A prince went to see a famous sage. The dissolute prince complained to the sage that despite all his wealth and privileges he was not happy.
“Is there some advice you can give me, that might help me find some joy in my life?” implored the prince.
“If you could learn to love that would help.”
“But who must I love?”
“You must learn to love all,” said the sage.
The prince took the advice to heart. Immediately he eschewed his wealth and status, joined the local monastery, and then went to work with the poor.
He was astounded to see how little the peasants had. But soon, he came to love them. He worked alongside them in the fields. They were simple folk but largely hard working and generous. He played with their children, rejoiced when there was a birth and grieved when there was a death. In turn the peasants came to know him, accept him and appreciated his efforts to aid them in their arduous lives.
After a year he went back to the sage and said, “I am feeling happier. I believe I have come to love all.”
The sage smiled. “You have come to love many, but you still haven’t come to love all.”
The prince went away perplexed. He had come to love the poor. Who else must he love? Then it came to him. There was the privileged class to whom he had once belonged.
How could he love these? They were often profligate and wasteful and overwhelmed with pride and vanity. But after meditating on the issue for some time, he came to understand that, like all humans, these people were merely products of their circumstances. They did not choose to be this way. He could not avoid loving them for the foibles and behaviours that he came to understand they had learnt through circumstances beyond their control. Besides, there must be many, like himself, who, despite their privilege, were not happy. He was then able to relate to the real people that stood behind the facades of pomp, wealth and nobility. Eventually, with this renewed understanding he was able to extend his compassion to these people as well.
Initially he found the task a little difficult because many were familiar with him from his previous life. Some of them attempted to disparage him because he now seemed to have sunk so low. But the prince endured their slights with magnanimity and good humour which stifled much of the criticism. Besides he now seemed to emanate a sense of well-being which few of them could emulate.
Soon some of them were coming to him for advice and counselling. His previous experience as being “one of them” seemed to render his words more meaningful. His reputation for being a helpful confidante soon spread and he began to be somewhat revered by this privileged cohort.
After a year he went back to the sage and said, “I am happier now, because I believe I have come to love all.”
The monk smiled. “You have come to love many, but you still haven’t come to love all.”
Again, the prince left bewildered. He had learnt to love the poor and the wealthy. Who else was there to love?
Then it occurred to him that he had spent his whole time with the secular community. What about those who lived in his own monastery? He had hardly engaged with them. They were people too. And so, he sought out the novices from their cells and learnt about them. He helped them with their studies and tended them when they were sick. His humility was such that they never learnt that the one who cleaned their rooms and washed their clothes was a prince. His wisdom grew as he discussed their practice with them and contemplated their koans.
He realized that spending time with the novices and the adepts in the monastery drew his attention away from the material world. Buddhist practice was essentially about training the mind. The uncultured minds of most people are outwardly focused. They concentrate with dealing with the outer world. These students of Buddhism were learning how to deal with the inner world and, as the prince soon came to see, this was from where real contentment emanated.
The prince treasured the spiritual depth of these people. He admired their selfless dedication to their communities and was intellectually stimulated by the underlying psychology of their belief system.
Strengthened by this experience, at the end of the year the prince went again to the sage and said, “Master, my days are increasingly more contented. I have now come to love all.”
The sage smiled. “You have done well, prince but there is still one whom you must learn to love.”
The prince was greatly perplexed by this response. “But Master who is this one I have yet to love? Where might I find him?”
“Don’t look too far, prince. He is closer than you think.”
The prince retired deep in thought. He had come to love the poor, the rich, the secular and the holy. Who else might there be? The prince lay awake at night pondering this riddle. Then one night it came to him. He had reached out to love all in his community – all except himself!
The next twelve months he devoted to his own spiritual practice. He still helped the peasants and the privileged. He aided the novices in their trials. But, every day, he meditated in the morning and again in the evening. He sought out masters to help him understand the traditional learnings. He became at ease with himself and became renowned for his detachment and equanimity.
He never again went to the sage. But, after some time, to satisfy his own curiosity, the sage sought him out.
“Well, prince, what have you learnt?” the sage asked.
The prince merely smiled. The sage bowed deferentially, immediately sensing the inherent wisdom and well-being that the other now possessed. He walked away knowing intuitively the prince had learnt the final lesson.
It is true that those who do not love themselves find difficulty in loving others. When we are insecure about ourselves, our egos tend to make our relationships more difficult.
Many of us, particularly men, find discussion of love quite difficult. One of the reasons for this is the paucity of the English language. In Greek, for example, there were six terms that described the various forms of love, viz.
- Eros, or sexual passion. …
- Philia, or deep friendship. …
- Ludus, or playful love. …
- Agape, or love for everyone. …
- Pragma, or longstanding love. …
- Philautia, or love of the self.
In English, when we use the term it is unclear about which version of “love” we are speaking of. In spiritual discourse, like the parable above, the “love” under consideration is usually agape.
In my own writings I have defined “love” as the dissolution of separateness. In this parable that is what is intended, such that all humans need to recognise their commonality. Accidents of birth have resulted in us being of different genders, different races, and different religions and so on but our basic humanity, despite all of this, is just the same.
In this tale the prince had to learn that he shared his humanity with the poor, the privileged, the secular and the spiritual. What a fabulous lesson for all of us!
But his final lesson is a little more difficult to interpret. He was required to “love” himself.
It would be easy, accepting some interpretations of “love”, to believe this was encouragement to indulge in narcissism. But of course it is not.
The second most important law prescribed in the New Testament for Christians is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. Whilst this commandment is generally true it does presuppose that the individual does love himself/herself in an appropriate way. (If someone is a masochist, for example, it doesn’t really work!)
Similarly Buddhism exhorts us to display “loving kindness”.
Now the underlying principle here, when it comes to reconciling us with our sense of self, has been best expressed by my friend and colleague, Dr Phil Harker. Phil has always taught that the process of attaining psychological maturity requires that you should:
- Know yourself,
- Accept yourself and then,
- Forget yourself.
The act of self-acceptance means that in our human relationships we can take the “self” out of the equation and thus be more authentic. Instead of being self-obsessed we are more likely to empathise with and be more altruistic towards others.
In this way, despite the differences we seem to have due to accidents of birth and our various circumstances, at the deepest level (as the sages have always taught) we are All as One.