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Love in a Time of 21st Century Buddhism

posted by Julia May Jonas

I’ve got a wager for you.

Walk into any Buddhist dharma center across the country.  Sidle up to a pleasant looking stranger.  Compliment their eco-friendly aluminum water bottle to get a conversation started then ask them what started them practicing. I bet that at least half of the time a person will say, “I was having a hard time and the teachings of the Buddha helped me.”  Glance sympathetically, breathe mindfully and then press them about the nature of the hard time.  Nine times out of ten I bet they’ll respond: “I was really suffering because of a bad break up/divorce/inability to let go of a former love.”

At least I’ll cop to that plea. 


Although initially Buddhist teachings appealed because of a desire to discover a greater, more transcendent approach to life, I signed my name on the dharmic dotted line when I realized it allowed me to release the torturous and tormented thought patterns I had regarding my ex-boyfriend.  And I know I ain’t alone.

For all the ‘Single Ladies,’ and “Rambling Men” of the world, romantic love is perhaps one of the most cross demographic/geographically pervasive and shared ideals in the United States.  It’s co-opted, manipulated, bought and sold via romantic comedies, manipulative pop songs and advertisements. We may think about it in more nuanced terms than it’s presented in a Reese Witherspoon vehicle, but I think I’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t flush, for at least a millisecond, during Michelle and President Obama’s inaugural dance to Beyonce’s cover of Etta James’ At Last.

When Buddhist ideas came into my life I watched as over 25 years of fixed concepts about romantic love became transparent. To let go of my ex-boyfriend I had to let go of the “Only he really knows me for who I truly am” and “I’ve lost my best friend” scripts.  I had to see the stories and narratives that sounded uber-dramatic and romantic in my mind as merely manipulative mental dialogues I called upon to rile myself up.  And about a month after I was finally able to stop that broken record of regret and remorse I felt incredible space.  It felt like I was able to tap into a wellspring of energy and compassion now that I wasn’t so consumed with a self-obsessed narrative.  All of a sudden I had all this time to write, volunteer, send letters to my grandma, visit my elderly neighbor, actually listen to my friend’s problems and call my mother.  I was free.

Of course the inevitable cog in the proverbial wheel of this story is that two years later I have fallen utterly and irascibly in love.  I apologize for how obnoxious that sounds.  I’m actually a very practical, sensible, unsentimental person: this whole head over heels thing took me be surprise.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful: I feel absurdly lucky, fortunate, blessing-counting, etc.  I mean after all, I am in the honey-est of moony-est love.

On the one hand: it’s awesome.  On the other (Buddhist) hand: it is. so. weird.  Romantic love toward a particular person is not a reactive and immediate emotion like anger.  I mean, is it an emotion?  It’s based on such a richly woven tapestry of memories, lust, compassion, projections, plans, shared experiences, hormones and fantasies.  Yet it also feels like a solid, independent feeling – not supported by scripts, occurring almost despite myself.  While love is going well I have zero desire to deconstruct its elements and render it powerless.  Although to get over losing love I did exactly that.  And while I believe in impermanence it seems neurotic to kill my buzz by reminding myself that all conditioned phenomena must come to an end.

I find that most Buddhist relationship experts tend to talk about a couple’s life after the falling in love period.  They discuss what it means to be committed to a person, how to listen, accept and respect “after the honeymoon is over.”  So do we not need Buddhism during the honeymoon?  Is dharma irrelevant?  While we’re at it: Does love exist? 

I started thinking about this while reading our Intermediate Hardcore Dharma class text, Spectrum of Ecstasy by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen.  My intuition is the following paragraph might provide some clue to unlocking the puzzle d’amour: 

But with either extreme – controlling our emotions or abandoning ourselves to intensity – what we are avoiding is direct and naked confrontation with the real nature of our energy.  With either extreme we never actually experience ourselves.  We never taste the texture of our world.  We never touch the qualities of our own being in their incredible fullness and variety.  We never make real contact with the totality of our being or our sphere of perception.  It is important to experience our emotional energies simply and directly.  Our emotions are a spectrum of fluid and fluent energies, and experiences their energy fields is the purpose of our exploration.  … One of the most enlivening, exciting and fulfilling discoveries we can make as human beings is finding that our emotions are actually reflections of our awakened enlightened potentialities.  The complete unexpurgated range of what we feel is a spectrum of ecstasy.

Ooh – wait – but…hmmm.   It’s like I’m in stuck in the driveway of understanding but my garage door clicker is broken.  Let me inside, people.  Is love a shifting energetic alchemy?  Should it only be used as a verb? Is the above paragraph actually not applicable?  Does it even matter?

Venerable practitioners I know you got thoughts on the L Word.  So tell me, from a Buddhist perspective, what’s love got to do with it?



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Your Name

posted April 30, 2009 at 4:57 pm


I’m glad you’re in love!
:)



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gili

posted April 30, 2009 at 5:10 pm


I think the practice remains the same regardless of whether you are looking at love, suffering or any form of feeling, emotion or mental formation. There is no reason to isolate love as unique or different in its impermanence and emptiness.
should love only be a verb? should we see ourselves as a thing that is static, unchanging or as a entity that is always become itself? am I a noun or a verb?
“what is love? baby don’t hurt me, no more”



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rigdenpoet

posted April 30, 2009 at 5:26 pm


I think romantic love gets so at the heart of Buddhist practice, all issues of thirst, clinging, duality, compassion, and mindfulness are present within it, that sometimes I wonder how anyone could understand these ideas without having to exist in relationships.
I don’t know, I just keep the recurring thought in my head that I can’t shake that monastics are somehow shortchanging their practice by not having to stay present in this arena of life. Anyone else ever felt that way?



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ellen

posted April 30, 2009 at 5:34 pm


First off, glad you are in love! and in the spring, too. yee hah!
What really strikes me is that maybe it’s not so much about love as about fear of love — fear of love’s end, maybe? fear of feeling?
Interesting question about does love exist – I’d say yes, it does! I mean, something certainly exists. There is an energy there. And just because it is going to end doesn’t mean we must not feel it. The cherry blossoms are gonna blow away, but that doesn’t mean they are not here now. I say, just look at the cherry blossoms. Just be in love. Yes it will change, and eventually end, but that’s not what’s happening now, it sounds like.
Maybe it’s that fear of attachment that Ponlop Rinpoche discusses. There is attachment, there is anger, there is ignorance. And there is the suffering that comes from fear of those three things.
I know I have that fear, and it’s something I sit with a lot. But just cause the plant is gonna die anyway doesn’t mean I shouldn’t water it now, if that makes any sense?



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Chris

posted April 30, 2009 at 6:40 pm


Romances & Finances what else is there…
As a happily married (10+ years now) Buddhist I am a firm believer that long term love can last for the Buddhist in relationship. And I too used to think that thinking about impermanence in regards to my relationship was a buzzkill but I was on retreat last Dec. and had the awakening that my relationship will end. How it will end I don’t know, but it will end. This understanding has had the opposite effect since. I really am trying to be present in the moment for my wife, now knowing each moment is precious. Heck, sometimes I’ll even leave my Blackberry in the car when we go out to eat.



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LK

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:58 am


Based on Chris’ comment, ‘all relationships will end’, I was reminded of “Creating a Spiritual Relationship” by Paul Ferrini, which I highly recommend on this topic and on love in general for a spiritual practitioner.



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Julia May Jonas

posted May 1, 2009 at 8:53 am


@Your Name: Thanks. Me too!
@Gili: The interesting question (for me) is that love is a feeling, an energy, but it is not necessarily an emotion – it’s too much of a conglomerate energy to be as simple as attraction or anger. Or is it?
@Rigden: Yes I think that seems like an unfortunate occurrence that the folks who spend the most time discovering the nature of mind don’t apply it to the most challenging lay-person situation. I just think its weird that every state of being seems broken down minutely, but not love. Or is it and I haven’t gotten there yet?
@Ellen: That makes a lot of sense. I would say fear of the end of feeling is my biggest fear.
@Chris: Blackberry in the car? Woah. That’s some over the top romance right there.



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ellen

posted May 1, 2009 at 10:22 am


I’m interested in @Rigden’s thread re: “monastics are somehow shortchanging their practice by not having to stay present in this arena of life.”
What’s been occurring to me, as a Buddhist practitioner in a long-term marriage, is that the monastic lifestyle may be not so much about being absent from the romantic arena as about being absent from the household arena.
As I have read, leaving one’s family in the historical time of the Buddha, in China, and in later in Japan to follow a monastic lifestyle was not frowned upon as long as the leaver made provision for the care of his household. Buddha himself apparently didn’t have any long-term emotional fallout from leaving his wife and son; they rejoined him in his order later on. Monasticism was about being free of household as much as being free of dating.
Young, urban, lay Buddhists in the 21st century are in a peculiar spot; we don’t have many household responsibilities. We are not monastics, but we are not full-fledged householders, either.
Many are single, most don’t have kids. Few have elderly parents at home or in care or who are having diamond anniversary celebrations to be paid for, young children at home or in college to be provided for, a network of aunts and uncles whose milestone celebrations must be attended and gifted, nieces and nephews for whom college bonds must be bought, communion and confirmation ceremonies to be attended and gifted, etc. A few responsibilities to others = more time for sitting practice and retreat. A lot of responsibilities to a big household = less time for sitting and retreat.
A network of responsibilities isn’t bad. It all is good juicy ground for practice. But for a certain kind of practice. It all takes time. Monasticism means all the time one needs for sitting practice, for philosophy, for study, for retreat. No monastic has to invest time in family or in providing for one.
I think they are just two different types of practice. Monastics don’t have the day-to-day household practice, but householders don’t have the long-session sitting practice. And we modern 21st c. urban buddhists sometimes seem to be somewhere in between.
One book that helped me quite a bit with this is Living in Compassion, but Tulku Bardor Rinoche of KTD monastery. It’s a good book, with lots of hardcore info on the boddhisattva ideal, the 6 paramitas, and practicing buddhism in a long-term loving relationship. That tulku ran a monastery, with a wife and six kids. Whoa.



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Rigdenpoet

posted May 1, 2009 at 10:48 am


@Ellen
Young, Urban Single Buddhists are far from the dominant strain among today’s practitioners. They are the minority of minorities.
My focus on romance is due to the potency, the almost unmatched and unique potency of the mind-states that the romantic process brings up for people. To avoid them, to me, is to not know the nature of a whole realm of mind, which can hardly be called enlightenment (my opinion).
Householding brings up a related but different set of issues, which it also seems a shame to avoid.



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MiniMoFo

posted May 1, 2009 at 12:11 pm


@Ellen you just made me laugh out loud with “What’s been occurring to me, as a Buddhist practitioner in a long-term marriage, is that the monastic lifestyle may be not so much about being absent from the romantic arena as about being absent from the household arena” don’t know if you meant that to be funny but is so true. Amazing how which way the toilet paper faces can become more important than romance. The toilet paper direction only seems to matter after about 6 to 8 months into the relationship, when the hope that THIS is the soulmate who will provide complete and total end to my suffering starts to be replaced with the reality that you still suffer even though they are around, and goddamit why do they have to add to your suffering it’s such an easy thing to put the toilet paper the right way, and yeah it was cute to cuddle every night before but now it’s summer and the blankets are hot, and really get your arm off of me because sleeping with you is like sleeping with a human furnace!
I think it becomes easy to over-identify with what we perceive as “problems” in the household because that lets me off the hook of having to be totally responsible for my own happiness (or contentment or whatever we are calling it this week). I suppose eventually I will have to realize that toilet paper faces this way; toilet paper faces that way; but in the end, there is no toilet paper. Hopefully.



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Julia May Jonas

posted May 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm


@rigden/ellen: I’ve heard many a monk talk about strange romantic love things that happens within monastic communities. When you’re small you passionately love your parents, a little older and you love your friends or celebrities, older still and we turn to potential partners. (Although I was scoping for potential partners by age 5 – Ah Joey Dickinson, I still remember your tender whisperings during afternoon nap) I wonder if that kind of love simply exists and gets applied in different outlets. And in that case the issues would revolve around partnership and householding more than explorations of passion.



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gza

posted May 1, 2009 at 1:42 pm


Nice post. I remember once seeing Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso give a lecture about Madhyamika where he basically told the audience not to worry too much about deconstructing positive emotions. I’m paraphrasing from memory here and that is always highly suspect but I’ll go with it anyway.
@rigdenpoet – no celibate monastic ever got fully enlightened? Interesting theory you got there. The idea that romantic love produces “unmatched and unique potency of mind-states” is pretty modern – i’m surprised that you would generalize so casually on a key point like this. Just to offer one counter example, I’d imagine self-immolating in protest and meditating through it is a pretty potent experience too.



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Rigdenpoet

posted May 1, 2009 at 2:32 pm


@ gza, not sure I said no celibate monastic ever got enlightened, or maybe they didn’t attain full enlightenment until shedding the form of their monastic practice. How can we know? I just know that if I took monastic vows, it would feel as much an avoidance tactic as a deepening of practice.
You know what they say about experts – they know more and more about less and less, and I’ve always had a thought in the back of my mind that there’s some major avoidance lying down the monastic path. Let’s just leave all unanswerables alone and say it’s not for me.
But yes, unless you have some direct experience, you have to accept the possibility that no monastic ever attained FULL enlightenment, every bit as much as I have to accept that no swinger did either.



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gza

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:03 pm


That was a pretty clear implication following from what you wrote though. You said that the experience of celibates “can hardly be called enlightenment.”
How can we know? Well we don’t know, that’s why was surprised to see you saying that you do know, considering you have zero direct experience of being a monk, and very little experience of interacting with monks. If you’d said it just wasn’t for you in the first place, I’d have had no problem with it.



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Julia May Jonas

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm


I keep trying to make this comment and it keeps not going through – however – I heard one former monastic (can’t remember who – sorry – suspect) say that certain monks develope very romantic emotions towards other monks. I mean in the kind of way that when you’re 8 you passionately love your best friend or dog. Maybe householding does become then the main issue, although I’m sure many a monk has an opinion about how the monk that they’re on kitchen duty with cleans the rice cooker.



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ellen

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:54 pm


@rigdenpoet
Ha! I gotta agree, the monastic lifestyle is not for me, either. I cannot help but recall what a classmate said (quite meanly) about our teachers once: “They are the kind of people who are easily institutionalized.” Unduly harsh, but the willingness to be institutionalized can make ya wonder.
On the other hand, from accounts I’ve read, I do not doubt that “the unmatched and unique potency of [romantic] mind-states” can absolutely happen in a monastic lifestyle, too. There are intense love/hate/romance relationships in monasteries; unconsummated does not mean unrequited. And there seem to be plenty of unmatched and unique mind-states that arise in monastics. Just consider St. Teresa d’Avila! One look at the Bernini illustrating her account of the piercing of her heart reveals a fairly potent mind-state, pretty deep in the realm of passion.
@minimofo
I was not actually trying to be that funny. But you are right; eventually there is no toilet paper. Cuz no one bought it. Cuz of long-held resentments about how the other one hangs the toilet paper. And then the stuff *really* hits the fan, as it were, lol.



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Rigdenpoet

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm


@ gza, I don’t read what I said that way. Very little experience interacting with monks? Really? I think I’ve interacted with a lot of them. Strange that you think you know that about me. Most of the monastics I’ve met are sweet people. A few seemed to have psychological problems that they aren’t going to be diagnosed for. A few I would ask for practice advice from. Very rare, however, is the monk I would ever ask for life advice from, though.
And my feeling of when I feel “more” enlightened, personally, which is all I am basing it on, is when I open myself to new experiences and new perspectives, not when I shut them out. And maybe I won’t get enlightened til I immolate myself too, who knows. My path is not to shut down the possibilities of experience, while recognizing what habits cause harm, like staying online too long when I should be writing :).



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ellen

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:58 pm


to clarify: that was a grammar school classmate, not a recent one!



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Rigdenpoet

posted May 1, 2009 at 3:59 pm


I just reread what I wrote, gza, and I very clearly qualified that what I said was my opinion, not fact. In a mood today?



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gza

posted May 1, 2009 at 4:45 pm


Yes, an opinion about other people’s supposedly limited potential for enlightenment.
I don’t doubt that you’ve met a number of monks casually over the years. I do doubt that you have enough familiarity with any one of them (or with the monastic path) to pronounce their path limited, as fact or opinion.
Not in a mood at all, just taking issue on this one.



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Rigdenpoet

posted May 1, 2009 at 5:45 pm


@GZA, given that I constantly uphold the principal in everything I write and say that everyone has their own path, it is safe to assume that when I talk about the path, as above, I am talking about MY path, and for me the monastic road is not an option for my life. I do not believe I said anything detrimental to anyone else’s path. I just wouldn’t ask monks for advice on jobs or relationships, which is a good 80% of my life. I would ask them for meditation instruction, though, as I stated above.
That’s all.



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damaris

posted May 1, 2009 at 5:57 pm


We have this tendency to think that being a couple is more advanced than being single but haven’t we witnessed massive dysfunctions in the couples we know. Hooking up doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a chance to iron out your wrinkles. It just offers the potential of seeing them more clearly and that’s just a potential.
Hooking up also offers the same potential of isolating yourself up as well as any monastic order can. Have you not had friends who are constantly in the 2 year monogamy cycle? Every 2 to 3 years they fall in love and just as things are getting sticky they fall in love with someone else and switch.
What about the addicts who stick together. Or the married couple together for the “kids”.
Just this past weekend, I had brunch with some of my sorority sisters. All are married except me. I felt almost sure I was missing much and that perhaps I should have accepted the proposal from my last lover.
So with that mind-set I ask what they have learned in their marriages. It turns out that most of the things they’ve had to learn had to do with themselves. So in a way we have been in the same space.
Now I’m in no way negating the great learning takes place in a relationship and I can wait to jump into the deep end of that ocean again but you can’t negate the importance of solitude.
As for the monks, I’m sure those guys fall in love all the time. The Buddha had to have a reason for setting up celibacy vows. You know what I mean?
As for falling in love, there is a lot of gleaning in the unrequited love patterns as well. Although, most folks would not want to admit that they’ve been there. It seems to look more pathetic than all the other stuff we do in our “real” relationships. Yea right………..
The last time I fell in love was of that variety. I can’t say it was a like falling. It was more like a bitch slap. Simply because I hadn’t been paying enough attention to where I was at. Upon realizing it I spent most of the time feeling embarrassed, denying it and then trying my best to push it out. That is until one day I had the happiest of weekends doing something I love doing with a great group of people. I was so happy that for a moment I thought of him and thought it would finally end.
Unfortunately, a voice in my head (one that I hadn’t heard before ) asked who was I kidding.
If I was able to deny what the voice had said twenty minutes later I knew that it was in vain. Why? Because I wound up seeing the man I’m in love with twenty minutes later. Allow me to stress the term “bitch slap”.
There I am trembling, electrified, like it’s the first time. Back to square one. After all that time, all the work and I’m back to square one.
All I could do was walk away from him and rejoin the group of people I was with. So there I’m am realizing I could do the same avoidance dance but at this point it’s too late. The rug has been pulled and my heart is wide open.
So what to do…. Grap a grape and piece of cheese; lift the glass of wine to my lips take a sip enjoy the company that I’m with and allow life to do what it will, without a story line, nor reason, nor explanation just sit with it. Until it ends.
I’ve learned that this is life. This is life.



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gza

posted May 1, 2009 at 10:32 pm


That doesn’t look to me like what you wrote above, but I’m glad to hear that I read it wrong, or you’re backpedaling, whichever.



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David Chapman

posted May 4, 2009 at 4:12 pm


Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen (who wrote “Spectrum of Ecstasy”, quoted in the article) have a new book about Buddhism and romance. It’s called “Entering the Heart of Sun and Moon” (http://arobuddhism.org/books/entering-the-heart-of-sun-and-moon.html).
It has both practical advice on relationships from a Buddhist point of view, and advanced material on using the unique energy of romance to accelerate the Buddhist path. That part is about the “almost unmatched and unique potency of the mind-states” Rigdenpoet mentioned.
The point that romantic trouble is what brings an awful lot of us to Buddhism is really insightful. Most of Buddhism doesn’t have anything specific to say about romance, though. John Welwood’s book is worth checking out, but this new one goes much further, I think.



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freestone

posted May 4, 2009 at 10:46 pm

freestone

posted May 5, 2009 at 8:02 am


what is between male and female is also the basic content (the living activity and the dying activity) of everything in the world, including our minds. Buddhism teaching is very clear on that.



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Julia May

posted May 5, 2009 at 12:53 pm


Thank you David, that book sounds excellent. I will look into it immediately.



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