Power and Love – a Buddhist Perspective

We fear power because we associate it with aggression.  It’s there in everything from militarism to abusive husbands and boyfriends, to those we say are ‘drunk with power’ – implying control, domination, and injustice.  But power in itself is neutral.  Power can be turned any way, and this is something we need to know, for our own sake, for that of our community, and world.


The rising up of energy when it’s needed is natural to us.  This we all know.  When there’s some crisis, or even just a need at home, say, a pipe breaks, and water starts to fill our study, getting closer to books and papers; right there, we’ll find more energy arise in us to deal with the situation.

The challenge of power is that we need intelligence, and a wise heart to guide it. I know why so many people are suspicious of all expressions of power, such as strength, courage and boldness – it’s because they equate these qualities with deluded aggression, which is power without wisdom.

The problem is that we then go on to associate kindness only with the soft, gentle side of it, when we also have a profound need for love that is empowered to act in whatever way is necessary to help, or to protect others.

The energy that arises when seeing a real need often gets ‘hijacked’ at a very early stage.  It can get subverted by fear, or by the tendency to strike out.  Because this is so often all we see in our culture, in the media and when we engage other people, we can come to see aggression as the only kind of power.  This is a dangerous mistake.

The expression of power can take many other forms, from the very gentle, and patient and far seeing, to very wrathful, all born of love, along with wisdom guiding it to the outcome we hold in our heart. 

A mother has power; someone on strike for a living wage, so he can feed his family, has power; the editor of a community newspaper has power, and the discipline to shape his message; a minister has power…

I’m thinking of Martin Luther King here, who was without anger, or hostility, but full of the grace of the strength of love. This kind of power is not to be feared, but taken up, and embraced. 

Other examples come to mind: the courage of those protesting against war, the love and strength of those who marched for civil rights, and the courage we express every time we stand now in solidarity with a just cause.  In every case, this is answering a call, creatively acting for the healing of the world.  This is what we need much more of in these times.

Without the strength when needed, love is weak, and ineffectual, and remains incomplete. Just passively wanting things to improve is not enough.  We also have to have the courage to speak, and to act in whatever way is called for.

Handling power is no easy matter.  Impatience may assert itself, saying, ‘There is no time to lose’; anger clouds the mind, making people confused; seeing suffering brings with it a sense of urgency, such that we could then just react in a short sighted way, leading to mistakes.

Right there is where we see the real value of having a strong center in our life, such as what we cultivate when we have a deep contemplative practice.  A stable center is needed so we don’t get pulled off balance, so we can act clearly, compassionately, and efficiently.

One of the benefits of being part of a tradition is that we are not alone in our exploration of what it is to be a human being.  We can look at how others have handled similar challenges of power in the past, and how they are holding them now.  We can ask questions.

Often just bringing a teacher to mind communicates more than words.  They embody what they have learned. I think now of Thich Nhat Hanh, who faced what for most of us are unimaginable difficulties during the war on his country.  I look to him as someone who was able to respond to the needs of his time fearlessly, compassionately, without losing his cool, and without giving reign to anger.  Because of his strong practice, dedication and clarity, he was able to do a great amount of good, and his example continues to inspire.

The Dalai Lama also comes to mind here, as someone who for the last fifty years has responded to the aggression in his homeland out of deep wisdom and strength, with nothing but compassion.

Their responses may seem inconceivable, but it’s because they have great love in them that they, and other activists for the cause of human rights, such as Aung San Sui Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, are able to stay committed to their ideals.

These teachers show us how it is just as Joanna Macy has said, that, ‘The capacity of the human heart-mind to look into the face of suffering and pain has everything to do with its awakening it its full dimensions, joy, and power.’  They demonstrate important lessons for us all.

The Thought Training teachings in Tibetan Buddhism say that we should respond to a great need with great energy, but that the arising of that power in us should be guided by compassion.  They tell us we need both vigor, and knowledge of the means to alleviate the problem. 

It is this kind of long range thinking that is missing in mere anger, or aggression as a response to some problem.  Powerful though aggression may be, it is destructive.  It accomplishes nothing of lasting value.

I find these teachings especially helpful in difficult times, when it seems that no answer can match the needs we see in our world.  They tell me to never give up, to keep the ideal in mind and to act with boldness, trusting our inner resources, and a responsive world.

Love leads someplace very different from greed, or the will to control or exploit others.  Everywhere we find it, love goes beyond what the ego wants.  It takes love manifesting as courage to look at our own mistakes, and go beyond them; it takes that same kind of courage to step out of the circle of what’s familiar to us, and to follow our conscience.

Whereas aggression divides people, and puts up barriers, love dissolves boundaries.  It removes the sense of separation between ourselves and our neighbor, between ourselves and the natural world, and, finally, between ourselves and those who cause suffering (which is both the highest precept in Christianity, and the most advanced practice of love in Buddhism).

The well being and suffering of others then becomes our own well being and suffering, and our own responsibility.  With that comes an indomitable strength of will to do our work.

Reading history, it seems that every generation feels like theirs is facing the greatest challenge.  I remember something of the 60’s and 70’s, and the urgency of those times.  It’s hard to compare, but what we do know is that there is so much at stake now, especially for the coming generations.  These are needful times, in many ways like never before.  How will we respond?

With so much going on in this world, the extent of political corruption, the desecration of the environment, the militarism and inequality, and more, so much that calls for our attention and our strong response, it can be overwhelming. We often ask, How much can one person do? It seems we can never do enough by ourselves alone to fight against injustice, and the abuses of power, and yet, being taken hold of by love, I’m surprised to say, I have reason to hope.

In love, there is strength that an aggressor could never imagine. It’s been described as a hidden power, a spring of creative action, as wine, and bread, delight and sustenance.  And this love is what we share, the power that accompanies an awakened heart.

It is, as Dr. King has said, that

‘Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.’

and

‘Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.’

In Buddhism, the iconic form of the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, has an eye in the palm of each of his many hands.  This is the eye of wisdom and love that guides his actions. This tells me that such power, when we meet it, or feel it rising up in us, is not something to be avoided, but taken up; this is what finally removes fears.

As Shantideva said:

It’s a protector of the helpless,
a guide to those wishing to cross over,
or a bridge, or a raft…

Dr. King again:

‘In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something… Love is the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.’

‘It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. …’

Love challenges us then to look at our own lives.  This is the compass. ‘Let love be without hypocrisy’, as it says in one of Paul’s letters. 

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, moving from our ideals to actualizing these aims, has to be a kind of awakening, of both vision and strength in us. It may not always be comfortable, but this is just what is needed now, more than ever.

May we all be empowered by love,
May we walk without fear,
and advance the work of our Noble Ancestors in these very times,
to create the beloved community

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