Ask the Buddha what love is

A lecture in Xiamen University, Tan Kah Kee College

[evening of 23rd February 2012]


Welcome speech by the host:

Originally, Khenpo Sodargye had planned only to deliver a speech, today, at the department of philosophy in Xiamen University, but, because it is a rare occasion for him to visit Xiamen, we also invited him to give a lecture here in Tan Kah Kee College. Through this lecture, all of us will be able to be in close contact with a Buddhist practitioner. I think it is a great opportunity, which, in Buddhist terms, is a great blessing.

The so-called “Khenpo” is a master of the dharma. This title not only embodies his identity of religionist but also indicates that he is a master of Tibetan Buddhism.

Let me, briefly, introduce Khenpo Sodargye. In China, traditionally, when introducing a person, we often talk about three aspects of him: first, how much he commits his ideas to paper and how valuable that is; second, how significant is the contribution that he makes to a specific field; third, how noble is his personality. Khenpo Sodargye is the main administrative staff member, in Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, who is responsible for managing Chinese monks. Moreover, he also produces a lot of writing: the total word count of his writing is over ten million words. In addition to this, he is a man of great attainments in Vinaya (Buddhist Discipline), Abhidharma (Higher Teaching), Hetuvidya (Buddhist Logic), Madhyamaka (Middle Way), Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom) in Mahayana, and the Great Illusory Net and the Great Perfection in Vajrayana. In terms of his virtue, he is not only a scholar but a great Buddhist practitioner.

The topic of today’s lecture is “Ask the Buddha what love is”. The human spirit is highly valued in Buddhism, therefore, Khenpo must have his own understanding and perspective on “love”. So now, let us welcome Khenpo with warm applause.

I am very glad to have an exchange, here, with teachers and students of this school! Today’s topic is a bit special, and so you may have different feelings after hearing it. While I was at the door of this classroom, I heard some of you talking about what “Ask the Buddha what love is” actually means. I, as a Buddhist monk, will have a simple exchange with all of you, and I hope it will be inspiring and helpful.

Relationship issues that people are faced with these days 

Everybody in this room is young, so you may be attached to earthly love in some way. I have been to many schools, and I found that many of the teachers and students were so, and that they regarded having a loving relationship as the most important event in their lives. Why so? There are many reasons for this, the main reason being that they are influenced by their environment. As you know, these days, a lot of the contents of the internet, movies, and TV programs are closely related to love. Under the influence of the glamorization, lots of people are very much attached to love.

I hope that everybody here considers the so-called ‘love’, which we usually praise and pursue, with wisdom. Is it really so wonderful, and worth wallowing in? You are all university students with an elaborative faculty. I hope that you will think it through carefully. This is a very significant issue in your lives. If you do not think clearly, in the future, you are likely to suffer, regarding this.

Actually, not everyone is so attached to love in this world. Take Tibet, as an example: even though there are many laymen who are attached to love, they are unlike westerners, or Chinese people, who put so much time and energy into a relationship. According to Tibetan tradition, Tibetan people do not think that love is the pillar of their lives; in ancient China, people did not think that love was everything in their lives, either – they thought that morality, talents, and art, were their objects of pursuit.

How Buddhism looks upon love

As a Buddhist, I do not reject love: Buddhism is inclusive of love. Some people think that Buddhism is heartless, and that once you become a monk, you have to abandon your family and everything, which would be an inhuman act! Many people use a variety of expressions to describe the “heartlessness” of Buddhist monks. However, in reality, Buddhism is not really as they describe it. As a matter of fact, the so-called “heartlessness” of Buddhism is just a delicate and precise description of the earthly love to which worldly folks cling. The so-called ‘being ordained’, as a monk, does not mean that the monks abandon their affections. Many people do not really understand Buddhism, and some movies and the media deliberately malign Buddhism, rather than showing the original meaning of Buddhism to people. As a result, people misunderstand Buddhism.

Everyone should know that a loving relationship, which is desperately pursued by worldly people, does not have a long “guarantee period”. Once a loving relationship goes beyond the “guarantee period”, it becomes stale. In Buddhism, there are many insightful descriptions of this illusory and unreal love. For instance, every attachment and desire is impermanent and leads to suffering; it is caused by people’s contaminated clinging…etc. If you can, with a tremendous effort, study the dharma, and you will, to some extent, gain a grasp of it.

According to the record, in the biography of the Buddha, 2500 years ago, the Buddha himself abandoned the throne and chose to lead a monastic life. Of course, being a monk does not mean that you have to abandon your family. The Buddha chose to be away from his family for a time, which was a path to attain enlightenment. In addition to the Buddha, throughout history, there were a lot of Buddhist monks who chose the way that the Buddha has done. In fact, they were away from their families, but that does not mean that they were heartless. On the contrary, it was an unconditional, and great, love for every sentient being.

 In fact, it is not only Buddhists who choose to be away from loving relationships, but many successful entrepreneurs, leaders, and stars, also choose to be single. Such examples happen everywhere. Why don’t they get married? Because they just want to concentrate on their work, with undivided attention. Once they have the burden of a family, they are restricted by it, and do not have enough freedom to do whatever they want.

 I’m not promoting Buddhism here, I am just hoping that all of you will understand Buddhism correctly. As long as it is the truth, it will shine everywhere, and will not be abandoned just because of some people’s misunderstanding. Therefore, you should have a correct understanding, of seeing through loving relationships in Buddhism.

 In worldly folks’ definition, “love” means living and dying together; twining and binding with each other, just like the lyrics of a song, which say “What is love in this world? It makes people willing to sacrifice for it”. However, if we asked the Buddha what love is, the answer would be different.

 First of all, at the secular level, the Buddha also acknowledges ‘love’. There are many relevant teachings for a loving relationship, for ordinary laymen, in Dīrghāgama Ekottara-āgama-sūtraUpāsaka-śīla-sūtraDhammapada. And so, embracing the Dharma does not necessarily mean to be ordained, and to be cut off from all kinds of relationships.

 Subsequently, the Buddha would reduce it to the fact that relationships are just a kind of clinging. When you are attached to a person, you may feel happy for the time being. However, finally, this kind of attachment will bring suffering.

 Some people may have different ideas. They think love is wonderful, and how could it be possible for it to bring suffering? If you have never experienced the taste of love, it would be normal to have this kind of thought. Nonetheless, for those who have experienced the sweetness and bitterness of a loving relationship, they must have gained a profound understanding of what love is.

 At one time, an unmarried person and a married person were talking about love; the unmarried person highly praised love: “Love is a romantic ocean, a charming scroll painting, and a wonderful song. In ancient Greece, a king called Pygmalion carved an elaborate sculpture of a maiden, out of ivory. Because “she” was so beautiful, the king became obsessed and fell deeply in love with her. He kissed and hugged the ivory girl, and prayed in front of her, every day. Later, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was touched by his true love towards the girl, so Aphrodite changed that ivory statue into a real woman. The woman and Pygmalion lived happily ever after”.

 After listening to this story, the married person shook his head and said: “Young man, a loving relationship is not as wonderful as you think. Let me tell you a story. In ancient China, the southern dynasties, there was a person named Liu Tian. His sister was the wife of prince of Poyang. They were an affectionate couple. Later, the prince of Poyang was killed by the Emperor Ming of Southern Qi for some reason. The wife of prince of Poyang was pining away for her deceased husband, and on the verge of dying as she was too sorrowful to eat, due to the bereavement. Liu Tian asked someone to draw a picture in which the prince of Poyang was accompanying one of his loved concubines, and they looked in a mirror together in an affectionate manner. When seeing this picture, the wife of the prince of Poyang exploded with jealousy immediately. “He really should have died earlier.” said she, with an oath. And then her affection for her deceased husband disappeared, immediately and completely, and she soon recovered from the bereavement.”

 In a later story, the strong love of the heroine changed into fervent hatred in a flash. This is the so-called impermanent nature of relationships in Buddhism. All of you should understand this principle, otherwise no matter how knowledgeable you are, it is still very difficult to confront relationship problems.

 In Buddhism, there is a treatise called -The four hundred verses of Madhyamaka which mentions that the impermanent will be surely be harmed, and being harmed is not pleasurable. Therefore, all impermanence is suffering. Impermanent things will be in ruins, eventually, and that which must be ruined is not really pleasurable. Therefore, whatever is impermanent is the nature of suffering. For example, at first, a couple is affectionate to one another, but one of them gradually ceases to love the other. This kind of impermanence will bring both of them suffering.

 Thus, the Buddha always reminded Ananda to “take heed of this, do not trust your own ideations, for your ideations are untrustworthy. Take heed also of this: don’t be in contact with sexuality, for any contact with sexuality would incur disasters” which means  “Never trust your own conceptual thinking, as it is not trustworthy at all; never be attached to the beauty of women, or endless troubles and misfortune will come to you.”  However, unfortunately, many people do not understand this, nowadays. As a result, they often suffer from this in their lives.

Reveal the truth of the attachment to love, and shatter the illusion of it by wisdom

Of course, Buddhism is not forcing you to ruthlessly cut off your affections, but it is letting you abandon improper attachments through theoretical analyses. For example, some people think that the bodies of the opposite sex are very attractive. Actually, this kind of good feeling is just an illusion derived from careless observation. If we look into it further by our wisdom, we will find that what attracts us the most is only a heap of flesh. If you dissect our bodies, from head to toes, gradually and carefully, you will suddenly realize that what we love, and have been clinging and longing to, is actually this kind of thing. It goes without saying that such a body is completely valueless after death, and even when alive, it is also not worth being attached to at all!

 A story is told in a Sutra: Mātagī fell in love with Ananda, a student of the Buddha. She was trying very hard to persuade him to give up ordination. “Which part of Ananda do you love?” the Buddha asked Mātagī. “I love his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his ears, his voice, and the way he walks.” said Mātagī. The Buddha then, accordingly, dissected for her: “There are tears in his eyes, snot in his nose, saliva in his mouth, ear-wax in his ears, feces and urine in his body, etc” said the Buddha. Mātagī was of sharp faculties, so, therefore, her love and lust for Ananda were extinguished, immediately, after she had listened to the Buddha’s analysis.

 In fact, a loving relationship is, completely, a kind of discriminative attachment, and everyone should understand this, but today, people unduly praise love, and love has become the only thing that is worth pursuing in many TV programs. Due to this influence, many young people regard love as the most important thing, and keep pursuing it throughout their lives, which is rather regrettable. Actually, a loving relationship is just like a fragile beautiful bubble which can be shattered easily. Some people become greatly disappointed when this beautiful bubble bursts, and some of them, because of the despair, even commit suicide which, really, is not a wise choice.

 I, myself, come from Tibet. The difference in traditions between Tibetan and Chinese regions is massive. Although, the Tibetans are attached to loving relationships, they don’t put them in a very important position in their lives. Neither do they overly praise them. Conversely, in Chinese region, people glamorize love to the extreme. Originally, love was not all that ‘world-shaking’. However, it is now packaged in imaginary romantic plots, which make people praise it insanely. Until the time when this attractive packaging is torn up, then people, painfully, find out what love really is.

 Saddharma-smrty-upasthana-sutra(Sutra of the Supreme Dharma of Clear Recollection)also mentions that “If one is greedy for worldly pleasures, one will often experience enormous suffering.” Therefore, being overly clinging to a loving relationship makes for constant suffering. Only if we attain the level of relinquishing every desire and craving, will we then not yearn for love. Also, if we then lose it, it will not hurt us so severely.

From a practitioner’s viewpoint, relinquishing worldly pleasures brings the greatest happiness. There was a man who was very wealthy but not happy. He asked, everywhere, about how to be happy. A person told him if he could get a shirt from the happiest person in the world, he could then be happy. After that, he began to search for it, very hard; after a period of time, he heard that there was an old practitioner living deep in the mountains who enjoyed great happiness. He then visited that person and asked “Are you the happiest person in the world?” “I think so,” he replied, in a leisurely way. “I have never had sufferings”. That wealthy person then, sincerely, asked him for his shirt. The old practitioner chuckled heartily and said “I do not even have a shirt.” The wealthy man then realized that “Not being attached to anything is real happiness”.

 Perhaps some of you do not quite understand. “Possession does mean happiness. How could you possibly be happy when you have nothing?” Nevertheless, the reality is often the opposite. When you have nothing, you think you would be happier when you have something. Once you do have something, it does not necessarily mean that you will be happy. For example, while you are poor, you think that you will be happier when you become rich. But after becoming rich, you will then discern that it is not as wonderful as you thought it might be. When you do not have a family, you feel that you would be happier if you have your own family. However, after having a family of your own, you find that it is the source of quarrels. When you are a person of low social status, you wish to be of higher social status. Nevertheless, after you get it, you would then find that you are still unhappy.

 But even so, people’s desires are endless. If a person is in the position of deputy- director of a bureau, he may think: “It would be great if I were the director of the bureau.” After becoming the director of the bureau, he may start to think: “It would be wonderful if I were a deputy mayor.” When he really becomes the deputy mayor, he starts to plan to be the mayor. This endless pursuing is suffering, since you will never be satisfied if you keep doing things like this.

 Thus, “What kind of life should I pursue from now on?” is what everyone really needs to think about, carefully and seriously. Many people think that money can bring us happiness. This is incorrect. As a young man, you not only have to learn your culture and knowledge, but to have a correct belief; not only to have extrinsic wealth but a spiritual one. Only then, will you have a better life.

 In summary, there are profound revelations of love in Buddhism. In fact, affections between people are derived from multiple kinds of causes and conditions, over past lives, and this life. In a loving relationship, some ask for repayment, while some pay off debts that they owed other people over previous lives. As an example, when a person has a special attachment to another, and he or she falls in love with him or her, at first sight:  it is not incidental, but very possibly to be deriving from karmic debts which happen over previous lives.

 Of course, modern science cannot perfectly explain the complexity of a loving relationship. It is because it only observes phenomena that happen in this life time, and does not know about past and future lives. Under the circumstances, if you reject the Buddhist viewpoint without exception, you may encounter many problems when facing the bewilderment of a relationship.

 Today, the love of many people is a kind of occupation, with much of a pragmatic component, which means that if someone makes you happy, you wish to stay together with him or her, every day; if someone brings you suffering, you then cannot wait to get rid of him or her. This kind of love is actually the cause of suffering.

 Not long ago, there was a tragedy that occurred in a university. A pair of lovers was preparing for the graduate school entrance examination. Before the exam took place, the girl told the boy :- “If we both pass it, our relationship continues; if you make it, but I don’t, our relationship can also continue; but if I make it and you don’t, then we must break up.”      Life seemed to play tricks on them: that girl passed the exam, but that boy did not. Then the girl really did break up with him. He was too sad to accept this. He then dashed into the dorm of that girl and strangled her, and then he committed suicide.

 Compared with this kind of selfish love, the love of Buddhism is to take care of all sentient beings, unconditionally. At first glance, perhaps some of you may think: “Is it possible? It is too hard to understand”. In fact, it is not hard to understand at all, the idea has a rather profound meaning. If one has this kind of “love”, one has the most precious treasure in the world.

 I often ponder that, although mankind has created various kinds of scientific inventions, it does not necessarily mean success. The real success is to cultivate a compassionate mind and to understand thoroughly the mystery of the mind. Buddha delicately revealed this 2500 years ago. I wish all of you could get to know this further: do not just blindly pursue money and act like those who are of low morality, and like those who want nothing but money.

Pursue the wisdom which is really beneficial to our lives

To sum up, what if a person asked the Buddha about how to treat loving relationships? The Buddha would not advise everyone to be a monk. Neither does the Buddha advise everyone to study the Dharma. The Buddha would say that you should not cling to a loving relationship, for it will bring you suffering. This suffering is not imposed by anyone other than you. You have made your own bed and you have to lie in it.

 I usually interact with university students by advising and encouraging them to pursue that wisdom which is really beneficial to their lives. This sort of love is very important. Without it, although you may be incredibly learned, it does not necessarily mean that it could really benefit you.

 Sometimes, I do think that, in a way, some university students are pathetic. They are indeed knowledgeable, but they have never studied the Dharma. Because of this, they become confused about some key issues. Therefore they might suffer severely from even minor frustrations, which adversely affect them and others.

 It is very rare to come across the truth, even in decades of a life, which is very short. Once we do, we should never ignore it, or we would regret it in the future. Many people keep being busy with love, and with money when they are young, and they never think of pursuing the truth, until the last minute of their lives, when they then start to consider:  ”Will life continue after I die? What will I be in the next life?” Nevertheless, it is too late.

 All of you should understand that people do not vanish like smoke after dying. Although the body of this life may disappear, the soul, however, continues. You are human in this life, but for the next life, you may still be human or other kind of being. No matter what you become, your life will still continue and will bear fruit, corresponding to the bad and good karma you have produced in this life time.

 With respect to whether after-life exists or not, a lot of people are illiterate on this topic. They cannot give any reason for the inexistence of after-life and do not know how after-life exists, let alone how to face it. In worldly theory, basically, it is not mentioned. However, in Buddhism, it is elaborated delicately and clearly.

 To sum up, at the level of absolute truth, Buddhism thinks that everything is of inexistence, including loving relationship. In the level of relative truth, the existence of loving relationship is acknowledged, and normal love life is also accepted. Nonetheless, Buddhism would remind people that loving relationships are impermanent, and the cause of suffering. Therefore, do not wallow in it too much, or unexpected pain will occur.

 As a matter of fact, apart from the Buddha, the ancient sages such as Confucius, Zhuangzi, and so forth, have some understanding of love. If you had a better understanding of Chinese traditional culture, you would not be clinging too tightly to a loving relationship.

 Take Zhuangzi as an example: one day, he came out and saw a woman who kept fanning a new tomb. He asked why she did so. “The person buried in this tomb is my husband, his last words were that if I wish to remarry, I have to wait until the tomb soil becomes dry. I am now eager to remarry, so I fan the tomb and wish it to become dry as soon as possible” said she.

 Zhuangzi was not comfortable with those words, and told his wife what he had gone through. His wife rebuked that woman for being affectionless, and swore that she would never do the same thing, as her, if he died. However, accidents will happen. Zhuangzi died a few days later, due to an acute disease. After putting his body into a coffin, his wife was in a white mourning dress and cried every day. A few days later, a handsome man, who called himself a prince’s descendant, went to Zhuangzi’s house, wanting to be his student. He was very sad and wished to mourn him for a hundred days, when he was told that Zhuangzi had died.

Because that man was handsome, Zhuangzi’s wife fell in love with him during the mourning period. She asked someone to propose to him on her behalf. The man agreed, but he put forward a condition. ”I came from miles away, it would be very regrettable if I cannot see Zhuangzi, even once. I wish you would open the coffin, and let me see him.” said he. This was grossly irreverent towards the dead, on the basis of the custom of the time. However, in order to become married to him, Zhuangzi’s wife agreed with his request. When the coffin was open, Zhuangzi sat up and the prince’s descendant disappeared at the same time. She then realized that he was the reincarnation of Zhuangzi. Soon she hanged herself, due to her shame.

 From this story, we can see that worldly affections are rather impermanent. Nonetheless, some people do not accept it, even though they understand this. Inevitably, the more people are unwilling to face something, the more they are likely to have to do so.

 Education nowadays does not teach us how to treat love properly. At school, teachers often praise how wonderful love is, but never remind their students of how to deal with love problems; outside of school, singers always sing love songs and TV programs always broadcast love scenes. Nevertheless, everyone should ponder whether, what this kind of education and dissemination brings to our young people, is good, or bad.


 Amitāyu-sūtra (Infinite Life Sutra) says “A person is born alone in the world from the desire for love, and he will die alone. He comes to life, then passes away all on his own.” Every one of us is like that, that we come to this world alone and, finally, we leave alone, as well. Therefore, one does not have to think “I cannot live without him or her”. Even though it is understandable for you to pursue a loving relationship, you should, however, know how the affections between man and woman come about, and that they should treat each other with decorum, which is good for both.

Today, I would like to kindly remind you that all of you should have a rational understanding of love. Actually, in Buddhism, we have plenty of teachings regarding this topic. Take the Mahayana commentary Bodhicaryavatara (The way of the Bodhisattva) as an example: an abundance of precious teachings regarding the taming of our minds can be found in it, which is a fabulous book that everyone should study nowadays.

I have long been wishing that everyone can understand Buddhism, especially the altruistic pith of letting go of one’s ego, the wisdom of emptiness, which can dissolve any sort of attachment. These are definitely worth learning. And Bodhicaryavatara (The way of the Bodhisattva) contains these two parts, completely. If you have time to learn it, you certainly can find the right direction in your life, otherwise, you may not be able to live happily, if your mind is full of selfishness and attachment!