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.