To answer this question we have to distinguish two different nuances of the word “love.” One is an emotional feeling of affection that arises from my direct relationship to particular people. This type of love is not necessarily selfish and egotistical. It is not necessarily driven by an exchange principle, by the hope that others will return my affection and treat me kindly. I may sincerely love other people without hope of receiving anything in return – love them in appreciation of their good qualities and with a heartfelt wish for their well-being and happiness. But the primary basis for this love for the other is my direct connection with that person, and its robustness depends on regular contact. This type of love can range from self-centered attachment to family and friends to a deep devotion to those in my circle of friends and relatives that I admire for their outstanding qualities. What characterizes all shades of love in this sense is its contingency: it depends on circumstances and connections and is thus subject to change when the conditions that nourish it change.
The other type of love is not contingent on external conditions. It does not depend on direct personal contact. It does not even require that we actually like or admire the people toward whom this love is extended. This type of love is generated solely by recognizing other people as subjects, from seeing each person as a center of experience and thereby as the center of a world.
This type of love transcends the subject-object dichotomy that ordinarily structures our interpersonal relations. It emerges when, from the inner citadel of our own subjectivity, we see the other person as a subject and recognize that, as subjects, that person is similar to ourselves. This perception binds us together in a union of subjects, a union in which, no matter what we might feel about the other person as an individual, we recognize that this person, as a center of experience, is endowed with intrinsic value, a value that must be honored and protected.
To be a subject of experience is to seek one’s own welfare and happiness – not necessarily in a selfish and exclusive way but as an innate disposition of one’s being. As persons, we are each subjects of experience, and thus we each endeavor to avoid harm and suffering. Even more, at the bottom of our being we are disposed to grow and to thrive, to achieve security and happiness, and to realize our potentials, talents, and capabilities. Our quest for self-realization may be warped by distorted ideas about the nature of the good. We may be driven by greed and personal ambition, and in our quest for the good we may hurt others and deprive them of the good toward which they strive. But with a clear understanding of our own good, we would see that our own flourishing depends on the flourishing of others, that we thrive best when others also thrive. From this it follows that we have an obligation to avoid harming others and to help them along their way to achieving their own good.
The recognition of others as subjects means that we see in each person a reflection of ourselves. In doing so we relate to others as subjects who share our essential subjectivity. Since by introspection I can see that at the root of my being is a deep urge for the attainment of my own genuine good, I can know by inference – or better, by direct intuition – that every other person desires their own genuine good. When, through this intuitive contact, I appreciate and honor that desire, that need for the good, I will feel, rising from the depths of my heart, a wish for others to achieve the good they seek.
This wish for others to avoid harm and to attain the good is love in the second of the two senses I distinguished. It is love that responds to the moral injunction, “Love everyone without discrimination or qualifications,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is love that is directed, not merely to particular persons, but to every human being (and perhaps to every sentient being) by virtue of their status as centers of subjective experience, and thereby as each the center of a world, of a unique perspective on the universe. The expression of this kind of love is the sense of solidarity, the sense that what affects each affects all and that the good of the others is also my own good.
Love in this sense issues in concern. It manifests as the concern that others may be exposed to harm and danger, crushed by suffering to a degree that will stifle their ability to grow and thrive, that will thwart their potentials for a meaningful and fulfilling life.
In responding to the injunction to extend love to everyone, we have two obligations. Our first obligation is to see that others are protected from harm, which requires that we do our best to provide them with the basic conditions for a life of meaning and purpose: a safe environment, sufficient nutritious food, shelter, and medical care in times of illness. Our second obligation is to help others to thrive. This does not mean that we can impose our own ideas of well-being upon them, but that we try to provide the conditions necessary for them to realize their own potentials in accordance with their own aspirations. Above all, this entails providing them with an education, with the knowledge that will awaken and nurture their capacities for intellectual enrichment and with the training that will enable them to enjoy a satisfactory standard of living.
The work of Buddhist Global Relief is inspired and sustained by this second type of love. We look upon people all around the world – people we will never meet, never see, never know – as essentially like ourselves, as human beings who wish to be free from harm and suffering, who wish to live with dignity and self-respect, but who face formidable barriers to realizing their goals. We recognize that the main obstacle blocking their path is poverty – poverty as manifested in food insecurity, in hunger, in poor health, in lack of education. We endeavor to help them rise above debilitating poverty, especially by freeing them from the ordeal of chronic hunger and malnutrition. Going beyond mere subsistence, we also seek to help them to thrive by providing them with education, to allow the light of knowledge and understanding to illuminate their minds. We see this not merely as the fulfillment of a duty, but as love in action, arising from the resonance of our own hearts to the pain and needs of others, subjects who are essentially like ourselves, each the center of a world.
– Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi