Martine & Stephen


Love and compassion are at the heart of Buddhist meditation. It is not only love and compassion for others but equally for ourselves. We need to have love for ourselves in order to be able to have compassion and openness towards others. Love in Buddhism is totally linked with wisdom. They are the two sides of the same coin. Love and compassion by themselves can become mushy and misguided. Wisdom by itself can become dry. Love and wisdom expressed together contribute to a more integrated life.

Understanding the three characteristics - death and change, unreliability and suffering, non-self and emptiness -- is at the root of a creative and skilful love. For example, awareness of death makes us realise how precious and fleeting life is and this gives rise to love for ourselves and others. When I saw my father die and breathe his last breath, then I truly understood what impermanence was. In that instant I realised that I was mortal, as was my family and my friends, and that anyone who was alive would die. This experience had the immediate effect of making life more precious. I had so much more feeling of love and spaciousness for my mother and my sisters, as I knew that they too could die at any moment. Their life rested upon a single breath. I could not take them for granted anymore. This is the paradox of death that it makes you more conscious of life.

To trust that everyone has the potential to change and learn makes us more spacious and supportive, and allows us to let others change in their own way and at their own pace. When I read the beautiful and poetic book of the Irish writer, Christopher Nolan, the love and wisdom of his parents who raised him with great love and creativity struck me. They helped him realise his potential despite his severe disability. Love and wisdom go beyond the appearances and reach out and respond to the potential in all of us.

Suffering awakens in us compassion. We know and recognise that suffering is painful and we want to relieve it. We have empathy. We can feel the suffering of others as our own because we are part of the same life and share the same air. Shantideva, an eight- century monk in India, said that life was like a single body organism. When the foot is hurting, the hand goes out immediately to alleviate the pain not because the pain is felt in the hand but because there is a shared sense of suffering.

Until I became ill while living as a nun in Korea, I had been very healthy and quite disparaging towards people being ill. If someone was ill I would tell him or her not to be weak and to get himself or herself together. Only after I had accepted and recognise the physical dimension of suffering and known it myself could I realise how painful it was. From then on I started to empathise with other in pain. I could reach out to them and be with them in their suffering. This is one of the painful aspects of illness is that only we can feel it, nobody can share this with us. Pain and illness are very isolating. The only thing we can do is be there with the person and respond to his or her suffering with love. We need to accept, to know suffering in order to deal with it appropriately. And this knowledge, this wisdom about suffering will give rise to compassion in your heart and mind.

A compassionate response to suffering has the ability to make us go beyond our own fears and limitations. Once I was hurt deeply by a friend and this made me very careful around him and reluctant to have much to do with him. However when he became very ill, all this disappeared and I just responded to the person in pain and spent a lot of time helping him. The Dalai Lama repeatedly makes the point that all beings are the same insofar as they all want happiness and to be free from suffering. By feeling for each other, you realise that you are not so different and you are not such strangers after all.

Sometimes we feel isolated and alone as if we had no connection to anything or anyone in the whole world. Meditative wisdom makes us look into our experience in this very moment. Breathing is keeping you alive. We are made of breathing. There are no borders or limits in the space around us so we are actually breathing the same air with the people and the animals near us. Their air goes into our lungs and our air goes into their lungs. How could we be more intimate than that with another human being? We are connected to the whole of humanity through the breath. The trees give out oxygen, so we also share the air with them. We are totally interconnected with the whole world.

There is no separate fixed self but there is a relative sense of self. This sense of a relative or conditional self is fully necessary and we are contributing to its healthy state by meditating. This relative self is useful to function in the world. What makes us different is the fact that the conditions, such as memories, upbringing, attributes that form this relative self, are different from someone else. The self only becomes a problem if we take it to be permanent, unchanging and self-produced. Actually modern society accentuates this feeling of isolation as it reinforces individualism. Then we experience emotional difficulties, as we feel lonely and lost. Cultivating wisdom makes us realise that we are irremediably connected through the breath and the food that we eat. We are part of an intricate web of relationship. Everything we feel, think, do is dependent on something else and in turn we are having an influence on everything around us. This is what is called interdependence in Buddhism. Emptiness means that everything is connected and interdependent. Master Dogen expressed this in a poem.

The way of the Buddha
Is to know yourself.
To know yourself
Is to forget yourself.
To forget yourself
Is to be enlightened by all things.

Love is feeling with and feeling for. It is not passive, it is an active quality. It becomes truly creative when it is accompanied by wisdom. You must be careful and reflective when you are responding with love. In Korea, there is this tradition of sharing food, you rarely eat alone as eating is seen as a communal activity. Once I was travelling on a bus and being hungry I had bought some peanuts. I felt I could not eat them on my own and had to share them with somebody. Looking around for the likely recipient, I found a very small boy with his mother. I gave him some nuts and within five minutes it was a disaster. There were nuts all over the place and the boy had to be cleaned. This was what I would call self-serving love: we do something to make us feel good without responding to a certain need. This incident taught me not to forget to bring wisdom to love.

I had a friend once going through a difficult time. I asked her what I could do to help. She asked me to visit her mother who was in an old people home. Before I went, I was full of Buddhist ideas, thinking it would be a great opportunity for me to tell her about death and change, that surely she would benefit from that. However when I met her, it was not one of her good days. She was terribly frightened because she kept seeing huge insects in the room that were not there. Thereafter the main thing I did when visiting was to distract her and remind her of the good things she had enjoyed in her life. To be able to do this I had to get to know her and ask about her life and her interests. Whenever she would become anxious, I would bring the conversation back to cricket or country walks, or jam or pruning roses; no mention of death or change. It was totally inappropriate. What she liked most about me visiting her was that I could sit quietly with her and she found that very restful. Love asks us to be open to the conditions that are present and respond to them wisely.

One of the active elements of love is giving. The Buddha was very clear about giving. He said there were four types of people: the ones who gave only to others, the ones who gave only to themselves, the ones who gave to neither and the people who gave to both themselves and others. He encouraged people to cultivate the fourth option. One essential thing we can give is time to ourselves and to other people. Modern aphorisms say 'time is money', 'there is not time to waste'. You can become quite stingy with 'our time'. We are too busy, we do not have the time. Can we give love and compassion when we are busy? Can we find the time to stop and respond? Once my teacher, Master Kusan was being rushed along. A car had arrived. He was supposed to go to an important meeting in another town. All the administrators were very excited and pressing him to leave in good time. I just happened to pass by and as was the custom bowed to him and wished him a good journey. He stopped to acknowledge my greeting and then asked if a monk, called Popchon, still had the flu. I answered by the affirmative so he turned back and went to his room to get some orange juice to give to monk Popchon. What impressed me is that he did not grasp at the busyness around him but found the space and time to stop, be kind and concerned, and respond in a practical and loving way.

Giving comes more easily than receiving. Receiving is also part of love. When someone gives us praise or is grateful, notice that we often push this away, saying that it was nothing or that we were not good at all. When someone is giving something to us it is important to graciously accept it. However we must be careful about the feeling of indebtedness. We receive something and straight away we are thinking of what we need to give in return. Just give and just receive. Nothing else is needed. Whatever comes next is something else and will engender its own set of giving and receiving circumstances. Giving, receiving, love back and forth, this is enough in itself.

It is easy to have love for people who are down trodden and far away or for cuddly animals or defenceless babies. But we need also to show love towards difficult people, people who might not be nice to you, people who are grumpy and dissatisfied or gloomy. Love is not only responding to people who fit our criteria of being worthy of 'our' love. But it is also helping people who do not fit anywhere, who do not do what they are supposed to do. We have to look beyond what bother us about them, like ourselves they want to be happy, they do not want to suffer. Can we respond to them at a human level? We might not be able to help them practically. Can we give them time and space in our mind, in our life? People who are happy are generally quite easy to be with. People who are suffering, anxious, afraid often are difficult because their life is difficult. Can we remember that when we deal with them? Can we be kind and loving and honour their humaness and their potential.

Love is also rejoicing in someone else's happiness. What do we do when someone comes to give us his or hers piece of good news? Quickly we find faults or drawbacks in what they are pleased about and deflate them. They might wonder if we are truly their friend. Why do we put dampers on someone's happiness? Unconsciously we are afraid that there is only certain amount of happiness in the world. If they get a big piece of the pie, we feel that we are going to get a much smaller piece. But it is not like that at all, actually happiness and joy engender more happiness and joy; it is self-perpetuating. So if we wholeheartedly rejoice with someone else then our happiness will be that greater. We are not losing out, we are gaining.

It is essential to bring equanimity to love. We can feel overwhelm by the suffering of the world. It is too much. How can we deal with it? We have to be careful not to grasp at the pain. We are aware of it, it is sad but we are not indulging in it. Be careful that it does not descend into sympathetic self-pity. Self-pity is a heavy emotion connected to many mental and emotional habits, it is very sticky. This is the challenge and the paradox of love. How can we be fully involved and responding and not coloured and influenced in such a way as to lose ourselves in the circumstances? However terrible the pain and suffering it is not the only conditions of life. Pain and joy and peace can co-exist in our own flow of conditions and in others' flow of conditions.

On the Buddhist path there are four qualities we are encourage to actively cultivate -- loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity. The Buddha himself recognised loving-kindness as an antidote to fear. Some monks who meditated deep in the forest once came to him for advice because they were afraid - of being alone in the forest, afraid of animals, of people, of the dark. The Buddha suggested they practise loving-kindness meditation so that, by opening their heart to the world and seeing it as benign, they would dissolve their fears.

Loving kindness is about benevolence; wishing happiness to ourselves and other people. It requires us to connect with ourselves and to recognise and acknowledge others for what they are. Love is the outward movement from the heart which impels us to break out of narrow self-centredness to open up to the whole world. Loving-kindness reminds us that acceptance is at the root of love. Loving-kindness is about gratitude for life, for our own existence and the existence of others, without whom we would be totally isolated.

The second quality to cultivate is compassion. Compassion means having empathy with our own suffering and the suffering of others. We acknowledge that suffering exists, is painful and can lead to great isolation. Nobody can truly feel the pain of somebody else, but we can try to empathise by stopping and listening to other people's problems, be with their suffering, break through their isolation.

The third quality is sympathetic joy. This is the ability to rejoice at the happiness of others. Instead of assuming that happiness is limited and that another's share of it will take away from our own, we see that rejoicing with other people actually add to our happiness. There is no limit to love, to happiness. Rejoicing with others liberates us from small-mindedness and resentment. By rejoicing in our own happiness, we acknowledge the good things in our life and appreciate them fully. We stop comparing ourselves with others, stop thinking that we do not have enough or that everyone is better off than us.

The last quality to cultivate is equanimity. This balances the first three qualities so we are not overwhelmed by love, compassion or joy. We experience these feelings, but we do not grasp at them, we do not over-react. Like a mirror, we reflect what is present completely, but when that is gone, we also let go completely. We realise we cannot live people's lives for them. We want to help, we feel for them but we cannot change them -- only they can do that. But we can still love them, feel for them, rejoice with them with a calm and clear mind.

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