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A Buddhist View of Love

Photo by Elena Michaylova / Getty Images.

The oldest surviving love poem was recorded 4,000 years ago on a cuneiform tablet titled “The Love Song of Shu-Sin” (recited by a bride to her Sumerian king). Today, some of the most relatable love poems are conveyed through song. By one estimate, 100 million songs have been recorded about love, capturing from every angle the first blush of romance and its exhilarating highs to its unrequited, painful and even tragic lows. Whereas Ella and Louie promise “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” Taylor Swift assures “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” If Percy Sledge intones what happens “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Tina Turner ponders “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” after all.

What then does Buddhism say about love in all its iterations—falling in it, staying in it, consciously (or unconsciously) uncoupling from it and reeling from the heartbreak of it? A lot, actually. Let’s delve into the Buddhist view of love.

Happiness Cannot Be Given to Us

First, a reality check: Buddhism teaches that happiness is not something another person can give us. We must build it ourselves, starting with a strong inner core.

In Musashi, the novel’s hero, the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, gazes at Mount Fuji and tells his young student:

Rather than worrying about your future, thinking, “Perhaps I should become this. Perhaps I should become that,” first be still and build a self that is as solid and unmoving as Mount Fuji.[1]

Relationships are an inevitable part of being alive. And so developing a strong inner core while learning how to develop healthy, long-lasting relationships are keys to leading happy, fulfilling lives.

We do just that by leaning in to our Buddhist practice for self and others, and continually polishing our lives. In the process, we can become people of depth and substance who are not only capable of giving and receiving authentic love—the kind that endures long past the romanticized, blissful state upsold in romantic comedies—but who can contribute to the betterment of all. This process never ends. Ikeda Sensei explains why doing this inner work is so important, saying, “Ultimately, the relationships you form are a reflection of your own state of life.”[2] In that sense, if we have a checklist of the qualities that make for an ideal partner, we must first develop those qualities ourselves.

Indicators of Love

“Love is blind,” the saying goes. While love can be a great font of inspiration, it’s easy to lose all objectivity when falling in love. And while it’s a complex matter that can’t be solved by checking off boxes, there are indicators of what a healthy, mutually supportive relationship looks like at any stage. Consider these, gleaned from Ikeda Sensei’s guidance.

1) We share the same dream. When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the elements polonium and radium, the latter gave up his own research to support the process of having the elements officially recognized. The stage of their groundbreaking endeavors was a drafty shed that Marie later described as the place where they spent the best years of their lives.[3]

In the same vein, the celebrated novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed:

Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. There is no comradeship except through union in the same high effort.[4]

When we uphold a common vision for what kind of people we want to be and what type of family and society we want to create, that vision enables us to always move forward, mutually inspiring one another, sharing our joys and sorrows along the way.

As Soka Gakkai Buddhists, the ultimate dream we share is kosen-rufu, that is, to spread widely the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and thereby elevate the life state of humanity. When we live with this pledge at our core, we can transform even the most painful circumstances into the fuel for value and victory.

2) The love we possess is boundless. Falling in love can be exhilarating, filling our days with a drama and excitement that are normally absent from daily life. Sometimes, however, couples can build an island, where without the other, neither is complete. If, as a result, we veer from our chosen path, Sensei explains that love becomes mere escapism.[5]

Buddhism teaches that just like all our other qualities, the love we possess is boundless; it equates to the Buddhist ideal of compassion. Rather than view this as a limited resource to be shared sparingly, authentic love powers our commitment to support others and enables us to grow ever more human in the process. Sensei elaborates:

If you genuinely love someone, then through your relationship with [them], you can develop into a person whose love extends to all humanity. Such a relationship serves to strengthen, elevate and enrich your inner realm of life.[6]

3) We can grow together. Having a partner in life can bring us great meaning and fulfillment. The question we should ask is whether our partner inspires us to be better or distracts from our growth.

Sensei describes a healthy relationship as “one in which two people encourage each other to reach their respective goals while sharing each other’s hopes and dreams. A relationship should be a source of inspiration, invigoration and hope.”[7]

If we stop growing and compromise our dreams, we’ll be left with regrets and may even blame our partner for our shortcomings. So, perhaps, the question we should always ask ourselves is, Am I challenging my own growth?

Is This Person Right for Me?

It takes time to get to know another person. While, ultimately, whom we choose to love is a personal decision, chanting to the Gohonzon gives us the wisdom to see our lives clearly.

In no way should we pressure ourselves with artificial timelines toward starting a relationship or getting married. Sensei, in fact, advises:

There is no need to rush into anything; you don’t need to be in a hurry. … If there is someone you like, what’s wrong with holding on to that feeling inside your heart for a while and resolving to polish yourself so that you can become the kind of person he or she, or anyone, would be proud to be with? Such a spirit of self-development is most admirable, I feel.

Whether or not that person ever learns how you feel in your heart, with time those feelings will grow and mature like a fine wine.[8]

Romantic relationships can help us more deeply reveal what is in our hearts and what we truly desire. Such relationships, as well as all our other relationships, are wonderful avenues for strengthening our character and becoming more considerate, appreciative and mature in our interactions with those around us. It isn’t the relationship itself but the growth we experience through a good relationship that makes us happy.

The Chinese characters for human revolution, the type of growth being described, depict change occurring in the space between people. In other words, we “grow and mature like fine wine” through our interactions with others.

Standing Up to Heartbreak

It goes without saying that some of the most iconic love songs are about heartache. (The Spotify playlist “Broken Heart” has 3 million likes for a reason.) Some people feel as though their lives have lost all meaning when a relationship ends or their hearts are broken. Sensei addresses this, saying:

I’m sure quite a few among you have had your hearts broken or been badly hurt and perhaps felt unable to go on, your self-esteem in tatters. But you must never believe that you are worthless. There is no substitute for you, who [is] more precious than all the treasures in the universe. …

It is crucial that you become strong. If you are strong, even your sadness will become a source of nourishment, and the things that make you suffer will purify your lives.

Only when we experience the crushing, painful depths of suffering can we begin to understand the true meaning of life. Precisely because we have experienced great suffering, it is imperative that we go on living.

The important thing is to keep moving forward. If each of you uses your sadness as a source of growth, you will become a person of greater depth and breadth—an even more wonderful you.[9]

It’s times like these that call for a new tune. As Buddhists, the best love song we can sing to ourselves is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, through which we bow deeply to our own Buddha nature and call forth endless reserves of wisdom, courage and compassion to face every obstacle with an undefeatable spirit.

The Key to True Happiness Is Faith

The honeymoon is a distant memory, the romantic dinners have been swapped with dirty diapers and anxiety over bills, and it’s now crystal clear: marriage doesn’t equal bliss, regardless of what the wedding planner said.

Sensei explains clearly that whether a marriage is happy or not depends on the effort two people put into it:

With marriage your circumstances will change, but that does not mean that your personal destiny or karma have changed. No matter where or with whom you live, if illness is your fate, you will still fall ill. And if economic hardship is your karma, you cannot escape it.

The important thing, then, is how to break such negative karma or destiny. You have to develop the life force necessary to serenely overcome whatever hardships you may face, to never be defeated by them. Faith is the source of that strength. The true key to happiness is faith.[10]

The purpose of life is to become happy—so happy, in fact, that living itself is a joy. We practice Buddhism to realize this ultimate aim. As Buddhists, our relationships serve as a mirror to polish ourselves, deepen our happiness and fulfill our mission as Bodhisattvas of the Earth, striving to uplift humanity. It’s up to us to decide which tune we sing.

Prepared by the Living Buddhism staff.


Loving Myself First

Kelsey in Woburn, Massachusetts, August 2021. Photo by Christopher Brown.

How heartbreak led me to trust my own prayer and love myself.
Kelsey Miller, of Woburn, Massachusetts

Six years ago, I felt the air sucked from my lungs when my relationship ended. I was in excruciating pain. So, I turned to my Buddhist practice to get my boyfriend back. I even set a date two months out by when this would happen. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo a lot each day toward my “deadline.”

When the day came and he hadn’t called, my heartbreak intensified. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to, I thought. Still, I spurred myself to continue chanting and engaging in SGI activities, determined to become happy.

Around this time, my mother mentioned words of wisdom that Ikeda Sensei often quotes about how true love is two people looking ahead in the same direction. Throughout my relationship with my ex, I had constantly put him on a pedestal, seeking validation from him. I soon realized that I needed to love myself first and believe in myself if I were to attract someone who would offer me the love and respect I deserved.

Fast forward to last year: I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at one of the world’s foremost medical research centers after earning my Ph.D. in chemistry. While I initially rode high off my achievements, I still struggled with self-doubt. I didn’t fully love myself and didn’t believe that I was worthy of happiness.

In chanting for this fellowship, I battled strong doubts that I would get it. It got to the point where I was just begging the Gohonzon to give me what I wanted, rather than believing in the power of my own life.

Then it hit me. That experience with my ex six years ago had instilled a fear in chanting for specific goals. I remember feeling so defeated when my boyfriend didn’t come back on the two month timeline I had set. I remember feeling that my prayer wasn’t answered, and thinking, How can I trust my prayer for anything?

As I continued to chant and do SGI activities, this time, I came to realize that my prayer then had been answered—beyond my wildest imagination. I just couldn’t see it at the time. I thought I had been chanting to bring back the man I loved, when actually I had been developing into a confident woman who could attract someone who gave me the love I deserved. After chanting seriously to meet someone with whom I could share a dream and advance together as equals, I met my fiancé, Chris.

I began a personal campaign at the beginning of 2021 I call the “Trust My Daimoku” campaign, with the goal of trusting my prayer and fully loving myself. Then, in May, I learned that I had been awarded that fellowship, where I will focus on cancer research.

I’m still on this campaign to trust my prayer, which will be a lifelong journey. I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that my prayer to the Gohonzon has enabled me to love myself for who I am. As a result, my relationship is filled with more love than I could have imagined. I also feel confident about the career I’ve embarked on in public health to help develop a happier and healthier society.

Trusting myself has been one of the hardest campaigns I have ever embarked on. But by taking this on, I have realized that each time I have challenged something in my life, I have been victorious. It’s about recognizing that every morning I do gongyo, that is victory; every time I set a goal, that is victory; every time I work out instead of eating a ton of chips, that is victory; every time I choose to eat the chips to have a mental health day, that is victory; and every time I make it to my discussion meetings even if I’m not really feeling like it, that is victory.

I now recognize that victory happens every single day in lots of different ways; it’s just about recognizing each victory, trusting my daimoku and enjoying the journey.

References

  1. Translated from Japanese. Eiji Yoshikawa, Miyamoto Musashi (Tokyo: Rokko Shuppan-bu, 1965), vol. 5, p. 8. ↩︎
  2. Discussions on Youth, p. 65. ↩︎
  3. www.nobelprize.org/prizes/themes/marie-and-pierre-curie-and-the-discovery-of-polonium-and-radium <accessed on August 17, 2021>. ↩︎
  4. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman’s Odyssey (Orlando: Harcourt, 1984), p. 195. ↩︎
  5. Discussions on Youth, p. 64. ↩︎
  6. Ibid, p. 65. ↩︎
  7. Ibid., p. 60. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., p. 70. ↩︎
  9. Ibid., p. 69. ↩︎
  10. The New Human Revolution, vol. 5, p. 78. ↩︎

Practicing With Earnest Resolve

Advancing Our Movement by Demonstrating the Principles That “Faith Equals Daily Life” and “Buddhism Is Manifested in Society”