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The lover’s calling and the Four Divine Abodes: Dynamics of relationships and the Buddhist vocation

This week’s column is dedicated to Jo.

The coming Sunday is Valentine’s Day, the day on which couples take a special time-out for each other and exchange gifts as tokens of their devotion. It might seem unusual to bring Buddhist thought into what is often seen as a Western commercial bonanza. In other words, what can Buddhist activism offer love? Two observations should first be made. It is unlikely that the real St. Valentines (there are several) intended their martyrdoms for Christ to be represented by oily chocolates and stuffed teddies. The connection between the celebration and the etymological origin of Valentine’s Day is actually non-existent. Cynics of Hallmark and romance might go further and call the connection a lie. The point is that while Buddhism is not originally tied to Valentine’s Day in any way, it does not prevent the wisdom of this ancient religion to influence the young festival since the latter only dates back to the 17th century and has nothing to do with its own “founders.” The second, more salient observation is that Buddhist philosophy and ethics can give us a more secure and grounded vision of love, one much more solid and fulfilling to practice in the long term. This love is defined by altruism and moral excellence rather than attachment, which is a major theme in Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, attachment is, in the end, an ultimately unsatisfactory way of finding happiness.

A possible common thread between Buddhism and Valentine’s Day is really the aspect of dana, or generosity. In Buddhism, to perform dana is to be generous in giving towards the Buddha and the Sangha that maintains the Dharma’s presence on Earth. It also means to be charitable towards the poor, and to support worthy causes such as welfare or conservation organizations. The message of Valentine’s Day is essentially to give to one’s beloved – to be generous in love, and to give fully of oneself so that the relationship between two people may grow in selflessness. The gifts are sometimes similar to religious offerings: highly symbolic, their meaning understood only by those who know or accept the ritual of love. Ideally, my intention for gift-giving on Valentine’s Day should not be to receive presents or favours in return, although that can be a by-product of my partner’s gratitude. Relationships take time and need the proper conditions: we should not expect them to be determined by a single twenty-four hour day, even if the meaning we accord to it is very special. In the same way, donating to a temple or laying offerings before a Buddha’s statue should not be spoiled by thoughts of being blessed in return. The omniscient Buddhas do everything according to their own time.

The conventional pitfall of romance is that love becomes potentially centered around attachment. Of course, a degree of attachment is inevitable for most people, but very often this attachment becomes the locus of the relationship. This is, according to Buddhism, not the most noble or even the most fulfilling love one can enjoy. By “attachment,” Buddhism does not teach that one should be cold and distant. Buddhist practice sits at an interesting crossroads between love and the vocation to the Buddha. Many Buddhists can reserve their heart for one person while serving all sentient beings as future enlightened ones. This is not a contradiction. For mature adults who earnestly practice a spiritual path, the absence of besotted and delirious feelings reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet speaks less about the quality of their relationship and more about their maturity. In the sutras, falling obsessively in love typically happens to sixteen year-old females. This is not only because of the idea that such a girl’s beauty is in full bloom. It is also because when one is as young and lacking in wisdom and insight, “love” and “being moonstruck” cannot be disentangled from each other. The point is that true love, is not the same as being moonstruck, because to be moonstruck is to be deceived by an image, an ephemeral assumption that is neither true nor lasting. In the Buddhist vision, true love is much wiser than that.

The crux of a mature relationship is in the word “partner.” A partner does not and should not make someone whole, contrary to what modern idols claim. To make someone whole is to imply that they are lacking an essential piece of themselves, and as Shakyamuni declared, only the power of self-discipline and wisdom can bring honest satisfaction (and bring one to gnosis of the Buddha and the Dharma). Of course, partners often feel great passion towards one another, and Thich Nhat Hanh notes that along with a caring and compassionate attitude, this makes sex a very beautiful act. But this is not dependence. It is the understanding between two people in communion with each other that there is no separate self. With this realization, physical communion gains a spiritual dimension. Because of this, the Buddha noted that the practice of true love involves cultivating the equanimity arising from the anatta insight.

This equanimity that helps relationships grow and mature comes from the Four Divine Abodes. The other three are loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy. Loving-kindness prevents suffering to one’s partner. Compassion helps her to recover from suffering. Sympathetic joy allows one to share in her happiness. The same practices would apply from the other partner’s perspective. The Four Divine Abodes ensure that the relationship is centered around compassion and, in a sense, makes it true to itself: self-sacrifice does not become as tiring as it can be for so many in love. The Four Divine Abodes discipline one’s thoughts, speech, and actions and transform harmful deeds into helpful ones. This naturally leads to the moral excellence that is championed by Buddhism as the ideal morality for laypeople.

The famous Japanese Pure Land master, Shinran, believed that marriage could be a complement to a sincere religious life. His vision was of two partners helping each other grow in spiritual maturity. For him, it was ideal that husband and wife take advantage of their intimate association to help each other train their minds in Dharma. In contrast, Nyanaponika Thera, a seminal Theravada monk who passed away in 1994, asserted that there would inevitably be sacrifices if one took the spiritual life seriously. One of these, if one was to be fully committed, was to leave the home life and become a celibate bhikku, a member of the original Sangha hailing from the Buddha Himself. Modern Buddhism accommodates both of these views while allowing different options in between. From this author’s perspective, the success of love hinges on its support by the Four Divine Abodes. They will ensure that a couple’s care for each other is truly on the road to selflessness. And if nothing else, involved gentlemen can at least follow the Buddha’s wry but compassionate advice for them: honor her, be faithful to her, share authority with her, and of course, give her befitting presents like jewels and ornaments.

The Blessed One, in His wisdom, really did make room for Valentine’s Day.

An old couple, an “ideal couple” as they were called, once came to Buddha and said, “Lord, we were married after we had been acquainted in childhood and there had never been a cloud in our happiness. Please tell us if we can be remarried in the next life.”

The Buddha gave them this wise answer: “If you both have exactly the same faith, if you both received the teaching in exactly the same way, if you perform charity in the same way and if you have wisdom, then you will have the same mind in the next birth.”

– Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, English edition (1999)

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