Buddhist tradition speaks of four “divine abodes,” or qualities of an awakened mind to be cultivated and put into practice. Also called the “four immeasurables,” these states—lovingkindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha)—are to be aroused and radiated outward by the practitioner, without limit or exclusion. Of these, mudita is for many Westerners the least familiar, at least as a term. It refers to the capacity to participate in the joy of others, to take happiness in the happiness of others. Though practice aims ultimately to develop sympathetic joy for all beings, intimate relationships offer everyone—whether Buddhist or not—a precious opportunity to taste its experiential flavor. When we are in love, the joy of our beloved becomes extremely contagious.
This innate capacity for sympathetic joy in intimate relationships often reaches its peak in deeply shared emotional experiences, sensual exchange, and, quintessentially, in lovemaking. But what if our partner’s sensuous or emotional joy were to arise in relation not to us but to someone else? For the vast majority of people, the immediate reaction would likely be not openness and love but rather fear, anger, and perhaps even violent rage. The change of a single variable has rapidly turned the selfless contentment of sympathetic joy into Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” of jealousy.
Why should this be so? Findings in the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and zoology shed considerable light on the matter. Jealousy, it seems, likely emerged as an adaptive response in our hominid ancestors some 3.5 million years ago. In the ancestral savanna, it was imperative for males to make sure they were not investing their time and resources in another male’s progeny and for females to secure a steady partner to provide food and protection. Jealousy and the desire for sexual exclusivity developed hand in hand as mechanisms for assuring the passing on of one’s DNA. As evolutionary psychologist David Buss writes in his acclaimed book, The Evolution of Desire, most human mating mechanisms and responses are actually “living fossils” shaped by the genetic pressures of our evolutionary history. The problem, of course, is that patterns that were adaptive millions of years ago might be anything but that today.
What does this mean for us spiritually? Based on tradition, it might be hard to say. While Buddhism has addressed in great detail the transformation of other deeply conditioned emotions—greed and hatred, for example—it has, so far as I know, not much to say about jealousy, specifically about sexual jealousy. But it seems to me that Buddhist principles can be, and should be, extended to the realm of intimate relationships.
I suggest that the transformation of jealousy through the cultivation of sympathetic joy bolsters the awakening of the enlightened heart. As jealousy dissolves, universal compassion and unconditional love become more easily available to the individual. Although to love without conditions is generally easier in the case of brotherly and spiritual love, as we heal the historical split between spiritual love (agape) and sensuous love (eros), the extension of sympathetic joy to more embodied forms of love becomes, it seems to me, a natural development. And when embodied love is emancipated from possessiveness, a richer range of spiritually legitimate relationship options organically emerges. As people become more whole and are freed from certain basic fears (of abandonment, of unworthiness, of engulfment), new possibilities may open up for the expression of embodied love, and what was once perceived as undesirable, threatening, or even morally questionable might well feel natural, safe, and wholesome. This would, I believe, include forms of sexual expression that extend beyond the constraints of conventional monogamy. In short, once jealousy loosens its grip on the self, human love can attain a wider dimension of embodiment in our lives that may naturally lead to the mindful cultivation of more inclusive intimate connections.
Historically, Buddhism never strictly defined the rules of marriage for lay people and accepted the relationship styles customary in the countries through which it spread. One wonders whether this chameleonic character of Buddhism to adapt itself to culturally predominant relationship customs may be at the root of the common prescription of monogamy by Buddhist teachers in the West. Consider, for example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of the Buddhist precept of “refraining from sexual misconduct.” Originally, this precept meant, for monastics, to avoid engaging in any sexual act whatsoever and, for lay people, to not engage in a list of “inappropriate” sexual behaviors having to do with specific body parts, times, and places. In For a Future to Be Possible, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the monks of his order follow the traditional celibate vow in order to use sexual energy as a catalyst for spiritual breakthrough. For lay practitioners, he interprets the precept to mean avoiding all sexual contact unless it takes place in the context of a “long-term commitment between two people,” because there is an assumed incompatibility between love and “casual sex.” In this reading, the precept is a prescription for long-term monogamy, one that excludes the possibility that other forms of intimate encounter might be spiritually edifying. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama also assumes a monogamous structure as the container for appropriate sex in intimate relationships. Since reproduction is the biological purpose of sexual relations, he tells us, long-term commitment and sexual exclusivity are desirable for the wholesomeness of love relationships.
Despite the great respect I feel for these and other Buddhist teachers who speak in similar fashion, I must confess my perplexity. These assessments of appropriate sexual expression, which have become influential guidelines for many contemporary Western Buddhists, are often offered by celibate individuals whose sexual experience is likely to be limited, if not nonexistent. If there is anything we have learned from developmental psychology, it is that an individual needs to perform a number of “developmental tasks” to gain competence (and wisdom) in various arenas: cognitive, emotional, sexual, and so forth. Even when offered with the best of intentions, advice about aspects of life in which one has not achieved developmental competence through direct experience may be both questionable and misleading. When this advice is given by figures culturally venerated as spiritual authorities, the situation can become even more problematic. What is more, in the context of spiritual praxis, these assertions can arguably be seen as incongruent with the emphasis on direct knowledge characteristic of Buddhism.
The culturally prevalent belief—supported by many contemporary Buddhist leaders—that the only spiritually correct sexual options are either celibacy or monogamy is a myth that may be causing unnecessary suffering and that needs, therefore, to be laid to rest. It may be perfectly plausible to hold simultaneously more than one loving or sexual bond in a context of mindfulness, ethical integrity, and spiritual growth. Indeed, while working toward the transformation of jealousy into sympathetic joy and the integration of sensuous and spiritual love, for some it might even be expeditious.
I believe that, ultimately, the greatest expression of spiritual freedom in intimate relationships does not lie in strictly sticking to any particular relationship style—whether monogamous or polyamorous—but rather in a radical openness to the dynamic unfolding of life that eludes any fixed or predetermined structure of relationships. From the Buddhist perspective of skillful means (upaya) and of the soteriological nature of Buddhist ethics, it also follows that the key factor in evaluating the appropriateness of any intimate connection may not be its form but rather its power to eradicate the suffering of self and others. It should be obvious, for example, that one can follow a specific relationship style for reasons that are wholesome (that is, tending toward liberation) or unwholesome; that all relationship styles can become equally limiting spiritual ideologies; and that different internal and external conditions may rightfully call us to engage in different relationship styles at various junctures of our lives. It is in this open space catalyzed by the movement beyond monogamy and polyamory, I believe, that an existential stance deeply attuned to the promptings of our awakened nature can truly emerge.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.