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The Four Qualities of Love

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By THICH NHAT HANH

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. A Brahman asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” The Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahmaviharas – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are the four elements of true love. They are called “immeasurable,” because if practiced they will grow in us every day until they embrace the whole world. We become happier, and so will everyone around us. By practicing love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we can heal anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. The first aspect of true love is maitri (metta, in Pali) or the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop this, we must practice looking and listening deeply, so we know what to do and what to avoid in making others happy. If you offer your beloved something they do not need, that is not love. You must see their real situation or what you offer might bring them unhappiness. Without understanding, your love is not true love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as air. We are loved by air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we must love, which means we must understand. For our love to continue, we must take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved. The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to them, look and listen deeply to them to touch their pain. You are in communion with them, and that alone brings some relief. One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring them joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help them take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle. The third element of true love is mudita or joy. True love brings joy to us and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love. Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. An example is when someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, they experience happiness. ‘Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means dwelling happily in the present moment. We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremendous joy, such as the awareness that we are in good condition. We open our eyes and can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colours. Dwelling in mindfulness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy. The fourth element of true love is upeksha or equanimity which is also nonattachment, non-discrimination, even- mindedness, or letting go. Upa means “over,” and iksha means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha means that you love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination. Upeksha has the mark called samatajñana or “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. If we see ourselves as one who loves and the other as the one who is loved – and we value ourselves more than others or see ourselves as different from others – we do not have true equanimity. We must put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with them if we want to understand and truly love them. When that happens, there is no “self” and no “other.” Without upeksha, love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our loved ones are the same -they are like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison them in a tin can, they will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of their liberty, until they can no longer be themselves. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfil that. That is not loving; it is destroying. So, the Buddha stressed that the Four Immeasurables are vital for happiness. For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity. For compassion to be true compassion, it must have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy must contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity must have love, compassion, and joy in it.