“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.”

This one was brought to my attention recently as a quote I haven’t written up. My correspondent was very suspicious of it, and in a way he was right: it’s not at all typical of how the early scriptures quote the Buddha.

It was however from a sutta (Buddhist scriptural discourse) that I know very well, although I’d characterize it as a good paraphrase rather than an actual quote.

It’s from the Karaniya Metta Sutta:

Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.

You can find the entire sutta (which isn’t very long) on Access to Insight.

Lawrence Khantipalo Mills’ translation on Sutta Central is as follows:

Just as a mother at the risk of life
loves and protects her child, her only child,
so one should cultivate this boundless love
to all that live in the whole universe.

The original stresses the mother protecting rather than loving her child, so a better paraphrase would be “Love the whole world as a mother protects her only child.” Still, it’s not too far off as it stands. I can’t bring myself to call this “fake” but it’s also not an actual quote, so I’ve put it in my “fakeish” category. No disrespect is intended by this categorization.

4 thoughts on ““Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.””

  1. I remember reading somewhere that the actual meaning of that passage is not “love all beings as a mother loves her child”, but “do your lovingkindness practice with the same care and attention that a mother gives her child”. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read that or who wrote it.

    1. Well, someone may have made that claim, but it doesn’t mean they’re correct. All the reputable translations have pretty much the same meaning. Here’s Thanissaro’s for example:

      As a mother would risk her life
      to protect her child, her only child,
      even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
      with regard to all beings.

  2. It turns out it was Thanissaro who made the claim I slightly misremember above. I’ll let him explain in his own words:

    “Some people misread this passage — in fact, many translators have mistranslated it — thinking that the Buddha is telling us to cherish all living beings the same way a mother would cherish her only child. But that’s not what he’s actually saying. To begin with, he doesn’t mention the word “cherish” at all. And instead of drawing a parallel between protecting your only child and protecting other beings, he draws the parallel between protecting the child and protecting your goodwill. This fits in with his other teachings in the Canon. Nowhere does he tell people to throw down their lives to prevent every cruelty and injustice in the world…”

    source https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/metta_means_goodwill.html

    1. Bhikkhu Sujato commented on that interpretation, saying that he didn’t think it was correct:

      [U]nless I am mistaken, the verse is in fact urging us to develop metta for all beings.

      The Pali:

      Mātā yathā niyaṃ puttaṃ,
      āyusā ekaputtamanurakkhe;
      Evampi sabbabhūtesu,
      Mānasaṃ bhāvaye aparimāṇaṃ.

      The two padas reflect each other, pivoting on the optative verbs (here the usual ending “eyya” is abberviated as “e”, which is common in verse.) One should protect one’s child; one should develop one’s heart limitlessly. It doesn’t say you should protect your heart limitlessly.

      Now, the grammar doesn’t clarify what exactly the “limitless heart” means, but obviously it must be taken in the sense that “one develops one’s heart to become limitless”.

      How do you do that? By having for all beings the same love that a mother would have for their child. The “all beings” is in the locative, which is the normal case in Pali that is used to express the idea “to develop metta for…”. So the verse is saying that one should develop a boundless heart (of metta) for all beings, as a mother would protect (with metta) her only child.

      The problem is that it is poetry, so it is expressed in a somewhat elliptical and metaphorical style. The verse, for example, doesn’t even mention the word “metta”. But it’s obvious from the context that that’s what it’s talking about.

      Of course this is still not identical with the quote, which mentions “whole world”. However, it is an accepted Pali idiom, explained as such in the commentaries, that “world” (loka) is often used in the sense of “all beings” (sattaloka). So I think it would qualify as an acceptable translation to render “sabbabhuta” as “whole world”, even if it is not exactly literal.

      Thanissaro is arguing against taking this verse as an exhortation for us to sacrifice ourselves: “Nowhere does he tell people to throw down their lives to prevent every cruelty and injustice in the world.” But who would be claiming that we should? I suspect that in arguing against that (possibly straw man) argument he’s gotten a bit carried away and is denying what the verse is saying, which is, in Sujato’s words, “one should develop a boundless heart (of metta) for all beings, as a mother would protect (with metta) her only child.”

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