Loving kindness, sometimes translated simply as love, is one of the four immeasurables, or four boundless attitudes common to all Buddhist paths and schools. Developing unbiased kindness and caring for all sentient beings is considered essential to the Buddhist path. Loving kindness serves to move the focus from self-centeredness to a deep respect for all other beings and a wish for them to be happy. The instructions generally start with the acknowledgment that every living being innately desires happiness.
Loving Kindness in the Mahāyāna
In the Mahāyāna Sūtra, The Questions of the Girl Vimalaśraddhā, the Buddha addresses questions posed to him by his patron, King Prasenajit’s young daughter. The girl asked the Buddha about the qualities of bodhisattvas. The Buddha responded by praising bodhisattvas possessing eight strengths which allow them to dwell in cyclic existence without tiring. The sixth of these strengths, he explains, is love:
Through the power of great loving-kindness,Āryadārikāvimalaśraddhāparipṛcchānāmamahāyānasūtra
One looks with equality at all sentient beings
And, being beyond love and hate,
Does not give rise to anger or ill will.
Similarly, in the Mahāyāna Sūtra, The Question of Maitreya on the Eight Qualities, the Buddha responds to questions raised by his heir, the bodhisattva Maitreya. Maitreya asks which qualities bodhisattvas must cultivate in order to achieve complete buddhahood without any chance of regressing. The Buddha responds with a list of eight ways that bodhisattvas demonstrate their commitment. He explained,
Maitreya, how do such bodhisattvas have excellent loving kindness? Well, Maitreya, such bodhisattva mahāsattvas’ physical actions are kind, their verbal actions are kind, and their mental actions are kind. This, Maitreya, is how the bodhisattva mahāsattvas have excellent loving kindness.Āryamaitreyaparipṛcchādharmāṣṭanāmamahāyānasūtra
Contemplation to Generate Loving Kindness
Kindness is traditionally taught by using one’s mother as the primary example of altruistic action. Most mothers, animal as well as human, care for their children without regard to their own needs and safety. Buddhist practitioners thus contemplate all the ways in which their mothers cared for them from the time within the womb throughout their lives. This contemplation is designed to engender a feeling of wishing to repay that kindness. As one trains, the field of “mothers” is extended to all sentient beings with the realization that, according to Buddhist thought, all have at one time or another been their mothers.
This progressive contemplation is summarized in the Commentary on the Seven Points of Mind Training by the 14th-century Tibetan Kadampa master Gyalsé Ngulchu Tokmé or Gyalsé Tokmé Zangpo:
We begin by focusing clearly on our own mother from this life. From the time she carried us inside her womb, she cared for us unfailingly, so that we could encounter the Buddha’s teachings and put them into practice. Her kindness is therefore exceedingly great. Not only in this life, but throughout beginningless time in saṃsāra, she has looked upon us with eyes of love, thought of us with affection, shielded us from harm, brought us benefit, and ensured our wellbeing. Thus, her kindness is very great indeed. Considering that the one who did all this for us is now undergoing various miseries in saṃsāra, cultivate intense compassion. Think: “Now I shall benefit her in return! I shall eliminate all that harms her!”
What is it that harms her? It is suffering and its origin. Suffering harms her directly, while its origin harms her indirectly. So consider that you take both upon yourself. Take on all the suffering and its origin that exists in her being so that it arises in your own heart. Cultivate a strong wish for this to happen.
What is it that would benefit your mother? Happiness and virtue. So, without any selfish concerns, give away all your own happiness and virtue to your mother. Consider that as a result she immediately amasses all the favourable circumstances required for Dharma practice and is capable of attaining awakening. Generate an intense longing for this to occur.
Meditate in the same way while considering your father and others, before ultimately extending the practice to all sentient beings. After all, these sentient beings have been your mother and father throughout the course of beginningless time. They have benefitted you immeasurably and been incredibly kind. Yet all those who showed you such kindness are now being tormented by various sufferings in saṃsāra. Meditate, therefore, on how wonderful it would be if they could be freed from their misery. Take on and absorb all their suffering and give them your own body, possessions, and virtuous deeds of the past, present, and future. Consider that, as a result, they are happy and their virtue increases. Generate intense longing that this may happen.Commentary on the Seven Points of Mind Training
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Loving Kindness
The current Dalai Lama commented on the Eight Verses of Mind Training, a text by the 11th-12th century Kadampa Geshe Langri Tangpa:
Our lives are not very long; 100 years at most. If, throughout their duration, we try to be kind, warm-hearted, concerned for the welfare of others and less selfish and angry, that will be wonderful, excellent. That really is the cause of happiness. If we are selfish, always putting ourselves first and others second, the actual result will be that we ourselves will finish up last. Mentally putting ourselves last and others first is the way to come out ahead. So don’t worry about the next life or nirvana; these things will come gradually. If, within this life, we remain good, warm-hearted, unselfish persons, we will be good citizens of the world.
Whether we are Buddhists, Christians, or communists is irrelevant; the important thing is that as long as we are human beings, we need to be good human beings. That is the teaching of Buddhism; that is the message carried by all the world’s religions. However, the teachings of Buddhism contain all the methods for eradicating selfishness and actualizing an attitude of cherishing others.Commentary on “Eight Verses of Mind Training”
Modern Teachings from the Tibetan Tradition on Loving Kindness
For an example of a modern teaching and reflection exercises on loving kindness, Phakchok Rinpoche and his co-author Erric Solomon, discuss the subject in the book Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind. A teaching and reflection exercises based upon the subject can be found here.