The Loss of Love

H. B. Aronson’s book Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism brings together almost every reference to love, compassion, pity, sympathy, empathy and kindness in the Pali Tipitaka and its commentaries. It is a well-researched and thorough book and makes interesting reading in that it unintentionally shows just how deficient the understanding of love is in Theravada. Let us have a look at Aronson’s findings. One of the Buddha’s more significant discourses on love, with important implications for its practical expression, is the Desaka Sutta. [1] In this discourse the Buddha says: ‘Monks, one who protects themselves protects others and one who protects others protects themselves. How does one who protects themselves protect others? By repeated and frequently practicing meditation. And how does one who protects others protect themselves? By patience, harmlessness, love and nurturing care’ (S.V,169). If ever there was a saying of the Buddha more worthy of being elaborated upon and beckoning to have its implications more deeply explored and applied, then surely this would be it. And yet in his commentary on this discourse Buddhaghosa says that protecting others refers to attaining the first three jhanas for oneself. He has nothing else to say on this matter.

As we saw earlier, in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha praises Ananda for practicing ‘love through body’. Again, it is instructive to see how Buddhaghosa understands this phrase. This is his definition of loving actions as translated by Aronson. ‘Loving physical activities are physical activities done with a loving mind…These are prescribed to monks in the text but householders may perform them as well. When monks, motivated by a loving mind, maintain proper conduct, this is called their loving physical activities. When householders go to the reliquary or to the Bodhi Tree for the sake of veneration, go to extend an invitation to the monks, go to meet the monks when they enter the village to collect alms, take their bowl, point out a seat for them, or accompany them and so forth, these are called loving physical activities.’ So we see that the only way Buddhaghosa can suggest for a lay person to express love through the body is to worship an old bone or a tree and of course to serve monks. As for the monks themselves the best way they can express love through the body is to follow the Vinaya meticulously. In the two thousand years of reading the Buddha’s words, contemplating them, analyzing them and elaborating upon them, this is the best Theravada has been able to come up with. It is a very sorry picture indeed and goes a long way to explaining why genuine love and compassion are so uncharacteristic of Theravada.

About half way through Aronson’s book (p.64) he notices that despite the frequent use of the words love and compassion in the material he is studying, that there is no mention of actually doing anything which most people would think of as being benevolent or loving. Struggling to explain this lacuna he says: ‘[I]t can be assumed that the cultivation of these [brahma viharas] would affect the nature and scope of a meditator’s manifest fraternal activity. A practitioner developing concentrated universal love or compassion would be deeply moved to help a wide range of individuals, without exception.’ But can this really be assumed? The commentaries certainly do not assume it, throughout thousands of pages they never mention it, and they don’t even imply it. There are long technical definitions of metta and karuna, complex discussions about what level of absorption they are supposed to give access to and detailed instructions of how to practice metta as a formal meditation. There are numerous references to serving monks, feeding them and worshiping them and stories about devotees who sold their children into slavery so that they could buy gifts for monks. But Aronson can find no place in the more than 4000 pages of the Theravada commentaries where hospitality to strangers, feeding the hungry, protecting widows and orphans, caring for the sick, comforting the grieving or similar things are cites as examples of love or compassion or as the outcome of practicing them.

But this is all from the 5th century CE. Perhaps Theravada theory and practice has moved on a little since then. So let us have a look at Brahmavihara Dhamma, a modern exposition of love and compassion by Mahasi Sayadaw, probably the most famous and influential Theravadin master of the last century. Nowhere throughout his long treaties does the author suggest that acting kindly could help to develop love or compassion and in only two places does he suggest that giving others practical help could be a manifestation of love or compassion. In the first of these he praises a Burmese man he knew of who used to feed stray dogs and in the second, on page 192, he briefly discusses nursing the sick. This however, is followed by a long paragraph where the reader is warned that helping the unfortunate may cause you to worry about them, lose sleep or even to ‘suffer stiffness of the limbs.’ To drive home the message that getting off your meditation cushion to help someone can be detrimental to your mundane and spiritual welfare Mahasi recounts a dramatic incident from real life. I quote: ‘At one time, a medical doctor was said to have suffered from gastric ulcer from being fully occupied in attending the sick which had caused him to miss his regular meals. He died of that stomach disease while still young. Hence karuna, pity or compassion, can prevent one’s own happiness. This is indeed true.’ Such is the measly, calculating selfishness that passes for compassion according to Theravada’s greatest contemporary master. [2]

During a recent teaching tour of Malaysia and Singapore I found 16 books on metta bhavana circulating within the Theravadin community either for sale or for free distribution. None of these books referred to metta as anything beyond radiating kind thoughts or wishes. None of them described metta positively as a force for good but only negatively as an antidote to hatred. All of them referred to the usual standard list of the 11 benefits the mediator will get from doing metta bhavana, while none of them discussed the benefits one could confer on others by being loving towards them. The best of these books, by Venerable Visuddhacara, is thoughtfully written and practical. On the back cover of this book is a quotation from Henry Van Dyke which says: ‘Love is not getting but giving.’ Love is certainly more than just giving, but most people would agree that giving is an important aspect of love. To give one’s time, material things, a helping hand, encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, etc., could all be expressions of a loving heart. However, other than giving kind thoughts Visuddhacara neglects to mention any other type of giving or sharing in his book. Further, like all the other publications, this book has a section discussing the benefits that you get from practicing metta but fails to mention the benefits you can give to others by having metta towards them.

I will discuss one other contemporary publication to illustrate how love is understood in Theravada, the Bhavana Magazine, the organ of the Bhavana Society in the USA. Venerable Henapola Gunaratana, an open, active and spiritually insightful Theravadin monk, directs this society. Ven. Gunaratana has lived in the West for many years, most of his students are Westerners and he could be expected to take a more creative and modern approach to Theravada. The Autumn 2001 issue of the Bhavana Magazine was dedicated to the subject of metta. In the editorial the reader is told that all the articles in this issue will deal with ‘the relationship between sitting and acting, between ourselves and all living beings’. This sounds very promising. As we read on we find that the articles have nice names like ‘Cultivating the Heart’, and ‘The Dance Of Love and Wisdom’ and that there are numerous phrases like ‘embracing others with metta’, ‘relaxing in its radiance’ and ‘making peace with our shortcomings’. This sounds far less promising. In modern Western Theravadin discourse on metta this sort of effuse syrupy language is often a substitute for clear guidance and encouragement to go beyond just sitting to do something practical for those in need, to express metta through acts of kindness or to develop it by reaching out and helping others. And sadly, so it is with the Bhavana Magazine. Despite the promise in the editorial and the claim that ‘metta is not something we do sitting on a cushion in one place, thinking, thinking, thinking’ there is no mention throughout the whole magazine of doing anything apart from this. On page 16 Ven. Gunaratana addresses an open letter to his readers on the subject of the recent terrorist bombing in New York. He says: ‘We request that all out friends and members of the Buddhist community send their loving-friendly thoughts of healing to all who suffer the loss of their friends and relatives and to all who suffer bodily and psychological pain.’ He doesn’t suggest doing anything beyond this, for example, making a donation to the fund set up to help the families of the victims. As is the norm in Theravada, thinking kind thoughts while sitting on a pillow is sufficient. The German theologian Albert Schweitzer said that one of the deficiency of Buddhism is that it teaches only what he called gedanken mitleid, ‘thought compassion’. As far as Theravada is concerned it would be very difficult to disagree with him.


  1. Nyanaponika correctly describes the Desaka Sutta as being ‘hidden like a buried treasure, unknown and unused.’ It is yet another example of an important discourse that has been given no significance in Theravada. For more on love in the Pali Tipitaka see my Like Milk and Water Mixed, Buddhist Reflections on Love. [back]
  2. This book also contains a marvelous example of the Theravadin mania for reductionism. Mahasi succeeds in subdividing compassion into 132 different types while saying absolutely nothing meaningful about any of them; see pp. 201-5. [back]