What is love (Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more… sorry, I couldn’t help it)?
From a biological perspective, love is a cocktail of neurotransmitters arousing specific neural pathways related to reward. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s a means to reproduction. Sexual attraction draws us to a mate, but love keeps us with them. That makes it more likely that we’ll 1) produce more offspring with them, and 2) provide more protection for said offspring.
Shifting gears, from a romantic or artistic view, it’s the meaning of life. It’s like the sun and rain nurturing seeds in us that we never knew were there. Even the pain and sorrow involved make it richer somehow, more nuanced, intense, and deep.
From a classical Buddhist perspective, it’s attachment—clinging and craving. That’s why monastics renounce sex, romantic relationships, and their families. For thousands of years, Buddhists thought it was practically impossible for a lay Buddhist to Wake Up and enter nibbana. That’s because love means desire, and desire means ignorance of impermanence and selflessness.
Buddhism has softened a bit on that stance over the years.
The Vimalakirti Sutra is all about a layman—with a business and family—showing up a bunch of renowned bodhisattvas and arhats. Suddenly, enlightenment wasn’t just possible for all, it was everyone’s birthright. Whether someone renounced everything and left home, worked a 9-5 and had a family, or lived drunk in the streets—all of them could be Buddhas in their lifetime. Many of the Sutras, Sastras and Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism really drove this point home (which is ironic since Tibetan Buddhism is arguably the most dogmatic and hierarchical faction of Buddhism around).
That said, the laypeople in most Buddhist stories are still chaste. They have families, but they’re not like ordinary families. Husband, wife, and children are typically all displayed as having “Crossed to the Other Shore,” and they perform their roles out of duty rather than personal love. A husband and wife might have sex, but it’s sex for reproduction or Tantric sex meant to offer insight—not sex out of passion, or sex for the hell of it.
The love between these literary families seems more platonic than familial. It’s the love of common nature, love of a Sangha. So even at its most progressive, orthodox Buddhism still seems aloof when it comes to love.
Then we have Ikkyu, the Buddha with a broken heart who didn’t give a fuck about all the rules and doctrines he knew. Ikkyu loved and he loved passionately. The poet-priest Ryokan also fell in love, but we’re not sure if it was consummated or not. But these guys are exceptions; they went against the grain. A lot of people get lured into Zen or Buddhism thinking that personalities like theirs are the norm—they’re not. They never have been.
So, the main Buddhist answer is, “Yes, love is delusional, and it’s a hindrance to practice.”
It’s delusional because love depends on an illusion, on being particular and partial. When we fall in love with someone, what we’re falling in love with is their particular traits and idiosyncrasies. We’re falling in love with everything that’s… them, that’s theirs—their laugh, their interests, their quirks, habits and routines. We fall in love with the way they make us feel, with the aspects of ourselves that they bring out in us that we don’t seem to have access to without them.
The problem with that is particular, innate traits are the illusion that Buddhism sets out to expose. That laugh, those interests, quirks, habits and routines aren’t the person, nor do they belong to them or anyone. The way they make us feel isn’t us and doesn’t belong to anyone either.
Ignoring that causes attachment, and since those traits are impermanent, attachment causes suffering and affliction. Love is like saying, “This drop of water is unique, there’s no other drop of water like it in the whole world, so I’m going to preserve it for the rest of my life.” Even if it is unique in a way, water is water. It’s particular shape, or where it happened to land isn’t the heart of it. There’s water everywhere, oceans of it, and that drop is that ocean, and the ocean is that drop.
Love can be distracting, and it can cloud the mind which makes it very difficult to grok all of this.
But I don’t practice Buddhism, I practice Zen which uses Buddhism as a diving board, but ultimately goes beyond it. In Zen, if there’s love, then it’s such. If there isn’t, then that’s also such. Love is delusion, but the notion that we can (or that we’re supposed to) dispel delusions is also delusional. You can clean the mirror all you want, but that doesn’t help because the rag is covered in dust.
There’s no mirror to clean, no dust to wipe away. Just that is enlightenment. If we sincerely grokked that everything is perfect as it is, then everything would function perfectly as it is. Only doubt and seeking a more perfect perfection stand in the way. From this standpoint, love is…
There’s nothing to be said, everything resolves into shining silence. All views are viewable because there is no-view.
Nothing is forced, nothing is fabricated. Love is true love, and no love is true no love, and all the in-betweens are true in-betweens. There’s no script to go by, no handbook. Buddhism falls in on itself, taking its rightful place as kindling in the fire it helped to ignite. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the biologists, evolutionists, romantics or Buddhists say. It doesn’t even matter what I say. What matters is what can’t be said. What matters is the source that gives life and death to all these words.
If we think that love is delusional, then that’s delusional. If we think love isn’t delusional, then that’s delusional too. Give it a rest. There’s no need to think about it at all, no need to bother yourself or clutter your mind with such things. Just light up whatever’s before you and examine the source of this moment.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Living Dharma.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone. Feel free to check out his Facebook page.
Editor: Dana Gornall