In his editorial for the September 2017 Lion’s Roar magazine, editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod contemplates life’s most important questions — and why love is always part of the answer.
Who am I?
We have been asking ourselves that for millennia: What is our essential nature as human beings? What is our role in the universe? How should we live? But I think it would be more helpful to come at the question indirectly, by asking a practical and perhaps even more important question:
What do I really want?
Nothing tells us more about who we are as human beings than examining our deepest longings, hopes, and needs. We are defined by what really makes us happy.
There is another important reason to ask ourselves this question. According to Buddhism, answering it unskillfully is the source of our suffering. Answering it with wisdom—knowing what we truly want and need—is the starting place of the spiritual path.
When we know what truly makes us happy, there is no conflict between ourselves and others.
There is a common misunderstanding about Buddhism—that it calls on us to sacrifice ourselves. In fact, it asks us only to renounce our suffering and its causes. You could say that enlightenment is the highest form of self-interest. And as it turns out, one of the best things we can do for others is to be happy and whole ourselves.
There is a doctrine in Buddhism called the two benefits. It means that practicing the dharma—doing anything positive, really—benefits both ourselves and others. When we know what truly makes us happy, there is no conflict between ourselves and others: what benefits me benefits you, and vice versa.
Conversely, we could say there is a doctrine of the two harms. When I misunderstand my true needs—when I think I am well served by greed, aggression, and indifference—then I harm both myself and those around me.
So what do we really want?
We want to extend our love until it has no limit.
We want love , which is the theme of this issue. We want to be loved, and, I think even more, we want to love. We want to extend our love until it has no limit. We know in our hearts how magical and transformative that would be. We are scared and wounded, and so we are not sure how to find this love. Fortunately, Buddhism offers us proven methods to help, which you can learn how to practice in this issue.
What does this tell us about who we are? That we are loving.
We want—and need—others to be happy. We all know this is true for those close to us—our family, friends, and co-workers. When they are happy, we are happy. It is also true for the society we live in. It is proven that people are happier in a society where everyone is cared for.
What does this tell us? That we are not separate and our well-being and others’ is interdependent.
We want to do good. To use an old-fashioned phrase, we want to practice virtue. I know this is controversial, because there is so much evil in the world (to use another old-fashioned phrase). Yet in our heart of hearts we all long to do and be good. To the extent we don’t succeed, that comes back to our confusion about what we really need, not some flaw in our nature.
What does this tell us? That we are basically good.
If this is in fact what we really want—to love, for others to be happy, and to do good—then we can see why the two benefits are true. In all these cases, what is best for us is also what is best for others. There is no conflict. Good is good for everyone.
That’s why the famous practice of loving-kindness starts with ourselves and extends outward. There is no difference between love for ourselves and love for others. There is just love.