One theme never recedes into the background of Buddhist discipleship. This theme is love, and countless masters and dharma-preachers have spent their lives ascertaining how to make love unconditional. And rightly so: when the nature of human love is studied, one question arises – “Is unconditional love that easy to cultivate?” It has, after all, been equated with the intensity of emotions that human beings experience for each other. But this is a dangerous fallacy. Buddhism warns that there is no such thing as perfection while being conditioned by the world of illusions, of samsara. Such a thing is logically impossible. Only a sentient being growing morally and spiritually can ever experience unconditional love, and therefore only the Buddha and His retinue of bodhisattvas can love perfectly (along with the Hearers, saints and self-realized buddhas).
Even so, unconditional love is often used as a catchphrase for many relations. Only several are listed here: the unconditional love of Buddha for all sentient beings, the unconditional love of God for the human community, the unconditional love of a parent for his or her child, and the unconditional love between romantic, sexual partners. The stark reality is that romantic partners rarely share total, unconditional love. This love is simply a nobler form of attachment, in which a human being sublimates the five senses’ desire for pleasure into affection reserved for only one person. The truth is not as perfect as romantic magazines portray, but it is certainly more complex, beautiful, and richer than any sentimentality the media can offer. The journey of monogamy is a worthy one and should not be looked down upon.
The “perfection” that Hollywood strives to indoctrinate people with is an artificial kind anyway, because it is based on an assumption mired in what can be called “the dialectics of samsara.” Therefore, while the faithful devotion two people share is by no means false or ignoble (I have emphasized that it is quite praiseworthy), it cannot quite match the standards of the ancient sutras. This is why the original masters were not averse to celibacy, even if they did not enforce it amongst their lay disciples. To find true unconditional love, we must search for a relationship that is not based on sense-pleasures. To this end we turn to parent-child relationships.
Parents do not expect to be challenged about their love for their children, but most mothers and fathers inevitably expect their children to repay their care and kindness, especially since the younger generation is nourished by the strength of its forebears. This is by no means an unreasonable expectation, and every rational child will work to repay their debt to their parents as they mature. As sensible as this “temporal contract” of filial love is, however, it is not truly unconditional. Precisely because it is an unspoken agreement made between good parents and upright children, it is not exactly the same unconditional love of the Buddha. But where does this leave religion?
Even in religions (especially more simplistic belief-systems), the unconditional love of their Godhead suddenly becomes disturbingly conditional or if a sceptic fails to find valid reasons for worship, or is a believer leaves the faith. Attachment to dogma becomes an essential virtue demanded of believers if they wish to be rewarded by the deity. This kind of love is very much conditioned love, a love that is conditioned by a human being’s level of awareness and devotion. While this devotional intensity might depend to an extent on a human’s free will, a vast majority of sentient beings, due to no fault of their own, are ignorant of such doctrines. The idea that they are therefore damned for eternity is a far cry from the Buddhist teaching of skilful means, which posits that the Buddha teaches according to each being’s inclinations and circumstances, for as many lives as it takes. The Buddha made it clear that a one-size-fits-all approach was not only dangerous but also mistaken in its premise that all sentient beings are the same, when they clearly are not.
Buddhism provides a view on unconditional love that is not as philosophically challenged. The Buddha is perfect because a perfect being is unconditioned. He goes beyond “being” and “non-being” and is not conditioned by any act on part of a sentient being. He therefore does not desire or require worship, although it is always prudent to follow His advice. Because the Buddha does not require or want to be owed worship, He is the true embodiment of unconditional love. Partners, parents and children, friends, and even Gods desire something. But the Buddha is not in need of even that most intimate act of faith: worship. Even Amit?bha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, does not actually demand reverence. He has merely made invocation and homage to Him a potent means of deliverance. This free option is not only an expression of the Buddhas’ striving to liberate all beings from suffering, but evidence of their non-attachment and transcendence of being and non-being. This is, according to my limited understanding, the doctrinal foundations of the Buddha’s love.
Realistically, how does this knowledge help Buddhists in their training? Can Buddhists ever hope to emulate such perfect qualities as outlined above? The answer is actually quite “outrageous” because it is in the affirmative. The Theravada canon exalts the arhat or saint, a follower of the Buddha whose incredible discipline has helped him or her to transcend our everyday Buddhist practice. The Mahayana schools speak of attaining Buddhahood for oneself so that we can help the Buddha to liberate others. And the Vajrayana tradition emphasizes the possibility of transforming samsara into Nirvana, or attaining perfect enlightenment in the midst of all our defilements. In theory, therefore, unconditional love is very much possible in Buddhism.
Practically, the exercise of unconditional love requires the practice of non-attachment. Non-attachment from self-centered motivations is the mark that gives a disciple the lucidity and direction to fulfill his or her potential to love unconditionally. This means that Buddhist compassion really means detached and “disinterested” affection. These words can be easily misconstrued. Of course, non-attachment does not mean that one becomes aloof or unfeeling. Unconditional love involves non-attachment because there can be no self-centered motivation in a life of true love. It is a self-less expression of care, which pertains to the Buddhist striving to destroy the attachment to the self-illusion. By transcending all conditional loves, we reach the love that the Buddha teaches. And this love is cultivated via behaving and thinking in a non-attached manner. Through the exercise of this discipline, one will begin to discover that her love is not limited to several. It will grow to encompass more and more people, and the conditions of her love will seem to fall away.
Unconditional love is not the only manifestation of beneficial love. It is, however, the most powerful. But all Buddhist traditions teach that it is possible for sentient beings to achieve. This cosmic affirmation is a powerful encouragement that should bring great hope to those who feel that their practice of Buddhism is somehow inadequate. The Buddha Himself would beg to differ.