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 meant 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.