On Love

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On Love

by Ajahn Jayasaro

I’ve always liked stories, and particularly stories that require the reader to suffer a little bit and shed a few tears on the way before being resolved with a happy ending. Now the Eightfold Path is my favourite story; enlightenment is the ultimate happy ending. But in the stories that I cherished in my youth, happy endings almost always involved some kind of love, and I began to observe that in “real life” love is not always a guarantee of happiness and it rarely resolves anything for very long. One of the slogans of the day which impressed me the most as a teenager was the one that asked whether you were part of the problem or part of the solution. I think that this is a question we might ask about love. Is it truly part of the solution to our suffering in life or does it merely compound it? My short answer to this question is that it depends. On what? On the kind of love and how you care for it. Even the purest love needs to be constantly cleansed.

Why is it necessary to keep cleansing love? The easy answer is that it tends to get soiled. And the dirt that soils it is suffering and the cause of suffering: craving. Since we human beings do not desire even a shred of suffering and gladly accept every little bit of happiness that comes our way, it makes sense for us to ensure that all the various aspects of our life, including love, be as conducive to happiness and as safe from suffering as possible. Love is a part of life which we need to imbue with wisdom and understanding.

Love tends to get intertwined with other emotions, making those who have never considered it closely mistake the emotions associated with love for a part of, or indeed expressions of, love itself. Usually, for example, rather than considering worries and jealousy to be impurities of love, we take them to be a proof of it, and thus gladly harbour such feelings. We tend to blind ourselves to love’s impurities. It is alarming how easily the defilements (kilesa, i.e., negative mental states such as greed, hatred and delusion), which can destroy love, sneak inside a heart ignorant of the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma). Most people are like the owner of a home with a wide opening instead of a door.

Anyone is free to enter or exit such a house and it is no surprise that thieves abound. It is intelligent to learn about love because knowing and understanding our own nature is the only way to the peace and happiness that we human beings can and should aspire to. The Buddha teaches us that absolutely everything on this earth can be a problem for those without wisdom, but is not a problem for those with wisdom. So it is with love. When our wisdom has developed sufficiently, then we can abandon sadness and practice the joyful side of Dhamma so that love will do no harm and instead be the engine that propels our lives to real happiness.

In learning about love, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves: What is love?

What are the advantages and drawbacks of love?

How does love arise? How is love sustained?

How does love decay and end? What are the impurities of love? What preserves and purifies love? How should we behave with respect to love so as to maximize happiness and minimize pain?

The first challenge in answering these questions is one of semantics. The meaning of the word “love” is rather imprecise because the term is used to describe many different types of attachment. Sometimes we exclaim that we love something when we mean that we like it a lot, e.g., we love swimming, we love seafood, we love such and such a movie. As this meaning of love is not relevant to my discussion, I won’t mention it again.

Another type of love is the devotion to intangibles, to beliefs or ideals, loving one’s country or one’s religion for example. The attachment to an ideal can be so intense that people are willing to kill or die for it. This kind of feeling is valued because it gives meaning and purpose to our lives and relieves for a while the drag of petty concerns. But it also robs us of discernment and we need to refine this type of love carefully with wisdom to avoid becoming a victim or a pawn of skillful manipulators. In a conflict, if we are convinced we are good, right, pure and the other side is evil, wrong, impure, we have lost our way. People who are utterly convinced they are right are already on the wrong track. Thinking in terms of us vs. them, white vs. black, good vs. evil, is like a disease that has caused untold suffering in the world. Empathy, the antidote to this childish way of looking at things, does not, as is sometimes thought, cripple action but makes it more intelligent.

Demonizing others, or simply refusing to cede them their humanity, leads to cruel, intemperate actions that eventually rebound on the perpetrators. Self-righteousness is a form of intoxication. Seeking to understand people and situations leads to measured responses.

When someone tries to persuade us to hate or look down on those with viewpoints different from our own, that person is not being a “good friend” (kalyanamitta). He or she is acting as a “bad friend” (papamitta), one who leads us in unwholesome directions. Once we adopt a way of thinking or philosophy, we should check its rightness with the power of Dhamma. Does it, for example, seem as reasonable when our mind has been calmed through meditation as it does when our mind is inflamed?

This second type of love is worth investigating because it has implications for social stability and peace. But here, I mean to stress the analysis of the third type of love which is personal love: love for parents, siblings, relatives, friends, spouses, children, and grandchildren. And finally, the fourth type of love, which is lovingkindness (metta).

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Find more mindfulness exercises related to loving kindness, compassion, and heart practices here.

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