When old friends meet and exchange stories of their lives they delight in each other’s tales of happiness and commiserate over news of misfortune. Delight in the happiness of others, together with its associated feeling of warmth in the heart, is the meaning of love. Heartwarming love, as described here, is the basis of compassion because, when aware of unhappiness in the minds of those we love, we gain the compassionate wish to relieve them of their troubles. Buddhist practice holds loving-kindness, the combination of love and compassion, as the most supreme and mature mental attainment. Loving-kindness opposes self-centredness, the source of all troubles, and so loving-kindness is the most precious thing in the universe.
Loving-kindness is an essential component of life. Just as mothers nourish their babies’ bodies with milk, they nourish their babies’ minds with the warmth of loving-kindness. Medical science recognises that babies deprived of loving attention become emotionally retarded, and even the development of their nervous system is impaired. It is not only babies that are affected in such a way. Throughout our lives we all depend upon loving-kindness for our happiness and our mental and physical security. Even though we are weaned from our mother’s breast, we are not weaned from her heart. This is why we need, and sometimes neurotically demand, a maternal substitute in the form of loving kindness from our partners or friends. We need not be like this. Truly mature people are those who have freed themselves from the need for mother’s love by understanding that the best happiness in life is that of giving love, and live accordingly. The measure of perfect love is to patiently guide our partners and friends beyond their addiction to being loved. Then they can discover the liberated bliss of making others happy without requiring something in return.
From a deeper point of view, loving-kindness is the source of all happiness in the world because it establishes the inner conditions required for the experience of happiness. To enjoy any pleasure, apart from the pleasant object itself, we need the internal conditions of a positive state of mind and a positive karmic potential. This potential is the result of a nonharmful action we have performed in the past; and to have behaved in that non-harmful manner, we need to have been inspired to do so by a benevolent guide, such as a Christ or a Buddha. Such beings guide others towards positive behaviour through their loving-kindness. They have no other purpose.
In the mid-1970s, before I became a Buddhist, my interest in Tibetan medicine took me to northern India where I met Dr Drolma, a Tibetan woman practising traditional medicine at Dharamsala. There, in the foothills of the Himalayas, His Holiness the Dalai Lama lived with a community of Tibetan refugees, and the thriving Tibetan Medical Centre functioned both as a teaching institution and as a medical clinic. Dr Drolma accepted my request to accompany her as an observer and, when she was with her patients, I could not help but compare her office with the outpatients department at the hospital in Australia where I had recently worked.
There was no comparison. Her diagnostic method of simply reading the pulse and observing the bubbles in urine was one thing, but the great difference was in her relationship with her patients. She loved them and they loved her. The clinic was filled with the warmth of loving-kindness, so different to the impersonal atmosphere in my outpatients department where people were more often seen as diseases rather than as human beings.
Whatever the merits of her diagnostic method and her fascinating herbal remedies, I became convinced that the renowned therapeutic efficacy of Dr Drolma was due to the power of her loving-kindness.
Despite my arrogant attitude of superiority in being a practitioner of Western medicine, Dr Drolma agreed to teach me about Tibetan medicine. She explained the method of pulse diagnosis and urinalysis, but did not say a word about loving-kindness — this she simply demonstrated. Later, I was to study Tibetan medicine in more detail, and I found the chapter on ethics in the medical text to be only about loving-kindness. In medical school, our
lectures on ethics had been how to avoid being sued in court; there was nothing about loving-kindness.
A Buddha is a person who has overcome all mental obstacles to having pure, unconditional loving-kindness, and has the wisdom and power to effortlessly put loving-kindness into action. The obstacles overcome by a Buddha are derivations of the innate, mistaken idea of self that manifests as disturbing emotions such as selfishness, anger, desire, and pride. The wisdom that understands how the self does not exist as we think it does is the antidote to
these obstacles. Thus the inner attainments of wisdom and loving-kindness are the actual objects of Buddhist worship and aspiration. Just as Christians use a crucifix as an inspiring symbol of love and self-sacrifice for others, Buddhists use statues as symbols to help train their minds in wisdom and compassion. The magnificent 26-metre statue of Avalokiteshvara,
the Compassionate Buddha, here in Ulaan Baatar is such a symbol. “Self-sacrifice” in Buddhism refers not to the person who exists, but the person we mistakenly believe ourselves to be. The meaning of self-sacrifice is, in fact, the destruction of an illusion.
In Avalokiteshvara’s right hand is a vase containing the elixir of life: loving-kindness. In his left hand is a perfect mirror that reflects things as they are without distortion, symbolising the wisdom seeing reality. These two ideals are also contained in his mantra: OM MANI PADME HUM. The OM represents all the qualities of Buddhahood; MANI is the jewel of
loving-kindness; and PADME is the lotus flower of wisdom. HUM symbolises the unification of wisdom and compassion in the one state of mind. When people recite this mantra, they should be thinking, “I shall attain Buddhahood, the jewel of loving-kindness in the lotus of wisdom.”
Buddhists worship the inner attainment of wisdom and compassion; they are not idolworshippers in the sense of those who seek protection and happiness from material objects such as a golden calf or a fat bank balance. Accusations that Buddhism is a manifestation of such human folly are the height of ignorance and prejudice. Buddha taught the truth of wisdom and compassion as a universal reality; this truth is not the sole possession of
Buddhism or any other religion.
It is so sad that the Mongolian people today are in danger of losing their magnificent Buddhist heritage. Instead of the elixir of life in Avalokiteshvara’s right hand, many see a bottle of Russian vodka.