This must be the most difficult month to celebrate Valentine’s Day, with the nCoV scare that cautions us against all the hugging and the beso-besos we are used to exchange with loved ones and special someone. Lucky are those who are so averse to touching. This is one case in which a life of aloofness would seem much better than the practice of open arms, literally. So it is quite ironic that I should be writing about love, usually associated with closeness, big hugs and sweet kisses. Usually. But sometimes, we best veer away from our ordinary notions and explore novel ways of thinking about things. I therefore suppose that it is quite appropriate to say that this essay is not about romantic love. Not really.
It is often assumed that the Buddha did not endorse romantic love. While this is not true, Buddhist literature does extol the life of the monastic. Given the cultivation that one has to practice, often against the habits we have formed early on in life, it is always better to have the support of people who are also trying to achieve the same goals. But this does not mean that the Buddha disdained romantic love, or those that concern exclusive relationships. Perhaps, in this context, the distinction should not be focused on whether a relationship is romantic or non-romantic, but on whether it is true love or not.
Plato, in the Symposium, establishes that love is the desire for the good and the beautiful. He traces its different forms, from the love that is born out of attractions to the beauties of the body, through the beauties of the mind, to the love of Beauty itself. The last is, for him, the most true and perfect love. It is love of the ideal—the true essence of beauty, which endows all things beautiful the beauty that we find in them. Whereas the other beauties eventually fade away, the idea of Beauty itself is eternal. Loving Beauty as such would be, for Plato, true love. So even Plato placed non-romantic love higher than every other form. For Beauty itself will never change. It is eternal.
Such a beautiful insight. But really, who falls in love with the “essence of beauty”? It is a most boring prospect. If we love, we love in the concrete sense. We love people who are formed with flesh, blood, and bones. Most people think it is perfection, but it is the imperfection, the whole complication of being in love, that is craved for, isn’t it? And that is why one who loves could often end up so confused, so miserable, at times.
I must admit, though, that I have always been bothered by the idea of the suffering lover. I have always thought that love should be happy. That it should bring out the best in people. It should not make people miserable. (The world is miserable enough as it is.) Yet, this view has been questioned by the champions of “loving no matter what” where the “matter” makes them so unhappy. This is unconditional love, they say, the way love should be. We make it a condition itself that we suffer to prove our love to someone. Plato would not have approved. But would the Buddha have?
The Buddhist literature on love centers on the Brahmaviharas, literally, “the abodes of Brahma.” These are the four practices of true love: metta, loving-kindness, the practice of kindness and goodwill; karuna, compassion, the practice of alleviating suffering, mudita, altruistic joy, the practice of bringing happiness, and upekkha, equanimity and inclusiveness, the practice of seeing all things equally, and thus, achieving serenity. These four are also called “immeasurables.” (Anguttara Nikaya, Sutta 125-26) One who loves truly therefore brings about the happiness of all, including her own. She avoids causing suffering in the beloved, for the beloved’s sorrow is her own, and the beloved’s joy is also her own. The Metta Sutta describes the true practitioner of love in the following manner:
This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.
Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.
Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large, middling,
short, subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
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.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking, sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding here & now.
Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again will lie in the womb.
(translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
It is thus easy to see why we get the impression that Buddhism does not concern itself with romantic love. Love, in all its forms, inevitably leads to loving all. It is always directed towards spiritual release for all. But it does not preclude romantic love. It only precludes unhealthy, egotistic forms of romantic love. It is, however, far from Plato’s abstracted love. It is still actual, embodied love. It is just not what we normally think love is. It is a practice not so much in non-attachment, but in expansion of consciousness, so that we can be released from the usual limitations of our views. Love is found in practice. It is lived love. As easy as it might sound, it might not be so in actuality. As with any skill, we have to train for it, as the Metta Sutta above says.
So maybe, we could take some time now to reflect on our existing relationships and ask if they bring us joy, and if they inspire us to practice the Brahmaviharas, directed toward all sentient beings, not just the one beloved. As far as love-meters go, these immeasurables aren’t a bad set.
A Zen parable tells of the nun Eshun who, having received a note from a secret admirer, who is one of the monks she is practising with, asks him to “come and embrace” her, if he truly loves her. In spite of the various interpretations given of this parable, I choose to focus on Eshun’s demand to live love in the here and now. Too much thinking makes us lose out on what could give us true joy in the moment, where the eternal past and the eternal future meet.
This reminds me of a recent email exchange with a friend. He is over 90 years old, and still so actively researching and writing for the cause of interfaith understanding, which is how we met about six years ago. For some reason, we had an affinity one can’t, but need not, explain. I sent him a simple and sincere greeting and well-wishes for the new year. I was glad for his expression of delight. And he wrote, “I am getting too far along in years to hold back how I feel about people. So I sign off my note to you by writing Love,…”
That has given me so much joy.
Leni Garcia, MA, PhD works as a professor of Philosophy but lives as an artist-advocate for creativity, gender- and religious-inclusivity, pluralism, and environment care. When not trying to form deep connections with gentle, sentient beings, she pushes paint on paper, dances, and recycles odds and ends that can be recycled. Her favorite term-break activity is marathon-watching movie- and cartoon-series with her daughter.