Encouraging compassion and kindness was central to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, whether he was discussing the politics of race or our intimate interactions with friends and family.
Twenty years ago, the Rodney King riots had just exploded in Los Angeles, and the image of a fallen man being beaten by police replayed itself over and over on television sets everywhere. That same week, I went to a talk at the Berkeley Community Theatre featuring Thich Nhat Hanh.
The auditorium filled with thousands of people as this small man in robes, little known to me at the time, took the stage. He immediately started talking about the news―the beating, the riots, the events in Los Angeles that were triggering anger around the world. He spoke about his sadness for the beaten man. And then he spoke about his even greater sadness for the men doing the beating―the rage they must have had inside and the deep suffering that would cause them to act out in this way. You could hear a pin drop as the audience took in his words, his understanding, and his compassion for every person in this struggle.
Thich Nhat Hanh joined a Zen Buddhist monastery in 1942 when he was 16 years old. Since then, he has devoted his life to the study of Buddhism, traveling extensively and writing more than 40 books, including the classic, Peace Is Every Step. Whether he is discussing the politics of race or our intimate interactions with friends and family, the constant element in his teachings is his encouragement of compassion and mindfulness. Here, he frames romantic love. —Karen Bouris
According to Buddhism, there are four elements of true love. The first is maitri, which can be translated as loving-kindness or benevolence. Loving-kindness is not only the desire to make someone happy, to bring joy to a beloved person; it is the ability to bring joy and happiness to the person you love, because even if your intention is to love this person, your love might make him or her suffer.
Training is needed in order to love properly; and to be able to give happiness and joy, you must practice deep looking directed toward the person you love. Because if you do not understand this person, you cannot love properly. Understanding is the essence of love. If you cannot understand, you cannot love. That is the message of the Buddha. If a husband, for example, does not understand his wife’s deepest troubles, her deepest aspirations, if he does not understand her suffering, he will not be able to love her in the right way. Without understanding, love is an impossible thing.
What must we do in order to understand a person? We must have time; we must practice looking deeply into this person. We must be there, attentive; we must observe, we must look deeply. And the fruit of this looking deeply is called understanding. Love is a true thing if it is made up of a substance called understanding.
The second element of true love is compassion, karuna. This is not only the desire to ease the pain of another person, but the ability to do so. You must practice deep looking in order to gain a good understanding of the nature of the suffering of this person, in order to be able to help him or her to change. Knowledge and understanding are always at the root of the practice. The practice of understanding is the practice of meditation. To meditate is to look deeply into the heart of things.
The third element of true love is joy, mudita. If there is no joy in love, it is not true love. If you are suffering all the time, if you cry all the time, and if you make the person you love cry, this is not really love―it is even the opposite. If there is no joy in your love, you can be sure that it is not true love.
The fourth element is upeksha, equanimity or freedom. In true love, you attain freedom. When you love, you bring freedom to the person you love. If the opposite is true, it is not true love. You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free, not only outside but also inside. “Dear one, do you have enough space in your heart and all around you?” This is an intelligent question for testing out whether your love is something real.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, was an internationally known author, poet, scholar, and peace activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. Excerpted from True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, 2006. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston.