The term mettā is regularly translated as
“benevolence” (or “altruism” recently) just to avoid
the term “love” as the latter is easily associated with sexuality,
passion and possessiveness. And
yet, taking the time to reflect on what is meant by “love” is
more useful than merely avoiding the word. It's not as if it were obvious;
Western philosophy, for example, takes great care to distinguish
“love” from “passion”; Greek philosophers were already
using 4–7 different words for “love” (storgē, philía, érōs, agápē…
as well as ludus, pragma and
For the Buddha, mettā is one of four “immeasurable” qualities (appamaññā, “without limit”). The immeasurables are so called because these qualities can be manifested in connection with any phenomenon in the world, without limit. Moreover, each related act will influence, from one thing into the next, the whole world, without limit.
“Compassion” is another of the four immeasurables, and this discernment helps us to define the terms. “Love” is to favour the happiness of others; “compassion” is to favour the absence of misfortune, of dissatisfaction, of suffering. These definitions therefore echo the dual definition of “right effort” in the eightfold path: to create and increase positive mental phenomena, to reduce and stop unfavorable mental phenomena.
What does “without limit” mean in practical terms? We may love without limit of distance, e.g. without putting ourselves at the center: the classic but ignorant “out of sight, out of mind” means above all “out of my sight, out of my mind”… We may love without limit of means: even the smallest gesture, or the simplest, is significant, and it would be counter-productive to wait for an oppotunity to give “perfect” love before manifesting a positive intention… We may love without limit of time: realizing the futility of small accounts, we may wish for the happiness of others, regardless of the time (in countless lives?) during which we were locked in the midst of ignorance, passion, manipulation, self-interest (“I love you for what you give me”), envy, negotiation, etc. We may favour the happiness of others, regardless of color, sex, nationality…
This lack of limits, of measures, of accounting, easily evokes the infinite and the divine (as agápē does in Greek), hence the term “dwelling of Brahma” (Brahmavihāra) when the Buddha introduces the four immeasurables in the Brahmavihāra sutta (AN 10.208): according to the audience of the Buddha on this occasion, Brahma is the supreme god, the creator, and the Buddha twists the concept to talk about moral qualities, a subject he considers more useful toward Awakening and Liberation than metaphysical speculations about the origins of the universe. However, the Buddha did not present “love” as some absolute nor as a divine, humanly unattainable ideal: if love can always be grown further (without limit), its cultivation is made by small and practical actions, by tangible progress from one moment to another, from one context to another.
We cannot make others happy —no more than we can create our own happiness simply by deciding to be happy! However, in order to make it easier for others to overcome their own dissatisfaction, anxieties, resentments, etc., we can positively influence their environments (physical settings, of course, but also emotional, ethical, philosophical, political… the Buddha praised the Vajjis' democratic form of governance in the Mahāparinibbāṇa sutta, DN 16)! Of course, this requires wisdom; this is not about indulging the ignorance of others, no more than our own, e.g. by accepting some inappropriate requests.
It is possible to love without condition, without preference; by relying on attention and analysis, it is possible to separate the wheat from the chaff, if we allow for a Biblical allusion. Through meditation, love itself becomes a form of renunciation, not only an antidote to our antipathies but also the letting go of our preferences.
Unconditional love is learned, and cultivated: for example, the Buddha explains both the attitude and intention relevant in Karaniya mettā sutta (Sn 1.8). Sāriputta, one of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, explains in the paṭisambhidāmagga (Ps) how to gradually expand the circle of beneficiaries of our good intentions. And although it is not mentioned directly in the eightfold path, love is an integral part of the Buddhist practice: love is among the “favorable phenomena” which we must give rise to, and then support, as part of the “right effort”. Love participates in a stable mental foundation to then develop a meditation free of worries, calculations, ill will, or ulterior selfish motives. Love also requires a renouncement from reacting with temper (without thinking about the impact of words or deeds): it therefore needs us to pay attention to our responses and thus helps to cultivate “right speech”, “right action” and “mindfulness”. The Buddha mentions such benefits for the practitioner in the Mettānisamsa sutta (AN 11.16), e.g. a capacity of increased concentration and an imperturbability at the time of death —when we learned to love everything, nothing scares!
To unconditionally love implies to love stangers, and this might confuse practitioners who never came across instructions on how to do it. The opportunities to love are omnipresent in everyday life and the firsts of these match the “five precepts”: to actively protect others from our mistakes of judgment, our selfishness, our moods, our inappropriate actions, our negligence is already and effectively to promote their happiness. We then embody the precepts not as a constraint that we impose selfishly on ourselves for a better rebirth, but as the practical manifestation of a benevolent interest in others!
To limit our love to a few people, who we see directly and regularly, is to believe that reality is reducible to a small selection, local and self-centered; it is to believe that the Earth is flat because we don't see its curvature directly, or that our contribution to global warming won't affect the ice caps or the Pacific islands, because they are far away and we never went on vacation there.
The four immeasurables are love (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), sympathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā). While recognizing the character “without limit” of equanimity (the quality of a tempered mind, which is not carried away by fleeting perceptions, emotions or opinions), it may seem odd to associate love with imperturbability, so we must refine our understanding of love.
If equanimity is a deliberate imperturbability, anchored in the whole reality and not a victim of any local disturbance, then the use of the precepts as the first manifestation of love is aligned with equanimity: imperturbable restraint helps to live in accordance with the precepts (they are useless if a simple desire might prove enough to ignore or suspend them).
Moreover, our well-paced and appropiate support, without showing-off but decided and committed, is more helpful to others than a series of emotional swirls and impulsive responses. Such a support remains even when the beneficiaries err. Equanimity also promotes listening: keeping a cool head, maintaining a healthy distance to discern the relative importance of phenomena, we can listen without judging, without immediately considering that we have good advice, without believing that we are automatically right, without pretending that we know better than themselves what others need, without wishing to impose any “solution” to others “for their own good”, etc. It is difficult to favour the happiness of others if we are not listening to their problems.
To go further, we might note that the Buddha did not deny the common “me first” preference (such a cognitive bias is mentioned p.e. in the Mallikā sutta, SN 3.8) but the Buddha explained that since all sentient beings share this preference, it's a good reason not to hurt them. “Do not hurt” may seem a bit too generic, even if it is the root of the precepts, so let's specify that this implies (among other things) not to enslave or limit others by “If you really loved me, I'd be all for you, you'd love me more than yourself…” Once unflappable, once the ego is defused, we refrain from attacking others and from issuing impossible demands, when it turns out (as it should) that we are not the center of the world; equanimity promotes humility, which offers the possibility of finally loving others as we love ourselves.
Moreover, it's not because we seek to favour the happiness of others that, magically, everything will go our way, even for the most “pure” benevolence: reality cannot be reduced to one intention, from one person, at a particular time! We must therefore maintain our positive intention in the long run and remain serene when the desired results are not immediately achieved, otherwise love itself will become painful and frustrating, a source of dissatisfaction. Equanimity allows for patience and perseverance; it keeps us present, engaged and with a constructive attitude (with opportunities for progress and peace, sooner or later) but without excessive demand for quick results.
Last but not least, if love is to promote the happiness of others, and if happiness is achieved by Awakening and Liberation, then equanimity is very helpful to promote the Liberation of the loved ones! To love is then to support autonomy, independence, freedom; not to restrain nor to confine; this rejects possessiveness.
Possessiveness is not favorable to development, freedom, responsibility; it is a form of oppression. Without questioning its consequences, the ignorant will claim that possessiveness is “natural” in love, simply because it is ordinary, but the wise clearly distinguishes love from its nearest enemy: mutual dependence.
Unlike a “far enemy” which is in direct and flagrant opposition to a positive phenomenon, a “near enemy” is a negative phenomenon that may, in some contexts, be confused with the constructive one, thus the near enemy of compassion is pity, that of equanimity is indifference… and that of love is mutual dependence, where the ignorant person depends on “loved ones” to ensure one's happiness, and therefore comes to instrumentalize and control / manipulate them.
If we love others as ourselves, then a moral imperative is to refrain from defining oneself by “one's own”! Because to define oneself or to exist by one's family, one's friends, one's team, etc., quickly leads to restraining them, asking them to be there for us, making them responsible for what we do, causing guilt, imposing a duty on them to make us happy… We can certainly appreciate and support others, without introducing a separation between “one's own” and others. Not defining ourselves by our own, we can let others evolve, without experiencing it as us losing or getting lost.
Without pollution by ignorance, love frees the loved ones from our projections and concepts that asphyxiate evolution, progress, freedom. Fixed ideas vis-à-vis others (e.g. based on a common history, perhaps that of the “beginnings”) prevent us from being present, from perceiving what is different day after day and the current needs. To face reality as it is, in any relationship, is not always pleasant but this is never an excuse to burden others, or to force reality to conform to our expectations.
In Buddhism, love is rational; it is not merely a moral imperative and it is not an emotional outpouring either (with idealization of the other, followed by disappointment when reality resurfaces).
First, the common experience is enough to know, for and by ourselves, beyond any belief in a “higher justice”, that bringing ill will in any situation rarely helps solve whatever is unsatisfactory in said situation; so it is rational to give a chance to progress, by considering the happiness of others too. In the āghāta paṭivinaya sutta (AN 5.161), love is the first mentioned antidote to resentment, i.e. an active approach to give up… antipathy. The Buddhist love is not naïve, this is not a thoughtless inclination; this is a causal process, recommended for the consequences which unfold from it.
Second, despite the diversity of circumstances and conditions affecting all sentient beings, there is a community of interest: all beings seek to avoid dissatisfaction, suffering, pain, anguish… From the Buddhist point of view, this refers directly to the first of the “four noble truths” (cattāri ariyasaccāni): life is a stuggle, for everyone! Once we understand how much envy and jealousy cause havoc, once we understand that competition leads “losers” to despair, be angry and desire revenge, it seems reasonable to look for solutions for the benefit of all, and not just for ourself or a small group which we associate with: it is rational to want the happiness of others, to help them live in peace, in harmony including with ourselves!
A calm and anchored mind, unfazed by drama, is in no way in opposition to love.
“DN” for Dīgha Nikāya, the long discourses; “AN” for Aṅguttara Nikāya, the additional discourses; “SN” for Saṃyutta Nikāya, the short discourses; and “KN” for Khuddhaka Nikāya, the minors texts (of which “Sn” for Sutta Nipata is the fifth section, and “Ps” for Paṭisambhidāmagga is the twelfth).