—Well-known Hindu prayer of unknown origin
May all beings everywhere be happy and free
The benefits of Big Love
There’s a Tibetan Buddhist meditation to cultivate this Big Love, Universal Love, Great Love that we’ll do next week. And there are numerous meditations of this type. I think you’ll find the one we do next week simple and effective.
But a meditation like this is something that actually transforms our mind only when we do it frequently; when we do this simple practice in some form every day.
There are now even scientific studies that show how the areas of the brain associated with empathy and a sense of well-being are enhanced in long-time Buddhist practitioners. We now have empirical validation of the power of meditation to transform our minds.
Such transformation includes a long list of enhanced mental factors in those that meditate on loving-kindness including increased empathy, increased sense of social connection, and decreased bias. There’s a link to an article on these results on this episode’s web page at skepticspath.org.
Once the daily practice takes hold, we’re able to go beyond cultivating love on the cushion, to take this open-hearted way of feeling about others into our daily life: to our family and friends and strangers and then even to our enemies in the world, which is the hardest part.
Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald), the Buddhist nun and author of How to Meditate, says that there are two types of meditation: meditating on an object, and meditating to transform the mind into an object. Meditating on love is this latter type of meditation: mind training or mind transforming meditation.
Meditating on love is generally an enjoyable experience, but there are challenges when you try to extend your love to strangers and enemies.
To encourage ourselves to do the meditation, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the benefits of meditating on love. Now we know now not only from the thousands of years’ experience of Buddhist practitioners, but also from science.
I heard a wonderful talk with Venerable Thubten Chodron yesterday where she talked about these benefits of meditating on loving-kindness. She talked about how meditating on love eventually makes your instantaneous way of engaging with people a mindset of loving-kindness, so that as we engage with any person, friend, stranger, or even enemy, we instinctually start with a mindset of love, sincerely wishing them happiness.
Benefits of Meditating on Love
- By meditating on love, you see all beings in their most positive, beautiful aspect and relate to their kindness.
- By meditating on love, you naturally become the object of other’s love and affection. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that, as they say, “If you want to be loved, make yourself lovable.” We all know people like this, who walk into a room and immediately bring joy to everyone there. We all want to spend more time with warm-hearted loving people like this. And even better is to become one ourselves!
- Meditating on love brings a natural happiness and contentment to your mind, one that’s stable whether you are alone or with others.
- The happy mental state of love is one that promotes actual physical health and long life by reducing stress and increasing positive feelings.
- The balanced, positive energy of love helps you accomplish your worldly and spiritual goals in life, since it’s the basis of all communication skills. Look at those that are the most effective communicators in the world. Many of them have this open-hearted loving-kindness that radiates from their every word and action.
Love isn’t hard
Meditating on love shouldn’t be hard. While certain meditations, like meditating on suffering or death or renunciation, don’t seem attractive on the surface; but we do them because, like exercise, doing them because of the long-term benefit; meditating on love tends to feel good right away. It’s pleasurable and enjoyable, easy to do and even logical.
So, hopefully you’re now excited to actually try the meditation when next week’s episode!
Thanks to Stephen Butler for producing this episode, and his constant collaboration on the writing and ideas of this podcast. And thanks to you all for listening.
We see our listeners growing steadily every week, but we don’t get tons of feedback on why listeners come to us or why you stay with the show.
We’d love to hear feedback about what is helpful from our show, and also what doesn’t work. If you have positive feedback, reviewing us on Apple Podcasts helps other people discover the show, so please do that if you feel like it at the bottom of your Podcast app. And feedback is also welcome on our Facebook page, Twitter account, or at our website skepticspath.org.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Further Reading and Listening
If you’d like to learn more about the Buddhist perspective on love (metta) and compassion (karuna), A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment adapts the traditional teachings of the Buddha (dharma) on sympathetic joy (mudita), equanimity (upeksha), and compassion (karuna) in these other podcast episodes:
For more on our approach to Buddhist philosophy, and other ways we adapt the Buddhist tradition to a modern, secular audience, start with our first episodes: