I had a question about ‘right intention’ from someone who read the free download I just released.
It was something like “How can we love everybody if no one exists?” (I may be paraphrasing slightly – I don’t have the download or the question in front of me as I sit here on the train).
This is a good question, so I decided to write a post on it.
On the one hand, Buddhism talks about universal loving-kindness. No beings wish to suffer. All beings want to be safe and well. Therefore cultivate this wish for all beings.
We also have the idea of rebirth. You’ve been reborn again and again, in all different forms. You’ve been around so long that every being you come into contact with has at one time or another been your own mother (this is a Tibetan Buddhist idea designed to help you cultivate universal loving-kindness).
On the other hand, Buddhism teaches the theory of not-self. We aren’t discreet beings. We are in fact a temporary combination of temporary processes. There is no eternal ‘me’. When the processes change, we change.
How do we pull these two apparently opposing views together?
Levels of truth
The later phase of Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism) talks about two basic levels of truth – conventional truth and absolute truth.
On the absolute level, there are no beings. On the conventional level, if one of those beings that doesn’t exist smacks you in the face with a baseball bat, it hurts.
To all intents and purposes, there are beings. They are separate. They often have opposing needs. You can sell them stuff. They can sell you stuff. You can go dancing together.
This has implications for how we live.
Beings and no beings
On the one hand, there are all these sentient beings knocking around. You have relationships with them. What you do or don’t do affects them. And vice versa.
These beings can feel pain, fear, despair, love, joy, peace, confidence … all the things you can feel.
This is one reason to cultivate positive emotions towards them. Empathy.
Another reason is that cultivating loving-kindness puts you in accordance with reality. It’s a feeling of inter-connectedness. It helps you go beyond your limited sense of self into something much closer to absolute truth. Buddha’s feel lots of love. Wisdom is not a head trip.
As I mentioned above, these beings are impermanent. If you go around getting all caught up with their wellbeing, fully letting go into these feelings of love and connection, you have a tendency to get attached.
Check out the news for examples of people who get so attached that, when things change, they can’t handle it.
You used to love me, now you don’t love me. Ouch. I think I’ll kill myself/you/the kids/a bunch of complete strangers/all of the above.
I’m being flippant, but really I’m very serious. Generating strong attachment is a path to all kinds of pain – both for you and for those you say you love.
Does that mean we shouldn’t love?
Absolutely not. What it means is we need to cultivate wisdom.
The trick is to cultivate love without attachment.
I love you. Completely. Without an agenda. Without needing anything back from you. Without needing you to live forever. Even if you hate me, I’ll still wish you everything good. If you don’t even notice me, I’ll still love you, and be completely content and at peace.
How do you do that???
From first-hand experience, I have absolutely no idea! But the theory is that if you practice, there comes a slow (or sometimes quick) realisation of the nature of things. Your grip loosens. Your need for things to be a certain way dissipates and dissolves.
You still have the love, but now it’s a universal love, no longer focused on the one or two beings that you happen to be neurotically attached to. It’s love, not craving.
This is the end point of right intention. Awakening.
Buddhism (particularly in its Mahayana and Vajrayana phases) tries all kinds of ways to pull these two concepts together until they’re completely mashed up into one. The vajra is a symbol of it. The yab yum forms are a symbol of it. The bodhisattva vow is a symbol of it. The middle way is a symbol of it.
On one level it’s a paradox. But dwelling on the paradox fully and wholeheartedly can bring you to a transcendence of the paradox. At this point, we can move towards and away from at the same time. We have come to the end of craving and aversion. The end of the path.