Romantic Love in Buddhism


Romantic love in Buddhism is largely a Western construct derived from a Christian heresy from the medieval courtly love tradition and influenced by Middle Eastern mysticism. There is no real parallel to this quasi-religious “cult” in Buddhist cultures of Asia. In certain cultures of Buddhism, there are explicit or implicit teachings on sexuality, relationships, and marriage, but they do not promote the expectation that union with the loved one will fulfill ultimate spiritual goals—as one finds in the popular cultures of the West. No authoritative narrative on sexuality and relationships exists in Buddhism, and the teachings vary broadly from one Asian Buddhist culture to another.

Monastic Buddhism in Southeast and Central Asia has emphasized celibacy as founda-tional in monastic (vinaya) vows. Although some East Asia sects such as the Ch’an and Zen schools allow married clergy, other sects retain monastic celibacy vows from the Indian tradition. These vows required gender separation, and often took a misogynist approach to protecting the purity of monks. Theravada Buddhist lay precepts require abstention from sexual misconduct and insist on monogamous marriage or celibacy, a rule that has been challenged by the growing sex trade in Theravada countries such as Thailand. In general, Ther-avada Buddhism has not outlined a path of transmuting desire into spirituality.

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism often revealed paradoxical approaches to sexuality, continuing the tradition of monastic celibacy begun in India while also embracing sometimes-libertarian attitudes toward sexuality derived from regional cultures. Chinese political intrigues in particular often involved illicit relationships—adultery and even rape committed by clerics. Certain lineages allowed married clergy because of concerns about succession, allowing temples to be passed to the heirs of the clergy, as in Japanese Jodo Shin-shu’s (Pure Land’s) “blood lineage” tradition.

In Mahayana Buddhist traditions in Asia in general, strains of antinomian interpretation encouraged the overthrowing of ethical codes and cultural norms in the practice of the dharma. The Chinese version of the apocryphal Fanwan jing (Net of Brahma Sutra) allowed latitude for the precept requiring celibacy, saying that the spirit of the precepts could never be broken. Yet other strains of Japanese Buddhism repudiated such abuses, literally crucifying adulterous monks up to the eighteenth century.

Whereas Tibetan monks took vows of celibacy, Tibet’s mainstream esoteric tradition (tantra and gyu) held sexuality to be a powerful part of spirituality for all human beings that was to be understood, trained, and integrated for human potential to be awakened. Of course, sexual indulgence was considered a grave violation, but rousing sexual energy without orgasm in visualization or other meditation practices became part of spiritual development. This related especially to the subtle energetic (yogic) body that was employed in bringing conceptual mind to cessation and opening the practitioner’s experience to the natural state, or enlightenment. The icono-graphic depictions of celestial couples in ecstatic embrace (yab-yum) were symbolic expressions simultaneously of the union of feminine and masculine, wisdom and skillful means, and hot and cool channels of the subtle body, demonstrating a union that is neither two nor one—the ultimate enlightenment.

Of course, these practices were sometimes abused in Tibetan Buddhism, and tantric understandings of sexuality and spirituality probably did not affect most intimate relationships. Often prominent tantric teachers would take a wife or consort later in life to improve health and restore physical balance through sexual yoga, but Tibetans call those who fail in tantric yoga parents. In its pre-1959 isolation, Tibetans held tantric Buddhist views of sexuality simultaneous with patriarchal folk attitudes that viewed women as born low, and subject to their husbands and families.

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