Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
“You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun”
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
Yeah, that’s from a song. “Alone Again Or”, a love song (of a sort), and a Love song (written by Bryan MacLean of Love…the band). In our culture, we are inundated with the concept of love: the need for it, the damage caused by lack of it, the gaining and the losing of it, etc. It’s not just the songs; movies, books, television, all speak to us of the necessity of love. If you don’t find your other half, you are doomed to a miserable, pathetic, lonely existence (you will never have “a life”). Of course, what most of them mean by “love” is what’s come to be known as romantic love, the idea that two people find each other somehow across the universe and complete each other, two halves of a whole. There’s someone out there for everyone, and all you need do is, oh, transcend time, space and reality and you will somehow find the one. You will be together forever, you will always love each other, and you will always be happy. Relationship problems? Must not be the one. Better keep looking…
I’m sure it’s no newsflash to anyone that having such an expectation almost always leads to broken hearts, failed relationships, and unhappiness all around. You may have found your ‘soul mate’, but eventually you will have to realize that keeping him/her requires work. Your ‘soul mate’ also happens to be a human being, a separate person of flesh and blood and differing opinions and…belches and farts. Ah, romance…
But what does ‘love’ mean to a Buddhist? Buddhism views all people as possessing the capacity for enlightenment, or Buddhahood, the condition of absolute happiness. The closest concept in Buddhism to this idea of “love” is the lower world of rapture. It’s considered a lower world because it is transient…not meant to last. The idea of a “soul mate” doesn’t really work either, because Buddhism does not support the idea of an eternal soul, at least not as is commonly meant. In Buddhism, life itself is eternal; the manifestation of an individual human life at a particular time, in a particular place, and in a particular form, results from the accumulation of causes made in one’s previous life (karma). One’s next life will manifest as an accumulation of causes made in this life, and so on and so on throughout eternity. While there is a certain level of continuity, there is no fixed, unchanging eternal soul that either ascends to heaven and finds its other half there, or is reborn again and again to resume the search on earth. Though it seems likely that the people we meet in each lifetime were known to us in previous lifetimes, in our current manifestation we can’t really know that for certain. To fixate on finding that “missing half” (as well as dwelling on who we were in past lives, and/or what evil karma we might have created) is detrimental to our present happiness. What’s important is to focus on one’s present existence, keeping the future in mind because it is shaped by the choices we are making now.
But what about the Love song? Are there really people who can “be in love with almost everyone”? And is that a good thing? What is love, anyway? Buddhism recognizes the idea of love, but not as life’s purpose. That would be the enlightenment (Buddhahood) that we work toward, a process that emphatically includes helping others to achieve enlightenment as well. Buddhahood, as defined by the Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, is “a state of complete access to the boundless wisdom, compassion, courage, and other qualities inherent in life; with these one can create harmony with and among others and between human life and nature.” However, it must be remembered that a Buddha is not a deity; we can attain this state of life as the common mortals that we are. In theory, I suppose we could “be in love with almost everyone” (or anyone) in this happy state. But because we are also common mortals, we are constantly at war with our lesser selves. We feel as though we are at the mercy of our desires, and our desires lead us to particular people, not anyone and everyone, when we love.
There’s nothing wrong with desire; the pursuit of our desires fuels our lives. It’s the attachment to those desires (and even worse, setting a timetable for their fulfillment), at the expense of all other considerations, that leads to unhappiness. This is particularly the case when the object of desire is another person; no matter how strong one’s desire, there is no guarantee that it will be reciprocated, and it can’t be forced. We tend to attach too much value to the “love relationship”, as though the other relationships in our life are of lesser value or don’t matter. This in turn creates an excessive burden of expectation, so when a love relationship changes, evolves, or ends we feel a corresponding sense of failure.
But…that feeling of being in love…it seems so real. Our senses are heightened, our perception changes, the whole world seems different. The idea of being “in love with almost everyone” seems absolutely abhorrent when you are in love with the one. You want to be with that person only. No one else seems to matter, or at least not as much. As to why you love that person and not someone else…how to explain that?
From a scientific standpoint, we can look to biology and chemistry. Life must reproduce itself to continue; it’s the biological imperative. Studies have shown that people are drawn to each other by such factors as smell. But this seems problematic as well. From the sublimity of Buddhahood we plunge into the lower world of animality. Do we really, really want to be controlled by our biology, at the utter mercy of our senses? Surely there’s more to it than that. And what if we’re drawn to people who seem completely wrong for us; should we assume that nature knows best, and go with it?
This is where choice comes in. It just might be karma that has brought this person into your life. It may be that you are meant to have some kind of relationship with him/her, but it may have nothing to do with what we think of as “love”. Or…maybe it does. You decide to enter into a “relationship”. You don’t know if it’s meant to last a lifetime or not. This is what the two of you will have to determine. If left to chance, you may outgrow each other. At times you may feel indifferent; at times you may hate each other. You may feel anything but “love”. The physical attraction usually fades over time; if that was the sole basis for your coming together, and you have never carried the relationship further, you will invariably move away from each other. It’s not that the feelings you had weren’t real, it’s just that they didn’t last.
So. What’s the best way to be a Buddha, yet enjoy all that love has to offer? We are not meant to live on such an exalted plane that we don’t get to experience the pleasure of our senses. It is not necessary to eliminate our earthly desires to attain enlightenment; the two are inseparable. This is what we have to remember when “love” makes us suffer. In a sense, if what we most desire is to maintain a solid relationship, we could “be in love with almost everyone”-as long as we remember that. Shared values, respect for yourselves and for each other, and a shared determination to make it work are what keeps a relationship going long past what might have been its “sell by” date. It’s important to remember that no matter how much you may love someone and feel happy in that person’s presence, ultimately you alone are responsible for your happiness. Love may “make the world go ‘round” (yet another song), but our Buddha attributes of boundless wisdom, compassion, and courage are what enables us to keep it alive.