1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Is Universal Love a Myth?

By January 10, 2013

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In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha tells us to extend loving-kindness (metta) to all beings:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

However, Stephen Asma (a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago) writes that universal love is an unobtainable goal, even a myth. I'm not going to quote the whole article here (although I encourage you to read it), but it boils down to our physiology and the limitations of our limbic systems. Loving everyone would overload our emotional circuits and, anyway, we as individuals cannot go dashing around responding to everyone on the planet who needs help. We'd wear ourselves out.

I don't know if this is the same Stephen Asma who wrote a spectacularly awful book about Buddhism that I panned awhile back, but I do want to respond seriously to this opinion piece, because it's an argument I've heard before.

First, let's define terms. What do we mean by "love"? English suffers a bit, I think, by having just one word for a complex of phenomena that other languages break apart and assign to several words. The ancient Greeks, for example, used eros for sensual love, philia for friendships or family love, and agape to describe a feeling of general good will to everyone.

In Buddhism, we're often talking about either karuna, compassion, or metta, loving kindness. The Theravadin teacher Acharya Buddharakkhita wrote of metta,

"The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others (parahita-parasukha-kamana). Essentially metta is an altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest. Through metta one refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind, developing instead a mind of friendliness, accommodativeness and benevolence which seeks the well-being and happiness of others. True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love."

Metta doesn't seem to be the kind of love that would overload our limbic systems. We can handle it.

We might also mention citta here. Citta came up in the recent post on mindfulness of mind. Citta is a Sanskrit-Pali word often translated as "mind" or "heart-mind." Citta is a bit hard for us to wrap our heads around, I think, because it doesn't exactly fit the way we understand "mind." It's a kind of emotive awareness that is not itself emotion. It is not the mind of cognition or conceptualization (vinnana ); nor is it the mind of volition and judgment (manas).

Metta is a function of citta more than an emotion, I think. How that works in the nervous system I do not know.

As far a the imperative to "fix" everything at once goes -- from a Mahayana perspective, the answer is sunyata. Who is the self that dashes about fixing everything? As Walt Whitman said -- I am large. I contain multitudes. The notion that universal love would cause one to, for example, try to buy shoes for every barefoot person on the planet comes from the perspective of an individual, autonomous self and reveals a lack of trust in dharma.

Ultimately, there are no do-gooders; just good-doing. Zen teacher Geoffrey Shugen Arnold said,

The experience of no shell, no personal self, no attachment to the idea of "I am" is the beginning of the emergence of compassion. Why? Because when the self has been forgotten, who we really are is now free, a being that inherently possesses wisdom, whose life purpose is to serve, to be generous. Zen Master Hakuin described that emergence from self-clinging towards selfless compassion, "From the sea of effortlessness, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth." Compassion no longer requires effort. It's not you doing the right thing, helping someone out who's disadvantaged. You're no longer attached to the sense of self and other. From the sea of effortlessness, there's just effortless response. And from that place he says, "let your great uncaused compassion shine forth." This compassion is uncaused because there's no self present. True compassion shines forth like the rays of the sun, without conscious effort or any sense of doing; the sun just radiates light and warmth, a bodhisattva simply serves others.

Thinking that "small I" alone must rush to everyone's aid would make me very self-centered. Buddhism teaches that genuine compassion is rooted in wisdom, meaning realization of not-self. Likewise, genuine wisdom is rooted in compassion. You can't have one without the other.

Karuna, compassion, is the activity of responding to suffering. The Bodhisattva of Compassion has infinite hands and eyes and manifests where she is needed, through various means. When I say that, I don't mean that some 50-foot goddess manifests out of thin air and miraculously takes care of things. I'm saying that whoever responds selflessly to the suffering of others is the hand of the bodhisattva. There are hands all over the world already.

A Zen teacher once said, "Take care of what's in front of you." That's our task. If everyone did that, much of the suffering of the world would disappear. What's in front of you is everything; the person everything is in front of is everyone.

Comments
January 11, 2013 at 5:58 am
(1) Michael says:

Great post, Barbara.

I must admit I am growing increasingly irritated with members of the New Atheist movement who feel they are qualified to write on Buddhism (I’m looking at you, Stephen Batchelor, Sam Harris and Stephen Asma).

They truly are the successors to the 19th century Orientalists who dismissed the Dharma as all suffering, self-annihilation and Shamanism.

I really do feel like punching people who keep trying to tell me that what the Buddha really taught is none other than scientific materialism. But perhaps that would make Stephen Asma’s point for him :o )

Writers ike Asma, Harris and co. are born contrarians and iconoclasts. Unable to understand the teachings themselves ( or, rather, unwilling to step outside their preconceived ideas), they assert that it must therefore be impossible.

January 11, 2013 at 9:30 am
(2) CL says:

“Take care of what’s in front of you.”

indeed

upon seeing the destitute or homeless in front of us, we might feel sad or ashamed and we might wish for them to have things of comfort, but I am learning in the great path of the Mahayana that to manipulate this feeling-force, thus generating the wish that all beings also develop this wish rather than focus on wishing myself or others to have more ‘things’ as the goal. This is truly a safety net even in the perpetually unsafe threefold world.

cl

January 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm
(3) Mila says:

“A Zen teacher once said, ‘Take care of what’s in front of you.’ That’s our task. If everyone did that, much of the suffering of the world would disappear. What’s in front of you is everything; the person everything is in front of is everyone.”

Yes indeed! And brings to mind Padmasambhava’s council re: the Two Truths:

“My view is as vast as the sky; but my conduct (respect for the cause and effect of actions) is finer than the grains of flour.”

So for instance I can practice the Four Immeasurables (equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion, joy) as an aspect of “cultivating the view” — rooted in the Absolute Truth of emptiness and no-self. But how this translates into day-to-day actions in the “relative world” is something that can’t be known ahead of time: “skillful action” has many different faces ….

Cultivating wisdom — the Absolute view — helps to undermine fundamentalist tendencies. But clinging to the Absolute view (as a kind of object) can lead to all variety of “spiritual bypassing” — i.e. avoidance of actual intimacy with all that is arising within the so-called “relative world.”

So …. I do my best to cultivate wisdom AND to “Take care of what’s in front of me.”

January 12, 2013 at 2:23 pm
(4) Mila says:

I felt that the Stephen Asma article, linked to here, covered lots of interesting ground. What caught my attention, in particular, was the issue of “affective communities”: our tendency as humans to form groups — families, clubs, cultures, sanghas — and then express preferential affection toward the members of our own tribe.

Is such devotion, loyalty and commitment a positive virtue, which we should cultivate? Is it necessary for our survival (and hence perhaps hard-wired into our nervous systems)? Or are such seemingly-personal biases simply a symptom of ignorance?

In this short talk, Advaita teacher Mooji relays the story of his own teacher, who once said: “I have no friends, and I don’t want any” — for precisely the reason that so often there is the expectation, in friendship, to acti in ways other than what is in alignment with deepest Truth. There’s a belief, somehow, that “true intimacy” is necessarily “personal.” But Mooji suggests that actually that deepest intimacy — while not excluding apparent “persons” — is actually wholly impersonal.

Is devotion, loyalty and commitment to anything other than Absolute Truth ever useful? What role, if any, does devotion and loyalty to friends, family members or sangha-siblings play, in walking, with utmost sincerity, a spiritual path? Is “preferential treatment” ever justified? Why or why not?

January 14, 2013 at 4:51 am
(5) Hein says:

Some reflections:
Barbara: Metta doesn’t seem to be the kind of love that would overload our limbic systems. We can handle it. and Metta is a function of citta more than an emotion, I think. How that works in the nervous system I do not know.
Love (in any forms/terms even the Greek refers to it) involve or perhaps require feelings and from the Heart Sutra we know that feelings are empty. So this love does not stand on its own and would be part of our feelings. So if we do not feel love, then we would have no basis to act out of love. The whole practice of metta, although it might also involve your feelings, goes further and involve your being. Thus one does not feel metta, but is being metta and therefore whatever you do is good-doing. And without feeling or thinking about it one will simply “Take care of what’s in front of you”.
Michael: Agreed wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Scientific materialism is just another conditioning that leads to suffering. To the modern western mind it is so subtle that some might not even notice it.

January 14, 2013 at 4:51 am
(6) Hein says:

Mila: Is devotion, loyalty and commitment to anything other than Absolute Truth ever useful? What role, if any, does devotion and loyalty to friends, family members or sangha-siblings play, in walking, with utmost sincerity, a spiritual path? Is “preferential treatment” ever justified? Why or why not?
Very interesting questions. Sometimes “having no friends and not wanting any” appears an attractive way of life, but “no person is an island”. Another question: if you cannot care for you and yours, how will you be able to care for others? In Chinese Buddhism there are talks stating that the Buddha encouraged filial piety. The specific sutra I have not encountered. On the other hand I suspect that it is rather a remnant from Confucian thought that infiltrated Buddhism in China. The practice of metta, imo, cannot be confined to specifics and encompass everything. The duality of “me”, “mine”, “us”, “ours”, “they” and “theirs” disappear and all that remain is “good-doing”. Very simply :)

January 14, 2013 at 9:33 am
(7) Yuan says:

In Chinese Buddhism there are talks stating that the Buddha encouraged filial piety. The specific sutra I have not encountered. On the other hand I suspect that it is rather a remnant from Confucian thought that infiltrated Buddhism in China.

The Tipitaka (Pali Canon) has the Buddha’s teaching on the debt we owed to our parents and how to repay them. is a collection of 4 discourses from the Buddha about everyman’s ethics, including how to treat our parents.

In Mahayana Buddhism, was translated by master Kuramajiva to Chinese.

Base on these, I would say that teachings of filial piety in Buddhism is not necessary due Confucian influence.

Note: I hope the links work out…

January 14, 2013 at 4:45 pm
(8) Mila says:

“Sometimes “having no friends and not wanting any” appears an attractive way of life, but “no person is an island”.”

Yes indeed …. seems paradoxical. And yet, as Sri Nisargadatta has so beautifully articulated:

When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom
When I look outside and see that I am everything,that is love.
And between these two, my life turns.

It’s the “wisdom and compassion as two wings of a bird” thing :)

“Another question: if you cannot care for you and yours, how will you be able to care for others?”

Yep, on a relative level this is certainly true. We have to “take good care of what’s in front of us” ….. first in very mundane ways, then perhaps starting to perceive the “everything” within something we assumed to be limited ….. so in this sense whatever is “in front of us” is given a kind of “preferential treatment.”

But this still doesn’t really address the issue of whether the feeling we have that certain people (family, friends etc.) are “more important” to us than other people (e.g. strangers or enemies) is a skillful one, in relation to Dharma practice.

I mean, it feels really sweet and wonderful to have, say, close friendships — and to give a kind of preference to those people, in terms of time and energy devoted to those relationships. But how does this jive with the understanding / insight that — within this ever-swirling world of phenomenal appearances — every sentient being has, at some point or another, been my mother? (as well as my father, sister, best friend, worst enemy, prey (my lunch!), predator, etc. etc.)

January 16, 2013 at 12:39 am
(9) Hein says:

Thank you Yuan for the links. They worked out pretty well and a light went up :)

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