Marriage and Buddhism


I appreciate your point about a certain kind of clinging love, vs unconditional. But i am still uncertain: for a Buddhist layperson (not a monk), is it OK to fall madly in love, so that for a few months you crave the person, and feel pain when separated. And then, if you marry, and 5 years later your spouse dies, and it pains you to lose her, does this all show that loved her in a good way, or does it show that you craved her, and were attached to her inappropriately.  (a mother would feel terrible pain at the loss of her child). I still believe, based on what you wrote to me, that the Buddha would say you were wrong at both ends — the falling in love, and the pain at loss. If that’s true, then I think Buddhism does take its concern about attachments too far. Perhaps more modern Buddhists, or even ancient Mahayana Buddhists, allowed poeple to fall madly in love. What do you think?

~~ J.H, PhD

Grieving does not indicated an unwholesome love. There is a great story about a mother whose child had died and she could not deal with the grief.

“Lord Buddha,” she asked. “My child has died and I cannot live without him. Is there anything you can do to bring him to me?”

The Buddha replied, “Yes. Go and get a mustard seed and I can show you how.”

Mustard seeds are very common, so the woman was excited and cried tears of joy, “Oh yes, Lord Buddha, I will get a mustard seed.”

“But,” the Buddha added, “it must be from a house that has never known death.”

The woman ran from the Buddha and went searching for an undefiled mustard seed. However, at each house, no matter how kind the tenant, she could not find a home with an undefiled seed.

“My father has died here.”

“My child has died.”

No house could be found where death was not known. It was then that the woman realized that death was common to all creatures. She was able to see the wisdom of the Buddha, that all things that live must die and that we must all accept death as a part of life. Not feeling so isolated in this knowledge, she was able to understand this wisdom and did not hold so tightly to the clinging of her child’s life.

In psychology, we know that one of the feelings that many people have when they are distressed is a feeling that they are the only people in the world suffering. When we expose them to others who have suffered they remove that isolation and see that we all have our illnesses, grieving, and unhappinesses.

Consider the three poisons of the world: aversion, clinging, and ignorance (which is also translated as hatred/fear, greed and delusion) in a different metaphor. If our consciousness was a rider of a chariot and then the two horses pulling the chariot would be aversion and clinging riding through a fog of delusion. One horse is always pulling away from the chariot to run away from what is before us and the other is always trying to grab a hold of everything it sees and drag it with us. Neither horse will allow the rider to navigate. In addition, we are ignorant of the world as it really is and also unable to clearly see how to navigate the Middle Path.

The woman’s horse of aversion was running from the world, not wanting to deal with the child’s death (out of fear). The other was pulling at every straw, twig and branch trying to keep time still and hold onto the child (out of clinging and greed). Unable to see the wisdom of the reality of mortality, she was in a fog and unable to bring her horses under control, since she was unable to see the truth of the world clearly.

The misconception is that Buddhism wants us to get off the chariot totally and just sit. We would just remove ourselves from the world and all that living entails. This is not Buddhism. Believing that being separate from the world is not Buddhist message. We are all part of the world and interconnected.

Like a violin, we must not tighten the strings too tightly or too loosely or we cannot make music. This is the Middle Path: a path of living within the right tension to be in this world harmoniously.

So when we love, we must always analyze HOW we love. Certainly codependent love is harmful. So is a love with a spouse that is too aloof. Marriage is an extension of our inter-dependent society. It grows wholesomely through understanding, compassion and sharing: not indulgence, lust, and clinging. Knowing that all relationships that start will end—whether by natural illness and death or unwholesome development of the relationship—we can see clearly how important it is to cherish the experiences we are fortunate to share with others for the time we have.

Unwholesome love encompasses more than codependence. We are all good and bad. We all have things that are attractive and unattractive to our mates.  In a Buddhist context, when the romance wears off, we stop seeing only that which is attractive and start seeing the revelation of our full partner: bit by bit. It is here, and in boredom of the mundane, that disillusion sets in and we look for the next external pleasure to excite us.

For a monk, marriage means that there is an attachment to the physical world. We all are made of five aggregate materials, and when we marry we adopt five more to be responsible for. For each child, there are five more to carry on our load of responsibilities. The Buddha did not condemn marriage for lay people, but lay people make a volitional choice to study Buddhism with these extra burdens.

In Buddhism, “man does not exist for religion but religion for man.” To this end, each of us must use the tools of Buddhism to better the quality of the life that he chooses.

According to the Buddha, a marriage has responsibilities. A husband should expect his wife to be loving, attentive, faithful, be a good mother, be a partner in the house, and be compassionate. In return a wife should expect her husband to be tender, courteous, a partner in the house, loyal, faithful, honest, and supportive. The husband and wife are inter-dependent just as every man is inter-dependent on the rest of society.

So my advice is always to seek love and develop love with the knowledge of the mortality of love, just as there is mortality in anything that is born. All things are impermanent, but all things are also inter-dependent. The love, compassion, and acceptance we develop with our spouses carries on beyond our marriages. The love we develop in our marriages is not less important because it is temporary, but more precious because of this fact. Two people who have bonded and joined their lives to journey their short time on this world together are a blessed by each other and are able to take a non-monastic path in their understanding of happiness, wisdom, understanding and compassion.

We must choose the Buddhists we wish to be develop and become, always understanding that the goal is not nirvana, but true happiness. While a married lay person must carry a heavier burden in the physical world, they still walk the Middle Path.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Divorce, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Marriage, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet, Uncategorized, Virajana, Work


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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2 Comments on “Marriage and Buddhism”

  1. December 28, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    The following really struck a cord with me:
    “The Buddha did not condemn marriage for lay people, but lay people make a volitional choice to study Buddhism with these extra burdens.”

    I think it’s important to emphasize the choices we make. I hear people complain that regular householding lay followers will never be able to attain enlightenment due to their responsibilities as house holders (family, job, debts etc…) and that Buddhism is really just for monastics.

    I think your point “In Buddhism, “man does not exist for religion but religion for man.” To this end, each of us must use the tools of Buddhism to better the quality of the life that he chooses” speaks to that well.


  2. Tim
    December 30, 2009 at 5:51 pm #

    Everything the Buddha taught was to gradually reduce and eliminate suffering. So from the Buddhist perspective, there would be no argument as to whether “falling madly in love” is right or wrong, okay or not okay, appropriate or inappropriate; the only concern would be, out of compassion, whether or not such behavior will aid in, and ultimately lead to, the cessation of suffering.

    It is safe to say, simply by using the short example given by J.H. above, that “falling madly in love” is not the way to suffering’s end, but conversely, a way that ends in suffering.

    Furthermore, ANY relationship not based on unconditional love will be met with suffering along the way, guaranteed.

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