Images of Love

Love’s endlessly attractive qualities and the intense joy it sometimes brings mean that it will continue to fascinate us for as long as we exist. It has also meant that in our attempts to explain it, describe it, and give it the honour it deserves, we have often resorted to analogies, metaphors and symbols. Sometimes these have revealed hidden levels of meaning in love, at other times they have led us to believe that love is more of the gods than of we earth-bound beings.

With its twice curved top, pointed bottom and blood-red colour, the heart icon is the most widely recognisable symbol of love today. Because we feel some types of love in the solar plexus, many cultures believed that the heart is the physical seat of the emotions, particularly of love. The early Buddhists often linked the heart to various emotional states although they probably meant this only in the metaphorical sense. [1] The Pali word for heart is hadaya and the scriptures speak of having a good heart (suhadaya), a satisfied heart (tuṭṭhahadaya), a calm heart (hadayassa santi), of being tender hearted (muduhadaya), of the heart breaking with sorrow, and of a heart filled with compassion (karuṇāpuṇṇahadaya). [2] Similarly, in English we speak of people being heartless, hearty, big-hearted and of speaking from the heart or in a heartfelt manner. We ask people to “have a heart” when trying to elicit their sympathy and might say of a young man’s girlfriend that she “stole his heart” or that he gave it to her. As in the case of Pali such words and phrases reflect the deeply-held assumption of the strong connection between the heart and love. In Christian iconography Jesus is sometimes depicted with his heart visible and flames or rays of light emanating from it. This is meant to represent Jesus’ love for all humanity.

So strong is the heart-love association that there are situations when a heart symbol alone is no longer adequate to represent the love felt or demonstrated and the actual physical organ is used in its place. In the past patriots who died in exile sometimes willed that their hearts be removed and buried in their homeland, and loving couples arranged for their hearts to be interned together as a gesture of their mutual devotion. In 1963 the monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to draw international attention to the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam and to the escalating war there. Later, when his body was cremated, his heart remained miraculously unburned and was enshrined in a temple where it was regarded as evidence of his bodhisattva-like self-sacrificing love.

Other common symbols of love include the rose, a Mars and Venus sign interlocked and two white doves, and in Chinese culture a pair of mandarin ducks symbolize marital harmony and fidelity.

Rather than using a symbol for love, some cultures personified it or saw it as a deity. The ancient Greeks believed that the goddess Aphrodite was both the embodiment of love as well as its ultimate source. She was said to have two aspects, one associated with erotic love and the other with loving friendship. Of her several offspring the most important were Eros and Anteros. Eros, more widely known today by his Latin name Cupid or Amor, was depicted as an adolescent youth with wings and carrying a bow. When he shot an arrow into a person’s heart, he or she would fall in love with whomever they were looking towards at the time. If that person returned their love this was because they had been shot with one of Anteros’ arrows.

More important to the Greeks than these deities was Eleos, the goddess of compassion. How the Greeks understood the character of Eleos shows that they had a deep regard for nurturing compassion and kindness. The ancient Roman writer Statius said this of Eleos and her altar in Athens: “In the middle of the city is the altar, not to any powerful deity but to the gentle Eleos. The distressed made her seat sacred, she never lacked new supplicants, she condemned none, and never ignored their prayers. All who ask are answered and whether by day or night anyone may approach and win the goddess’ heart. She requires no rituals, no incense and no blood sacrifice, only genuine tears … There is no idol there for she cannot be depicted in metal. Eleos abides only in hearts and minds. The distressed are always near her and the precincts of her altar are always surrounded by those in need, although the rich do not even know where it is.” [3]

The ancient Indians’ equivalent to Aphrodite was the god Kama, who was believed to ignite and to preside over sensual pleasure, sexual desire and erotic love. He was depicted as a virile young man riding on a parrot. He carried a bow made out of a length of sugar cane with its string composed of a line of honey bees. Like Eros, Kama would smite his targets with arrows, each of them tipped with a flower. Perhaps showing more psychological insight than the Greeks, the Indians believed that rather than shooting an arrow into a person’s heart as Eros and Anteros did, Kama would shoot it into their eye. For the ancient Indians it was seeing more than anything else that triggered attraction. Kama’s special day has long been Holi, the festival marking the beginning of Spring. During this festival, young and old alike put aside their usual prudence and indulge in riotous, even ribald, celebration.

Kama occasionally makes an appearance in the Buddhist iconography of India. The pedestals of some Buddha images from India show a despondent figure with a broken or abandoned bow besides him. This is Kama, overcome by the Buddha’s teaching of calm detachment and of a love higher and more fulfilling than the erotic variety. On the panel illustrating the Buddha’s enlightenment at the great temple of Borobudur in Indonesia is an image of Kama with his crown being taken off his head, showing that he is no longer undisputed “ruler of the world”.

Buddhism has long had images of love too. One of the most popular of these in ancient times was Hariti, a goblin rather than a goddess, who represented maternal love. Legend said that she and her husband Pancika lurked in the forests and rocky crags around Rajagaha. They had scores of offspring, their favourite being Pingala. Hariti would snatch unguarded or lone children so she and her brood could devour them. One day the distraught citizens of Rajagaha came to the Buddha begging him to do something about Hariti. Moved by compassion and agreeing to help, he tricked Pingala into following him and then hid him under his alms bowl. Hariti spent a week looking for her beloved son but without success, and in desperation finally came to the Buddha asking for his help. The Buddha asked her why she was so upset and she replied: “How could a mother not be upset when her child goes missing?” The Buddha replied: “What of the mothers of all the children you have eaten? Do not they feel the same pain as you?” Realizing the truth of this, Hariti promised to give up her child-eating habits. To make up for all the pain she had caused others she also promised to do everything in her powers to protect children. Seeing the sincerity of these promises, the Buddha showed Harati where Pangala was concealed. [4]

For centuries Hariti was honoured as the embodiment of maternal love. She was believed to protect children from all kinds of harm, to see that mothers always had sufficient milk to feed their babes, and to ease the pangs of childbirth. She was also believed to protect from smallpox, a disease that children were more likely to die of. Hariti was particularly popular wherever Mahayana prevailed, but shrines to her and images of her have been found in Thailand and Indonesia and she is mentioned in the Theravadin epic, the Mahavamsa. [5]

The worship of Hariti had declined throughout most of the Buddhist world in recent centuries although she is still popular in Nepal and in Japan, where she is known as Kariteimo.

However, the highest love and its various expressions have always been given more attention in Buddhism. From an early period, Buddhists have made a distinction between the Buddha’s enlightenment and that of his disciples. The Buddha was enlightened entirely through his own efforts, without guidance or help from another. Thus his courage and resolve, patience and wisdom must have been developed to a much higher degree than those of his disciples who attained enlightenment with help from the Buddha. So the Buddha has always been called a fully enlightened Buddha (Sammā Sambuddha) while his enlightened disciples are called noble ones (arahat).

The Buddha described the difference between himself and his enlightened disciples like this: “The Tathagata, the noble one, the fully enlightened Buddha is the originator, the producer, the proclaimer of the Path not previously originated, produced or proclaimed. He is the knower, the discoverer of the Path, an expert in it. His disciples live following that Path and arriving at its end after him. This is the distinction, the contrast, the difference between the Tathagata, the noble one, the fully enlightened Buddha and those freed by wisdom.” [6]

As Buddhism developed over the centuries, the distinction between the Buddha and his enlightened disciples was increasingly emphasised, leading eventually to a new movement within Buddhism, the Mahayana. Those who wished to become a fully enlightened Buddha rather than noble one were called bodhisattvas, i.e. “intent on full enlightenment”. According to Mahayana understanding, bodhisattvas have to be prepared to go through innumerable lives in order to perfect themselves by helping others and even, should the need arise, giving their lives out of compassion for others. The stag in the Nighodhamiga Jataka who offered to die in place of the doe and her unborn fawn was actually the Buddha in one of his earlier lives as a bodhisattva. His act of self-giving was but one of many noble deeds that would lead to him becoming fully enlightened in his final life. In Mahayana this idea came to be known as the Bodhisattva Ideal. According to this doctrine, the motive of one’s quest for spiritual perfection, for full enlightenment, should be the benefit of all beings. The seed of this idea was articulated by the Buddha himself. He often said that he did many of the things he did “for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and humans, out of compassion for the world”. [7]

Later Buddhists assumed that there were many beings who had taken the Bodhisattva Vow in the past and were now doing noble deeds that would eventually lead to them becoming fully enlightened Buddhas in the distant future. One who came to be identified and given a name was Avalokitesvara, a name that means “the Lord who looks upon (with compassion)”. Avalokitesvara abides in an ethereal realm from where he does all he can to help others, especially those who are suffering or in fear of their lives. In some ways he resembles the saints Christians pray to for help. His dominant characteristic is compassion and he is sometimes called the bodhisattva of compassion.

In ancient Indian iconography, Avalokitesvara was usually depicted as a beautiful gentle youth, adorned in princely attire, smiling benignly and holding out his hand in a gesture of reassurance. At other times he was depicted standing. When shown like this he sometimes had a stream of soothing ambrosia (amrita) flowing from the finger tips of one hand into the mouth of an ugly and misshapen purgatorial being. [8] This was meant to transmit the idea that compassion extended itself even to those suffering because of their own misdeeds.

In later centuries the symbolism attached to Avalokitesvara became quite elaborate although still very meaningful. Sometimes he was depicted with numerous arms, the palm of each hand with an eye in it. This symbolises the idea that true compassion notices the distress of others and reaches out with a thousand offers of help. When the Chinese embraced Buddhism they gradually transformed Avalokitesvara from a male into a female. Perhaps they thought that the feminine disposition was more indicative of a nurturing mettā and compassion, and that a feminine form was more effective at communicating it.

The Chinese call this bodhisattva Kwan Yin, a direct translation of the Sanskrit name, and refer to Avalokitesvara as “the Goddess of Mercy”. In Vietnamese Avalokitesvara is Kwan Am, in Japanese Kannon, in Tibetan Chenrezi, and in Sinhalese Natha. In Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese iconography, Avalokitesvara is sometimes depicted as a young woman with her head veiled, sitting serenely in a rocky landscape or floating effortlessly over the sea, and looking surprisingly similar to representations of the Virgin Mary. In fact, some Vietnamese Buddhists have told me that the Virgin Mary is actually Avalokitesvara who, out of compassion, appears in the form of Jesus’ mother so as to be more accessible and acceptable to Christians.

Another bodhisattva who has long been popular is Ksitigarbha. He might be thought of as the embodiment of the love of strangers, outsiders, the abandoned, and the lost. He is always shown as a monk with a shaved head carrying a long walking staff. This staff underlines Ksitigarbha’s role in helping those in transition: those going from one place to another, travellers and pilgrims; those moving towards maturity, children; and those going from this life to the next. In this last case Ksitigarbha is often also associated with purgatorial beings. According to most theistic faiths, at death or on the Judgement Day one is scrutinised and, if found wanting, condemned to hell. Once in hell there is no way out; damnation is forever.

Buddhism has no supreme being to judge the dead; each person creates their destiny by the kamma they have made, by their intentional thoughts, speech and actions. Great cruelty or viciousness may well create a purgatorial destiny. However, when one’s negative kamma in purgatory is exhausted, one will pass away and be reborn in another realm, perhaps as a human again. Hell is forever; purgatory is an unpleasant interlude. Nonetheless, as purgatory offers limited opportunities to expunge negative and cultivate positive kamma one might have to endure the distress of that state for a very long time. Such is Ksitigarbha’s mettā that he chooses to descend into purgatory and experience all its torments and suffering in order to teach the Dhamma to the beings there so that they might practise it and shorten their stay there. The Buddhist understanding is that the highest love and compassion never abandons even the most wicked. Mettā does not allow for eternal damnation. It is the love that never turns away from those who have failed to love or those who have never believed in love. [9]

In popular Thai Buddhism there is a story very similar to that about Ksitigarbha and very possibly influenced by it. A Sri Lankan monk named Venerable Maliyadeva (Thai, Phra Malai) developed his meditation to the degree that he manifested the psychic power which allowed him to go to heaven and purgatory. Moved by compassion he descended into the infernal realm to relieve the suffering of the beings there by teaching them the Dhamma. Maliyadeva could not be considered a symbol of love and the legends about him have no scriptural basis. Nevertheless, his story is important because it speaks of the Buddhist conception of what the highest love is like, one markedly different from that which will countenance eternal punishment.

By far the most popular bodhisattva in all schools of Buddhism has always been Metteyya, better known by his Sanskrit name Maitreya. This name means the Loving One and Metteyya is regarded as the symbol, the embodiment and the exemplar of mettā. According to the Buddhist understanding, in some ways the Dhamma is a bit like gravity. Sir Isaac Newton did not invent gravity; he realised that such a phenomenon existed, understood how it functioned, then explained it and gave it a name. Had he never been born there still would have been gravitational pull and someone else would have discovered it at one time or another. If the knowledge of gravity ever comes to be lost, misunderstood or distorted by pseudo-science, someone will eventually re-discover it.

Likewise, the Dhamma has always existed and always will. Someone who realises it and proclaims it to the world is called a Buddha. The Dhamma as we have known it for the last two and a half millennia, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and all their auxiliary doctrines, were realised by the Indian prince Siddhattha Gotama. If in the distant future this Dhamma is forgotten or lost someone will eventually re-discover it. According to Buddhist eschatology this future Buddha will be named Metteyya.

Buddhists believe that the coming of Metteyya will usher in a period in which all people and even animals and people will live in peace and harmony with each other. But that will all unfold in the distant future. In the meantime Metteyya is believed to abide in some realm from where his loving and kindly nature soothes some of the great distress that is so much a part of ordinary existence.

In ancient India Metteyya, like his fellow bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, was portrayed as a beautiful young prince, usually with a stūpa nestled in his crown. The Chinese have always imagined him as being a rotund smiling figure, often known inaccurately to Westerners as the Laughing Buddha. He is sometimes shown with mischievous children climbing over him while he laughs good-naturedly at them. This is a delightful way of suggesting that mettā can sometimes be relaxed, smiling, patient with petty annoyances, and at ease with the world. Traditional Chinese temples usually have a statue of Metteyya just inside their main entrance, his broad smile welcoming everyone who comes.

Most Buddhists believe that Avalokitesvara, Ksitigabha, Mettayya and other bodhisattvas are actual beings, although some prefer to see them as symbols or even personifications of the various aspects and manifestations of love. Perhaps they are both.


  1. It was only at a later period that Buddhist thinkers came to believe that the heart was the physical base (hadayavatthu) of the mind. [back]
  2. A.V,64; Ja.V,310; 343; IV.76). [back]
  3. This is a loose paraphrase based on J. H. Mozley’s 1928 translation of Thebaid, which is in rather archaic English. [back]
  4. Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 21, No. 1262. [back]
  5. Mahavamsa XII,21. Being a popular legend that developed several centuries after the Buddha the Hariti story is not found in the Pali Tipitaka. Consequently the Mahavamsa version of the story attributes her conversion to the monks Sona and Uttara who lived during the time of King Asoka. [back]
  6. The Path, i.e. the Noble Eightfold Path, S.III,66. [back]
  7. A.II,147. [back]
  8. Peta, sometimes incorrectly called hell beings. [back]
  9. In Japan Ksitigarbha is also known as Migawari Jizo, “He Who Takes Upon Himself Our Suffering.” Statues of Ksitigarbha sometimes depict him with scars and wounds, the result of trying to protect purgatorial beings from receiving their just punishment. [back]