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  • “Till Death Do Us Part”? Buddhist Insights on Christian Marriage
  • Wioleta Polinska

High divorce rates and declining marriage rates in Western societies draw the attention of many scholars to the fragility of contemporary marriages.1 Rampant individualism, permissive divorce law, and softening stance on divorce by mainstream Christian denominations are all listed as culprits responsible for the current marriage crisis.2 These conventional accounts, however, overlook important insights gathered by historians of marriage, insights that point to a dramatic shift in the concept of marriage that occurred more than two hundred years ago. According to Stephanie Coontz, “the invention of the historically unprecedented idea that marriage should be based on love and mutual affection” 3 is responsible for greater fragility, but also for creating good, satisfying marriages that bring much happiness to people’s lives.4 Thus, the very source of fragility (the search for love and mutual affection) is also a source of deep connections and lasting relationships. While the fragility accompanying contemporary marriage is here to stay, our efforts to build strong unions need to be carefully evaluated. In what follows, I will address Christian and Buddhist approaches that aim at protecting the stability of marriage. To strengthen marriage, Christianity, from early on, focused on the permanence of marriage whether understood as a sacrament or, later on, as a covenant. Christian wedding vows that promise love, care, and enduring partnership “till death do us part” capture well the prevailing theology of Christian marriage. In contrast, Buddhism employs a concept of impermanence that implies an ever-changing reality that warrants no finality. Recent studies in psychology of mindfulness meditation show that such Buddhist concepts can translate well into effective skills for those in loving relationships. I will suggest that Christian theology might become more successful at preserving the stability of marriage by becoming less focused on the finality of couples’ bonds, and instead attending to the present reality of couples’ relationships.

It is well documented that before the seventeenth century marriages were arranged by parents and fulfilled primarily political, economic, and social functions rather than individual needs. Marriage was seen as a means of enlarging one’s economic enterprise, acquiring powerful in-laws, strengthening military alliances, or (for the less [End Page 29] privileged) enlarging the family’s labor force.5 This is not to say that the notion of romantic love was unknown until the seventeenth century, but that it was not closely associated with marriage.6 In aristocratic courts of southern France, for example, romantic love appeared between an unmarried man and a married woman, and it should have been either unconsummated or adulterous.7 As late as the eighteenth century, a “sudden falling head over heels in love, although a familiar enough psychological phenomenon, was thought of as, a mild form of insanity” and an unreasonable basis for marriage.8 Romantic love became widely accepted only in the nineteenth century under the influence of Enlightenment thought, ideals of the French and American Revolutions and of the romantic movement.9

Romantic love as an expression of an individual’s desire for fulfillment has its dark side, as it can unleash selfish concerns. Thus, Robert A. Johnson, a Christian theologian, defines romantic love as “airy, fantasy, projections, and an evanescent high. It is fundamentally egotistical—fixated on its own wants and whims. It can never lay the foundation for personal commitments.” 10 The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh (b. 1926) states that love can become a kind of sickness when it forms an attachment, similar to drug dependency. When we are under its spell, we are preoccupied with the object of our love and we desire to control and possess the other. To Ven. Hạnh, this is not true love since “it is only the willingness to make use of the other person in order to satisfy our own needs.” 11 Both Johnson and Ven. Hạnh while criticizing romanticized concepts of love are not giving up on possibility of intimate love. Johnson calls this intimate connection with another person a “human love,” a love that affirms and appreciates another person as she or he actually is, in their totality. Instead of prizing...