Even offering three hundred bowls of food three times a day does not match the spiritual merit gained in one moment of love.
One of the things that I adore most about Christianity is how love is at its very centre. Jesus summed up his message and teaching in the commandments to love God, to love you neighbour (and he talked a lot about just who your neighbour is) and to love yourself (Matthew 22:36-40), and Paul, the first great leader of the early church, placed love at the very pinnacle of Christian life, even above faith (1 Corinthians 13:13).
I wonder if love’s being so central to Christianity explains why the word is so rarely used by many Buddhist writers writing in English. After all there is a tendency, especially in many of the Buddhist blogs and articles I come across, to want to make clear distinctions between Buddhism, the adopted religion of the writer, and Christianity, often the religion left behind.
But not all Buddhist teachers are shy of the word, and two that come instantly to mind are my own root teacher Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, and another Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn. Thich Nhat Hahn writes: “Do we need to love our teacher? Do we need to love our disciples? Do we need to love our Dharma brothers and sisters in order to succeed in our practice? The answer is, yes.”
But this imperative to love is not just about relations in the Sangha as a means of travelling along the path, it’s also about living in accord with the precepts and thus in harmony with the entire world: “Once love is in your heart you don’t have to do anything, you can practice the mindfulness trainings perfectly, very easily, without any struggle at all.”
Daehaeng Sunim is even more direct and goes even further in her call to love, sounding not a little unlike a certain well-known Galilean teacher from a couple of thousand years ago. “Love each other” she writes, “share each other’s burdens, and share what you have with others. This kind of love is more than enough to take care of everything in the world.”
Too often, to my mind, Buddhist writers stick to the term ‘compassion’, a kind of love-lite. Love is earthy, real, it’s based on flesh and blood and not just a nice notion. “The Buddha’s love and compassion and parents’ love and compassion for their children” Kun Sunim writes, “are both the same fundamental love.” I think there is a reason that in the four immesurables, Brahmavihara, love comes first and is different to compassion.
As loving-kindness it’s there in the Pali, most famously in the Metta Sutta (“Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings”), and in the devotional texts too. The Thich Nhat Hanh quotes in this post, for example, come from his commentary on the Lotus Sutra (from which he thinks the most beautiful sentence is ‘The bodhisattva regards all beings with the eyes of love’), and the link between love and the Pure Land is obvious.
It’s also central to Zen, no matter that you might never be told that. When Daehaeng Sunim first awoke to her own True Nature, for example, she described the experience of Buddha-nature as being “full of love and warmth”, so much so that at first she responded simply by calling it “daddy” (which again puts me in mind of that same Galilean addressing his father on equally intimate terms).
Paul said that all of Christianity can be summed up in one word, love (Galatians 5:14), and it is no surprise that some of the most beautiful things ever said about love came from his pen. Buddhists would, naturally, like to add the idea of wisdom to his summation of the holy life, but only if that is the wisdom of real insight. Mere learning adds nothing:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If you are unfamiliar with this passage then I urge you to look it up at 1 Corinthians verse 1 to 13. There is so much there that anyone from any tradition can learn from about love. But, if you prefer to hear much the same in more Buddhist terminology and from a Buddhist Zen Master, you can’t do much better than this passage here:
Love each other…Throw away stubbornness and arrogance. Let go of greed and desire, disolve attachments and clinging, and free yourself from jelousy and envy. With a compassionate smile, entrust all of these harmful states of mind to your foundation, and let them melt down and become one. This is the love and action of a Bodhisattva.
– Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, ‘No River to Cross’, p.78