He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.

A reader, Andy, wrote to me about this one. The subject line of the email was “PLEASE tell me this one is bogus!” I knew I was in store for something interesting.

Andy continued: “I hope you can confirm my gut feeling that this is a fake Buddha quote: “He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.” This seems a total distortion of the concept of non-attachment. And obviously completely at odds with loving kindness practice.” He pointed out that this quote is found on many sites.

Surprisingly, this one is a fairly accurate quote from the Pāli canon. I first came across it a few years ago in a Christian tract attacking Buddhism. Like Andy I was skeptical that this quote was accurate when I first came across it. The problem here is not that the quote is fake, but that it’s misleading unless understood in the context of other Buddhist teachings on love.

The original is found in the Visākhā Sutta of the Udāna, where the Buddha is depicted as talking to Visākhā, Migāra’s mother, who has just lost a grandson.

The Buddha teaches Visākha the connection between attachment and grief, and reminds her that every day people die.

“Visākhā, would you like to have as many children & grandchildren as there are people in Sāvatthī?”

“Yes, lord, I would like to have as many children & grandchildren as there are people in Sāvatthī.”

“But how many people in Sāvatthī die in the course of a day?”

“Sometimes ten people die in Sāvatthī in the course of a day, sometimes nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Sometimes one person dies in Sāvatthī in the course of a day. Sāvatthī is never free from people dying.”

In what seems like an odd attempt to console Visāka, the Buddha points out to her that the fewer people one loves, the less pain one experiences:

“Visākhā, those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred sufferings. Those who have ninety dear ones have ninety sufferings. Those who have eighty… seventy… sixty… fifty… forty… thirty… twenty… ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Those who have one dear one have one suffering. Those who have no dear ones have no sufferings. They are free from sorrow, free from stain, free from lamentation, I tell you.”

In Pāli, the two extracts of passage that comprise the quote are “Yesaṃ paññāsaṃ piyāni, paññāsaṃ tesaṃ dukkhāni” (those who have 50 dear ones — piyaṃ — have 50 sufferings) and “Yesaṃ natthi piyaṃ, natthi tesaṃ dukkhaṃ (those who have no dear ones have no suffering).

In the light of the Buddha’s other teachings on lovingkindness, we have to assume that he’s talking here about “dear ones” to whom one is attached, as opposed to having lovingkindness or compassion. In another situation, in the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha encouraged us to love all beings as if they were our own children:

Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.

What’s the difference between Visākha’s pain-inducing (grand)mother’s love and the mother’s love that Buddha encourages us to have to all beings?

In the latter case we’re cultivating mettā, or lovingkindness, which is a desire that beings be well and happy. We don’t have to know people to have mettā for them. We don’t even have to like them. In fact we can dislike them and still have mettā for them.

But in the former case, why does Visākha have love for her children and grandchildren? And what kind of love is that? For sure, she wants them to be well and happy, but does she feel the same way about all children, including children unrelated to her? We can assume that she doesn’t. She loves her children and grandchildren because they are her children and grandchildren. In other words there’s a form of possession and ownership that is characteristic of the love she feels. This sense of our children being part of ourselves is no doubt familiar to every parent.

The love Visākha feels is called pema, which is attached affection. The word pema comes from the same root as piyaṃ, or “one who is dear.” Pema is very different from mettā, where there is no such sense of possession. With mettā we want all children to be well and happy.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience pain when someone we have mettā for dies. I find it hard, in fact, to imagine the kind of “love” that would be so detached that it would not lead to suffering when the object of that love has died.

The well-known Sallatha Sutta suggests to me that the dukkha that we are spared by having “no dear ones” (i.e. no one to whom we are attached) is the added suffering that comes from being unable to bear the pain of loss:

In the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling.

The noble (i.e. enlightened) disciple still experiences painful feelings, and these would, I assume, include the feeling of loss. the fact that the passage I just quoted refers to a “bodily” rather than a mental feeling needn’t trouble us; the pain of loss is experienced at least partly as a physical pain, and it can even be alleviated with painkillers, according to neuroscientific research. At any rate the principle that non-reactivity prevents us becoming distraught over physical pain also prevents us from becoming distraught over mental pain. Whether you regard loss as physical or mental, the principle is the same.

The noble disciple does not “worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught.” There’s no resistance to the loss. It’s accepted.

It’s also a different kind of loss. Rather than the disappearance of something that is in some sense ours, we simply have the simply the disappearance of someone we’d wished well. In both cases there’s a sense of being deprived of a human presence which has been intertwined with our own, but in the case of attachment there’s the added sense of the loss being a personal affront.

The Buddha’s advice to Visākha tries to place her loss in the context of the universality of death. People die every day. The more we remember this, the less distraught we will be when someone close to us dies. We’ll still feel the pain, but we’ll be better placed to bear it with mindfulness and self-possession, since we won’t think, as people tend to, that we’ve been uniquely singled out for the experience of bereavement.

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Bodhipaksa

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23 thoughts on “He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.

  1. The phrase you use, “attached affection,” is a useful one to remember. It’s so hard to describe to others how love of family and friends is not a “good attachment” or an “acceptable attachment.” It can be so difficult to see how such relationships can be put into a niche that also can include greed, and other things the Commandments would say should not be “coveted.”

    When I talk about my love for/attachment to my dog with a heart problem they can begin to see how such attachment can be distracting and not useful to one’s spiritual well-being. Of course, then those folks just think I”m nuts and don’t put their own obsessions with their boyfriend’s affections (or lack), or child’s success, or their addiction to cigarettes or lattes under the same light.

    The looks I get when I use the word “covet” in discussions that are really about “attachments.” I should probably get out more!

    • Yes, these things are hard to explain. I wouldn’t say that love of family and friends is “not a good attachment” or “not an acceptable attachment” though. These things are quite natural, and they’re deeply biologically driven and no doubt have contributed to our survival as a species.

      But they do cause problems for ourselves and the others we’re in relationship with, especially in their more extreme forms. To take just the example of parents having trouble separating their children from their sense of self, you get parents who drive their children relentlessly as part of their own quest for status, or automatically side with their children when there are discipline problems at school, or become “helicopter parents” who are forever hovering around and who fail to let their children make their own decisions, let alone mistakes. Those parents would say they “love” their children, while at the same time they’re emotionally crippling them. That’s at the extreme end, of course, but there are milder forms of all of these phenomena.

      When you look at good parenting skills, there’s always a healthy dose of separation, and also a true concern for the wellbeing of the child, which goes beyond making the child immediately happy. A non-attached (yet loving) parent is a better parent.

      I think we just don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss these things very clearly. I suspect even the Buddha didn’t, and that he was stretching popular terms to breaking point and beyond.

  2. Bodhipaksa: “In another situation, in the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha encouraged us to love all beings as if they were our own children:
    Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.”

    Though many English translations of the sutta suggest this reading, I don’t think the grammar of the Pali will allow it. It is more likely that it is one’s own unlimited state of mind that should be read as the patient in the tenor of the simile, corresponding to the patient ‘only child’ in the instrument of the simile.

    • Greetings, bhante. Perhaps it’s because I’m linguistically challenged, but I’m not clear what your preferred reading of the Pali is. Could you take a moment and expand on your comment?

        • Thanks. It’s a good article, although I think there’s an element of a straw man argument going on where Thanissaro defines lovingkindness as “desire to be there for other people: to cherish them, to provide them with intimacy, nurture, and protection.” This is something we can only do with a limited number of people, while it’s clear that when people (or at least the people I know) talk about lovingkindness they’re meaning the very “friendliness” that Thanissaro contrasts with lovingkindness.

        • Anyway, thanks. The article does make clear the point that Bhikkhu Dhammanando was making above, that it’s our metta that’s being protected as a mother protects her only child, not all beings that are being cherished as a mother cherishes her only child. It’s an important distinction, and I’ll defer to the good Bhikkhus on the validity of this translation, although it’s interesting that the Buddha brought in the mother/child relationship at that point. If we were discussing Shakespeare we’d no doubt be talking about the multiple layers of meaning this brings to the text :)

      • Greetings Bodhipaksa,

        “mātā yathā niyam puttaṃ, āyusā ekaputtam anurakkhe,
        evampi sabbabhūtesu, mānasam bhāvaye aparimāṇaṃ.”

        To minimize the risk of the verse being misunderstood I would translate it:

        “As a mother might protect her own son, her only son, unstinting even of her own life, even so should he cultivate a mind [of friendliness], setting no limits with respect to any beings.”

        My aim in translating it so is to make it clear that the accusative noun puttam (son) on the first line corresponds to the accusative noun mānasam (mind) on the second line. It does not correspond to the locative noun sabbabhūtesu (with respect to all beings). Most English translations either mislead the reader into thinking that son corresponds to all beings, or else, like K.R. Norman, they leave it unclear what the correspondence should be between the elements in the simile’s vehicle and those in its tenor.

  3. Thanks for this, Bodhipaksa. I was 95% convinced that this was either bogus or a misquotation, and was quite shocked when I heard it was more-or-less accurate. Having read your post, though, I can now appreciate it in its wider context. (Taken out of context it can easily be misunderstood to mean that “love” causes suffering and should be avoided. Which is why I had such a strong reaction.)

    As humans we are indeed predisposed to form personal “attachments” of various sorts, but it seems to me the Buddha is encouraging us to examine these instinctual reactions (just like the drives towards pleasure and away from pain) in the wider context of impermanence, the suffering caused by clinging/grasping, and the false sense of ‘self’ that causes us so much trouble. And then to develop equanimity and acceptance, to learn to experience pain without adding suffering, and so on.

    In short: Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s wise!

  4. It appears to me to be saying, the more open you are through deep feelings for someone close, the more liable you may be to receiving pain from that person because you are more open to emotional pain from a very dear one than someone you have tried to be kind to in a supermarket queue. Metta is the double edge of living and loving. Happiness may also occur , and it’s what cements relationships hopefully,but it depends on every interaction and how things are remembered and acted upon by all parties. It certaqinly puts things in perspective for me today :-)

    • I don’t think this is to do with closeness, Fiona. The relationship described between Anuruddha, Nandiya, and Kimbila in the Cūlagosinga Sutta is very close indeed:

      “Anuruddha, how do you abide united like milk and water, friendly, without a dispute seeing each other with friendly eyes?”

      “Venerable sir, this thought occurs to me It is gain for me that I live with such co-associates in the holy life. So I abide with bodily actions of loving kindness towards these venerable ones openly and secretly. With verbal actions of loving kindness towards these venerable ones openly and secretly. With mental actions of loving kindness towards these venerable ones openly and secretly Sometimes it occurs to me what if I discard my thoughts and concede to the thoughts of these venerable ones. So I discard my thoughts and concede to the thoughts of these venerable ones. Venerable sir, we are various in bodies, and one in mind.”

      The difference between pema and metta is to do with the quality of the connection rather than its depth. It’s true, you’re going to have less depth of connection with a stranger to whom you’re friendly, but we develop metta also for those who are most close to us.

      As I sais above, pema has a quality of possessiveness about it, which is why it leads to suffering. I think there’s more to pema than this, but it strikes me as being one of its key features.

  5. A layman cannot understand Buddha and Buddhism. These are error in your way:
    “In the light of the Buddha’s other teachings on lovingkindness, we have to assume that he’s talking here about “dear ones” to whom one is attached, as opposed to having lovingkindness or compassion. In another situation, in the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha encouraged us to love all beings as if they were our own children:
    Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.”
    Metta doesn’t mean lovingkindness, it means boundless love. And only a monk can apply metta, not layman. Because to understand metta is not through precepts. Metta is not precept, is a mental condition. It is not necessary true that when you are applying Metta when you love someone, you help someone. It just being called a kindness. To understand metta is to meditate on fire air earth water.
    Buddha never speak to layman to have metta, he speak to monks. Unless you can show me any sutta where Buddha speak to laymen that they have to do that too.

    And why you interpret “Just as a mother would guard her child, her only child, with her own life, even so let him cultivate a boundless mind for all beings in the world.” as “Buddha encouraged us to love all beings as if they were our own children”?
    The true interpretation should be like like the words said. Read that words again.

    • Your statement that “A layman cannot understand Buddha and Buddhism” rather flies in the face of multiple strands of evidence. First, there were many householder disciples at the time of the Buddha. You may try to argue that those disciples did not understand the Dhamma, but then you’d have to explain away the fact that there were many householders who were Ariyans. There were many hundreds of householders who had attained stream entry, and many others who had higher degrees of realization. There’s even a sutta describing the qualities and practices of the householder stream-entrant.

      Your “thesis statement” being in tatters, it’s hardly necessary to deal exhaustively with the supporting evidence you provide. But let’s just touch on a couple of things:

      “Metta doesn’t mean lovingkindness, it means boundless love.”

      And “lovingkindness” here means “boundless love.” There are no exact equivalents in English for many Pali terms, but lovingkindness works for “metta.”

      “Buddha never speak to layman to have metta, he speak to monks. Unless you can show me any sutta where Buddha speak to laymen that they have to do that too.”

      Happy to oblige. How about the Saleyyaka Sutta? The Buddha’s talking to householders, and he describes the practice of lovingkindness/metta/goodwill:

      • Dear Bodhipaksa- I have check the link of Saleyyaka Sutta you posted above but I couldn’t find any instant of Budha talking to householders regarding Metta in that link- Kindly advise. Thanks

        • Hi, Michael.

          First we have, “Householders, there are three sorts of Dhamma conduct, harmonious conduct with the body; four sorts of Dhamma conduct, harmonious conduct with speech; and three sorts of Dhamma conduct, harmonious conduct with the mind….”

          Then as part of this exposition we have, “He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of his heart. [He thinks,] ‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!’”

          And as the footnote to this passage comments, “This passage is the basis for the expressions of good will that are often chanted in Theravada countries.”

          Metta is not explicitly mentioned here, but it’s clearly what the Buddha is talking about. A more explicit example would be the Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha gives some householders (who are not yet his followers) an exposition on the four brahmaviharas.

  6. Your work, your blog is good. However you can be better than taht, many works to do, if you really care. like how someone translate “hatred will not cease by hatred, hatred ceased by non-hatred” became like this: “hatred will no cease by hatred, hatred ceased by love.”

    I am about to link your web to my blog if only you are that good. So keep the good works. Much things to do.

  7. “Y shll lv th Lrd yr Gd wth ll yr hrt, wth ll yr sl, nd wth ll yr mnd. Ths s th frst nd grt cmmndmnt. nd th scnd s lk t: Y shll lv yr nghbr s yrslf.” Mtthw 22:37-39. Jss cm t brng th prfct wsdm f Gd nt th wsdm f mn. ll wh r srchng nd strvng ndlssly fr “nlghtnmnt,” cm t Chrst nd b flld frly, nt by wrks, bt by grc, nd b hmbld n lv nd srvtd t thrs, jst s Chrst dd, vn nt dth nd tht f th crss. “Whtvr thngs r tr, whtvr thngs r nbl, whtvr thngs r jst, whtvr thngs r pr, whtvr thngs r lvly, whtvr thngs r f gd rprt, f thr s ny vrt nd f thr s nythng prswrthy- mdtt n ths thngs”. Phlppns 4:8. Jss s lv, bt Bddh s stll n hs grv. n mst frst d t thmslvs bfr thy cn b brn gn n Chrst Jss. Mn s ppntd t d nc nd thn th jdgmnt, n rncrntn. n gd rsn why Chrstnty s trth s bcs th cntrl mssg s nt bt th wsdm f mn r wht mn cn d, thnk, mdtt, chv, r xprss, bt t s bt th glry nd svng pwr tht nly th Crtr f th nvrs s cpbl f prcrng. Mn cnnt sv hmslf by hs wn dngs h cnnt chv nlghtnmnt. Ths s dcvng yrslf nt thnkng tht y thr hv th nswrs r th nswrs dn’t mttr. Bt th trth s tht th nswrs d mttr nd mn cnnt fnd thm n hs wn, whch s why Gd rvld thm sprntrlly n Hs wrd, s tht ll my ndrstnd nd cm t slvtn by grc thrgh fth nd nt by wrks. Jss wts fr ll wth pn rms, nd sys n Mtthw 11:25-30, “ thnk Y, Fthr, Lrd f hvn nd rth, tht Y hv hddn ths thngs frm th ws nd prdnt nd hv rvld thm t bbs. vn s, Fthr, fr s t smd gd n yr sght. ll thngs hv bn dlvrd t M by My Fthr, nd n n knws th Sn xcpt th Fthr. Nr ds nyn knw th Fthr xcpt th Sn, nd th n t whm th Sn wlls t rvl Hm. Cm t M, ll y lbr nd r hvy ldn, nd wll gv y rst. Tk My yk pn y nd lrn frm M, fr m gntl nd lwly n hrt, nd y wll fnd rst fr yr sls. Fr my yk s sy nd My brdn s lght.”
    Ths fr gft s ffrd t y s tht y n lngr nd t lbr n lrnng nd ws tchngs nd mdttn, bt tht y my fnd pc nd rst n Chrst Jss, wh s Hmslf, Th Wy, Th Trth, nd Th Lf; nd wh s Hmslf nlghtnmnt.

  8. m srry f y fl tht t s rd, bt ts nt bt cnvrtng t rlgn, rlgn s cnstrct f mn, Jss cm t prch trth nd slvtn thrgh Hm, fr ll mn, nt rlgn. Rlgn s f mn nd f th wrld, trth s f Gd, nd nt f ths wrld. Rlgn cn nt sv, nly Gd cn sv. gnnly wnt ppl wh r ntrstd n Bddhsm t hr th pr gspl f trth, nt wtrd dwn r crrptd vrsn f t tht s prpgtd by th mny fls tchrs n th ntrnt nd n chrchs lk………whch s xctly wht Jss sd wld hppn.
    H ls sd tht Chrstns wld b htd fr Hs nmsk. Ths s why mny ppl s Hs nm s crs wrd. snd ths mssg s wrnng t ll wh thnk tht thy cn sv thmslvs frm nythng , b t sffrng, r rncrntn r hll r whtvr. nly Gd svs. Ths s Hs crtn nd nly H hs th pwr t cntrl wht hppns t t. H spk th nvrs nt xstnc, nd crtd s, H tld s whr w cm frm, why w r hr, nd whr w r gng, bt s mny ppl f ths wrld wld rthr plc thr hp nd fth n scnc r thr mgntns nd phlsphs, t nswr ths qstns, whch Gd hs lrdy nswrd. hp nd pry tht y wld rpst my lst cmmnt wth th vwls ddd s tht th trth f scrptr s nt wthhld frm nyn n ths st tht my b ntrstd n dyng t thmslvs nd bng rbrn n th sprt fr lv f Gd, mn, nd Jss Chrst. Ths s th rncrntn f trth thrgh th spr
    t. Pls cnsdr. Thnks.

    • OK. Since you seem to have some kind of compulsion I’ve marked your most recent conversion attempt as spam. Any further posts from you will be automatically deleted before I even log in. You really don’t understand this “rudeness” concept, apparently.

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