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Love is all you need

An edited talk,Ängsbacka Festival,

Sweden, 2004



You would think by now that we would all be mega-experts on matters of love. In our day to day life, we can hardly escape it. The endless streams of television soap operas and films deal with issues of the heart and the complexity of human relationships. Endless pop, rock, R&B, rap, and all the other forms of music sing about love. Poetry, novels, plays and the arts are all about love. Love, love, love…


As human beings, we are endlessly fascinated with this particular emotion of the heart. We put a tremendous amount of time into love. Love comes from all directions. One would have thought by now, we would have got a handle on love.  We should have actually understood it, found some insight and understanding around it and can express our love easily, freely and generously. It doesn’t seem to be the case.


We block off true love, inhibit it, cut it off or it has dried up. We experience an unwillingness to share love, to give, to offer or to speak of our love. We treat it like consumer goods: “I’ll give you love on one condition; you give me your love. I will do a trade with you. You can have some of my love, as long as I get some of yours. But you won’t get any more of mine if you stop giving your love to me.”


Offered only in exchange for love, this consumer love shows itself in our primary roles and relationships. Unable to offer love, who suffers the most? When our heart dries up, we become tight, controlling and unwilling to be open. Who suffers? The dried up hearts affects others, men, women and children, but our pain remains closest to ourselves. We suffer when we deny love to others. Why do we want to live like that? How miserable it is living like that. If we start to explore the heart in a deep way, then inner doors open to us including happiness and freedom of being.


I was listening to the BBC radio news just before coming here. The news reporter was interviewing an educational expert – society loves experts. The expert said that young people’s interest in science gets less and less. Young people make fewer and fewer applications to colleges and universities to study physics, biology and chemistry. Less money goes into those departments due to the decline in students. If it carries on like this, there will be a scientific crisis, said the expert.


Where is the interest going? What is the subject replacing science for an increasing number of young people? The biggest area of growth in British universities is psychology. This is an interesting shift. The shift is off the object called science to the subject – the perceiver. There is a wish to know the psychology of the mind, the instrument used to look at the world around us include science. Some friends studying psychology tell me they are not thrilled about the university methodology for their studies. They prefer experience to theory. Nevertheless the shift from object to subject (the self, consciousness, the perceiver) is an important one. The world is a prop for the inner life. The world supports the inner life, not just the other way around. So any thoughtful and caring human being gives attention to the relationship of the heart/mind to the outer.  There are challenges that go with such mindfulness of the other and their situation.


I will give a historical example.  We had a weekend retreat in Pauenhof, a Dharma centre 40 minutes’ drive from Düsseldorf, Germany. As a working farm, during World War 2, Jewish families used to hide there from the Gestapo and the SS. Under the old wooden stairs, the farmer built a secret cupboard to hide in when the soldiers were hunting for Jews.. The family and farm workers had to rely on everybody to keep absolute secrecy.  The Nazis sentenced those hiding Jews to death or the concentration work camp. The farmer, his family and workers showed immense love on behalf of others. They took a huge risk. This kind of risk huge you and I would probably never have to take.


Such love reveals something profound in the depth of human beings. Ordinary German families gave support to Jewish families. A sense of awareness, a profound sense of interconnection, allows love to show itself in extraordinary ways. The spring for such love, the spark for it, reveals empathy for others, reveals something in common.


Love needs movement, an ability to flow through seeing something in common between people. Out of that recognition and acknowledgment, love can flow. If we can’t feel such empathy, the love cannot flow. We will see the differences between us. We will experience fear. We will be polarized and fragmented by the differences or the fears. We have the ability to be steady, to reflect and meditate on what we share. Whenever you and I exaggerate the differences, between us, it is at the expense of love. When we see what is common, love starts to move.


The Perceiver and the Perceived


A few years ago I went to Burma. I went to have a meeting with, Aung San Suu Kyi, much loved leader of Burma who has been in house arrest for years because of her outspoken critique of a brutal military regime running the country for decades.  She is a dedicated woman of Vipassana (Insight Meditation) and the first Vipassana meditator to get the Nobel peace prize. Hopefully she won’t be the last meditator. Her teacher, U Pandita of Burma is like his teacher, Mahasi Sayadaw, as we would say in English, a chip of the same block of granite. He makes Zen masters look like kindergarten school teachers.


I went to pay U Pandita a visit in his monastery in Rangoon. When he first came to the West to give Vipassana teachings, he did it very much in the style of teaching they give in Burma – long, hard, heroic effort, starting at four o’clock in the morning throughout the day. If you went to bed before midnight, you were considered a wimp. He emphasized hour-long sittings and hour long very slow walking meditations He offered a strict, tough, hardcore disciplined meditation.


He asked daily every meditator how many hours of sitting and walking meditation they did. What else did they observe besides the rise and fall of abdomen in sitting meditation? What thoughts were arising in their mind? He taught strong concentration so the meditator would to notice what thoughts arose between the abdomen expanding and contracting. That takes a lot of concentration to notice those thoughts in the midst of mindfulness of breathing.


I said to him in our meeting, “Sayadaw, I heard that you teach metta meditation in the West?” Metta meditation is loving kindness meditation. I expressed surprise because he is known as this absolute hardcore teacher of meditation to look at the subtlety of any experience and seeing right through it.


He said “Yes.”


I asked “Why? Loving kindness seems light compared to the hard core Vipassana practice.”


The Sayadaw explained that he saw too much pain in the West. Outwardly things look well, but not inwardly. He added that a priority of Vipassana meditation faces issues of pain in the body, mind, feelings and the pain of existential existence. He said that that far too many Westerners cannot come to a clear perception to situations because the way they perceive the pain is painful, too. He said he decided to teach loving kindness meditation along with deep absorption meditations and Vipassana.


I said, “You made a shift in the teachings then?”


“Yes. “” He is famous in the Buddhist world for rarely smiling.  He sits there, nothing moves.  It is like talking to a Buddha-image. He expresses great insights. He said he had made a shift for Westerners, because of their pain around objects of interest.  Metta meditations helped to open and soften the heart. This approach, he said, develops happiness, and a deeper absorption into inner peace. This changes the perception and that allows one to see more clearly what’s going on because the perceptions are not full of reactivity, anguish and negativity.


The cultivation of loving kindness meditations help to clear the perception which allows one to look more clearly at problematic issues. It is not only issues which matter to us but our thoughts about the issues, our engagement with the world. What do we bring to what we look at? What shapes our perception and the way we perceive events. Our perceptions have a very direct influence of the condition of heart.


The inner life is so extraordinary. One aspect of our inner life can and does look at another aspect.  I sit here and you sit there. I talk to you about something which I am experiencing. I sit here and close my eyes.  One aspect of my inner life notices and sees another aspect. The experiencer connects to the experience, the observer looks at the observed. One part of the inner life is called the witness, the observer, looks at the other part of the inner life. The condition of the observer matters significantly. We develop kindness and happiness, to filter into our perceptions, into the observer of experience.


Spiritual Reading


I send out a dharma e-newsletter every few months. In one issue, I made a list of my nine favorite spiritual books. They ended up nine because I went through all the books in my house, picked out my favorite such books. It came to nine, and I made a short review of these books. A young Jewish woman Etty Hilesum wrote and kept her diaries from 1941 to 1943 in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Her book reveals the determination of a woman, age 27 years, to live as freely, independently and as lovingly as possible despite the occupation. I visited Etty’s flat in Amsterdam, and Westerbork, the transition camp to the concentration camp, where she spent the last weeks of her life before boarding the train to the concentration camp.


Etty said that with all the hate, via fascism, we get absolutely imprisoned into the systems that we or others create. She said any hate is a disease of the soul, a sickness of the soul. If there was one good German, she wrote, I want to put my attention to that one, rather than hate them all.


These inner changes indicate a shift in the heart. That shift in the heart then gives other opportunities. Etty’s shift is a dramatic example. It also applies in our interpersonal circumstances. Someone may hate me, someone may exploit me, someone may lie about me or engage in malicious gossip about me, or say cruel these things about me. Someone may betray my trust. One is in a relationship and the partner has a secret affair. How easily we then slip right into a painful pattern. “I have been hurt. You have hurt me.” Our minds begin to think of ways to hurt back. You should never underestimate the potency of the desire for revenge.


I had an email a few days ago. A husband and wife separated. Initially, the change went along well. They had been together several years and they accepted the need to separate. Then one day, the husband went to a transition from friendship and acceptance of change   to becoming very upset, angry and hurt. “You are not going to get a penny out of me,” he told his ex-wife. Painful memories, painful perceptions and painful imagination with painful interpretations from the past came into his mind. He had the wish to hurt his ex-wife.  He used money. Some use material things, children or cut future contact to inflict pain.


What is going to keep the love steady, in spite of unwelcome change? Such changes test our emotional maturity, our inner development as a human being. It is the test of what we see in common. Some will tell us to fight, struggle, not to be walked over, and get what you want. We might be encouraged to show aggression, competitiveness and make demands. What deeply matters is the ability of a human being to handle things with love. Others will say you are stupid, you are naive, you are weak, you are a failure, and you are timid.  Get revenge!


Can this painful event be handled wisely and lovingly? These loving kindness meditation which we practice over the next days, serve as a preparation for the moment when we are on the edge. Is it going to be love or revenge?  Is it love or blame? Is it love or the trading of insults? It is noble to love in spite of what we face.


What renews love?


My journeys take me quite regularly to the East, to India. I have had the privilege of going to Mother India every year since the 1970s. I go to teach, particularly in Bodh Gaya, where we have a school. I have a number of friends there – NGOs, government workers, teachers and others working in the villages. They engage in keeping the spirit and the trust of service alive and continuous. I’ve noticed they show a tremendous amount of love. Difficulties arise when we place high expectations on ourselves or on others.


Love is not something eternal, not something consistently available to us. Love needs to be shared. Love also needs renewal. What renews love? When there are expectations to constantly give, constantly love and constantly serve, we travel the fast road to burn-out. I have met and talked with hundreds of people engaged in wonderful work of service for others. They focus, concentrate and dedicate themselves to others, but they may not know themselves well enough. After a period of time, there is less and less energy with more exhaustion.


Thoughts arise; “I cannot go on doing this” It is a great pity if you and I don’t understand the conditions for the flow of love. We also need to understand equally what gives renewal? We might have bucket load of love inside of us, but sometimes there is a hole in the bucket. Is something missing in our life? Is someone is missing in our life, if there is a feeling inside of a gap; that is the hole in the bucket. So a person may be giving love, through work, friendships, family, but inside oneself one has a strong desire. You may have the desire for a very close friend, to live in the countryside, to have a lover, an intimate relationship or children. That feeling that something is missing is the hole in the bucket of love. A shift recognises a growing and deepening sense and appreciation.


The hole in the bucket makes us feel exhausted, unhappy, even depressed. All because we believe in the idea something is missing,  Life was full when we were born, it was full yesterday, it was full today, it will be full tomorrow, and it will be full the day afterwards. Until we really appreciate this, we are living in cuckoo land.


It is so full this existence that we can’t show somebody something is missing. Out of the fullness comes renewal of love, which keeps flowing through the fullness. It doesn’t take much to be recharged with love. You take a walk up the path and through the trees, you see lots of mushrooms. You love the sight of mushrooms growing naturally in the forest. Renewal of love doesn’t take much – a few lines of poetry, a little music, a meditation, silence, a momentary eye contact with a beautiful human being.


I’ll mention one last story. A Dharma friend in Totnes writes documentaries. She was asked to write and prepare a documentary on suicide. What happens when people commit suicide? What is going on? Few people who commit suicide have ever been to the doctor because of serious psychic disability or a mental disorder. I spoke with her about people over the years that had attempted suicide or had felt very, very suicidal. She related one situation of a doctor, who worked in San Francisco. The doctor left a note on her table. “If somebody smiles towards me this morning, I won’t kill myself. If nobody smiles, I am going to jump off the San Francisco Bay Bridge”. Nobody smiled. The police found that note on her kitchen table.


Sometimes we forget the incredible importance in life of love, of smiling, of happiness and its power to nourish, inwardly and outwardly. Our emotional survival and perhaps our physical and global survival depend on every drop of love we bring to our being and to the beings of others. Love is profoundly important.


We’ve been brought up, at least to a degree, in the Christian culture. My favorite rabbi, as I tell my dear friends in Israel, is Jesus from Nazareth.  He reminds all of us that love reveals the Kingdom of Heaven.  One knows the teachings of Jesus through the experience of love. The revelation of the Kingdom manifests through love. Jesus reveals love through his stories, metaphors and analogies. He gives profound teachings on love to get his message over to know the truth, to know God, to know the true kingdom, not the earthly ones.


The true religious life and experience make clear the importance of loving kindness meditation of the Buddha, the reminders of compassion with the Mahayana tradition, the exploration of “Love Thy Neighbor” in the Middle Eastern religious traditions. Love reminds us of something deep. Love reveals conflict and reminds us not to feed it, not to bother with conflict. Love nourishes our heart rather than having to rely on the old religious systems with its patriarchs and dogmatic views.


We have to find new ways to explore, new prayers, new rituals, new meditations, new ways of living together, and keep something fresh, alive and open wide. Such explorations will reveal the heart’s love. This exploration will take a depth of inquiry so that love, happiness and freedom confirm there is not a drop of difference between the three.









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