Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Universal love

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Various traditions around the world have advocated cultivating universal love. Buddhist texts such as the Mettā Sutta say that nothing is more noble in this world than loving all beings as a mother loves her only son. The Chinese philosopher Mozi says that one should love every older person as one loves one’s own father, and every younger person as one loves one’s younger brother, and every country as one loves one’s own. Various theistic religions say that one should try to love as God loves: without favorites and without conditions and without expectations of reciprocity.

On more than one occasion when I have advocated some version of universal and unconditional love, I have been challenged. Some say it is not desirable for a human being to have such love. Others say it is impossible for a human being to love everyone unconditionally and equally. In what follows I shall explore whether universal live is desirable; and, if it is desirable, whether it is possible; and finally, even if it is not possible, whether there is a point in striving anyway for unreachable goals.

Is universal love desirable?

The argument that universal unconditional love is not desirable goes something like this. Love entails forgiveness; unconditional love entails accepting people and other living beings just as they are, with no expectation that they be otherwise. But some actions are so heinous that they should never be forgiven, nor should the people who have committed them. To accept a serial rapist or a sadistic torturer or a genocidal tyrant would be monstrous and contrary to everything we normally mean by love.

The objection just stated seems to rest on a confusion between forgiving persons and forgiving actions. One can easily forgive a person without forgiving or condoning every action the person has done. Parents do this sort of thing all the time when they lovingly remonstrate with their child. Quakers have a tradition of what they call spirit-led eldering, which amounts to lovingly helping a person get over an obstacle to realizing his potential of being the best person he is capable of being. It is based on the recognition that no one ever completely outgrows the need for benevolent parenting. In Buddhism, the obligations of a mentor and a disciple are exactly the same; each undertakes to help the other follow the Buddhist precepts, and each remonstrates with the other when behavior falls short of the ideal. To accept rape, torture or genocide would be monstrous. But to fail to provide loving help to someone whose circumstances have led him to such conduct is no less monstrous.

Another objection to the very idea of universal love is that loving every living being would diminish one’s love for parents, siblings and offspring. This objection is apparently based on the assumption that everyone has only so much love to give, and if one gives it out to everyone, then no one will receive as much as if she were the sole object of the lover’s love. As everyone who has ever loved knows, however, that assumption is false. Love has the mysterious feature that the more of it one gives, the more one has to give. The experience of those who cultivate universal love is that their love for friends and family actually increases rather than diminishing.

Is it possible to love everyone?

Some people argue that it is impossible to give unconditional love to everyone and that it is certainly impossible to love everyone as a mother loves her only child. Some make this claim because they have tried and failed. Others offer a priori arguments. One such argument is that only God can love everyone and that human beings who try to do what only God can do are falling victim to the sin of pride, or, at best, are sure to be disappointed as a result of failing to do what they set out to do. Yet another argument is that it is impossible to love what one does not know, and since it is impossible to know every living being, it is impossible to love them.

Of those arguments, the a priori claims are of course the least compelling. Not much is gained by making untestable claims about the nature of God. It is true that setting out to do something that turns out to be impossible can lead to a kind of disappointment, and, if one lets oneself indulge in self-deprecation. one might even suffer a blow to one’s self-esteem. The claim that there are more beings than one can possibly know is, of course, beyond question. It is not, however, required to know someone to have love for them. Having love of the sort advocated here is a readiness to be open and receptive to whomever one does happen to encounter.

The most persuasive of the arguments is the one based on experience. As someone who fails daily to cultivate unconditional love for all living beings, I am ready to concede that loving everyone equally and without preconditions is beyond my capacity. In effect, it is impossible for me to do.

Is there any point in striving for unattainable goals?

In mathematics there is the useful concept of an asymptote—a limit that can never be reached but toward which some function tends. I see the Buddhist concept of nirvana as something analogous to an asymptote. Nirvana is defined as the complete eradication of all negative and counterproductive psychological traits. I doubt that anyone has ever attained such a state. At the same time, I see it as the right direction to be heading. I had rather be reducing the number of counterproductive traits rather than to be increasing them or being content to stay forever at the stage of progress I have made so far. Similarly, universal love is an asymptotic goal. I had rather be increasing the number of beings I love and improving the quality of the love I can offer them than to be reducing the number of beings I love or loving them with an ever more inferior kind of love. In short, the theoretical or practical impossibility of reaching a goal does not make the goal any less worthy of pursuit.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 11:34

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