The Buddha On Love

“Suppose, bhikkhus, a man loved a woman with his mind bound to her by intense desire and passion. He might see that woman standing with another man, chatting, joking, and laughing. What do you think, bhikkhus? Would not sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair arise in that man when he sees that woman standing with another man, chatting, joking, and laughing?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“Then the man might think: ‘I love this woman with my mind bound to her by intense desire and passion; thus sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair arise in me when I see her standing with another man… What if I were to abandon my desire and lust for that woman?’ What do you think? Would sorrow… and despair arise in that man when he sees that woman standing with another man…?”

“No, venerable sir… Because that man no longer loves that woman; that is why sorrow… and despair do not arise in him when he sees that woman standing with another man…”

[Devadaha Sutta, MN 101.24-.25, p. 834, PTS ii 224, all translations in this post by Bhikkhus Bodhi and Nanamoli, Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha]

Maybe it’s because the words that have been passed down to us as being the Buddha’s come from such a different place and time — a culture that evolved into one very different from our own, two and a half millennia ago — passed on to us through a variety of languages and dialects, and changes in the meanings of the words; but for whatever reason, the sermons and stories are not crystal clear to those of us who read them in these times.

In many of the suttas (as the separate stories are called) there is a simple and obvious way to read the story and its moral, and, at times, that may be what’s actually being said — black and white, wrong and right, no subtlety intended — but at other times it is not. At those other times, an accurate reading takes a little more effort to discover a far more complex message.

How do we know when a deeper meaning is intended, and when we should take the words at face value? The answer I have come up with to that question — the one that works for me (your mileage may vary) — is that the Buddha tells us we can see his dharma for ourselves, right here, right now, in this very life. When I go to put the dharma into practice in my life, I have discovered that, fairly consistently, my moral compass aligns with what is being said.

An example of this can be found in the snippet on love quoted at the top of this post. This comes from a larger sutta in which the Buddha is describing to his monks (bhikkhus) how he has, in the past, shown a rival sect (Jains) that they are deluded when they think they can use up old karma with ascetic practices — and generate no more karma by doing no further actions at all (by holding completely still) and by this method, end all suffering. The simile of the man in love falls in the middle of this sutta, and at first glance the words can be interpreted as saying, “Don’t love and you won’t get hurt.” In answer to the Buddha’s question, the monks say the man will not experience sorrow “because that man no longer loves that woman” and the Buddha does not disapprove, so this is apparently the right answer.

Yet when I look at my own personal moral compass, I know that being so detached from life that I no longer love is not the right answer. There are many Buddhists who would say, however, that this is what the Buddha taught, and if I disagree, it is that I am rewriting what the Buddha said to bend it into conformity with my own beliefs, but I don’t think this is the case, and the evidence is right there in the sutta.

Just as, with the simile of the raft, to understand what’s being said, we need to look at the larger context of the sermon and message it forms a part of, here too, we need to look at the patterns of the language and relate the simile of the man in love, back to the larger point being made in the sermon. This is what’s needed to understand what is being said.

Up to this point the Buddha has spent a great deal of time explaining to his disciples how the Jains misunderstand how applied effort “exhausts suffering” and then he explains how, within his method, a certain sort of striving can be said to do this. The Jains have a one-to-one, black-and-white equivalency going, in which they set up situations in which they suffer so they can burn up past karma — pain = reduced karma — with no real correspondence between the sorts of action burning up the results of particular past actions. But what the Buddha slips under the heading of “exhausting suffering” is not really that sort of random directness of any-old action’s consequences being used up by any-old suffering you choose to inflict on yourself. However, by the end of the little piece quoted below, with careful use of language, he manages to make it sound as though his method is also as simple as action-removing-suffering:

And how is exertion fruitful, bhikkhus, how is striving fruitful? A bhikkhu who is not overwhelmed with suffering does not overwhelm himself with suffering; and he does not give up the pleasure that accords with Dhamma, yet he is not infatuated with that pleasure. He knows thus: ‘When I strive with determination, this particular source of suffering fades away in me because of that determined striving; and when I look on with equanimity, this particular source of suffering fades away in me while I develop equanimity. He strives with determination in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him because of that determined striving; and he develops equanimity in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him while he is developing equanimity. When he strives with determination, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him because of that determined striving; thus that suffering is exhausted in him. When he looks on with equanimity, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him while he develops equanimity; thus that suffering is exhausted in him.

He starts off by talking about how a certain kind of “determined striving” (in the Buddha’s case this would be the practices he outlines elsewhere, as opposed to Jain torments) the “source” of suffering fades away. He says “source of suffering” several times, but by the end he bends it back around so that it sounds more direct, by going from “such and such a source of suffering fades away” to “thus that suffering is exhausted in him”. This makes it sound, on the surface, as though Buddhist practice, done correctly, destroys (exhausts) suffering — which would include suffering previously generated. However, in the lengthy sections preceding this he has made it clear that our karmic actions in the past that were going to have a certain effect cannot be modified by anything we now do — they have to play out — so he is not actually saying “determined striving destroys suffering”. In fact, this is the point he is refuting. He is actually saying that determined striving destroys the “source of suffering”. His words, on the surface, say “practice destroys karma” — and since this reflects what the Jains are saying, he intends to make it sound that way — but he has made it very clear to those present that he’s saying something more realistic: practice changes something in us that stops the behavior that leads to suffering in the future, and changes our relationship to the suffering here and now as we look “with equanimity” at the source of the particular form our suffering takes.

When he gets to his simile of the man in love, he involves his audience for the first time, checking their understanding. They reflect right back to him the same pattern of language he used. He starts out by saying that the problem is that the man loves the woman “with his mind bound to her by intense desire and passion” — he loves her possessively, this is why if he sees her with another man he would get agitated — and only through letting go of the “desire and lust” for her (he doesn’t mention letting go of “love”) can he see her with another man and not get upset. The Buddha started by talking about the source of the suffering — the intense desire and passion — and his listeners end with an oversimplified answer — “stop loving her” — that perfectly reflects the oversimplified “striving ends suffering” just above.

If this seems like a reading that requires more convoluted thinking than should reasonably be needed to pull out the meaning, we just need to keep in mind that — though human nature apparently hasn’t changed a bit in the course of two-plus millennia — styles of speaking and pop phrasing have changed a lot. When we see the Buddha redefining the popular Jain sentiment of “determined striving destroys suffering” as something more subtle and complex, yet sounding just as simple — it isn’t a big step to imaging that “If you stop loving anyone you won’t get hurt” would also be a popular sentiment under discussion, but we find the Buddha redefining that with complexity similar to that used on Jain philosophy. This is a pattern throughout the suttas — he adopts popular concepts and phrasing, saying -“Yes, yes, just so, effort ends suffering”- to a Jain, and -“Yes, yes, just so, stop loving and you won’t feel anguish”- to a heart-sick lover, but the doctrine he has in mind when he says this is not the one the listener is thinking of at first. It requires concentration on the message, and checking it against experience to really “hear” what’s being said.

It’s not that striving destroys suffering by letting you use it up by adding pain to your life, it’s that a certain kind of striving destroys the source of suffering. It’s not ceasing to love we’re talking about, but destroying the source of the suffering, which is the intensity of the possessiveness. We can check the validity of this understanding by looking at how it would play out in our own lives. If we love someone possessively, “with intense desire and passion” then when we see them having fun with a potential competitor, jealousy arises. If we love someone selflessly, the same situation is faced with equanimity. If we don’t love someone at all, equanimity isn’t even an issue; we aren’t going to see anything happening at all in the conversation between two people we don’t care about.

This is what I find is true in my life, and well-described in the suttas, that the Buddha’s sermons always come back to this one thing: It is the way in which we define something as a part of ourselves that is the problem, defining what’s “out there” as necessary to ourselves “in here”. Take that woman away, and the jealous man feels he has lost a part of himself. The solution isn’t to stop loving, but to learn to love in a way that is not possessive, that allows the loved-one to come and go in a way that doesn’t make that suffering born of intense desire and passion — the source of the suffering — arise. Love with an open heart and open arms.

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  1. NaturalEntrust on August 10, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Did not Buddha leave his wife and kids?
    For how long had they been married and
    how old where the kids? Did his wife visit
    him when he sat there under that Bodhi tree?

    Where she active in the Sangha around him?
    did she carry on the Sangha after his death?
    Are there texts based on her understanding
    of his teachings? What is her name?

    I know that I felt possessive of my latest GF.
    Could it not have to do with how our body is
    built by biology? Chemicals that bond us together?

    Have they done brain scan of Buddhists that
    are possessive and then after having practiced
    meditation for some months or years when they
    have mastered to not be possessive where is
    the changes in the brain? I trust you tell your
    honest take on what Buddha taught I only
    find it too optimistic on how to apply it if
    one are possessive. Maybe a none-possessive
    person that already have a great talent for it
    can make it even better but can one really
    re-program oneself in that way. How long
    did it take for you to master it?

    I don’t defend that I am possessive and
    I know from my own experience how bad
    it is but I seems to have no talent at it all.

    I mean I fail to let go of the “ownership”
    or how obsessed I am with her and that
    where 30 years ago. The only way I can
    handle it is to stay away from her forever.

    Can it not be that we are all very different.

    There are evidence that not everybody can
    sing on tune. Some are actually tone deaf.

    I trust that some of us are tone deaf
    on empathy too. We simply lack these
    circuits need for it? I don’t know only try to get it

    • Linda on August 10, 2012 at 10:29 am

      “Did not Buddha leave his wife and kids?”
      The texts tell us he did, yes. This was a popular and normal thing to do in his culture — it seems to have been an accepted road for those with a spiritual bent. He also went back after his enlightenment, and dealt with the issues raised. He returned to his home many times over the course of his years preaching, and ended up the last part of his life living in the area (though not in his own city). He played a crucial part in trying to lessen the effects of much of the political upheaval in his home area, too, over the years.

      “For how long had they been married and how old where the kids? ”
      Legend (not the suttas) tell us he married at 16, left his household at 13, when his first child was born. We don’t know if there were more children — some scholars think he had several wives, so he might have had several children.

      “Did his wife visit him when he sat there under that Bodhi tree?”
      If she had, we probably wouldn’t be here talking about the Buddha. ; )

      “Where she active in the Sangha around him?”
      His wife gets mentioned but the woman who raised him (his mother died shortly after he was born) was very active. She was the one who asked that women be officially ordained as nuns.

      “did she carry on the Sangha after his death?”
      Women running the sangha? Not the norm in his day (nor is it in ours). Male monastics dominated. No one person was put in charge.

      “Are there texts based on her understanding of his teachings? What is her name?”
      Just as his was “Gotama” hers was “Gotami”. There is a fair likelihood that, this being the clan name, it was *her* family’s name, not his. We don’t know her “first” name, but then neither do we know the Buddha’s “first” name. Siddhartha and Yasodhara (or Bimba) are given as their names in later texts, but since there is no indication of these being their names in early texts, it is likely that they were given these names long after they died.

      “I know that I felt possessive of my latest GF. Could it not have to do with how our body is built by biology? Chemicals that bond us together?”
      No doubt it does. Looked at a certain way, all of our passions arise from biology. Does that mean that all passions are good things, because they are “natural”? That we should just accept them and even feed them, because they are natural?

      “Have they done brain scan …”
      I have no idea. I’m not one who keenly follows brain science.

      “I trust you tell your honest take on what Buddha taught I only find it too optimistic on how to apply it if
      one are possessive. ”
      And thus, you give up before you even give it an honest try. In the forums, Eric, what I hear you saying is “I can’t.” “I can’t meditate.” “I can’t concentrate.” What I see is that you haven’t actually understood what the Buddha wants you to do, and/or you haven’t done the hard work of giving it your serious and lasting effort. When you didn’t find quickly visible success, you gave it up as “the wrong approach” (“for you”). What needs to be done takes effort — long, often tedious, frustrating, grinding, sometimes painful effort. Your inability to meditate is unlikely to be substantially different from my inability to meditate. The results often don’t come quickly, nor are they instantly obvious. The changes are subtle at first, and it can be hard to tell when they happen that it is the practice that is making the change. For me it took long years of observing the ebb and flow of my practice, and the ebb and flow of improvements and relapses to gain a little certainty that it was the practice that had the positive effects, and letting my practice slip meant I wasn’t as good at dealing with passions in skillful ways.

      That feeling of “I can’t do this” is part of what’s “natural” — the processes in us that tend to run our lives aren’t going to give you warm fuzzy feelings when you begin doing things to take conscious control of your own life. If you feel uncomfortable and restless and “unable to do meditation” it may be because you are doing a *good job* and that overprotective bit of self that likes feeling intense passion and jealousy doesn’t want you to stop.

      “Maybe a none-possessive person that already have a great talent for it can make it even better but can one really re-program oneself in that way. How long did it take for you to master it?”
      Master it? I haven’t mastered anything. I have definitely improved lots. I have been practicing Buddhism at varying levels since 1986. I really only began to get a good grasp of how to practice in the last half of the last decade, though. I wish I’d understood what it was about a lot earlier in my life. So I’d say it took me about 20 years to understand the point, and then five years of serious practice got me where I am now, which is not “Mastery” but there is a visible difference to me and to others who have known me in my ability to handle stress without doing and saying Really Stupid Things. And this comes about not because I am still strongly tempted to say those Really Stupid Things but because when they pop into my mind I instantly recognize how stupid they are — I no longer feel compelled to say them, I no longer want to say them, I recognize that they aren’t part of who I choose to be. But it took a long while to get that first gap between the impulse to do or say something and actually doing it — they used to be about simultaneous.

      “I don’t defend that I am possessive and I know from my own experience how bad it is but I seems to have no talent at it all.”

      You aren’t giving the practice a fair trial. It’s not about “talent” for becoming un-possessive, it’s about overcoming the talent for *being* possessive.

      “Can it not be that we are all very different.”
      I don’t think humans actually have that much range of differences. It seems to me that thinking one is so different from everyone else — “Others are good at these things but I am not” — is just an excuse for not doing the work. Just letting ourselves off the hook.

      “There are evidence that not everybody can sing on tune. Some are actually tone deaf.”
      Sure, people are different; there is a range. But I wouldn’t think the (apparently — from reading the Wiki) physical out-of-norm state of being tone deaf is necessarily a good metaphor for emotional range. You aren’t emotionally tone-deaf — you are fully capable of feeling strong emotion. I expect you don’t go through life stuck on the strong emotion end of the spectrum though — you also experience moments of calm? Then you aren’t emotionally tone deaf. You are just singing out of tune. Practice improves that.

      In the end, this is what the Buddha is trying to tell us: Believing you are stuck, Popeye-like, “I yam what yam” and that’s all that I am and all that I am capable of being — well, if you believe it, then you are. As long as you are certain that you cannot concentrate, cannot let go of jealousy, cannot then you cannot. If you can recognize that humans aren’t fixed into one shape and that we are always in flux, then you can work with our changeable nature and be more of what you choose to be, instead of feeling stuck as you are. But you have to open up to being able to see that first.

  2. NaturalEntrust on August 10, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Thanks Linda,

    it can be my poor grasp of English tone?
    Or some culture clash? or whatever and
    I am not sure of at all how to respond to
    what comes through to me as assertions.

    When I read your response to me I get
    the feeling that you “know” how I am
    and what I can do or what kind of advice
    from you that would allow me to do what
    you suggest if I did follow your recommendation.

    If I have spent time on something for 50 years
    then I have actually tried very hard. Daily
    24/7 and not just giving up.

    Can you allow me to point out that from
    my perspective you assert too much
    that you know what would and would not
    work for me personally..

    I very much doubt that you can know this
    only based on my poorly written English
    and after such short time since I joined.

    I leave it at that for the moment.

    I do appreciate that you take time and
    share your take on everything but I am
    very skeptical to the assertions that you make.

    • Linda on August 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      “If I have spent time on something for 50 years
      then I have actually tried very hard. Daily
      24/7 and not just giving up. ”

      So you are saying you have sat Buddhist meditation — breath meditation, insight meditation — for 50 years? Sorry, I have definitely misunderstood what you were saying, then, because I thought you’d said you couldn’t meditate.

  3. Dana Nourie on February 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Linda, when I examine, very closely the differences between kindness, compassion, liking, and love, I totally agree with what the Buddha says in that first snippet.

    We can be kind without any insertion or motivation of self. We can be kind without attachment or desire. As soon as we start liking someone, then self becomes involved. I like you because you share knowledge with ME. I like you because you challenge MY thoughts. You see how my self has emerged with liking. Liking someone is not selfless. Now we can also like things about people that are not about us, that they are kind and generous to others, that they have solid ethics, etc. But generally if we look closely, there is self floating around in liking.

    Compassion, like kindness, is without self, and can be directed at others without attachment or desire. We wish people well if we see them on the side of the road. We have compassion for the families of victims who have been killed, even though we don’t know any of them. There is no attachment and self driving compassion. It’s selfless.

    Love, on the other hand, is conditioned, it is full of self, and it is loaded with attachment. Mothers are fond of saying they love their children unconditionally. I beg to differ. I love my kids on the big condition that they are MY children. I invested time and energy in them, and there is maternal instincts as well. Those are all conditions. And because I love them, I have great attachment to my children. I know if I lost them before my own death, I would suffer HUGELY. The suffering would be from that attachment and desire to have them in my life.

    I do believe from what I’ve read in the suttas Buddha was advocating compassion and kindness, but not love, as love automatically comes with attachment, self, and often desire. That is a big mixture for suffering in the case of change.

    That said, I make no effort not to love my children. I love them and always will. As they’ve grown into adults, some attachments have dissolved, and I’ve also come to appreciate and like them as people.

    And of course, we generally have a lot of compassion, selfless compassion, for those we like and love. But with love there is attachment. I don’t know of anyone, or any type of love that doesn’t have some attachment.

  4. Linda on February 24, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I understand what you’re saying, Dana, but I suspect we have a problem created by thinking that everything to do with self is wrong. I think this is partly a problem of language and definitions, and partly it’s a problem of that “no self” way of seeing Buddhism bleeding over into our thinking and confusing the issue. Let me see if I can make what I’m saying here clearer. (I’m a bit sleep-deprived though so I may not manage it.)

    I know you remember this but I’m going to state it for the sake of building my case.

    “Anatta” doesn’t mean “no-self” it means “not-self”, where the “self” is defined as being a separate entity, eternal, changeless, and the master of our lives. What we actually have is not that, so when we examine whatever we are calling “self” we find that it is not (that) self. It is something that changes, etc.

    The ideal of those who see Buddhism as saying we have no self, or we should have no self, is to get to the point where we really have no self at all. But I am pretty sure that is (1) not what the Buddha was intending and (2) not a healthy thing to do.

    You might recall that in my discussions of Dependent Arising (DA) I keep saying there are things that are okay — normal survival mechanisms, for example (the need for food, shelter, clean water, clothes, medicines) — and things that are “over the top” (shading into greed).

    In the same vein, I am sure that — though some traditions think that DA is suggesting that we must end all feeling — not all emotions are a problem. The first level of emotions, where we care about others, and miss them when they are gone aren’t really a problem. It’s when we beat ourselves up over those emotions that we have a problem, or we ignore them. Or when our thoughts about others end up with us putting them in categories that generate hatred and ill-will, or jealousy.

    But there is a level of human feeling that is healthy. The desire to be alive, the desire to have children, the desire to care for them, actually caring for them, missing then when they are gone. I see nothing wrong with loving those closest to you more than you love others — that seems entirely natural and healthy to me. It would be impossible to love a perfect stranger you’ve never met, across the world from you, as much as you love someone you’ve known their whole life.

    Having a self isn’t a problem, as long as we recognize what it is, and nourish the healthy parts, and don’t feed the unhealthy parts, as long as we recognize our nature for what it is, rather than what we want it to be. Loving someone because it’s your baby should be possible to do in a healthy way, shouldn’t it? I think of love that doesn’t ask anything back that’s just for you — not asking your kid to live the life you wish you had lived, for example, but supporting them in their choices.

    I do, for example, like certain friends a whole lot, but I don’t like them greedily. I don’t insist they do things my way, that they always give back to me at least as much as I give to them.

    The Buddha notes in one sutta that amongst his monks, including arahants, like flocks to like: those who love chanting suttas all hang out together, those who like to meditate go sit together, those who like to teach gather over there. He says this is just “an underlying tendency” and finds no fault with it. I can see no actual fault in it, either, though I suppose we do want to balance it with a little exposure to the ideas of those outside our immediate group.

  5. Dana Nourie on February 24, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Yes, I do understand we have selves, and they form upon various conditions, etc. I’m thinking of the self that causes grasping, among other things. This may be my own personal experience with love.

    You bring up a lot of good food for thought though.

    So, what is your take with the Buddha’s apparent beef with “becoming”. I have interpreted that as the grasping self, the self that says this is “mine.” Or am I misunderstanding the problem with “becoming” in the cycle of dependent arising?

  6. Linda on February 24, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    No, I think you’re right. I think the concept of becoming is becoming a self, a whole, complete, visible self. I have seen a rare few references in Vedic literature to bhava as going to union with Brahma through the fire of the funeral pyre, in this case literally, rather than in the figurative sense where the Sacrificer equates himself with whatever is going to be sacrificed, and then sends it into the fire in his stead.

    So I understand it as literally going through the fire to be either born in another world, or another life in this world, or into union with Brahma.

    I understand it in DA as the last step before the self becomes visible in the world, so a sort of coalescing of half-formed opinions and thoughts into certainty about who we are. Then the next step (birth) is really us taking action in the world, because that’s what makes that sense of self visible to others.

    But it’s a tough term to track down, and I wish there were a dozen Vedic scholars working on it!

  7. Linda on February 24, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    I am laughing at my use of the word “literally” which should be “from the Vedic believer’s perspective, it is literally going through the fire…”. Not that I take it literally, of course.

  8. Mark Knickelbine on February 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Now, love is a word I think is worth salvaging and rehabilitating. It has a tradition of spiritual usefulness, so it shouldn’t be that hard. Beyond that, I think if we examine our experience closely, we will see, at the root of even romantic love or needy, possessive love, a pure human connection that is in a way separate from the craving and grasping attached to it. So I think love is real and it is not the same as craving. The Tibetans say that the bodhicitta expresses itself in all our thoughts and actions — the trick is seeing it under the layers of delusion and attachment.

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