The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). From wikipedia.org
A good deal of contemporary Buddhist literature exists that confronts unhealthy and deluded ideas of romantic and sexual love. Today’s popular media and advertising certainly peddles a distorted vision of erotic desire, or eros, as one of self-fulfillment and attachment. Yet eros is not the same thing as sex. It is an inner impulse striving for union with phenomena, ideas, and people. Erotic desire for the human form is the most obvious aspect, but eros can also be directed at moral virtues, nature, music, culture, and art. Notably, it can be aimed at the sacred or holy, too.
From St. Teresa of Avila to Beethoven, people throughout history and today have experienced eros as a mysterious and creative force shaping connections with each other and the world. Eros is marked by a longing to establish complete relationship, a drive toward union with what we viscerally feel we belong to. Could eros even have a spiritual function and help us to love better?
The Buddhist ideal of love often manifests as loving kindness (metta) towards all beings. However, it is balanced by insight (prajna) into their lack of an inherent self (anatman) and
ultimate emptiness (shunyata). Buddhist doctrine reasons that wisdom facilitates non-attachment, while loving kindness helps one to love beings equally.
The Theravada monk Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano proposed a moderate compromise between what he saw as the reality of human frailty and the ideal of nirvana. “The only remedy for love is to love better,” he wrote in an essay. “The Dhamma purges the grasping, selfish qualities from our love and makes it purer and nobler. . . . If we keep the ideals of the Dhamma before us we will gain a measure of insulation against worldly inclemencies” (Nyanasobhano 2005). He sees romantic love and eroticism as a by-product of being human, and hopes that the understanding born of Dharma will supersede.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, while not necessarily disagreeing with Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, frames love in a more affirming way, perhaps because he himself fell in love with a nun many years ago in Vietnam (Thich Nhat Hanh 2006, 15–27). For him, the Four Divine Abodes or Four Immeasurables (brahmavihara) of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha) are the criteria that determine ethical and sustainable love. In his Five Mindfulness Trainings, disciples must recite the commitment to “take care of their sexual energy.” The Vajrayana tradition goes one step further, where the sexual act itself can be a form of practice for the initiated.
Theravada and Mahayana conceptions of love do not address eros thoroughly. But an informal movement called the theology of the erotic poses an intriguing and formidable challenge. It decries conventional religions’ historical tendency to downplay, restrict, or excise erotic desire. It suggests: “Drawing out and naming explicitly the deep and ambiguous powers of eros may well be a frightening step. This is especially true, of course, within the framework of religious traditions that have struggled for centuries to bind and limit the forces of the erotic, to keep them from emerging into full view. . . . To live a fully human life means to take up the challenge of realizing our creative potential as erotic beings. It means to recognize the ambiguities of the ‘vital dynamics’ that shape our biological and social existence, and to focus the power of our vital energies in just, creative, and life-sustaining ways” (Irwin 1991, 190).
The theology of the erotic is not a critique of Buddhist philosophy. Yet it seems to speak to many schools of Buddhism because it questions our conventional formulations of love. It lauds eros as a central religious emotion, claiming that the erotic longing for “union with ultimate reality” complements the supposedly “higher” religious notions of compassion and divine love (Tillich 1955, 72). According to the theology of the erotic, without erotic passion firing our longing for an answer to our “ultimate concern,” there can be no human experience of enlightenment.
Of course, this does not mean that erotic theology is totally correct. Eros is ambivalent. It initiates great creativity, emotion, and meaning, but can also lead to despair, immorality, and hypocrisy.* We also have not asked if eros is just a “better” form of desire, a fire that the cool water of enlightenment should still douse. Nevertheless, erotic theology opens up a space to discuss how understandings of Buddhist love could evolve and progress. Buddhists could explore how our eros, deeply rooted as it is in our biological and psychosexual reality, may aid us in coming to a more sophisticated understanding of love. Such a conversation could help us to more fully engage with and embrace the suffering and injustices of the world.
There are also “echoes” of enlightening, uniting eros discourse in certain aspects of Buddhism. There is the love that the courtesan Vasumitra gave to the pilgrim Sudhana, who later perceives the radical inter-relatedness celebrated in the Gandavyuha Sutra. One also finds echoes in Pure Land Buddhism, where the single-minded recitation of “Namo Amitabha” is pointedly called “intimacy” (qin), denoting the absolute union of Amitabha with those invoking him. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the illusory separation between meditator and externally perceived deity dissolves into emptiness. One of the central insights offered in Vajrayana and Zen is that our visceral longing is a psychological illusion, as we are already inseparable from the people, virtues, and religious ideals we are drawn to. This could indicate a fruitful ground for dialogue between Buddhist traditions and the theology of the erotic.
Reframed in Buddhist language, perhaps coming to terms with the eros within ourselves means accepting that we are inevitably and inseparably linked with the lives of all beings. We are, in every rebirth, passionately invested in the karmic forces and cosmic processes that shape every sentient being. We are all caught in a web of passionate relationships and endlessly reborn lives that implicate us all. Therefore, our attempts to find freedom from suffering will fail if based on separating ourselves from others, or separating the reality of eros from the concept of love. In unexpected ways, Buddhism might be able to help us channel our eros into a more radical, intimate inter-relationship with the universe.
* See Irwin 1991, 113–18 and Tillich 1973, 20–21; 240 for the havoc and grief that theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) wrought with his eros through numerous extramarital relationships.
Irwin, Alexander C. 1991. Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2006. Cultivating the Mind of Love. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Tillich, Hannah. 1973. From Time to Time. New York: Stein and Day.
Tillich, Paul. 1955. Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.