In the most ancient Buddhist texts, there is a mysterious word that eludes concise translation: “Papañaca.” In my understanding, papañaca is seeing a tree, zeroing in on the trunk and thinking “I can use that wood to build a house.” You may see an animal leaping freely in the wild, but see only one part. “Those haunches will make a great meal,” you might think. A man may see a lovely woman and think nothing of her education, her aspirations or the trials of her life. He sees only one part of her body and desires to possess it.
Everyone does this to some extent. It’s a natural function of our psyche. We could no more live without it than we could live without stomachs. Thinking in Jungian rather than Buddhist terms we could say that this is the way that the Universe operates in us to bring forth creation from destruction. The tree is no longer a tree. It is wood. The wood is now useless until it is built into a home. One must engage in papañaca to do this. Once it is done, it provides shelter to people. This alleviates much suffering. This is good, but we must be aware of the harm that is in it. That harm is like the black dot inside the Yin-Yang’s white swoop.
We must never cut down people like this, however, and we must never retroactively justify it. Can we look back on the people we have harmed and say “I did it because I loved you?” No. This is not true. Rather we must look forward and avoid harming others as much as we can. That is love.
Being aware of the harm in our help brings us to the opposite of papañaca: Mindfulness. The Buddha once explained how to confront hatred in others. I’ll paraphrase it here. “If you shovel earth into the ocean hoping to fill the entire ocean, will your work ever be accomplished? No. It will not. Likewise, if someone insults me, I will soak him with an awareness born of goodwill as vast as the ocean.”
This practice is not only useful when confronting harmful behavior. To “soak someone with awareness imbued with goodwill” is a wonderful definition of love. It removes from the idea of love all the possessive and coercive connotations our culture has surrounding love. Love is simply this: To be fully aware of another person, without judgment, so that you can help them be who they really are.
This is very much an art form. No one can create a formula or a guidebook to this process. We can, however, be inspired to find ways to love like this. Try holding this small idea in your mind: “After all these years, the Sun never says to the Earth ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole world!” The sun is simply being what it is. The earth simply accepts what the sun gives. Out of that natural relationship arise all the wondrous things that we see on this earth, from sage shoots to space shuttles. Imagine how much more wonderful it would be if we all loved like this! May you be one more person who does!
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