There are many notions about love in our popular culture that are nothing like those taught by the Buddha. I should start by acknowledging this talk is not a scholarly examination of Buddha’s teachings on love, and is far from complete or comprehensive. It is more of a personal, selective exploration of teachings, ideas and stories about love borrowed from modern as well as ancient sources. My intention is to explore how the Buddha’s teachings on love find expression in the modern world and have relevance for our lives. I have attempted to remain true to the spirit of his teachings as I understand them. Each of you will determine if this approach is helpful for you.
The Dhammapada opens with a series of verses about choices, particularly the importance of carefully choosing our thoughts. The Buddha begins by explaining “with our thoughts we make the world.” He acknowledges we will encounter people that abuse us, even beat us or throw us down and rob us, but what he says next is stunning. He says simply, “Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.”
Why would he say this? The very next verse reveals the secret behind this teaching:
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate,
Only love dispels hate
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
What does this mean for us? The Buddha is implying if we fail to learn to love and to turn our thoughts to love, we will continue to suffer. When hateful feelings arise, the only truly effective way to dispel them is love. But what kind of love is Buddha talking about and how do we find it?
I grew up as an Episcopalian in the Christian tradition. Our Sunday school lessons, prayers and Bible readings were filled with stories of Jesus and his teachings on love. Many of you may know this passage from Matthew 22: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like onto it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Perhaps you have also heard this passage from John 13:
A new command I give you:
Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The Gospels are full of teachings about love and the importance of practicing love in relationships. However, in my years of studying Buddhism, the word love appears less frequently. I was curious about this.
It wasn’t until I reread a book, first published in 1978, while on a trip to Las Vegas that I decided to explore this topic. The book, written by psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, is a modern spiritual classic entitled The Road Less Traveled. From the very first sentence, only 3 words long, it sounds like a Buddhist sutra. The Road Less Traveled begins with these words: “Life is difficult.” Peck identifies this as one of the greatest truths of life. He even references Buddha’s First Noble Truth that “Life is suffering.” The problem is most of us do not fully see or accept this truth. We often behave as if life should be easy and our difficulties and problems are afflictions. What makes life difficult, Peck observes, is that the process of confronting and solving problems is often painful and uncomfortable and requires discipline and the capacity to defer gratification.