That Your Heart Be Wide As a River
A Buddhist Vision of Love. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh shares his generous and compassionate vision of love, which must begin with care and respect for oneself.
Love in the West is a combination of elements from multiple sources. Rather than feel love, we often think of love as a form of private property and as a social contract that governs our relationships with the other, or as a mere construction of Hollywood to further propagate male and female insecurities.
An Eastern vision of love can complement our closed and utilitarian visions of romantic relationships. Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher and activist,Thich Nhat Hanh, has urged us, through his speeches and writings, not to be carried away by contemporary cynicism but rather build a loving practice based on the care and appreciation of oneself, what he’s called “building a house within oneself.”
In accordance with Buddhist principle, the central idea of love promoted by Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes mutual understanding as a source of compassion. A body of water serves as the perfect metaphor for love, according to the master’s vision: If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We cannot accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things do not cause us suffering anymore. Rather, we gain understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.
Love is also the result of generational patterns, and it is historically acquired:
If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.
As for the loving couple, the most important lesson is to understand the mutual interpenetration of both the care and the mutual suffering. Learn to lose limits not only in the hedonistic sense, in the sexual and pleasurable senses, but also as part of a shared responsibility for ourselves and for others: In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one.
Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.
The essence of love, for Thich Nhat Hanh then, is thus: the essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person. The saying popularized by Jacques Lacan in the West may sound cynical at first: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” But the Lacanian saying is, in a sense, not opposed to the simplicity of the Buddhist teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh, because what produces love for all beings, indiscriminately, starts with oneself and will continue irrespective of how it is at first received.