Loving your enemies – returning good for harm

The idea of responding to being insulted or abused with non-reactivity, and then even with love doesn’t come along in Buddhist practice until what they would call an advanced stage. By contrast, it’s right there, plainly spoken in the Christian teaching, as loving one’s enemies. To me, there’s something beautiful about this, in that the goal, of having a universal kindness and goodwill is taught by Jesus right from the beginning in Christianity. At the same time, there’s a great benefit to having a step by step method to work with, to cultivate such love, that would otherwise seem unapproachable. It’s like having a map through the terrain to where we would go…


We hear the ideal in the Scriptures,

Love your enemies,
bless those who curse you,
do good to those who hate you,
and pray for those who spitefully use
and abuse you
only then can you be called children of your heavenly Father…


For he makes the sun to rise on the good and evil alike,
and sends rain on both the innocent and the wicked.
If you love only those who love you,
what reward can you expect?
Even the tax collectors do as much as that.

and if you greet only your brothers, what is so special about that?
Even the heathens do as much. 

There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.

This ideal can be inspiring to think about., but sometimes, and for many, it can seem impossible. How does one actually go about getting to that state? How does a person develop to the point where they can love all equally, even those who cause harm to them or to their loves ones?

I think that Buddhism has something truly significant to offer here, as it has teachings that lay out the stages of development of such an all embracing love. It’s as if the two Traditions are mighty rivers, joining together to point to the goal, and the method of arriving there. Magnificent!

The metta teachings lay out five categories for the gradual cultivation of loving kindness. They begin with oneself, and then those friendly towards us, including family, benefactors and teachers.The third and fourth categories are those of the neutral persons, or those not known to us personally, and those who are hostile to us, sometimes called the category of the difficult person.

Taking a step by step approach, we start the intentional cultivation of the quality of loving kindness with whoever is easiest for us, and go from there. In metta practice, it’s only after a person has developed some of that pure quality of care and genuine well wishing for these four different categories of people that they arrive at the fifth, which is the cultivation of loving kindness towards all beings, a true universal love. Before that, it’s taught, there’s still bias, indifference, or even aversion to be overcome.

Each of these different groups is a rich field of inquiry and investigation. Each one has a place, it would seem, in the progress towards universal concern and active care.

In the West, especially today, it’s so clear that many people need to develop more kindness and compassion for themselves. Surprisingly, some of the nicest people we know judge and treat themselves quite harshly. There are many reasons we should be good to ourselves, but here, in the context of developing metta, I’ll just mention a few.

When we say, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ – how would we know the wish that others have for themselves, for happiness, safety, and peace, unless we were in touch with that in ourselves? And this is not a one time thing to be glimpsed, or just understood intellectually. We can see how it is, that, when we are in touch with our own tender selves, through a practice of meditation, or some other way to be closely aware of how we are feeling inside, then naturally we are more considerate of others we’re in contact with. We know what it is to be a human being, and we can’t help but meet them also as fellow travelers here.

A second reason for developing greater kindness towards ourselves is that is allows us to settle down easily in our meditation. When we’re comfortable with ourselves, which is one of the results of this meditation, we can be at ease physically, and in our mind and heart.  Metta also brings joy, and clarity and brightness to the mind. Any further study or development we then undertake goes smoothly.

Just to mention one more reason for developing our capacity for kindness towards ourselves relates to the theme of this paper, that of extending love even to those who are hostile towards us. With any type of consistent meditation practice we do, there are going to be ups and downs – good days and days when nothing seems to work.  That’s when we need for love to come up in us as compassion, gentleness, and an even greater care than before.

Life can be hard, so, what to do?  When we really do see our confusion, our impatience, and our mistakes and shortcomings, how can we hold all this? This is the real test and measure of our gradual progress. Here, as with the other categories, as we go, naturally, we find our limitations, and, right there is where we can take the next step, and the next. Right there is where we can work. All this takes patience, and persistence, but it is entirely worthwhile.

The ‘friend’ category too adds something unique to the progress of developing love. We start with those closest to us, although sometimes it’s recommended that we choose a person with whom we have an uncomplicated relationship. There’s a good reason for this, in that with them we can feel our simple, heart-felt love for another. It is pure.

There’s something to be said though as well here for working with those closest to us in the first place, even if the relationship is more complex. We learn love in this matrix of family. The unconditional love of a mother or father, sibling or other close relative has a reliable, enduring quality to it that we may not find so readily in our friendships.

This is the ideal, of course, and there’s a lot of variety in how people’s family relationships have turned out.  The method is clear about this – we can experiment and choose whoever is easiest to feel gratitude towards, and are happy to hold in our mind with thoughts of good will.

Sometimes we can then go back and forth, creatively using the method of cultivating metta, as it is suggested we do. It’s interesting to experiment here as well. The idea is to find that feeling of easy, genuine good will, and then to direct it to ourselves, family and friends, benefactors and teachers, and then perhaps back to ourselves again.

When we have developed the sense of good will towards a few of our close friends, we extend that also to those we are less close to, and then to those we don’t know. The saying of Jesus spells it out clearly for us:

If you love only those who love you,
what reward can you expect?
Even the tax collectors do as much as that.
and if you greet only your brothers, what is so special about that?
Even the heathens do as much. 

In the Buddhist approach, there’s the use of reasoning in times of reflection, which I think is implied in the above passage. When we turn to our less-close friends, and then to those we don’t know, sometimes called the ‘neutral person’ category, we reflect on how they are like ourselves, and like our close friends and family members, in that they too want only happiness, and not the slightest suffering. Just like ourselves, they too want to be appreciated, and to feel that they belong. They suffer, even as we do, from having bodies that are sometimes not too reliable, from moods that can overtake them, from loneliness, fears, and so on. They too appreciate it when someone is kind to them, and when they meet with success in their lives.

We can see how this builds. From ourselves, or someone it’s easy to feel loving kindness towards, to those we are close to, and then gradually to those we don’t know as well. They suggest we choose specific people to represent this category, of someone we don’t know personally, and cultivate good will towards them.  It’s only slightly a problem that, after a while, we will feel genuine, spontaneous kindness well up when we think of them. It just means we have to look for someone else we may have overlooked in the past, or not taken into consideration. Likely, there will be plenty to discover.

Only after cultivating in this way is the general category of enemy, or difficult person introduced, and even then, within this group, we are advised to go step by step.  We can, and often do want to start with the difficult category – and even the most difficult person – the one who has caused us, or someone close to us the most suffering.  Though we can try to go directly for developing kindness for that person, it’s not recommended, because it’s not usually effective. In fact, this is where we meet that ‘no, it is impossible’ feeling.  It means that, though we have a good aim in mind, we’re going about it in the wrong way – too directly, instead of step by step. This is like trying to go up a mountain without using the path. We might just look up and say, ‘no way’.

There is something organic about the development of love. Some people have a lot of it already, and so, even when they meet with some difficult person, or situation, they can respond from their abundant inner resources of generosity, patience, and kindness. Most of us though, will have to find our way there gradually. Within the category of difficult person, again, there are degrees we can work with, like with lifting weights, or developing a skill, such as playing music.

I learned some things in classical music study that apply here.  In classical training, they say that ‘slow is fast’, meaning that careful, attentive practice will get us to our goal in the most effective way.  There is also the tradition, in music pedagogy, of training progressively with studies, so that the more difficult techniques can gradually be mastered. With this under their belt,  a person can then play pretty much anything they want.

It’s much the same way in cultivating metta for the difficult person, or situation.  Standing in line at the bank, or in traffic, are usual ones I can point to, that has no one to blame, in particular, but that gives us some opportunity to develop even a bit more patience, respect for others, and goodwill as we’re standing, or idling there.

There are times also when we may feel like our friends or family are not there for us, or have been unkind in some way. Forgiving and letting go of any feelings of recrimination is maybe easiest with this group, because after all, they have done so much for us. Again, we start with  those for whom it is easiest for us to let go of past perceived wrongs, and renew the relationship. Then we can gradually extend that skill we’ve developed.

It’s useful, maybe even essential, to include ourselves in the so called difficult person category. There will definitely be times when being with ourselves is not easy – for whatever reason. It could be an uncomfortable feeling in the body, or some difficult feeling, such as anger or irritation that has arisen. Taking it further, when we look into our lives, we can see how much we need acceptance, kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. That is the basis for extending it to others.

‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, and so on.

Grace and barbarity

I’ve been thinking lately of some of the Christian terms, such as sin and salvation, and especially of grace. It seems we don’t have an equivalent for grace in Buddhism, although I do sense it there as well.

We can talk about karma, and look at it as a kind of cosmic justice – in that wrong actions bring suffering with it, but when it comes to the love we receive, and share with others, it seems to me that this is something we can’t begin to measure out, or say is deserved, or not deserved.

Love seems to me to be a gift, the supreme gift, that trumps even cruelty, barbarity, and injustice.  It ‘keeps no account of wrongdoing’, and it has the capacity to wipe the slate clean, so we can begin again. How can we even start to measure something like this? It is truly radical, and of another order altogether from what’s bargained back and forth in our so-common, selfish relationships. The love that is cultivated step by step, following it’s organic development, can reach the stage where even those who are inimical towards us are treated with kindness in return.

The term ‘enemies’, as in ‘love your enemies’, I think of these days as some pretty clever marketing, designed to get our attention. After all, if someone is our enemy, by definition, they are someone we don’t love, and probably even someone we hate back in turn. Isn’t that the way it is? It’s clear, after some reflection, this is saying that, from our side, not to have enemies. It’s about how we hold this person who is threatening, or abusing us, or someone we feel close to.  Do we see them as evil? As irredeemable? Maybe we do if we have the notion of ‘unpardonable sin’, or ‘original sin’ or ‘eternal damnation’.  In Buddhism though, the whole group of those who cause harm is viewed differently, and in a way that can be worked with much more effectively, for all our sake.

First, we don’t assert original sin, but rather original goodness, or purity, called in teachings called our Buddha Nature, or Divine Nature, that is the basis for the potential for change. If we don’t see this, or at least acknowledge it as a possibility, then those who are doing wrong will be seen as always being the way they are, with no chance of change. Then of course, what choice would we have other than to set ourselves in opposition to them forever? But seeing the potential for change, we’re not so set in our attitude towards those who are doing harm. We’re more optimistic, based on what’s taught, and also something that we can know in ourselves.

Secondly, when dealing with the difficult person, the greed and anger people show comes from ignorance. They may be powerful, or in a position of authority, but they are no less playing out the very same dynamic we find in ourselves, and in those who give us a hard time in our every day lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t get out of their way, or defend ourselves or our loved ones, not by any means, but the whole context of what we are doing changes when we see these two points – that the harm people would cause comes from their ignorance, and, that this can change. Now we are ready, I think, for loving even our enemies, or those who or those who are hostile towards us.

I know it comes up so often as an example of how it is impossible to return good for harm, that it may illustrate the principles at work to use the example of what happened mid twentieth century, as the National Socialists in Germany set themselves against the entire Jewish people. The idea of these groups seem so set in our minds.  The moral lessons that seem so clear cut to many often include the implied idea that it is impossible to love some individuals, or groups of people, and, in fact, it would be foolish to do so, and cruel to ask another to, as well.

These days, we can probably substitute the Jewish people and the Palestinians, or Klan members and blacks in the South in the 1960’s, or the Japanese in China in the Second World War; the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda, or the US military and the Native population here.

Looking back we can ask, in every case, have there been former Nazis or Klan members, or others who have changed their views, or regretted their actions? Haven’t some racists overcome their prejudice?, We all know that some have, and, if this is so, then what does that tell us about all those who committed such crimes?  Two things: that they were deeply ignorant, and, that they had the potential for change.

Ultimately not taking sides, there is hope for the future. How do you not take sides when good and evil are so obvious? You do it by regarding humanity as one; one in noble birth and heritage; one in our sacred destiny, or divine potential. The mind that sees this is far from the mind of racism, or class superiority, or exploitation, and this is exactly what is needed. It is true medicine, and sustenance for all our days.

In the end, looking back, what I can say is that ‘these are things that were done to the people of my own human family’, and ‘these are things that were done by the people of my same human family – ’ May everyone here awaken from such ignorance, and may I be a cause of that!

To dial it back some, because we can probably continue to judge the wrongdoers in history without an end to it, we can look at whatever instances of wrong have been done by our own country, by ourselves, or to ourselves.

Where does forgiveness in each case come from? It comes from understanding, and from the intention to move forward, knowing how much better we can be, and how much more we can do for one another, when our lives are based on what has true, eternal value, based, namely, on love.

In the book, Mount Analogue, the narrator says we should keep in mind the summit, the goal of our journey, while watching the step that is right in front of us, and that while keeping to the path, we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal.

The immediate principle in metta practice is that we start with whatever is easiest for us, and go on from there. There is another key piece to this, however, that that is, that we always start wherever we are just now. This gives us plenty of room for our difficulties, and is the most encouraging aspect of it for me. Such a high aim as universal love and compassion is achievable, and this should inspire us. On some days though, may we look up, or look at our own mind, or at the world we live in, and get discouraged at how far we are from any kind of ideal at all. This essential principle, of always starting from wherever we are now keeps us on course. We don’t get carried away if we seem to be making progress on some days, or dejected if we slow down, or stop or even seem to go of course for a while. I heard this phrase, that, when walking someplace, resting does not mean turning back.

I like very much that Jesus spoke of going beyond our own family, or clan, when developing our love. This is surely something that is possible, if we set ourselves to go in that direction. Step by step we can get there.

I feel a great enthusiasm when I so much as get a glimpse at this possibility.  I try not to get too carried away with it, after all, since there is still so much to be done here.  Still, once in a while, to go to the mountain top, to take in the great vista, and fill our lungs with clean air, this is something we will surely carry with us everywhere we go.

{For Dom Laurence Freedman}

From Living in Beauty – Buddhist Loving Kindness Practice