Thursday, September 14, 2006

Loving Everybody

You don't have to love everybody. You don't even have to like everybody.

Recently I've heard a couple people say ruefully that if they were enlightened, they would serenely and sincerely love even their most irritating relatives. They'd want to spend time with them. I find this a little puzzling. Why? Do we really have reason to think so?

The emotional life of a buddha is a mystery, really. We have no idea what emotions a buddha experiences. We don't even really know what emotions feel like to a buddha. One thing I think we can be pretty confident of is that a person who was really completely egoless would experience the world, and emotion, in a radically different way. Are we really sure a buddha would be fond of her exasperating sister? And if so, what the subjective experience of that fondness would be? I don't think so. I don't think we really know a thing about it.

We know that a buddha acts benevolently toward everybody. We infer, naturally, that she must therefore be having the emotional experience that would motivate us to be benevolent -- i.e., that she's fond of everybody. But I don't think this is a valid inference.

It's important to get this straight, because it can be a real obstacle to practice, and I think an unecessary one. Yes, we must cultivate compassion. Yes, we must seek to dismantle our aversions. We do practices to discover and nurture our loving feelings towards people, including our enemies. But does that mean we have to be fond of them all the time? That "carrying our practice in our daily life" entails always feeling affectionate toward people who hurt us, or hurt people we care about?

Well, I hope not, because I'm certainly not going to do that. In fact, I'm not even going to try to do that. My experience of trying to generate emotions is one of uniform failure. Worse than that: although I fail to produce the desired emotion, I succeed in producing a lot of resentment. Resentment at the person, because now, in addition to what irritated me before, they're now the occasion for me seeing what a bad Buddhist I am. And resentment of the Dharma, because it asks something of me that I can't do. This is not a good outcome. I need to have a good relationship with the Dharma. I need to feel it's something that will make me happy.

We need to be very clear about what the Dharma really asks of us. We do need to cultivate compassion. We do need to try to hold benevolent intentions toward every sentient being. We do need to practice not believing in the stories about people we generate when we're angry at them, the stories about their malice and perfidy and so on. But we don't have to be fond of them. We don't have to invite them to lunch. And we certainly don't have to want to invite them to lunch.

There are practices in which one visualizes showering one's enemies with benefits. And in which we try to see with our enemies' eyes, and to understand that if we felt and perceived exactly what they feel or perceive, we would behave in exactly the same way. There is huge value in these practices. But they are not, if you look at them closely, practices of generating affection. They're practices of generating understanding. Maybe if we understood everyone perfectly, we'd be fond of them all. Maybe not. I don't know. I suspect the question wouldn't even arise. We would naturally act to relieve their suffering, just as we naturally act to relieve our own.

But affection, as we know it, is all tangled up in what Buddhists call "attachment." We like people because they say nice things to us, make us feel good, gratify our desires, and make us feel generally reinforced and safe and approved of. We are told that there is also, in the mix, something that is different, a compassion that has no reference to these pleasures, a love with no reference to self. But we are not very good at distinguishing it from the love that does depend on pleasure, and does refer to ourselves. So when we try to generate affection for people, what we mostly end up doing is trying to pretend that they make us feel good, when in fact they make us feel lousy. That sort of pretense is not a sound foundation for any kind of practice.

We don't really know how to generate the emotions of a buddha. We don't even really know what they are. Which is all right. We go on practicing compassion, we go on practicing discernment. Our job is not to feel anything in particular. Our job is to be kind, where it will do some good, and -- above all -- to learn to see clearly. The feelings will take care of themselves.

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