Love in the Mahayana

- through Francois Leclercq

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What is hidden behind this catch-all term that sometimes makes us do anything?

Subhûti asked the Buddha: "How does one stand in the vehicle of bodhisattvas when engaged in it?" By what aspiration are we moved? The Buddha replied to Subhûti: In him who walks by means of the great vehicle of the bodhisattvas the following thought arises: "Thus, by me, all beings will be liberated and led towards the beyond of sorrows". However, although he leads beings into nirvana, there is no being who has attained nirvana. Why that ? Because, Subhûti, a bodhisattva who acts with the idea that he saves a being cannot be called a bodhisattva. Likewise, if he has in view the idea of ​​saving a living being or an individual or a person, he does not deserve the name of bodhisattva. Why that ? Because, Subhûti, there is nothing that can be called someone who is engaged in the vehicle of bodhisattvas. (Diamond Sutra – XVII)

In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, the canonical work of the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, the Chinese master Han Shan said of this passage that it expressed in an exemplary way the way in which the practitioners of the Mahayana – the bodhisattvas – love. To support the paradoxical meaning of this extract, and to leave no doubt as to the oddity of this presentation of love, Han Shan went on to affirm that the compassion of a bodhisattva makes it impossible for him to have the idea that he help anyone!

Real love or how to free oneself from “egological” hallucination

The thought of love as it unfolds in Great Vehicle Buddhism is therefore not as obvious as the apparent clarity of the word “love” would suggest. There is a way to go and you have to unravel a few threads to see what is at stake behind this notion of compassion heard so often in the mouths of Buddhists. It is moreover with hesitation, and even reluctance, that we speak of love in Buddhism. This term, in fact, carries with it too many different meanings, even if its Latin root makes it clearly lean towards Eros. However, this dimension of amorous love that the Indians call Kama does not appear in the Mahayana register. Rather, we find in the texts the notions of maitri (“goodness”) and karuna. It is this last word which is translated as " compassion and which is central to the Mahayanic understanding of "love."

The trouble begins on this precise point of translation. Indeed, if one reads our excerpt cited above carefully, how could there be compassion when the mind of the bodhisattva does not conceive of anything that refers to a savior (himself) and to a saved one (others)? Compassion, as the very structure of the word indicates, designates the fact of suffering, of suffering with it. It presupposes a relationship between me and another, that is to say a form of intersubjectivity. The other must appear to me as an other to myself so that I can feel in myself his pain or his own state. Compassion is entirely based on a triple awareness: that of the self, that of others and that of the difference between me and others. Only here, the vehicle of the bodhisattvas (the Great Vehicle) leads to the test of a double truth: myself and others, just as all things are absolutely free of the "me", that is to say to say free from everything that is fixed in the identity and in the identity. In other words, nothing corresponds to a self and an other; nothing relates to it – and it is for this reason, according to the teaching of the Mahayana, that love is possible and, conversely, that real love is able to free us from “hallucination”. egological”.

The Mahayanic Face of Love

What then is this love which is not to be confused with either amorous adventure or charitable compassion, which is both the focus and the spur of the Great Vehicle?

We don't have a word for it yet, other than Sanskrit karuna. This term comes from the verbal root kr which means “to do”. It is a derived and very old form which means “what is done on oneself”. Its meaning is very close to the Greek pathos which gives patior in Latin and passion or passivity in French. However, words also have a history and the meaning granted today to “passion” no longer has much to do with what was still at stake in pathos. Note, however, that the dominant idea is not to be found in the sphere of the relationship with others. The meaning of karuna points to the fact that the human heart is sensitive, incredibly sensitive, that it has the capacity to be touched, bumped and thus opened, gaped even. It is from this initial vulnerability that the Buddhist path of the Great Vehicle unfolds.

This tender and open point of the heart present in all beings and which basically never leaves us in peace, the Indians call it bodhicitta, which we could translate as the “call of awakening”. The bodhisattva is thus the one whose entire existence is a response to this call. In the tradition, and mainly in the Tibetan tradition, bodhicitta comprises three fundamental aspects which together form the Mahayanic face of love. First of all, this awakening call is manifested by a sense of appreciation, of respect towards the world and beings. We are immediately concerned by them, they touch us and we spontaneously incline to want their good. To take a step in the direction of Western philosophy, we could say that this first aspect of bodhicitta points to the fact that consciousness is not closed in on itself, but, as Husserl said, that "all consciousness is above all awareness of…”. To this somewhat neutral transitivity, Buddhism adds an original dimension of kindness, of benevolent concern. However, bodhicitta is not of the order of consciousness either, which, even transitive, presupposes the limits of the self and the other.

Why can't the bodhisattva, because he loves all beings, conceive of helping anyone?

Its second fundamental aspect is to be without reference, that is to say pure openness. It manifests as an unconditional form of empathy and even sympathy, without object or subject. In this open without reference, nothing is confirmed, nothing is invalidated. You are only "open like the eyes of a shepherd when he wakes up laughing", as Rilke wrote. In this pure and unoffended place, the self is diluted in the absence of a project. But this unconditional availability is not reduced to being a blissful sweetness. The pure openness of bodhicitta is inseparably linked to a sharpened form of attention or better, discernment. The beings, the things, the real interest you very seriously, without this engaging any seizure. It is a form of initial curiosity combined with a sense of commitment without a specific object. This is the last aspect of this awakening call which is often associated with a form of faith. It is called shraddha in Sanskrit. This notion is close in its root to the Latin creed, that is to say to "belief". Nevertheless, this "faith" is unrelated to the search for certainty. It is "a faith in impermanence", as Chögyam Trungpa said. A form of allegiance without foundation, without condition, without limit, without expectation, which is not circumscribed to any particular situation or experience. It pushes you to heroism and at the same time prevents you from associating yourself with the greatness of what is being undertaken. No looking back, no confirmation – we are committed to the abyss of the awakened heart.

This clarifies this passage from the Diamond Sutra. Why can't the bodhisattva, because he loves all beings, conceive of helping anyone? Because this hero for Awakening walks so freely that he is no longer limited by the slightest idea of ​​himself or of the goal to be achieved. He no longer manipulates beings to the point of making them the instruments of his greatness, the elements of his project, the occasions of his vocation... He first loves for nothing and stands entirely in the intelligence of this nothing household for all the absolute possibility of being safe

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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