This is an age-old question. Yet, we are still confused about it. The problem is that people use the word “love” to mean so many different things. But intuitively, we know that there is such thing as “true love” and “false love,” although we find it difficult to specify the difference. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek said that “If you have reasons to love someone, you don’t love them.”
I agree with Žižek. There is a Buddhist teaching which goes like this: “Great kindness has no conditions; great compassion sees no separateness.” If you need reasons to love someone, then it is a “love” that looks for a return. A “love” that requires reasons is a “love” with strings attached. It is more an exchange, a trade.
If we say that genuine love has no reasons or conditions, then such “love” must be very different from our common sense of love. Let me clarify that “love” is different from “like.” In our daily life, we run into people we like and people we dislike. Like or dislike is based on certain attributes of a person. Many people think that parental love is unconditional. But is it really? What I say about liking or disliking holds true even in a parent-child relationship. If a child has certain features or behaves in a certain way, his parents will like him. If not, they will dislike him. As parents, we are supposed to love our children regardless of everything. In other words, our love for our children does not depend on whether we like what our children is doing. Our love transcends the pleasure principle.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Is this an impossible task? It may seem this way. But let’s reflect on our relationship with our loved ones. Sometimes, we have serious arguments with our parents. Sometimes, our children disobey us and bring us grief. Sometimes, we fight with our spouses or lovers. Very often, our loved ones are the ones who bring us pain and suffering. This is particularly so if we are talking about romantic love. A lover has the ability to break our hearts and give us hell. In a sense, the difference between a loved one and an enemies is very little — both have ways to seriously hurt us, precisely because they are so close to us. Still, despite the difficulties in our relationships, we say that we love our children, our parents and our spouses. Love is not based on the pleasure principle. If love has nothing to do with like or pleasure, then how do we define love? Erich Fromm, author of the book, The Art of Loving, has this to say about love:
“Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision.”
Feelings of like and dislike come and go. They flicker. Erich Fromm is right when he said that love is not a feeling. But by saying that love is a decision, he makes it sound like it is an act of will. He also said, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism.” I think this is a very masculine way of approaching love. I get it that love is very different from ego. But which entity would overcome ego, if not ego itself? In spiritual circles, there is a widespread belief that the practice of spirituality involves “killing the ego.” If we exercise our mindfulness, however, we will discover that “killing the ego” is another mind game. We are back to Square One with that.
So, let me propose a new definition of love, which is based on gentleness and acceptance, not some kind of militant will. It is more based on the Buddhist notion of non-violence and non-attachment:
Love is an enlightened attitude towards life and towards all beings. It is a willingness to accept people and things just as they are, without imposing our will to shape them into the forms we like, and without restricting their freedom. It is also an attitude of kindness, compassion, and non-violence (as opposed to the use of brute force). When we love someone, it is an attitude of good will. We wish to see such person grow, happy, and thrive. We don’t put our will or self-interest above this other person’s well-being. What we call “genuine love” is described by Fromm as “brotherly love.” He said this in his book:
The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbor as thyself.
Note that Fromm said that this is the most fundamental of love and it permeates other kinds of love. This means it is in the love between parent and child, between friends, between spouses, between lovers, etc. It is a love that does not ask for return. It is given freely. The other person does not have to earn it. It is a kind of generosity and graciousness. Love puts the other person’s well-being as our first priority.
What I disagree with Fromm is his notion of erotic love. He thinks that erotic love has to be exclusive and possessive in nature. Yes, there is a human tendency to feel possessive of something beautiful and desirable. But this does not mean that it has to be so. Buddha seldom talked about love. But he taught us an art of living which is based on the principle of non-attachment. If you want to live beautifully and gracefully, then don’t grasp. Paradoxically, genuine love between lovers is of a non-attaching nature. We do not grasp; we relax. We do not feel the necessity to own the other person. Love means allowing the other person room to be free and grow. Osho said, “If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up, it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” This too is an expression of gentleness and non-attachment.
Thich Naht Hanh says that “in true love, you attain freedom.” It seems like a contradiction. But it is not. True love is a form of non-attachment. Such kind of love requires insight and wisdom. You have to exercise your mindfulness and see what your ego is doing to your relationship. When you truly love someone, or when you truly love the world, you don’t impose your own will of how things should be. Rather, it is a form of generosity and gracefulness — it takes genuine love and the mindfulness of ego to not to grab or insist. In this love, there is no fear. You are able to let things be. In so doing, you liberate both yourself and your beloved. In true love, there is freedom for all. Saint Paul said in 1 Corinthians:
“Love is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; it does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth…”
It is clear that the Buddhist and the Christian ways of love are almost identical. Love does not behave rudely and does not seek its own. To impose one’s own will in a love relationship is an act of violence. To try to possess another person or something desirable is an act of violence. It is a form of grasping, and it cannot be done. But life is like water. It cannot be grasped.
To summarize, love is not a feeling. It is not an act of will either. Rather, love is an attitude towards life. It accepts what IS. It does not impose one’s will of how things should be. It accepts the “imperfection”, i.e. our subjective feeling of imperfection, of the world, just as it is. It learns to see the perfection in imperfection, and the truth of impermanence. When we learn to appreciate even the thorns in a rose, we have learned to love. Finally, love is an act of gentleness. It is not the result of the use of brute force or will. If you are mindful, you will see that it is futile to impose your will on the natural way of things. There cannot be genuine love without wisdom and insight. When you see clearly the nature of things, you will relax and let go your grasp. You will then live and love beautifully.