The Buddhist’s Guide to Dating

Joanna Psaros

20 April 2021

Buddhist statue in Kathmandu, Nepal- the true city of love?

I need help. Specifically, with regards to dating. 

I have a theory that people who are still single over the age of thirty adopt one of two approaches to finding a relationship. They either treat the task like a numbers game and methodically whittle down prospective matches, operating on the assumption that each bad date brings you closer to finding the one. Or they oscillate wildly between the cynical view that love is overrated and certainly not worth leaving the house on a weeknight for, and sudden bursts of romantic yearning that lead to the blind pursuit of the next eligible bachelor to swipe right- before an awkward joke or unfortunate sartorial choice sends them straight back to cynicism. 

Over the years I’ve been both, and in a departure from tradition I thought I’d have a go at not (entirely) blaming the men in my life but considering whether there’s anything I could do differently to break my dysfunctional dating habits.  

Taking my friends’ advice would be a case of the blind leading the blind, and I have a serious aversion to self-help books. So I decided to re-read my beginner’s collection of Buddhist literature to see what guidance it could offer in the way of dating. Here’s what I found:

  • Delusions are the cause of all suffering, or, Don’t be such a judgemental bitch

We all have our dating turn ons and turn offs for a reason and we shouldn’t settle for less, right? Wrong! Basically, we have to understand that our thoughts and feelings aren’t actually aligned with reality, and to live as if they are will inevitably leave us unhappy (in relationships and in life). Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche calls delusions “distorted ways of looking at ourself, other people, and the world around us.” The best cure for a deluded mind is to try living with a more neutral attitude and ultimately, seeing things as they really are. 

So if, for example, we dismiss a potential partner they’re wearing an ugly hat, that’s acting on a delusion. Because what is beauty, and what is ugliness anyway? At the end of the day it’s just a hat, and any extra values or meaning to which we attribute it are a result of “the hallucinating mind.” It’s not that we can’t like the things we like, or have any opinions. But we should at least be aware of the role that our delusions play and take our preferences with a pinch of salt. That might mean acknowledging that the hat thing is one of your irrational hangups, and not a reflection on the character of the person wearing it. Unless it’s a fedora, in which case run. 

  • Demonstrate compassion to all living beings, or, Don’t play games

When did we collectively decide to be such jerks to the people we’re interested in? Negging, ghosting, and treating people as though they’re but an option on an endless conveyor belt of babes (not helped by dating apps like Hinge that are almost literal conveyor belts). I’m certainly no stranger to this behaviour, having both dished it out and received it so often it’s become as normal a part of dating as awkward small talk and outfit anxiety. 

Which is why I was a little unnerved to learn that Buddhism is more concerned with being nice to people than point scoring and powerplays. 

The concept of universal compassion (they really do mean universal, I double checked for a loophole that would exclude douchey exes) is one of the central tenets of Buddhism. Without achieving this it’s impossible to reach enlightenment- no matter how hard you try at yoga and meditation. Demonstrating an attitude of love, appreciation and well wishes toward every living being is a beautiful idea in theory, but how the hell does that work in the dating world where a double text, let alone expression of love, can send a date running? 

Who would have thought love involves being nice to your partner?

I interpret this one as meaning that whether or not you’re into a person, just don’t be a dick. Treat them like you’d want to be treated; give them a chance, reply to their texts, don’t lead them on, and be upfront if it’s not working out. Of course, I’ve had some hideous backfires from what I’d thought was the kind approach (usually guys who didn’t agree that honesty is the best policy) but the handy thing about Buddhism is it recognises that sometimes intentions are more important than outcomes. So get out there and kill them with kindness. It’s a total power move. 

  • Free yourself from desirous attachment or Who needs a man anyway? 

In the words of Haddaway, what is love? Is the monogamy-centric romantic ideal of “the one” really the object of our souls’ yearning? Or is it an empty social construct that distracts us from the true goal of universal loving kindness and ultimately leads to more suffering? Venerable Geshne and his cohorts would be inclined toward the latter. 

If you picked up on a common theme from the last two dating tips it might be as follows- being nice to people is good. Treating people gently, respectfully, and kindly, is the way to go. Which is lovely, but it’s not exactly, well, sexy. Or romantic even. How many great romances of the page and screen consist of a couple being pleasant and considerate to each other? Without a bit of conflict, or tension, or passion, or pain, is it really love at all??

Duh, yes. All that shit is actually the manifestation of desirous attachment (bad) and our egos run wild. For example, if we see or even imagine another person trying to make a move on our partner, we might imagine the resulting pain, anger and jealousy as evidence of our love. But Buddhists would interpret this response as our egos being bruised rather than our hearts. According to Buddhism, real love means wanting the best for a person to the extent that you wish for their happiness before your own.

Following this definition, the parts of us that hurt when another gets too close to our partner aren’t evidence of love- they’re expressions of our selfish fear of being alone, or our hurt ego from feeling second best, or anger at our partner for not living up to the irrationally perfect standards we created for them. If we legitimately wanted nothing but the best for our partner, we’d be stoked that another lady or lad finds them as sexy as we do. But what if our partner leaves us for them? Well, we’d recognise that any pain we feel is infinitely preferable to our ex and their new partner feeling the smallest amount of hurt, and we’d wholeheartedly wish the best for both of them. Sound hard? That’s because you stumbled at the first hurdle and became attached to them in the first place, sucker. 

At the end of the day, there’s a reason why the most serious practitioners of Buddhism are often celibate. It has nothing to do with sex, within or outside marriage, as being seen as sinful. But it is recognised that marriage, or sexual/romantic relationships make it extremely difficult for even an experienced practitioner not to become attached, with liberation from attachment one of the paths to enlightenment (i.e., pretty important). This doesn’t mean that Buddhist Monks and Nuns are trying to stop themselves from loving anyone- they’re actually trying to make space in their hearts to love everyone indiscriminately. 

So, take from that what you will- from going full Buddhist nun, to adjusting your expectations of what romantic love should look like (I think I’ll make up my mind depending on how single I am at the time).    

Yes, I’m essentially taking dating advice from a guy who married his cousin at the age of 16. But for a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old religion, Buddhism has some pretty refreshing takes on modern love; If Carrie Bradshaw knew about this she’d be straight down to the East 73rd Street bookshop to pick up a copy of The Tripitaka. And now whenever a sleazy man on a dating app asks me ‘what I’m looking for’ I reply “Enlightenment.” Works a charm.  

*I should clarify that this emphasis on putting others first doesn’t mean Buddhists condone putting up with harmful or abusive treatment from a partner. In fact, Buddhism places a massive emphasis on self-love and care, so exercising your boundaries and getting out of a situation that’s harming you physically, emotionally or spiritually is one of the most Buddhist things you can do.    


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