Buddhism that is taught today does not place a lot of emphasis on love and marriage. Few talks or books are devoted to this subject. When it does get brought up, often it is painted in negative light (e.g. that marriage equals suffering or reducing love to just some chemicals being released by the brain).
Yet the fact remains that most Buddhists will get married rather than join the monastic order. Thus by not discussing about love and marriage in the Buddhist context in a more constructive way, we will only do more harm than good to the Buddhist community – Having said that, we do see some positive movement like Buddhist marriage counseling and Buddhist marriage ceremonies becoming more common.
Looking at the suttas, we get a very different picture of the Buddha’s attitude on this subject. For example, in the Samajivina Sutta, we find a husband and wife pair who were deeply in love asking the Buddha how can they be reborn together in the future. If they ask this question today, they might be admonished and be reminded on how attachments keeps us in Samsara. So it is surprising to see the Buddha delivering a discourse on how they can be reborn together in future life!
“If both husband & wife want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come, they should be in tune [with each other] in conviction, in tune in virtue, in tune in generosity, and in tune in discernment. Then they will see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come.
Husband & wife, both of them having conviction, being responsive, being restrained, living by the Dhamma, addressing each other with loving words: they benefit in manifold ways. To them comes bliss. Their enemies are dejected when both are in tune in virtue. Having followed the Dhamma here in this world, both in tune in precepts & practices, they delight in the world of the devas, enjoying the pleasures they desire.”
While what the Buddha said to the husband and wife pair was interesting, the sutta’s implication on the subject of love, relationship and marriage is even wider. It shows that for lay followers who have yet to appreciate the joy of renunciation, the Buddha allows them to pursue the joys of lay life, which includes love and marriage.
In another sutta, the Buddha gave a discourse that in the Buddhist perspective, a “marriage made in heaven” is one where husband and wife both encourage each other to keep to the 5 precepts.
“…Householders, how does a god live with a goddess?
Here, householders the husband abstains from destroying living things, taking the not given, misbehaving in sexual desires, telling lies, taking intoxicant and brewed drinks, is virtuous without evil thoughts of miserliness and selfishness and abides not scolding and abusing recluses and Brahmins. The wife too abstains from destroying living things, taking the not given, misbehaving in sexual desires, telling lies, taking intoxicant and brewed drinks, is virtuous without evil thoughts of miserliness and selfishness and abides not scolding and abusing recluses and Brahmins. Householders, thus a god lives with a goddess…”
- AN 4.53
The most important point to note in the above sutta is that in the eyes of the Buddha, a marriage, like any relationship that we have with others, should be based on harmlessness or not hurting oneself or another.
The Buddha went on to talk about the duties we have to one another as husband and wife.
“In five ways, young householder, should a wife… be ministered to by a husband:
(a) by being courteous to her, (b) by not despising her, (c) by being faithful to her, (d) by handing over authority to her, (e) by providing her with adornments.
The wife thus ministered to… by her husband shows her compassion to her husband in five ways:
(a) she performs her duties well, (b) she is hospitable to relations and attendants, (c) she is faithful, (d) she protects what he brings, (e) she is skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.”
Note that the above passage from the Sigalovada sutta needs to be read in the context of the prevailing social norm that existed during the Buddha’s time where men would go out to work while the women remained home to look after the family. While much of the social norm that existed during the Buddha’s time no longer holds true, we can read the sutta to mean that we should be loving and faithful to our spouse and carry out our duties and responsibilities towards each other.
From the above few suttas, we can see that the Buddha clearly understood that not everyone will seek the path to liberation in this life. The scope of what is allowable for them is wider and the gradient of the “Gradual Path to Purification” is much more gentle.
Ironically, promoting this path may actually strengthen Buddhism. In my personal conversations with people who are sympathetic to Buddhism, but do not want to walk the path, many have deep impression that to become a Buddhist, one needs to give up everything and all desires to be happy. This impression has prevented them from committing themselves to learn more about Buddhism.
Hopefully, as seen in the quotes from the above suttas (and many other in this website), I can help to dispel this myth and help open the door wider to encourage more people to learn about Buddhism.