Love’s Garden

Peggy Rowe and Larry Ward reflect on the practice of metta, loving-kindness, reflected in the Buddhist imagery of the lotus flower.

Larry Ward  •  Peggy Rowe Ward
1 November 2008
Photo by Jay

Shall we compare our hearts to a garden—with beautiful blooms, straggling weeds, swooping birds and sunshine and rain—and most importantly, seeds?
—Greg Livington

Picture the lotus flower. In Buddhist art, the Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus-flower throne. The lotus represents our own peace and happiness and our innate yearning for the peace and happiness of others. Compassion resides in each of us naturally, but we need to create space in our heart and mind for it to be nurtured and to allow it to flower. Benefiting others brings us joy, and our mind and heart become bigger when we care for, think about, and act in the interest of others.

The teachings on true love offered by the Buddha are called the four brahmaviharas. Vihara means abode or dwelling place and brahmavihara means dwelling place of the god Brahma. These teachings are also referred to as the four immeasurables: loving-kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha). They are referred to as “immeasurables” because if you practice them, the love in your heart will grow so much it cannot be measured.

True Love

Maitri is the first aspect of true love, the intention and the capacity to offer joy and happiness. Listening and looking deeply help us to develop this capacity so that we can be a good friend to ourselves and to others. Some Buddhist teachers define maitri as “loving-kindness” because they believe the word “love” has become tarnished in our popular language. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the phrase “true love,” encouraging us to restore love to its true meaning.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to lighten sorrow and relieve and transform suffering. Karuna is generally translated as “compassion.” To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. Looking deeply and listening carefully, you understand the suffering of the other person. You accept him or her, and naturally your love and compassion flow freely. This is the most beautiful practice and the most powerful method of bringing about transformation and healing. Happiness is made of one substance, compassion, and compassion is made of understanding. If you don’t have compassion in your heart, you cannot be happy. Cultivating compassion for others, you create happiness for yourself and for the world.

Someone recently asked us the difference between love and compassion. Love is the practice of nonharming in our thinking, in our speech, and in our actions. Compassion is the practice of helping relieve the suffering of others with our own thoughts, actions, and speech.

The third aspect of true love is mudita, or joy. True love always brings joy to the ones we love, as well as to ourselves. In this way we can tell if our love is true or not. Is our love increasing the joy of those we love, or is it stifling them or making them miserable? If the love we offer does not bring joy to both ourself and our beloved, then it’s not true love.

Joy is filled with peace and contentment. It is settled, solid, and light at the same time. We delight in the happiness of others. There is no jealousy and we can feel this happiness in our own being.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity and nonattachment. Upa means “over,” and iksh means “to look.” With upeksha, we can see our whole garden. We don’t favor one flower over the other or only take care of one patch while leaving the rest to wither and wilt. If our love has clinging, attachment, prejudice, or discrimination, it is not true love.

Upeksha is the wisdom of letting go. Without upeksha, our love can become possessive. If you say you love someone but don’t understand his or her aspirations, needs, and challenges, then your love is a prison. True love allows us to preserve the freedom of our beloved along with our own freedom.

Until we’re able to embrace ourselves with love and care, our capacity to offer true love to others remains very limited. One day the Buddha gave a teaching about the Earth’s capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. He said we should learn to be like the Earth, because no matter what people pour on the Earth, whether milk, perfume, flowers, jewels, urine, excrement, or mucus, the Earth receives them all without discrimination. This is because the Earth is immense, so it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. If you cultivate your heart so that it is open, you become immense like the earth and can embrace anyone or anything without suffering.

If you put a handful of salt in a bowl of water and stir it, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you put that salt in a river, it’s not affected because the river is so great. If your heart is large like the river, you won’t suffer because of small problems. Our practice is to cultivate the four aspects of true love—loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity—that have the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform everything.

A True Friendship

The best thing you can do for your relationship is to begin to learn to fully love yourself. This self-love will not make you more inward or selfish. Rather it is only the person who truly loves him- or herself who is able to offer that love outward. There is a Buddhist sutra called the Raja (King). In this teaching story, the Buddha states that no being is more precious to us than our own self. King Pasenadi of Koshala asks his queen, Mallika, who is the one in the world who is the most dear to her. He expects her answer to be that it is he, her husband. But she answers that it is she herself who is most dear to her. The king realizes that the same is true for him, that no one is as dear to him as he is himself. The king and queen go to ask the Buddha about this, and he confirms their discovery with this teaching:

I visited all quarters with my mind
nor found I any dearer than myself;
self is likewise to every other dear;
who loves himself may never harm another.

According to the Buddha, every creature holds itself most dear of all; every being wants to live and thrive. Our recognition of this is the basis of our compassion for ourselves and others: “who loves himself may never harm another.” Through the practice of loving and understanding you will feel your heart grow to include more people and beings. We practice “selective watering,” watering the most beautiful seeds in ourselves and in our beloved.

A good friend accepts you just as you are. You can tell when someone wants to change you; it doesn’t feel good. The same is true when we critique ourselves. To be able to love your partner and others in the world, you need to first practice being that good friend to yourself and accepting yourself completely. This requires looking deeply at ourselves without flinching and accepting the whole of what we discover. If we say, “I’ll love you when you lose ten pounds,” or “You must do this or that before I can love you,” then we aren’t being a true friend.

Once we realize we’re the closest and most precious person on Earth to ourselves, we’ll stop treating ourselves as an enemy. The conditions for happiness are present and available to us right now, without us having to improve ourselves. As we grow in acceptance of ourselves, we become a safer, kinder, gentler place to inhabit for ourselves and for others.

Several years ago, we had the good fortune of joining Thich Nhat Hanh, monks, nuns, and other laypeople on a tour of China. An elderly monk with a wide grin and gentle gait was our tour guide at a monastery in the south. We stepped into a large meditation room. The only object in the room was a large oval mirror placed in the center of the room. The monk turned to us with an engaging grin, pointed to the mirror and said, “Advanced practice.”

Metta Practice

How do you talk to yourself? Whose voice is it? Is the voice critical or loving? Are you in touch with a sacred voice that you hear within? This constant inner conversation is the basis of the love relationship that we have with ourselves.

Metta is a practice of uncovering the brilliance of light and love that rests in each of us. This radiance is often covered up with ignorance, fear, anger, and the wounds from life experience, but it is there. Metta comes from the Sanskrit word mitra, which means friend. We begin by befriending ourselves, learning to talk kindly and sweetly to ourselves, learning to offer ourselves a blessing instead of a curse or a complaint. Actively being a loving friend to your own self is the foundation of the practice.

The practice is simple. We gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and, eventually, for others.

We begin by offering metta to ourselves. There are four phrases used in classic Buddhist teachings:

May I be free from danger.
May I have mental happiness.
May I have physical happiness.
May I have ease of well-being.

May I be free from danger. With this prayer, we are touching the wish that all beings have for protection, safety, and a place of refuge. We have the aspiration that all beings may be free from accidents, external strife, and external violence. Our heart’s desire is that everyone can have a place of safe haven. Other phrases for this meditation might include “May I be safe and free from injury,” “May I have safety,” or “May I have a safe place.”

May I have mental happiness. Even in the best of circumstances, we can make ourselves suffer with our own mind. Mental happiness is a mind that is free from anger, affliction, fear, and anxiety. Mental happiness arises through looking at ourselves with the eyes of understanding and love. Then we practice by recognizing and touching the seeds of joy and happiness in ourselves. We also learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in ourselves. Other phrases people sometimes use are “May I be happy,” “May I be peaceful,” or “May I be liberated.”

May I have physical happiness. With this we are wishing ourselves a healthy and happy body. We touch the deep aspiration that all beings experience a life without physical pain. We’re in touch with our desire that no one experience ill health and physical suffering. Other phrases might be “May I be healthy,” “May I embody vibrant health,” or “May I be healed.”

May I have ease of well-being. With this phrase, we are addressing our everyday life. We are touching the wish that our lives be filled with the energies of grace and harmony rather than struggle and conflict. We aspire to live in a way that we experience solidity, freshness, and freedom. We pray for well-being, peace, lightness, and to be spared from strife. Other phrases could be “May I dwell in peace,” “May I experience ease,” or “May I live in harmony.”


When we practice being a good friend to ourselves, we are practicing the art of loving-kindness. Loving-kindness can be described as our ability to bring joy to ourselves and others. The basis of loving-kindness is understanding and acceptance. We practice it first with ourselves, looking deeply at our own self and accepting what we find. With practice, love will arise more and more often. We will feel a natural desire to go in the direction of what is good, true, and beautiful.

You may feel rusty about how to treat yourself with loving-kindness. To begin, it may be helpful for you to recall a time when you were moved by the loving-kindness of another person. When we reflect on goodness, we think of small acts of kindness, like saying good morning, offering a cup of tea, giving a welcoming smile, a warm hug, or scratching Larry’s dog’s ears. Here is Peggy’s memory of goodness:

I remember driving home several days after my husband Steve’s passing. As I stepped out of my car, I noticed something colorful on the front porch. Walking up the steps, I realized that it was a pile of toys and games. There were a number of dolls, a fire truck, and a board game. I picked up a small, bright-blue plush toy that had black-and-white eyes, and it made me smile, something that I hadn’t done in days. That evening, I received calls from two of my friends. They told me that when their children learned of Steve’s death, they insisted that they be driven to my house, where they left their favorite toys and games. The mothers insisted that it was the idea of the children.

Larry remembers his first golf lesson with Peggy’s mother:

My feet are slipping on the practice green, slipping in my non-golf shoes. I notice the sign in this backcountry golf course that says, “No Cowboy Boots. No High Heels,” and I know I am far from the ’hood. I recall my father’s stories of not being allowed to play golf due to policies of racial discrimination. Something in me quickens as I realize that I am here for my father, too. I am also frustrated. How could something that looks so easy be so challenging? Peggy’s mother says, “Oh, Larry, what a lovely day. I’m so happy to be here,” and I am awakened to the presence of beauty, the soft breeze from the Idaho mountains, and the gift of friendship. “Here, let me help you,” she says as she stretches her short arms around my belly. I can feel her heart beat next to mine. She positions the club in my hands. What am I doing on a golf course in Idaho? I am with my friend, and I soften into this offering of love. We practiced for hours, and all I remember is her kindness and gentle coaching.

The practice of true love encourages us to live our life directed by the energy of goodness. At first it helps to be more intentional and to make this a conscious process. We might wake up and actively welcome the day by stating our intention to move in the direction of love, goodness, and happiness. We then can use our own experiences of the day as a teaching device. What does goodness feel like, smell like, taste like, and sound like? What embodies goodness? What are the faces of goodness? Can I sense it in me and around me?

Practicing in this way, goodness develops into a feedback system, a sensor. It is a kind of homing device that supports us in moving in the direction of goodness. We will have more and more experiences when we feel transported by the energy of goodness itself. We will not need to think. We will feel moved, called, propelled by that which is good, true, and beautiful. This will happen all on its own. We know that you have had this experience.

A Loving-Kindness Meditation

How do you love and talk to yourself? The inner conversation we conduct at all hours is the basis of the love relationship that we have with ourselves. Whose voice is it that loves or chides you? Is the voice critical or loving? Is there a sacred voice that you hear within?

Loving-kindness meditation practice is designed to uncover the brilliance of light and love that dwells in each of us. This radiance is just covered up with ignorance, fear, anger, and the red dust of life. But it is there. We begin by befriending ourselves, learning to talk kindly and sweetly, learning to offer ourselves a blessing instead of a curse or a complaint. This is the foundation of the practice of true love, of actively being a loving friend to ourselves.

The practice is simple. We kindly and gently repeat the phrases that are referred to as the heavenly abodes in classic Buddhist teachings. The phrases are:

May I be free from danger
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I have ease of well-being.

The practice of loving-kindness meditation begins by extending these aspirations to our own self. We send these thoughts as a blessing and a prayer. We connect with our aspiration and our heartfelt desire that we experience safety, happiness, good health, and well-being. We connect with these sentiments as energy of light and of love.

photo of Larry Ward

Larry Ward

Larry Ward is a senior teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition. He holds a PhD in religious studies (with an emphasis on Buddhism and the neuroscience of meditation), is director of the Lotus Institute, and serves as an advisor to the Executive Mind Leadership Institute at the Drucker School of Management. He is the author of America’s Racial Karma and coauthor, with his wife, Peggy, of Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships.
Peggy Rowe Ward

Peggy Rowe Ward

Dr. Peggy Rowe Ward is an ordained dharma teacher who, with Larry Ward, directs the Lotus Institute and co-authored Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships.