Buddhism has produced a vast body of literature dealing with the subject of love. From the sutras to eminent philosophers and modern professors – it is difficult to imagine that a stone remains unturned on the subject of love. Yet we still keep seeking answers. I think it is largely because of the fact that the individual experiences love. There exist many answers because there are many stories and questions that are initiated by unique individuals.
As I understand it, Buddhism envisages divine or transcendent love as specifically compassion (maha-karuna). The Buddha declared that it was a way to salvation or liberation. His very preaching was compassion incarnate because he did not actually need to preach, but loved the universe enough to do so because he wanted to show all creatures the path to liberation. Buddhist love is communicated as compassion due to the mere existence (or brute fact) of suffering, which is the most basic thing “wrong” with our world. With this there is no need for a concept of sin to account for moral and gross evils. And although Buddhism is realistic, the whole point of the Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be transcended; implicitly meaning that suffering should be transcended because it is something that’s “not supposed to be.”
But how can suffering be extinguished and how can be happiness is realized? Love needs to be creative to answer this problem, in the same way an artist looks at a blank canvas and sets about creating a masterpiece, or a composer puts pen to paper and write a concerto. Love requires the same kind of intelligent energy, vision, and skill that creates what is not initially there. A relationship of love and empathy does not always just “happen”; it is created and sustained.
In this sense, when one loves in the way described above, one is not being “irrational”. Certainly, emotions are involved, and the Buddha never denied this. But the fact that emotions are involved in love does not logically mean that it is illogical, misguided, delusional, or lost to reason. As many masters have taught, it is necessary to feel the emotions of empathy, love, and compassion to be able to grow into a spiritually whole individual. Once again, Buddhism defies the black-and-white stereotypes about romance and love, be they positive or negative.
Compassionate and creative love, finally, contains an element of centredness that is the topic of much interest to modern psychotherapists, Buddhist counsellors, and practical theologians. I need to be centred on another’s feelings and experiences to understand compassion as more than an abstract principle. Likewise, I cannot be creative with someone if I don’t care about her or what happens to her. Being centred on someone is the opposite of being self-centred – although I can never be totally absorbed in empathy, I can lay aside my-self to attend closely to the other’s needs, giving them a space in which they can express their troubles and hopes.
Brought together, compassion, creativity, and centredness are what would seem to animate love and give it the life-affirming qualities treasured by so many.