Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have found myself moved by the many stories of simple human kindness: the neighbor who leaves some rolls of toilet paper on their neighbor's door; those who have been volunteering to do grocery runs so that the more vulnerable among us need not go out to market; the nurses and doctors working long shifts and selflessly isolating themselves from thier families. Love takes many shapes...
I’m not a Christian, but the back-story to this painting is poignant and universal when it is understood that all of us humans live lives of much suffering. Simeon is holding the infant Jesus, knowing that his life will be short and end with much pain, humiliation and suffering, so he says to the child’s mother, “A sword will pierce your soul.” It is a compassionate understanding and one that recognizes that given the pain and suffering of the world, compassion is the way to reduce the suffering of all humanity.
Simeon, in holding the infant Jesus is literally holding what the Korean zen poet Manhae called nim, “everything yearned for.” He has a deep yearning to hug and to kiss the child with his heart filled with gratitude for all “the messiah” will bring into the world. But he is not in the position to do so just yet, which is why he holds the baby in the prayer shawl used by Jews, which Catholics transmuted into the humeral veil in which the priest carries the eucharist (which they hold as literally the body of Christ). Simeon knows that he his holding a vessel of love that will move out and into the world – but at the cost of much suffering.
The Pali Canon contains a story of a low-caste woman named Pakati who was fetching water from a well when Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, passed by and asked her for a drink. Pakati, having internalized the social prejudice replied “I am low caste and may not give you water lest I contaminate you.” In what was then an incredibly radical act of kindness, Ananda said, “I am not concerned with caste. It is water I am after.”
The story goes on to say that Pakati’s heart leapt with joy at such acknowledgement of her humanity, so that after she gave Ananda water, she followed him back to where he and the Buddha were staying. Finding that Ananda was a disciple of the Buddha, Pakati asked the Buddha if she could live there near Ananda because, she said, “I find that I love Ananda.”
The Buddha, being the Buddha, understood what was really going on and said to her gently, “Pakati, it is true that your heart is full of love but you don’t understand your own emotions. It is not Ananda that you love, but his kindness. Accept the kindness that he has shown you and in your turn practice it toward others. Keep to this path and in time you will outshine the glory of kings and queens.”
Life can make us forget this dimension of our humanity but with mindfulness (remembering) we connect to it regularly and in so doing, we nurture it so that it blossoms in our words and deeds.
We must practice the remembrance of love in all its forms from simple tenderness and kindness to compassion and altruism. But meditating on it is half the practice; we must as the Buddha put it “We will develop love, we will practice it, we will make it both a way and a basis, take our stand upon it, store it up and thoroughly set it going.” Or, as bell hooks has written: “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun yet… we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” Yes, we must “set it going!”
The Buddhist practice of remembering, developing, storing it up and making it a basis upon which we stand is called “the four immeasurables.” I’ve written more extensively about these immeasurables elsewhere, but these four meditations are designed to help prepare us for putting love into practice and to set it going into and throughout the world.
First is metta which is a form of benevolent love often translated as “loving-kindness” and perhaps more literally as “friendliness.” It’s that soft and tender feeling you have for your besties that permeates your body and not just your thoughts. Then comes karuna translated as compassion, though it shares an etymology with karma so it’s about actions that are motivated by the desire to ease the suffering in the world.
Following these two, the third is mudita which is often translated as “altruistic joy,” but I much prefer “sympathetic joy” as the word sympathy is used in music: we vibrate with the same joy others feel. It’s not that I feel joy for you but I feel your joy. Most of us who are parents know this feeling, but the Buddha said it’s perhaps the most difficult to make “immeasurable,” which is to say, it’s the most difficult to feel with others. And finally there is upeksha which is “equanimity.” It is this element of love that makes the other three immeasurable because it expands love out to even those we find “unlovable.” It also is permeated with the wisdom that understands how limited our locus of control is so that we do not get caught in clinging to specific agendas and outcomes. Though, it must be said that it is an axiom of the Buddha’s teaching that it is human suffering that is the source of most oppressive, exploitative, harmful behavior and that if humans are happy, loved and loving, they will suffer less and thus make others suffer less as well.