If you’re relatively new to Buddhism, it may surprise you to learn that the teachings don’t talk very much about love. I grew up hearing a lot about love, from “Love thy neighbor” to reminders that I am loved by the Creator. So I associated religion with love, very directly, and I felt a little confused after I came to the dharma and no one was talking about it. At all.
Some of this is just about language. After all, Buddhism has a lot to say about compassion, about generosity, about creating benefit for others, about offering, all of which looks like love, and some of which feels like love. I’ve heard arguments that compassion is distinguished by its dissolution of the sense of self and other, while love requires that I’m here and you’re over there—essentially, that loving is something you do to someone while compassion is something you experience with someone. Fair enough. But no need to get stuck there.
Whether or not love is central to Buddhist teachings, it absolutely has a place in the practice. It has a function. And it’s this: the people we love, the beings we love, become touchstones for what it feels like to care, to include, to want to give benefit. So it isn’t about loving more or loving better—it’s about noticing the love you are already experiencing and learning from it. It’s starting from what’s easy.
I love my kids. Hopefully that goes without saying, but the truth is, I can’t really say it, not in a satisfactory way at least, because it’s so much of a part of who I am. I love them. I can also find them infuriating and annoying and exhausting. I can get angry at them. But I have loved them from before they were born; it’s the most basic quality of my relationship with them. Nothing they can say or do can reverse that.
That matters because they are living proof that it’s possible to love someone in that way. I can easily put their interests ahead of my own—it would actually be difficult to do the reverse. Through them, I know what it is to love unconditionally, and because I know that, I know it can be expanded beyond them. If I can always wish them well, no matter how much they push my buttons, then how hard can it be to wish my coworker well? Or the person who serves me coffee? Or a total stranger?
If I can extend that caring orientation out to a stranger, then how about to someone I dislike, or to that politician I think does such harm? On the surface, that might sound like too great a challenge. But if you know how to love one person, if you really understand how that feels moment to moment, then you can at least imagine what it would feel like with someone else.
From there, you can make an effort. You can try it on. Ask yourself, when you see that stranger on the street, “How would this moment be different if I truly, deeply wanted only what’s best for that person?” You might find that you can imagine it pretty easily; you might even get a little taste of the real thing. You can lean into that and try to taste it even more—there’s more there, I promise. Or you can get creative: if you can imagine what it would look like to care that much, if you can see how you would act if that were the case, then you can just start acting like that, even if the feeling isn’t there. It might show up later. Or it might not, in which case you’ve chosen to be caring even if you don’t feel caring. That ability matters—maybe more than the feeling itself.
Take a quick inventory. Think about the people closest to you. Imagine how you feel when you see your dog at the end of the day, what a relief it is to see your partner, how at home you feel when you see that old friend after months or years apart. Immerse yourself in that until you can understand it in all its particulars—the emotions you feel, the way your body relaxes, the concern that arises when you imagine them in danger.
Learn that like a language. Then go out and speak it with the world.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.