Altruistic love and compassion are the heart of Buddhist practice.
They are considered to be the “essence of the great vehicle,” the “path traveled by all the buddhas of past and present, and which will be traveled by all the buddhas of the future,” the method “which alone is sufficient, and without which nothing can be accomplished.”
In the Buddhist sense, altruistic love is defined as “the wish that all beings may find happiness and the causes of happiness,” and compassion as “the wish that all beings may be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”
These two can be summed up as unconditional kindness toward all beings in general that is ready to manifest at all times toward any individual in particular.
It is a way of being in the world for others that is cultivated until it permeates one’s entire being.
It does not mean catering to the wishes and whims of others without discrimination, and it certainly does not mean wishing success to those who pursue harmful goals.
We should take into account the different elements of each situation and ask, for example, what are the consequences, both short- and long-term, what will really be for the good of this or that person, or if an action will help a small number of individuals or a large number.
Love and compassion must be informed by wisdom. This is based on understanding the immediate and ultimate causes of suffering.
By suffering, we mean not just the obvious sufferings of which we are so often the victims or witnesses, such as disease, war, famine, injustice, and poverty, but also their deep causes, namely, the mental poisons.
As long as our mind is clouded by confusion, hatred, attachment, jealousy, and arrogance, suffering, in all its forms, will always manifest.
Buddhism teaches that the source of these mental poisons is ignorance of the nature of beings and things, which creates a gulf between our perceptions and reality. We take as permanent what is impermanent.
What we take as happiness is often only a cause of suffering, for instance, wealth, power, fame, and fleeting pleasures. Things appear to us as inherently “pleasant” or “unpleasant” and beings as inherently “good” or “bad.” The “I” that perceives them seems equally real and concrete.
This mistake leads to powerful reflexes of attachment and aversion that inevitably lead to suffering.
Our love and compassion take on a new dimension when we understand that suffering is not inevitable and it is possible to stop the suffering of beings.
In his first teaching at the Deer Park near Benares, the Buddha expounded the four noble truths:
(1) The truth of suffering, which must be understood;
(2) The truth of the causes of suffering, ignorance and the negative mental states that ignorance breeds, which must be eliminated;
(3) The truth of the cessation of suffering, which we must attain, and
(4) The truth of the path, which must be followed in order to end suffering.
When combined with joy at the qualities and successes of others and impartiality toward all beings, love and compassion are the basis of the mind of enlightenment, or bodhichitta, defined as the wish to attain buddhahood in order to liberate all beings from suffering and its causes.
This desire must be accompanied by a determination to do everything in one’s power to remedy suffering, not just for a limited time, but for as long as there are beings and those beings continue to suffer.
How can we cultivate love and compassion?
The first step is to realize that deep down we want to be happy and want not to suffer, and that it is the same for all beings, including animals.
This right not to suffer, so often disregarded, is perhaps the most fundamental of all.
Buddhist compassion ideally aims to put an end to all suffering, whatever it might be and whoever it affects.
It is not based on any moral judgment and does not depend on how others behave.
It is not limited to our loved ones or those who treat us favorably but embraces all beings without exception, be they friends, enemies, or strangers.
Source: Ricard, Matthieu. On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2013.