The Buddha and Love

– by Gil Fronsdal, August 30th, 2005

Did the Buddha love? If he was beyond passion, was he also beyond love? Is there passionless love? And if there is, does it have any value for us?

A few centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, a controversy arose concerning the Buddha’s emotional life. A group of monks declared that, since the Buddha was araga, or free of passion, he was incapable of emotions such as compassion and love. The counterargument stated that this simplistic view implied that the Buddha was unfeeling, for which there was no evidence. In fact, it was explained, the Buddhist scriptures depict the Buddha as very much motivated by his compassionate love for others. Furthermore, how could the Buddha not love when his teachings put such great emphasis on its importance?

The controversy hinges in part on how we understand the Indian word raga. It is often translated as “passion”, which has some of the same problems in English as raga does in Pali, the ancient Buddhist language. If passion is understood to include any strongly motivating emotions, then being free of passion suggests an emotionally subdued or neutral person, incapable of love. If passion refers instead to such drives as the lust for sex, power and money, then the person without passion is someone liberated from compulsive cravings and the suffering these bring. Rather than being without emotion, such a person is simply free from emotions rooted in craving.

What then is the emotional life of someone who has no compulsive drives or reactivity? Is their life thereby diminished or enhanced?

One of the Buddha’s most useful teachings is to point to a range of healthy emotions that can arise independent of any craving, aversion or egotism. He emphasized that meditation can help bring about forms of joy and happiness, free of any attachment, that are useful for spiritual growth. In addition, the Buddha encouraged the cultivation of delight, enthusiasm, contentment, tranquility, peace, ardency, faith, empathy for others and most significantly, various forms of love. All these are understood as promoting both spiritual maturity and the capacity to live happily in the present. They also are the emotions that support a positive and engaged attitude toward one’s life and community.

These helpful emotions are much more likely to surface when the mind is not preoccupied with emotions rooted in craving and aversion, emotions that all too often distort our perception of the world. I believe most Buddhists understand that their lives are enhanced as their attachments diminish.

Among all the helpful emotions developed on the Buddhist path, love is extremely important. It ensures that a person’s spiritual life is rooted in healthy relationships with other people and with other forms of life. It also helps create optimal inner conditions for the heart to relax into the peace of Nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teachings.

Contrary to the popular idea of “falling in love” as a mysterious process outside our control, the Buddha emphasized cultivating our capacity for love. Through spiritual practice, love can become a frequent part of our emotional life. By learning to recognize the wellsprings of love within us, we can call upon love in the appropriate circumstances. With cultivation, love becomes a strength. It bolsters both self-confidence and self-reliance.

It is often said that the English word “love” has been overused, cheapened, commercialized, sentimentalized, and rendered meaningless. It helps to recognize that this English word is used to cover a range of different emotions that in other cultures and languages are given different names. For example, Christian teachings have sometimes used the Greek words erosphillia, and agape to distinguish among sexual or romantic love, the love of friendship, and the compassionate, selfless love directed equally toward all people.

The Buddhist tradition encourages people to develop four different forms of love, called the four Brahmaviharas: loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and, finally, an emotion that we don’t generally equate with love, equanimity (upekkha). These are all forms of love because they all include a warm, tender, sympathetic attitude of the heart toward oneself or others.

Buddhism teaches that a variety of attitudes may be confused as love. One is sensual desire. Another is affection that is entangled with craving and the need for reciprocity. The Buddha never encouraged the cultivation of such affection; in fact, he often considered it a hindrance to spiritual maturity. However, if we abandon such affections too quickly, we may overlook situations when affection consists of a combination of craving and one of the four helpful forms of love. One of the joys of spiritual practice is learning to distinguish unhelpful grasping and neediness from an underlying love that needs nothing beyond itself. What should be abandoned is craving, not love. When letting go of craving is too difficult, then a person may practice developing one of the four forms of love to the point that any need to be loved naturally loses its power in the glow of love flowing from us.

The Buddha and the enlightened men and women who followed him are often depicted as motivated by love, but never as in need of being loved. Perhaps we have an innate impulse to love, while being loved is not required in order to be happy and free. Spiritual practice helps free this impulse to love so that it can become a motivating strength in our lives.