Introduction

The inspiration behind this book is the relationship I had with two people I became close to during the years I lived in Sri Lanka, Venerable Hinatinna Dhammaloka and Godwin Samararatne. Apart from the fact that the first of these individuals was a monastic and the second a lay person, both were remarkably similar in many ways. On first meeting them, it would have been easy to dismiss them as bland, uninteresting and slightly out-of-touch individuals. But on getting to know them better, observing how they behaved and listening to what they had to say, it soon became apparent that there was something very special about them. They were both smiling and kindly, softly-spoken, gentle and unassuming, and not just sometimes but seemingly all the time. In the years I knew them, I never heard either of them ever say anything unkind or disparaging to or about anyone. I never saw them being abrupt, haughty or impatient with anyone. And I never saw them flustered by anything that happened to them or around them. They acted and spoke lovingly towards everyone, and even when alone or when doing nothing they seemed to radiate an aura of love. It was only after I got to know Dhammaloka and Godwin that words like selflessness, detachment, kindness and love seemed to describe things that really existed rather than being just praiseworthy but remote concepts.

As a young man, Dhammaloka had been a social activist working amongst Sri Lanka’s rural poor. But by the time I knew him, he was already old and frail. He would sit all day with his eyes closed and a benign smile on his face. When someone came to see him he would greet them and engage in brief small talk before inquiring about the purpose of their visit, but without ever bothering to open his eyes to see who it was. Thinking that this was a little discourteous, I once asked him why he did it. He replied gently: “Does it matter who they are? Shouldn’t we treat everyone the same? The eye only sees the surface. It’s the heart that sees the inside. That’s what counts.”

In the months before his death, Dhammaloka became incapacitated and had to be looked after by the young monks in his monastery, some of whom found this rather irksome. On one occasion when another monk and I were taking him to the bathroom, the other monk caught my eye, pulled a face and made a mocking gesture towards the old man behind his back. By the time Dhammaloka emerged from the bathroom I had to help him back to his bed by myself, the other monk having gone to do something else. As I was doing so he leaned close to me and whispered: “They think I don’t know. I do know but I don’t mind.” Then he gave a chuckle. Godwin Samararatne a spent most of his life as a librarian. [1]

Since his youth he had been interested in Buddhism and by the early 1970s had started to become known to his friends and acquaintances as an unusually serene and meditative person. Being santa danta, calm and controlled, is highly regarded in Sri Lankan society and Godwin was noticeably both. By the late ’70s he had begun leading meditation classes, firstly for a small group of friends, then for larger numbers of people, and eventually in a meditation centre outside Kandy, the hill capital of Sri Lanka. By the time he died in 2000, he had become one of Sri Lanka’s best-known and esteemed meditation teachers.

Godwin was not particularly articulate. He was physically unremarkable and he had no academic or religious qualifications. And yet almost everyone who came into contact with him was affected by his kindness and compassion. He positively radiated a natural, joyful goodwill. The desire to help others free themselves from their emotional distress seemed to be his only ambition, and he possessed an extraordinary ability to do so. The advice he gave, the encouragement he imparted and the comfort he offered went straight to the heart because they came straight from the heart.

Neither Dhammaloka or Godwin were teachers in any formal sense. Apart from anything else, they lacked the flair and eloquence usually associated with being a popular teacher. Neither did they claim any special authority or spiritual realisation. It was what they were that drew people to them. In Dhammaloka’s case, his position as a senior monk required him to give regular sermons, which he did up until a few weeks before his demise. No matter what he was asked to speak about – and in Sri Lanka it is common for the lay people organising sermons to request a particular topic – he would soon turn his talk to the subject of love, compassion and kindness. When someone would ask him to teach them insight meditation he would demur, saying that he did not have enough experience to explain it or act as a guide to it, although I suspect this was not actually the case. His main interest was encouraging people to practise Loving-kindness Meditation and to be more gentle, kind and considerate.

Being conversant in contemporary psychology and with a good knowledge of Western philosophy, Godwin’s approach to meditation was broader than Dhammaloka’s. It was based on the twin elements of mindfulness and love, or what he often characterised as mental clarity and emotional connection. He did not adhere to any particular meditation technique but encouraged each person to cultivate these two qualities using whatever techniques they were already familiar with or whatever suited their personality. But the instruction and advice he gave was not just effective because it was clear, simple and non-dogmatic. People took it to heart because he himself was so obviously mindful and filled with love. His personality gave an authenticity and immediacy to what he taught.

The personalities of Dhammaloka and Godwin inspired this book and some of their insights and ideas are incorporated into it. Some of what I have written has also been influenced by a familiarity with the Buddhist philosophy and meditation, by reading contemporary studies of love, and by my own thoughts and experiences.

Love is not necessarily an easy subject to write about. Studies of the subject by philosophers, psychologists and sociologists usually focus on one or another of its forms, most commonly romantic or conjugal love, and often use the word “love” without making it clear what is meant by it. Popular writing and discourse on the subject characteristically get lost in flood of clichés and ecstatic claims that evoke uplifting feelings but do not necessarily encourage realistic thinking. I have tried to define love in a way that will be recognisable to most people and which encompasses most of the experiences usually thought of as love. I had originally intended to write mainly about universal or brotherly love, what the Buddha called mettā. But it soon became clear that this highest of loves is intimately connected with and perhaps necessarily preceded by other types. It is like pulling a thread out of a tapestry. As it comes it draws out so many other threads with it. Thus I was eventually led to explore six different loves. I could have included other types as well but decided to limit myself to those loves about which the Buddha had something to say or which are relevant to practising Buddhism.

As my reading and reflections proceeded, I soon became aware that a swirl of myths surround love. The most noticeable of these myths is that love is a widely felt and easily evoked experience. It is celebrated endlessly in song and story, it is ardently professed, hailed as the solution to many- sometimes all- human problems. Yet while love is not necessarily rare, it is certainly not as common or as enduring as is generally supposed. The divorce statistics from most developed countries show that between 40 and 55 per cent of marriages end in divorce, many of them acrimonious. And people who stay married do not always still love their spouses. The endless sorry parade of cases that come before family and small claims courts shows that relationships between siblings, in-laws, neighbours and friends are not as enduring as we so blithely suppose. If spousal love, familial love and love of one’s neighbour so often turn sour, then what of universal love? It is a tragic paradox that some of the great individuals who have spoken or written so eloquently and movingly about love have sometimes shown a miserable lack of it in their relationships and their affairs. Martin Luther was able to deliver one of the finest sermons even given on 1 Corinthians 13 while at the same time hating the Jews with a fury almost equal to Adolf Hitler’s. Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of gentle, kindly patience in many people’s minds, was demanding of his wife and sons to the point of cruelty. Our religious institutions place an accepting, forgiving love as the centre of their teaching, and yet they cannot put aside their theological differences and worship the same god in unity.

None of this invalidates the importance of love or diminishes its beauty. But it should cause any thoughtful person to pause and consider that having love and sharing it with others is no easy matter. It takes commitment and effort, self-honesty and perhaps even sometimes considerable self-sacrifice. It is far easier to glorify love than to allow it fill our hearts and guide our thoughts, speech and actions. I have kept this sometimes overlooked truth in mind during my reflections and have tried to speak about love realistically.

The good news is that almost everyone has loved or has tried to love at some time or another. This can be taken as compelling evidence that all of us are capable of love, and perhaps even that it is an innate potential we all possess. Certainly Buddhism would agree with this and add to it, saying that our love can go beyond being projected to a few people to being pervaded to everyone, indeed to all sentient life. The Buddha taught a series of spiritual exercises meant to do exactly this – to strengthen the love we already have, transmute it into a higher love and then make it all-embracing. Three chapters in this book have been devoted to explaining these spiritual exercises.

These reflections are based on the transcripts of a series of talks I gave in Singapore in 2012. While preparing these talks I read a selection of contemporary writings on and studies of love. The ones I found most helpful and which I would recommend to anyone wanting to explore the subject more deeply are Irving Singer’s magisterial three-volume The Nature of Love and his Philosophy of Love, Pitirim Sorokin’s The Ways and Power of Love, Erich Fromm’s perennial classic The Art of Loving, and Simon May’s Love: A History. Robert Sternberg and Michael Barnes’ The Psychology of Love helped me navigate my way through modern research on the subject, and others might find their book helpful too. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s wonderful little study On Kindness is also an insightful read. Of Buddhist authors, I would particularly recommend Nyanaponika’s small but excellent The Four Divine Abidings, several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, most notably Cultivating the Mind of Love and Teachings on Love, and Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-kindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama’s An Open Heart and The Compassionate Life are also essential reading.

Notes

  1. For a short biography of Godwin Samararatne see The Gentle Way of Buddhist Meditation, 2007. [back]