Almost everyone has fallen in love at one time or another, perhaps several times. So for most people “love” is that exciting and sublimely agitating urge for intimacy with another, felt vaguely in the area of the solar plexus. Discussions on love almost always include something about what is called erotic love, romantic love or amour, eros to the Greeks, kāma, lokassādare or rati in Buddhism. This is the love that makes the world go around, as the saying goes. It is the love that has inspired some of civilisation’s greatest literature, art and music. It is the love everyone longs to experience and hopes will last forever.
Falling in love as we understand the experience today was not very common during the Buddha’s time, any more than it was in other ancient cultures. The prelude to and purpose of marriage was not love. People married to preserve property and produce legitimate progeny, and therefore most marriages were arranged by parents. Young people were paired off soon after they reached sexual maturity so they had very little opportunity to fall in love. If love grew, it did so after the marriage. Despite this, sometimes young people did manage to fall in love with each other or sometimes those already married fell in love with someone other than their spouses. Illicit romantic and sexual relationships happened despite the lack of opportunities and strong social disapproval.
Today romantic love commonly blossoms quite suddenly. One person sees another, is immediately attracted and then falls in love with them. He or she then attempts to make contact with the person they desire in the hope of attracting their attention and getting to know them better. If things go as hoped and their interest is reciprocated, a romance will result. If shyness, insurmountable social differences or other barriers make close contact with the loved person impossible, they may secretly worship them from afar, pining for them and dreaming or fantasising about a relationship with them.
Of course, not all love start by suddenly “falling” into it; sometimes it grows slowly. The scriptures identify at least four stages in this gradual awakening. It begins with seeing (dassana), seeing leads to association (samsagga), association leads to intimacy (visāsa), and intimacy leads to amorousness (otāra, A.III,67). Romantic love can last for weeks or months, although if requited it will last much longer. But sooner or later, it either fades, sours into dislike, or becomes more settled and evolves into conjugal love.
Romantic love has all the defining characteristics of other types, although in a much more exaggerated and unruly form. Couples in love are intensely interested in each other; much of their time together is spent talking to each other about the minute details of their lives. They care about each other too, about each other’s happiness and well-being and particularly that the love they share continues and grows stronger. They empathise with each other, and in romance this is usually described as “two hearts beating as one”. Desire for intimacy is heightened. During the first flush of love, the couple involved can hardly bear to be out of each other’s sight and the desire for sexual intimacy often has a desperate, urgent quality to it. In fact, so closely is romantic love associated with sex that the physical act of sex is commonly called “making love”. In no other type of love is positive feeling so dominant, sometimes overwhelmingly so, although it is commonly punctuated by episodes of despair and distress, anxious longing and shattered hopes. Arguments followed by reconciliations, or separations ending in reunions, seem only to intensify the partners’ attachment to and longing for each other’s company. Sometimes couples will even create such situations so that they can savour the reconciliation. The scriptures say: “When a couple or a husband and wife frolic in private with romantic love they chide each other ‘Dear One, you don’t really love me; your heart is elsewhere’. They chide each other like this falsely so that they can then love each other more passionately” (Ja.VI,378).
The bliss of new love can be strong enough to affect a person’s appearance and behaviour. It can give them a smiling, dreamy, faraway look or a twinkle in their eyes. It can make them appear preoccupied and uninterested in normal activities or give them a spring in their steps, at least when their relationships are proceeding smoothly.
Apart from possessing the defining characteristics that all loves share, romantic love has its own unique features. It is initially triggered by visual contact. “Love goes to one who is seen, there is no attraction to one who is not seen” (Rāmāyaṇa V,26;39). Its primary focus is the body; for males the face, breasts and hips, and for females the face, shoulders and chest. Certain body shapes evoke more desire than others, depending on cultural norms, and some of these can be very peculiar. In China until the beginning of the 20th century, males found abnormally small female feet intensely erotic. Now most people would be revolted by such deformities. Only a hundred years ago in the West, a pale and pudgy was in, now tanned and slim is the fashion. In ancient India both men and woman were erotically aroused by what was called the tanuromaraji, the line of hair going from the pubis to the navel. Just how particularly romantic love can be about physical features is suggested by this description of female beauty from the scriptures. To be alluring to a man, a woman had to be “fifteen or sixteen, not too tall and not too short, not too thin and not too fat, not too dark and not too fair”. (M.I,88) The presence or absence of even small and otherwise insignificant features or details can make the difference between arousal and disinterest. The pathways of eroticism and romance are not always easy to fathom.
Another important feature of romantic love is its tendency to distort perception. Buddhist scriptures refer to being blinded (kāmandha), befuddled (kāmamatta) or intoxicated (kāmāsava) by love. A person in love sees everything about their beloved as exceptional. A young man might say of his beloved: “her hair is like silk”, “her teeth are like pearls”, or “her eyes sparkle like stars.” But when we observe her various body parts they do not seem to be significantly different from anybody else’s. People in love do not say things like this in flights of ecstasy; they really believe what they say. Love makes their eyes see things in a different if unrealistic light, which can lead to problems. When the wild passion fades as it inevitably must, and the loved one is seen with a more critical eye, disappointment can set in. What before was a cute or delightful quirk may become an annoyance. When one person is besotted by another who does not love them with equal passion or perhaps not at all, they can be open to being exploited by them. They might be asked for and gladly give expensive gifts, money and favours. The besotted person’s family and friends can see what is happening, that the love-struck is being taken advantage of, but they themself cannot see it. Romantic love can be, as they say, blind.
Most of all, romantic love seems to operate outside the will. The term “falling in love” is a very appropriate and descriptive one. As in actually tripping or being pushed and falling, you cannot stop until you hit the ground. A person does not choose or decide to fall in love; a surge of dopamine, oxytocin and other hormones in the system decides for them. The pull of romantic love and sexual delight, the promises they whisper in the ear, can be very hard to resist. Occasionally one of the Buddha’s monks would appear to be progressing well, developing calm and detachment, experiencing the joy of simplicity and silence. Then suddenly “he hears that in a particular village or town there are women or maidens fair to look upon, lovely, with the wondrous beauty of a lotus. When he hears this he loses heart, falters, cannot keep strong, and is unable to continue the training. Then he acknowledges his weakness, gives up the training and returns to the lay life”(A.III,90).
Abandoning the life of a celibate monk or nun for romance is one thing, but people sometimes take extraordinary risks or act with unbelievable irresponsibility because they are under the spell of sexual desire or romantic love. It is romantic love’s unruly, distorting and distracting qualities that made the Buddha very cautious of it, and of course he was by no means the only one. The Jains, Hindus, Stoics, Gnostics, and the early Christians all saw romantic entanglements as pulling one’s energy and attention away from more spiritual aspirations. Saint Paul said: “I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7,1-35). Except for the reference to pleasing the Lord, the Buddha could have addressed these same words to his monks and nuns.
However the Buddha had a deep enough understanding of the human heart to know that despite the many tribulations romantic love could bring, it was also a source of great happiness and a real benediction. He often spoke of what he called “the satisfaction and the dangers (assādañ ca ādīnava) in sensual pleasure” (M.I,85), of which romance and sex were the most significant. And there is satisfaction in romantic love – the wonderful feeling of being cherished and having someone to cherish, the companionship, the fun, the exhilaration of sex and the delight of sharing things. It can also nourish virtues such as loyalty, giving, unselfishness and patience.
The Buddha was also realistic enough to understand that whatever he said most people would fall in love and probably wish to marry. Therefore he encouraged his lay disciples to be responsible in their intimate relationships. The third of the Five Precepts, the rules of behaviour that all Buddhists undertake to live by, is the vow “I take the Precept to avoid sexual misconduct”. Although this precept is primarily about sexual behaviour it overlaps with romantic love because the two are so closely connected. Wrong sexual behaviour was, the Buddha said, intercourse with those under the guardianship of their parents, i.e. under-aged; those protected by Dhamma, i.e. monastics or those who had taken a vow of celibacy; those already married; those undergoing punishment, i.e. prisoners; or those bedecked in garlands, i.e. already engaged to be married (A.V,264). This does not mean that one already married will never fall in love with such people but it would be wrong from the Buddhist perspective to encourage and pursue such feelings. Romantic love should not be confused with dalliance (nandi or kāmarāga). There can be sex without love just as there can be love without sex. Some people have a strong appetite for sexual gratification and little or no interest in emotional involvement or long-term commitment. They may pretend to be emotionally attached to someone but only as a strategy to get more sex. The Buddha called this sort of thing “sport” (dava), perhaps similar to the Greek ludus, and is what we are talking about when we say that a particular person “sees love as a game.”