Romantic Love and Marriage in the Buddhist Tradition
Many religions have a lot to say about love and marriage. Christianity even speaks of "holy matrimony," and Catholicism regards marriage as a sacrament. What does Buddhism say about love and marriage?
Buddhism and Romantic Love
There's next to nothing in the canonical Buddhist scriptures and commentaries about romantic love, but let's at least clear up a common misunderstanding. You may have heard that Buddhists are supposed to be free of attachments. To a native English speaker, this suggests remaining a loner.
But "attachment" has a specific meaning in Buddhism that comes closer to what most of us would call "clinging" or "possession." It's hanging on to something out of a sense of neediness and greed. Close friendships and intimate relationships are not only approved of in Buddhism; you may find that Buddhist practice makes your relationships healthier and happier.
How Buddhism Regards Marriage
Buddhism, for the most part, considers marriage to be a secular or social contract and not a religious matter.
Most of the Buddha's disciples were celibate nuns and monks. Some of these disciples were married—as was the Buddha himself—before they took monastic vows, and entering the monastic sangha didn't necessarily end the marriage. However, a married monk or nun was still prohibited from any sort of sexual gratification. This was not because sex is "sinful," but because sexual desire is a hindrance to realization of enlightenment.
The Buddha also had lay disciples, such as his wealthy patron Anathapindika. And the lay disciples often were married. In an early sermon called the Sigalovada Sutta recorded in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 31), the Buddha taught that a wife was owed her husband's respect, courtesy and faithfulness. Further, a wife was to be given authority in the home and provided with adornments. A wife is obligated to perform her duties well, discharging them skillfully and industriously. She is to be faithful to her husband and to be hospitable to friends and relations. And she should "protect what he brings," which suggests taking care of whatever her husband provides her.
In short, the Buddha did not disapprove of marriage, but neither did he encourage it. The Vinaya-pitaka prohibits monks and nuns from being matchmakers, for example.
When Buddhist scriptures do speak of marriage, usually they describe monogamous marriages. However, according to historian Damien Keown, in the Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, "Early documents mention a variety of temporary and permanent arrangements entered into for both emotional and economic reasons, and in different parts of Buddhist Asia both polygamy and polyandry have been tolerated."
This tolerance relates to the Buddhist view of sexual morality for laypeople. The Buddhist Third Precept is usually translated simply "Do not misuse sex," and over the centuries this has been interpreted to mean following community norms. Under most circumstances what people do with each other sexually is less important than not causing suffering to others or disharmony in the community.
There is no specific prohibition of divorce in Buddhism.
Same-sex Love and Marriage
Early Buddhist texts say nothing specific about homosexuality. As with other matters of sexuality, whether homosexual sex violates the Third Precept is more of a matter of local socio-cultural norms than religious doctrine. There is a commentary in the Tibetan Canon that prohibits sex between men, but there is no such specific prohibition in the Pali or Chinese canons. Homosexual sex is considered a violation of the Third Precept in some parts of Buddhist Asia, but in other parts, it isn't.
In the United States, the first Buddhist institution to step up and begin conducting same-sex marriages was the Buddhist Churches of America, representing Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. The Rev. Koshin Ogui of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco performed the first recorded Buddhist same-sex marriage ceremony in 1970, and in the years that followed other Jodo Shinshu priests quietly but without controversy followed suit. These marriages were not yet legal, of course, but were performed as acts of compassion. (See "'All Beings Are Equally Embraced By Amida Buddha': Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States" by Jeff Wilson, Renison University College, published in Journal of Global Buddhism Vol. 13 (2012): 31-59.)
Many Buddhist sanghas in the West today are supportive of same-sex marriage, although it remains an issue in Tibetan Buddhism. As mentioned above Tibetan Buddhism does have a centuries-old authoritative commentary that calls sex between men a violation of the Third Precept, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama does not have the unilateral authority to change the Tibetan Canon. His Holiness has told interviewers that he sees nothing wrong with same-sex marriage unless such a marriage violates the precepts of the couples' religion. Then it's not so okay.
What Happens at a Buddhist Wedding?
There isn't any one official Buddhist wedding ceremony. Indeed, in some parts of Asia Buddhist clergy don't get involved in performing weddings at all. So, what happens at a Buddhist wedding is mostly a matter of local custom and tradition.
By Barbara O'Brien