In my writings, I have cited a number of instances where a word or phrase from the Pali has been translated into English in such a way that it distorts the meaning and thus causes barriers to those walking the path. This is yet another instance, and unfortunately I have been as guilty as others of using the common phrasing.
So where do we go to get a correct understanding of this basic Buddhist concept and a different way of expressing it in English? As I often do, I looked at Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha and interestingly found no examples of the Buddha teaching “unconditional love.”
Instead, what we find are numerous instances where the Buddha teaches the merit of loving-kindness (“metta” in Pali). The Buddha said that to abide with a heart full of loving-kindness is to be unaffected by ill-will, unhostile, and to extend ones heart to every living being.
Put into practice, loving-kindness thus means offering joy to all no matter what they may have done. It means helping to relieve the suffering of others. It means opening ones heart and understanding to all, without limitation, unconditionally, with equanimity. And from loving-kindness comes compassion because compassion comes from understanding and an open heart. These are in fact the Four Immeasurable Minds taught by the Buddha ... loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
To practice loving-kindness is thus what is meant when the phrase “to love unconditionally” is used. It has nothing to do with the English or really any other culture’s concept of love.
And the phrase applies equally to your relationship to yourself, your family and friends, and the world around you. It is to understand that we all suffer, we all are creatures of our learned experience, and that beneath all the suffering that we therefore in turn cause both ourselves and others, our true Buddha nature lies waiting to be uncovered, waiting to be embraced and to embrace us.