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Relationships • Romanticism

The Buddhist View of Love

In the Western Romantic tradition, love is viewed an emotion sparked by extraordinary qualities we find in a special person we need to go out into the world to find. In the Eastern tradition, love is first and foremost an emotion we must cultivate in ourselves – and then bring to bear on anyone we meet, however ordinary and undistinguished they might be.

It is no achievement, in the Buddhist world-view, to love someone who is beautiful, accomplished, healthy and acclaimed. This is not love at all, rather a feeling of reflex approbation for what is perfect. Love worthy of the name is a far more arduous and conscious process and its natural targets are weakness, incompleteness and fear. In Pali, the language of the early Buddhist scriptures, love is known as ‘metta’ – and defined as a quality that none of us are born with and that we must make daily efforts to cultivate in ourselves through arduous metta-meditations. 

A illustration of Avalokiteshvara, the Eastern diety.

Sitting in a quiet space, ideally in the presence of a statue of that most loving of all deities, Avalokiteshvara, whose many arms are constantly reaching out to lend assistance to the broken, the frightened and the sick, we must extend our imaginations outwards towards precisely those whom we are naturally inclined not to feel any goodwill for. We must strive to picture with compassion the reasons why they may have acted as they did: what might have inspired their compulsiveness, cruelty or rage. At the start of a training in metta-meditation. We might be asked to remember someone at school we particularly disliked. Further on in our development, we might be directed to contemplate a murderer, a paedophile or a terrorist with love.

Buddhism challenges our moral flabbiness. We can’t wait for loving feelings to surge up inside us. We need to work on becoming loving – just as we might otherwise work on becoming rich, fit or popular. And the journey begins when we can take the brave step of admitting that we don’t – at this point – probably have any clue how to love, not because we are evil or cold, simply because we’ve never been nudged to think that this was something we ever needed to make a concerted effort to learn.

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