What Love Is

Ayya Khema

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

Born in Berlin of Jewish parents in 1923, Ayya Khema escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 with a transport of 200 children to Glasgow. She joined her parents two years later in Shanghai, where, with the outbreak of war, the family was put into a Japanese POW camp, in which her father died. Four years after her camp was liberated, Ayya Khema emigrated to the United States, where she married and had two children. While traveling in Asia from 1960 to 1964, she learned meditation and in 1975, began to teach. Three years later she established Wat Buddha Dhamma, a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition near Sydney, Australia. In 1979 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka. She is currently the spiritual director of BuddhaHaus in Oy-Mittleberg, Germany, which she established. She has written numerous books in English and German, including Being Nobody, Going Nowhere (Wisdom Publications) and When the Iron Eagle Flies (Penguin Books).

Gandharan Buddha, 3rd/4th cent.

Most people are under the impression that they can think out their lives. But that's a misconception. We are subject to our emotions and think in ways based on our emotions. So it's extremely important to do something about our emotions. In the same way as the Buddha gave us the Four Supreme Efforts for the mind, he also outlined the Four Emotions for the heart. The Four Supreme Efforts for the mind are (1) not to let an unwholesome thought arise which has not yet arisen, (2) not to let an unwholesome thought continue which has already arisen, (3) to make a wholesome thought arise which has not yet arisen, (4) to make a wholesome thought continue which has already arisen. The Four Emotions—lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joy with others (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha)—are called the "divine abodes." When we have perfected these four, we have heaven on earth, paradise in our own heart.

I think everybody knows that above us is the sky and not heaven. We have heaven and hell within us and can experience this quite easily. So even without having complete concentration in meditation and profound insights, the Four Divine Abidings, or Supreme Emotions, enable us to live on a level of truth and lovingness, security, and certainty, which gives life a totally different quality. When we are able to arouse love in our hearts without any cause, just because love is the heart's quality, we feel secure. It is impossible to buy security, even though many people would like to do so. Insurance companies have the largest buildings because people try to buy security. But when we create certainty within, through a loving heart, we feel assured that our reactions and feelings are not going to be detrimental to our own or other people's happiness. Many fears will vanish.

Metta—the first of the Supreme Emotions—is usually translated as "loving kindness." But loving-kindness doesn't have the same impact in English that the word love has, which carries a lot of meaning for us. We have many ideas about love. The most profound thought we have about love, which is propagated in novels, movies, and billboards, is the idea that love exists between two people who are utterly compatible, usually young and pretty, and who for some odd reason have a chemical attraction toward each other—none of which can last. Most people find out during the course of their lifetime that this is a myth, that it doesn't work that way. Most people then think it's their own fault or the other person's fault or the fault of both, and they try a new relationship. After the third, fourth, or fifth try, they might know better; but a lot of people are still trying. That's usually what's called love in our society.

In reality, love is a quality of our heart. The heart has no other function. If we were aware that we all contain love within us, and that we can foster and develop it, we would certainly give that far more attention than we do. In all developed societies there are institutions to foster the expansion of the mind, from the age of three until death. But we don't have any institutions to develop the heart, so we have to do it ourselves. Most people are either waiting for or relating to the one person who makes it possible for them to feel love at last. But that kind of love is beset with fear, and fear is part of hate. What we hate is the idea that this special person may die, walk away, have other feelings and thoughts—in other words, the fear that love may end, because we believe that love is situated strictly in that one person. Since there are six billion people on this planet, this is rather absurd. Yet most people think that our love-ability is dependent upon one person and having that one person near us. That creates the fear of loss, and love beset by fear cannot be pure. We create a dependency upon that person, and on his or her ideas and emotions. There is no freedom in that, no freedom to love.

If we see quite clearly that love is a quality that we all have, then we can start developing that ability. Any skill that we have, we have developed through practice. If we've learned to type, we've had to practice. We can practice love and eventually we'll have that skill. Love has nothing to do with finding somebody who is worth loving, or checking out people to see whether they are truly lovable. If we investigate ourselves honestly enough, we find that we're not all that lovable either, so why do we expect somebody else to be totally lovable? It has nothing to do with the qualities of the other person, or whether he or she wants to be loved, is going to love us back, or needs love. Everyone needs love. Because we know our own faults, when somebody loves us we think, Oh, that's great, this person loves me and doesn't even know I have all these problems. We're looking for somebody to love us to support a certain image of ourselves. If we can't find anybody, we feel bereft. People even get depressed or search for escape routes. These are wrong ways of going at it.

On the spiritual path, there's nothing to get, and everything to get rid of. Obviously, the first thing to let go of is trying to "get" love, and instead to give it. That's the secret of the spiritual path. One has to give oneself wholeheartedly. Whatever we do half heartedly, brings halfhearted results. How can we give ourselves? By not holding back. By not wanting for ourselves. If we want to be loved, we are looking for a support system. If we want to love, we are looking for spiritual growth. Disliking others is far too easy. Anybody can do it and justify it because, of course, people are often not very bright and don't act the way we'd like them to act. Disliking makes grooves in the heart, and it becomes easier and easier to fall into these grooves. We not only dislike others, but also ourselves. If one likes or loves oneself, it's easier to love others, which is why we always start loving-kindness meditations with the focus on ourselves. That's not egocentricity. If we don't like ourselves because we have faults, or have made mistakes, we will transfer that dislike to others and judge them accordingly. We are not here to be judge and jury. First of all, we don't even have the qualifications. It's also a very unsatisfactory job, doesn't pay, and just makes people unhappy.

People often feel that it's necessary to be that way to protect themselves. But what do we need to protect ourselves from? We have to protect our bodies from injury. Do we have to protect ourselves from love? We are all in this together, living on this planet at the same time, breathing the same air. We all have the same limbs, thoughts, and emotions. The idea that we are separate beings is an illusion. If we practice meditation diligently with perseverance, then one day we'll get over this illusion of separation. Meditation makes it possible to see the totality of all manifestation. There is one creation and we are all part of it. What can we be afraid of? We are afraid to love ourselves, afraid to love creation, afraid to love others because we know negative things about ourselves. Knowing that we do things wrong, that we have unhappy or unwholesome thoughts, is no reason not to love. A mother who loves her children doesn't stop loving them when they act silly or unpleasant. Small children have hundreds of unwholesome thoughts a day and give voice to them quite loudly. We have them too, but we do not express them all.

So, if a mother can love a child who is making difficulties for her, why can't we love ourselves? Loving oneself and knowing oneself are not the same thing. Love is the warmth of the heart, the connectedness, the protection, the caring, the concern, the embrace that comes from acceptance and understanding for oneself. Having practiced that, we are in a much better position to practice love toward others. They are just as unlovable as we are, and they have just as many unwholesome thoughts. But that doesn't matter. We are not judge and jury. When we realize that we can actually love ourselves, there is a feeling of being at ease. We don't constantly have to become or pretend, or strive to be somebody. We can just be. It's nice to just be, and not be "somebody." Love makes that possible. By the same token, when we relate to other people, we can let them just be and love them. We all have daily opportunities to practice this. It's a skill, like any other.

Image: Seated Buddha, India, Gandhara, 3rd or 4th century. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

I wish you loving kindness this is a very beautiful article.

JKH's picture

Wow....what a great article. The truth hits home. Thanks.

bradrgarrison@gmail.com's picture

I'm with you. I really think she was onto something!

jackelope65's picture

My wife and I of 46 years practice the four supreme efforts and four abode towards each other as well as all beings , though clearly we have floundered, failed, and have been unjust on too many occasions. However, loving the other in thought and action allows forgiveness toward the other and ourselves. Progressively increasing our time, effort, and concentration in meditation and in post meditation has allowed compassion to flourish not only toward each other but all beings. I had a very difficult childhood but understanding karma has allowed me to love my parents without resentment and without limitations. Thank you for your presentation and interesting discussion.

sschroll's picture

Have you heard of "spiritual bypassing", an expression coined by John Welwood 30 years ago?. You can find an excellent interview to him, Google "Human Nature, Buddha Nature", John Welwood. This is where West wisdom contributes to East wisdom.
I also recommend reading Alice Miller!!!!

wilnerj's picture

"We can practice love and eventually we'll have that skill."

"If we practice meditation diligently with perseverance, then one day we'll get over this illusion of separation."

". . .love beset by fear cannot be pure."

These statements remain questionable at best. When love is practiced it is disingenuous as it is forced. Meditation entails no practice and cannot be forced. Either one perceives this illusion of separation or not. We practice to reach a goal. But when letting go seeing what is and opening to the love that is within us there is no practice and no goal. .Since when is love pure? Since when is anything pure? How true is this dichotomy between purity and impurity?

jmcmahon's picture

I appreciate your warning about goal setting, but I believe you are both truly in agreement.

"When love is practiced it is disingenuous as it is forced."

I think she's using "practice" to mean what you mean when you say "opening to the love that is within us." Just remembering to do that can be described as a practice, can't it?

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture

As with so many ideals we attempt to enact in our lives, the real life opportunities for love and growth are missed because we are striving so hard to get to someplace up there wherever it is that isn't where we are and we miss ourselves and the place we are in the present, the place we could engage with more fully and learn and find love for ourselves and others.

Thank you for this discussion, those who responded.

youngc23's picture

As someone who has grown up in a dysfunctional family and gone through several divorces, this article rings true to me. Imagine if one were to be raised by parents who had been taught to love in the way the writer says and then, as an adult, choose to give that to another in a relationship. Such love is strong, it's full of wisdom, and it's minus the expectations that bring about caos. But it has to be experienced in order to be valued, believed, and continually practiced. Of course, we're human, so we're not infallible and we're prone to error; thus, forgiveness has to go hand-in-hand with this kind of love.

James Mullaney's picture

To be unloved, though, for decades at a time, is painful, no matter how much you meditate and practice metta and love yourself. It's like trying to be a flower that never receives sunlight and rainfall. Eventually you will wilt.

I no longer follow the Catholic religion, but part of the appeal of Christianity is the belief that Jesus or God or Mary loves us. Why don't we talk more about Tara's love for us, or the love of the other Buddhist Goddesses? Or Avalokitesvara or Manjusri?

It's great to say that love is an inner quality of the heart. But sometimes human beings need love to come from outside ourselves.

wilnerj's picture

Avalokitesvara, Manjusri and even Amitabha are not external to our lives. But you make a valid and significant point. When we attempt to conjure up this love from within nothing appears. This is because there is effort and this blocks love. When there is no effort by placing ourselves into the care or presence of some person perceived as being other than ourselves and is addressed by us with the word you then love may happen.

dmcclelland's picture

"Needing" something, even love, is to be dependent upon it. The article is quite clear that dependence on something is not love.

James Mullaney's picture

What a yogi you must be, to be so self-sufficient! It's delusional and a misuse buddha dharma to claim that people don't need love. It takes much more spiritual maturity and confidence to admit that as persons we need to feel loved and recognized by others. Maybe when you're more mature in spirit you'll learn to trust your own experience of life - even more than the articles published in Tricycle magazine.

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture


James Mullaney's picture

Adults need to be loved too. It's just Psychology 101, no big mystery. Or are Buddhists afraid to confess a need to be loved by ANOTHER? Might appear...what? Weak? Unenlightened? Human, all too human?

We're humans. Humans have needs, and one of those is to feel loved.

dmcclelland's picture

Psychology 101 is really pretty limited in its understanding of the mind. Try the Abhidhamma for a more thorough understanding of how the mind works.

James Mullaney's picture

Been there, done that. But thanks for the tip.

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture

Thank you for saying this. Because it is the truth of growing. We were all children once who depended on parents and others to give us love. Some of us got distorted love or were neglected in different ways.

I feel strongly that the longing we have in our hearts for the love that wasn't there, even if we look outside of ourselves, is part of the evolutionary impulse to grow...as a plant that finally gets the nutritional elements that were missing finally grows strong and flowers. So we can heal our deficiencies by searching to find love and guidance outside of ourselves.

I feel the strict spiritual requirement and expectation of self-sufficiency and autonomy only sweeps problems under the rug. You never really get there.
It's a hollow autonomy, shaky and vulnerable at the core.
She says:"If we want to be loved, we are looking for a support system." To me this statementt also implies there is something wrong with that. And that it is better and more spiritual to just give generously from the heart.

Tell that to all the enablers who make it possible for their addicted partners to survive without the natural consequences of their addictions and thereby prolong their suffering.
Love and understanding coming from a loving partner or friend can heal. Imago therapy provides examples of this.
I say honor your longing for love. There can be guidance and healing in it.

dmcclelland's picture

We were children ONCE. Do you intend to remain a child, needy and vulnerable, or are you willing to grow up?

James Mullaney's picture

It's always ironic and telling to find enlightened Buddhists in denial of their own human needs. After all the hours of meditation, you still can't recognize your own face?

Dominic Gomez's picture

As children we crave approval, which we call love. This doesn't change much for adults. The difference would be that grown-up Buddhists can develop through their practice a strong subjectivity, dependent less on external approval/love and more on a solid sense of self.

James Mullaney's picture

So you think that all love amounts to is the need for approval? Interesting.

What do you suppose the concept of the interdependence of all life actually means?

Do you suppose the goal of spiritual practice is to attain a position of utter emotional self-sufficiency? And do you call that wisdom?

Do you suppose that enlightenment is a state of not needing to be loved?

Dominic Gomez's picture

No, love is not just need for approval. That's just one way it's expressed. Love is also seen in encouragement, support, compassion, empathy, guidance. The interdependence of all life is exactly that: all universal phenomena are interrelated. You are there, I am here. We are posting comments to each other. No man or woman is an island. The goal of Buddhism is world peace based on each person's indestructible happiness. Can't say that's the case with other spiritual practices. Wisdom is untapped common sense. The understanding of "enlightenment" varies with different belief systems. Buddhist enlightenment is considered all-encompassing, compared with a partial "Enlightenment" espoused by, for example, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire and Newton. A "need to be loved" would signify dependence on externals. "Love" yourself first, in all its glory and imperfections, then you can love others.

sabina's picture

Dominic, you say it best! Love is a complex interaction between two people, or a person and a group. We are social beings, so it starts on a social level and goes all the
way to love of different intensities the more we interact with
others. We humans also have the ability to fine tune our
loving relationships, clearing out the negativity, going deeper into the relationship if we want. And the basis of the love we feel might be physical, family, friendship, intellectual, or spiritual-- or combinations of the above!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you, Sabina. And Happy Valentine's Day to you!

jacquic37's picture

So much of what our culture deems to be love is conditional, addictive, superficial, and self serving. Learning what constitutes love is one of the greatest tasks one can commit oneself to and it starts in one's own heart.

wilnerj's picture

To love one's self is a forced gesture nothing comes of it. One does not will to love. It occurs on its own. Accepting this fact would then be the first step in finding love. But that would require no method, no exertion, no self-criticism, and no notion of independence from externals.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If not "love" you can at least like yourself. As you can be your own worst enemy you can also be your own greatest ally.

wilnerj's picture

This assumes that the self can be divided. And if this is so -- a divided self -- whereby there is an 'I' and an alter ego (you) then where is the self?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Where is the self, Wilnerj? Why, just take a look at your bathroom mirror...

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Buddhist begins by loving him- or herself first. Secure in that embrace he or she can then act as a bodhisattva to others.

wilnerj's picture

One does not begin. There is no initial step on the marga. In fact, there is no path. Loving one's self is a contrived endeavor like that of a conjurer trying to create from nothing what cannot become real.

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture

It's good to know that it starts with loving compassion for oneself....having grown up in a spiritual tradition that valued sacrificing oneself for love of the other....as in Mother Theresa's "Give till it hurts."....surely a template for codependency...where there is no room for my own needs, I have struggled with this question for many years.

As a woman in this culture, or even as a woman elsewhere, one learns to be selfless when taking care of children. To love without thought to one's own needs. I have given without thought to my own exhaustion and become sick.

In addition, we are, I was, bombarded with expectations to be good both spiritually, personally and culturally. Without examining those expectations more closely, we (I) become enablers for the addictions and dysfunctions of those with whom we are related, carrying an overblown sense of responsibility and guilt for everything gone wrong,

I think before we can "be nobody, go nowhere", we need to find, love and care for our own wounded hearts. Especially people on the "spiritual" path, we who could bypass ourselves and become "nobody" in an unhealthy way.

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture

Nobody in an unhealthy way being "needless and wantless". Hence the point of this conversation.

Parents who push their children to grow up, take away their supports before they outgrow them, who think parenting is about "crafting" a child, correcting and micromanaging...and who continue to do this all the way for many years....create the same kind of self expectation in that child as the spiritual ideal of autonomy (the topic of this conversation). So the grown up child thinks that if he doesn't need love from another person he must have achieved a level of spiritual achievement...so he feels proud for not being "needy". This sadly produces a lonely person caught in a "correct" thinking process. He doesn't realize how disconnected he actually is.

Only by being in contact with the truth of what is actually occurring inside of us can we begin to heal. "Practicing" giving love to others misses the opportunity for healing ourselves and then arriving at a genuine ability to give from a full heart. Being busy living and striving up to a spiritual ideal, one can't own up to one's real human needs and meet them. A whole lifetime can go by spiritually bypassing the wounds that are buried, the darkness, the hurts of the past that are affecting the present. Always striving to move forward towards the ideal can in effect become an avoidance of painful material buried in the subconscious.

Authenticity is what is missing. Always striving, ever upward and onward, moving toward that elusive ideal we hold in our mind, we go into fugue states, that darkness ever at our heels chasing us.

Enacting an ideal...how accepting is that? It rejects what IS.

Superego driven behavior allows us to give ourselves approval, and think of ourselves as good and virtuous. Things could be worse, but in my mind what is achieved is superficial. To be authentically whole and loving seems better to me. So to answer that person who asked me if I want to stay forever a child, no. I want to help her grow and flower.

Not always at the mercy of an internalized parent pushing her endlessly to be selflessly sacrificing.


I'm so happy that I read this! Ayya Kehma's writes with such clarity. I feel such a need to read her books.

rosemary.franklin's picture

One of the best readings. so fundamental and nourishing.
Thank you.

Alan Shusterman's picture

I feel the same way.

twl4148's picture

To many western minds, "being nobody, going nowhere.." is the height of failure, insecurity and aimlessness. To Ayya Khema is was the height of success, security and purpose. I do miss her.

apollonios's picture

When I first heard the phrase "A true person, of no rank" I felt as if the world had fallen from my shoulders. It climbs back up pretty frequently, but now I can shake it off.

yogadiamondmine@hotmail.com's picture

Emily Dickinson says it in one of her poems: "I'm nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too? How dreadful to be somebody/ How public like a frog/ To (forget) croak?...the whole long day to an admiring bog."

I found it truly astonishing and ironic that she was the favorite poet of one of my English teachers who was as "froggy" as one could get. Which I find heartening and at the same time all too human. I imagine he seemed to have had some realization of where he needed to go by admiring her consciousness.

The way I understand it is that here is an example of someone who is representative of the human condition. We are where we are and we try to move toward where we want to be.

The way I see it is that if we are always trying to get away from where we are, rejecting it, disapproving of ourselves, wishing we were more enlightened, admiring that beautiful ideal of "the loving person" we would like to become....and are not....frustrated by our human failings, ever striving to push down our own reactivity and behave rightly, become the ideal......we can never relax.

The work of accepting ourselves, feeling our feelings, being where we are....seems to me to need to come first. Only then does the authentic true compassion arise for ourselves and others.

At least that has been my experience.

Before that happens, the effort arises from a motivation to correct, to fix, to make ourselves better because underneath it all we believe we are flawed.

It's not that there is anything bad about this. It is just that there is still suffering. Tara Brach calls it "the trance of unworthiness."

This article is beautiful and rings right and true.
How can we get there though, if our premise is to reject ourselves and be caught in endless striving to become better?

fishman.ellen's picture

Ah, to be at ease with oneself is truly freedom.