10 December 2008

Relationships and Love: a Buddhist Perspective

I sent this to my farflung correspondents as an e-mail a while back.

All great spiritual teachers have taught that we should love one another, but it seems that few have made really clear exactly what love is. The Buddhist tradition is particularly explicit about this, but I believe what the Buddha taught on this subject is universal in application, regardless of one's particular faith, and that it is based on keen insight into the working of the human heart.

All relationships will flourish when they are based on love; whether acquaintances or collegial relationships, all the way up to spouses and life partners. They will suffer when pervaded by the antagonist of love, which isn't hatred, but attachment.

Love has three phases, or types:
  1. Affectionate Love. This is when you perceive the object of your love as beautiful, pleasant, attractive. There is no element of desire here. It is merely seeing the person or being as pleasing. This can be cultivated and brought out, when it doesn't arise spontaneously. All types of love, in fact, can be created in your heart, through practice. All living beings are in fact beautiful, so it's just a matter of seeing.
  2. Cherishing Love. Having come to see the object of your love as pleasant or beautiful, you come to feel he or she is important. Their happiness is important. They are precious, and you cherish them. This too can be cultivated.
  3. Wishing Love. Having come to see them as precious, you come to wish, with all your heart, that they not suffer, that they have not just happiness, but that they be happy all the time, present and future, that they have all good fortune, wisdom, and blessing. You keep this thought in your heart, until it's there all the time.

Notice that there is nothing in any form of love about I or me. Desire, your needs, your happiness have nothing to do with it. Relationships which are based on 'my needs' are relationships of attachment: you are important because you make me happy. I need you. My life depends on you. You are my world. These are not thoughts of love, but thoughts of attachment, and they destroy love.

If you move away from such thoughts and cultivate minds of the three types or phases of love, your relationships will flourish.

Try it. It's guaranteed (but not always easy). A spiritual practitioner strives eventually to love all living beings, but if you don't love those close to you, you can't do that, so it's the best place to start.

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