Common questions

What is the proper role of feelings and affection in the lives of Buddhists?

 In Chinese, the term “ganqing” refers to the feelings and affectionate relationships between men and women, parents and children, and among friends; as such, it includes romantic love, parental love, and friendships. Buddhists are ordinary people, so it is natural that they have parents and friends, and except for monastics, they may also have spouses. Buddhism refers to sentient beings as “beings with feelings,” and as sentient beings we experience the three affectionate relationships mentioned above. So, it is ultimately human beings who should practice the Dharma, and everyone who practices begins as an ordinary person. Therefore, their engagements and interactions must be in accordance with affection, reasons, and laws. If Buddhism only speaks of detachment from desires, it would be difficult to bring ordinary people into the gate of Buddhism. Furthermore, if Buddhist teaching is devoid of feelings and affection, it would be difficult for people to cultivate Buddhism and transform themselves.

 In Buddhadharma, “compassion” seems to differ from “feeling and affection”; however, the foundation of compassion lies in the relationships of affection between people. Some would call it love, but just as love can be conditional or unconditional, there is also selfish love and selfless love. The compassion of the Buddha and bodhisattvas is selfless, while the love between humans involves a sense of self. The love between parent and child is unconditional, while romantic love and friendship can be conditional. Buddhadharma aims to use love as the basis to cultivate selfless compassion. 

 While buddhas and bodhisattvas are selfless, ordinary sentient beings are not; therefore, it is necessary for sentient beings to cultivate and gradually transform from self-centered love to selfless compassion, and from conditional love to unconditional love. Thus, Buddhism does not ask people to leave feelings and affection behind right from the beginning. So, how should Buddhists handle feelings and affection? The family is the foundation for affectionate relationships; its ethical principles flow from the bond between parents and children. It starts out from the relationship between the spouses, continues with other immediate family members and from there it evolves and extends outward to relatives and friends. Affectionate relations thus become necessary due to the bond in the family and the emerging of friendships in our social activities. An old Chinese saying goes, “Depending on parents when at home, relying on friends while away.” There is another saying, “When there is harmony between husband and wife, they will live to a ripe old age of marital bliss.” These are the relationships based on affectionate feelings. 

 Without love a family would be like a machine that may break down anytime because it lacks lubricating; without love serious damage may result. The purpose of Buddhadharma is nothing more than educating and cultivating lay people to transform conflict into harmony. Therefore, Dharma has the two constant teachings of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom derives from reasoning, while compassion arises from emotions; using wisdom to guide compassion will transform one’s emotional life from chaos to order, and conflict to harmony. If feelings and affections become separated from wisdom, emotions can run rampant and cause harm to oneself and others. 

 The Shrigalavada Sutra, known in the Chinese Tripitaka as Six Directions Homage Sutra (Chn. Liufangli Jing), recounts that in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, there was in India a religious practice that instructed followers to face specific directions during worship. Once, the Buddha saw a young man named Shrigala piously facing six different directions as he worshipped. The Buddha asked Shrigala what he was worshiping. The young man replied that his father worshiped in the six directions when he was alive, so Shrigala was just continuing to do so. The Buddha told him that Buddhists also worshipped in six directions: to the east to revere parents, to the south to respect teachers, to the west to be considerate toward a spouse, to the north to love and care for children, to the position below to show concern to servants and subordinates, and to the position above to show respect to monastics. This custom expresses the attitude and duties that individuals should have towards the important people in their lives. All of these are within the nature of feelings and affections, and they are the basis of ethics in human relationships. When one can handle emotions and live a normal life with feelings, it is the beginning of practicing Buddhadharma. 

 In the chapter “On Buddhahood” in the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra, there is a conversation between Vimalakirti and Sarvarupasamdarsana Bodhisattva. The bodhisattva asked Vimalakirti, “You have parents and a wife at home and dependents and relatives, as well as subordinates and friends. Isn’t that burdensome?” The bodhisattva was implying that Vimalakirti was a bodhisattva, yet he had family and relatives, so how would this free him from worldly concerns? Vimalakirti replied, “My mother is wisdom; my father is the instrument to deliver sentient beings; my wife is Dharma joy from my practice; my daughter represents compassionate mind, while my son represents kindness and honesty. I do own a home and family; but they symbolize emptiness. My disciples are sentient beings; my friends represent various methods of Dharma practice. The attractive women performing around me are the four convenient ways of gathering and transforming sentient beings.” 

 This chapter in the sutra speaks of the great variety of people and matters in a lay practitioner’s living environment. Vimalakirti did not feel burdened or restrained by them; on the contrary, he showed great compassion and great wisdom. He lived a life full of feeling and affections like other ordinary people, yet he encompassed an inner world of liberation and freedom.

 As one can see, Buddhists don’t need to reject feelings and affection in their lives; rather, it depends on whether one can guide their feelings with reason and merge reason with feeling. If we can guide our emotions with rational wisdom, then life will be richer and smoother and we will achieve success one way or another; it will certainly benefit oneself as well as others. The so-called Dharma guidance and principles of wisdom are to teach us how to handle sentimental issues; they are not asking us to abandon, reject, or loathe emotions and feelings. Yet, if we misplace our emotions and feelings, it would bring puzzlement or release emotions without control, it would create suffering. 

 For instance, parents naturally love and protect children; but overindulgence can harm them. There is love between men and women; but extramarital or complicated premarital affairs will not only bring about problems in family life, but also create conflicts in society. Besides, in terms of relationships among relatives and friends and between teachers and students or master and servants, affection between them should also be based on reason. Otherwise, it would generate anxiety and disturbance. Buddhaharma does not oppose feelings and affections in life; rather, it gives us guidance to lead a life of feelings based on reason and in accordance with common laws.