30. Buddhism in East Asian love narratives

Happiness, illusion, desire, excessive emotion, change, fate, karma

Key terms introduced in this chapter:

  • no new terms are introduced in this chapter

Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • authoritative thought system
  • derivative
  • East Asia
  • cultural context
  • fragment
  • layered
  • -like
  • making sense (of a narrative)
  • mix (mixture)
  • model readers
  • status
  • ToM
  • traditional
  • worldview
  • values

30.1. Introduction

Buddhism confronts us with some of our most difficult interpretive challenges. While it is often present to some degree as a *cultural context for our films, it can be difficult to identify. It is  undeniable that it is fully integrated (*mixed) into the *traditional cultural landscape of all three of our *East Asian countries, just like Confucianism and Daoism, yet it does not have as clear a set of *ethical values on which individuals draw (which would help us identify it) and much of its *worldview are so *mixed with the *worldview of Daoism that it is difficult to determine whether we should be thinking in terms of Daoist-like (*-like) *fragments or Buddhist-like *fragments.

Unlike Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhist originated outside East Asia. Further, the history of Buddhism includes extensive periods of fervent persecutions in China and Korea. Also, while it was the dominant ideology at times in Korea and Japan, it finished its premodern history eclipsed by official government policies that favored Confucianism (Neo-Confucianism). In none of our countries could it be called now the dominant *system.

In China, Buddhism never recovered from its Tang dynasty peak. Buddhism was aggressively persecuted in the 9th century and this forever limited its scope. Although there was a re-flourishing in the Song dynasty and the Chan sects of this era had enormous impact on Japanese Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism was the dominant *authoritative thought system in China until the 20th century.

In Korea, Buddhism enjoyed its heyday during the Goryeo (Koryo) dynasty (10th-14th centuries). The Joseon (Choson) dynasty shut down most Buddhist activity for political reasons. Confucianism, then Neo-Confucianism, has dominated since.

In Japan, Buddhism probably had the largest, longest, and most pervasive presence (dominating from the 13th-16th centuries). It was supplanted by Neo-Confucianism in the 17th century but has retained a strong presence in some areas of cultural values, particularly around issues of the transient nature of things and, perhaps, a general sense of anxiety about life.

But the story is a bit more complicated than just discussing cultural history and the *status of Buddhism in these cultures. The world of narratives has been kinder to Buddhism than the real world. In fact, Buddhist principles of various sorts have a lively presence in many of our love stories. This can make using our knowledge of actual cultural practices less useful than our knowledge of literary history and the role of Buddhism in it. Buddhist tropes abound (or even just “window-dressing” level symbols meant to point to true *fragments) and those familiar with *East Asia know when to deploy these, even if they do not subscribe to Buddhist principles or even know much about Buddhism. They nevertheless know when and how to put on a Buddhist hat when a text or film signals to do so. *Love narratives are often about suffering and the Buddhist teaching that desire causes suffering is one to which *love narratives have a powerful affinity. *East Asian *model readers and model theater-goers, whether Buddhist or not, are familiar with, and probably at some level are ready to accept, provisionally, its claims as true (even if it is just for the length of the text or the film).

Perhaps because of this symbolic presence of Buddhism rather than as a system that mimics the real world, its presence in narratives can be quite temporary. It can exhibit a short half-life: evoked for a specific purpose but soon, apparently, forgotten. That is, we often have “Buddhist moments” where it can really help to know Buddhism in order to interpret that particular moment; however, it is much less frequent to have whole films that are grounded in Buddhist worldviews.

Buddhism’s uneven and sporadic presence in narratives (or ill-defined presence as mood rather than principle) might be because Buddhism has been over-*layered by Confucianism and the basic *worldview principles of Daoism because of their native origins and natural harmony with their cultural environments rather than the foreign “DNA” of Buddhism.

But it is also true that Buddhist tenets are impractical and rather harsh (for the individual). Some of the ideas of Buddhism are easier to accept than some of its practices. Being compassionate, gentle to life, even accepting of fate, are not that much of a challenge, but detachment from the ups-and-downs of this world, management of desire, wise outlook, and self-discipline ask much more of us. Thus, I would suggest, Buddhism has a partial presence in both real lives and narrative lives, being invited and dismissed as is convenient or practicable rather than as an *authoritative system that demands our allegiance. Its description of why we suffer is compelling, but its solutions to suffering are a high mountain most of us will forgo attempting.

So, for us, there is an important gap between the socio-historical issues of the distribution and daily-life *status of Buddhism that calls up such questions as “Who practices Buddhism?” “Who actually lives their lives following Buddhist teachings?” “Who believes in Buddhism?” on the one hand, and, on the other, “Does the reader or film viewer understand the Buddhist *worldview and use it to accurately consume a narrative?” In short, Buddhism is more important for accurate cross-cultural interpretation than it might appear from a social or historical perspective. While its presence within love narratives might be not that obvious, and might reside in only a portion of the narrative as a “Buddhist moment,” I would suggest that it frequently has an over-sized role to play in interpretation. In my opinion, many *love narratives, are at least certain key moments, are better understood when these principles below are kept in mind:

  • the fragility of bonds, the uncertainty of existence, ill-defined anxiety—all validated by the Buddhist position that this is a life of painful change,
  • the positive, powerful nature of human bonds based on Buddhist teaching of karma but also, on the other hand, a more negative, fatalistic view of fate, based on the same concept,
  • a deep suspicion that sexual desire and romantic attraction (and any other extreme emotional state) lead to suffering based on the Buddhist teaching that desire is the origin of all suffering,
  • that the best metaphors for love are labyrinths, unsubstantial dreams, unrealistic sentimentality, disorientation, as sense of separation from this world, illness and near-death feelings, all based on the Buddhist view of our stubborn ignorance in the face of reality.

I will revisit many of these below, and add a few other ideas. But first I would like to review the Buddhist Four Noble Truths from the perspective of our course topics. It seems like we should at least know this much about the core teachings of this *authoritative thought system.

30.2. What is happiness? (The Four Noble Truths)

The premise of Buddhism is that we seem to suffer a great deal in this world, that much of this suffering is a mental phenomenon, and that there is a way to reduce suffering through wisdom that eliminates the mental aspect of suffering. Buddhism does not deny that poverty is painful, that broken bones are painful, that a bee sting hurts, and so on, but it does argue that we add to the pain by the way we think about it.

In this sense, Buddhism is a negative discourse: it defines happiness as equanimity in the face of suffering. This is quite different than the happiness offered by Confucianism as moderate, harmonious living among those who care about you, with health and well supporting that rich social life. It is different, too, than the Daoist hermit-distance from society with exceptionally well-balanced physical and spiritual health (if not immortality), or more pleasure-oriented hedonisms and dopamine droplet happinesses.[1] Where Daoism advises wise patience and tolerance, or skillful solution, when confronted with unpleasant circumstances, Buddhism seeks to eliminate the very cause of psychic unpleasantness right at its root so that it never even takes hold but instead comes and goes like a cloud.

This is relevant to us because narratives (love or otherwise) often show progress toward or away from either happiness or suffering or both; therefore, how these are defined matters. Further how one can move toward or away from happiness or suffering—or even the possibility of whether movement is possible—varies according to the relevant *worldviews. In short, while in some ways Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism manifest in culture in similar ways (moderation, harmony, affirmation of change) their *worldviews are actually radically different and it is good to know what *worldviews are best to deploy for *making sense of a narrative.

The Four Noble Truths are at the very core of Buddhism. As is common with essential and brilliant teachings of *authoritative thought systems, the content as it exists in practice in cultures is often not quite what was originally taught.

Let us begin with this *fragment-like list of the four truths (this is how most of my students would present the four, if asked, if they have familiarity with Buddhism only through “on the street” contemporary practices and ideas:

  1. Life is mostly suffering and this is just going to continue forever unless we get wisdom through Buddhism. That wisdom:
  2. Desire causes suffering.
  3. We should stop desiring.
  4. We should do this by telling ourselves to stop desiring.

This is perhaps the more important list for us in terms of using Buddhist ideas to interpret narratives. It may well be how the audience thinks of it, how the director thinks of it, how the characters in the film think of it. Nevertheless, it is not very close to the original Truths. A better understanding of them will not tell us more about how an average audience viewer thinks of the problem of desire but it can help us understand some of the nuances of other Buddhist tenets as well as their persistence in culture.

First of all, this formula matches classic Indian medicine: identify the problem, its cause, and remove that cause—three steps—and these are Numbers 2, 3, and 4 of the Noble Truths. Number 1 is the radical premise of the formula:

30.2.1. Truth Number 1 — This conditioned world is characterized as dukkha

So, what is dukkha? Dukkha (that is Pali, the language of the original canon of Buddhism. The Chinese character that was used to translate it, and one that is definitely not a literal translation, is 苦, “ku” in Chinese and Japanese, “ko” in Koean). The Pali word dukkha means “incapable of satisfying” or “not able to bear or withstand anything” as in “always changing,” “impermanent.” This assertion is based on the Buddhist position that in fact nothing has an essence or, put around the other way, that all things are at essence empty. Permanence supposes that things actually exist. Since they do not exist, everything is impermanent. However, from the human perspective—the one that matters for us—dukkha in usage does indeed mean “sorrow,” “suffering,” “affliction,” “pain,” “anxiety,” “dissatisfaction,” “discomfort,” “anguish,” “stress,” “misery,” “aversion,” or “frustration.”

30.2.2. Truth Number 2 — Dukkha is experienced as “suffering” (by humans) because of human tanha

Tanha is “craving” or “desire.” (Chinese translation is 愛, Japanese is 渇愛. Notice that the word “to love” is used.) The three main categories of craving/desire are: 1) desire for sensual pleasure, 2) desire to become, and 3) desire to avoid the unpleasant. We spend our days on this earth pursuing pleasures (sensual here means “material”), trying to give ourselves a sense of being, and avoiding fearful and painful things. The world is not inherently made up of suffering; rather, the conditioned world in its ever-changing movement is subjectively experienced by humans as a world of suffering because humans incessantly desire things, existence, and a pain-free state. It should be clear that sexual desire or even the desire to form a human bond of any sort is considered unproductive behavior according to this teaching. Therefore, love narratives, if grounded in Buddhist beliefs, will either show how love is a folly that needs to end, or how it brings endless pain, or how it only appears to bring pleasure. Either the man or woman is suffering and does not know it (the sweet pain of love), or the romance will end and the man or woman will fall into sadness, grief, loneliness, and/or anger.

30.2.3. Truth Number 3 — There is a way to end suffering (or, more precisely, end desire which creates suffering)

If we understand the folly of our incessant desiring, either by seeing how it is the origin of our suffering or that the cosmos, in truth, is not a conditioned world (an enlightened perspective described as Buddhist wisdom/insight and gained through meditation), tanha will naturally of itself, without our effort, fall away and, with it, our subjective experience of the world as suffering. Indeed, any effort we make only increases our suffering because effort is based on the desire to gain something. Of course, the end of tanha means our desire for existence also falls away and so we live out the rest of our days in a state of “no-self” and, once the human body is dead, we will not be reborn into this world again. We are gone. In other words, that this is a world of suffering is not real, it is an illusion created by your ignorant insistence on desiring things. The world is substance-less and we only falsely attribute a concreteness to it.

30.2.4. Truth Number 4 — The way to end suffering is to follow the 8-fold path

The “8-fold path” is essentially the content of the practice of Buddhism. The 8-fold path (right action, right speech, correct meditation, and so on) leads to the purity, wisdom and insight necessary for enlightenment to occur of its own. Enlightenment itself cannot be a goal because that would suggest there is a self that can attain a goal. However, one can go through the motions of working towards that goal and, in fact, must, since proper ethics, proper meditation and proper knowledge are the preconditions for enlightenment to occur.

The 8-fold path is where Buddhist ethics are encoded into the total system. These ethics are grounded in humility and benevolent love / compassion towards all sentient beings (humans, animals, plants). Proper training of the body includes discipline and cleanliness — not ethics per se but these requirements influence behavior. One should not aggressively desire things; thus a passive attitude often is viewed in a positive light. Social status and wealth are not seen in and of themselves as either good or bad but desiring them is bad. One is invited to devote one’s life to benefiting others but this is not specifically required of the system—enlightenment occurs at the level of the individual not the community. (The Abrahamic religions and Confucianism place the burden of responsibility on the individual to uphold the community.)

Buddhism as it is practiced today connects dynamically with social communities, but for most of its history Buddhism was a monastic religion with practitioners separating themselves, sometimes quite severely, from society although monasteries that were seen as institutions that spiritually and materially contributed to society. And it is true the the spread of knowledge, cultural practices, and many other things benefited from the growth and spread of Buddhism throughout *East Asia.

It should be said that for most of Buddhist history it was considered a pre-condition that you must be in a man’s body to attain enlightenment. If you aspire to enlightenment, you hope to be born a man.

30.3. Love as an illusion

30.3.1. Subversive distance

Stories that are situated in Confucian cultural contexts will most surely have a large number of narrative figures interacting. The world will be full of humans and relationships with them. In contrast, both Daoism and Buddhism insert some distance from these social worlds. In this sense, both can deny or subvert or just weaken the *robustness of a Confucian world. But of these two, in many cases it will be Buddhist *worldviews that are more contemplative in mood and the narrative figures embracing these *worldviews will seem, to some extent, isolated. Buddhism split into Theravada and Mahayana sects and of these Mahayana sects were more open to lay practice and it is Mahayana that took root in China. Nevertheless, at its core Buddhism requires detached time away from society for meditation and contemplation and retains a certain “not this world” mood about it. Not always but often.

Distance, then, is often part of the equation when calculating cultural contexts for *ToM subscribing to Buddhist values. Buddhists should be contemplative, that is, aware of their thoughts and feelings. They should be detached from desire or any strong emotion since powerful emotions, according to karmic cause-and-effect law, generate still more powerful emotions and emotional states cloud the mind, threaten poise, and keep the individual involved in cycles of anticipation and disappointment or fear of loss. In Christianity we saw that desire has a clarifying effect by pointing the individual towards the good and true. According to Buddhism, desire leads to suffering because it contradicts one’s true nature which is nothingness. It posits a person who will be happy when it gains something. Buddhism says this very concept is the problem. There is no person, there is no gain. Buddhist-like narrative figures in our films who pursue Buddhist wisdom will usually be introverted and self-conscious of their distance from society. Buddhist-like narrative figures who have found Buddhist wisdom or enlightenment will in fact be outwardly oriented in a compassionate way towards others but will lack a sense of connectedness to others. They are detached and cool in this regard. Either way, if subverts the core world of Confucianism which is highly social and turns on human connections. In this sense, like Daoism but more so, it places distance between the Buddhist or Buddhist-like *ToM and *cultural contexts of the “ordinary” world.

30.3.2. Dreams, dreaminess (sentimentality), and dreamstates—Love as an illusion

Buddhism teaches that is a world of illusion. We travel this world in our blindness and ignorance, lost and suffering. The ontological argument of non-existence is not the point, although it will indeed argue that nothing has essence. The more relevant point is psychological: the world as we perceive it is constructed by us—we invent through our limited understanding of things a false perspective of the world, one that causes us suffering. “Right view” of the world clarifies the mind, the illusions disappears and, with it, the many pains associated with that world.

This view lends itself, in love narratives, to metaphors of dreams, dreaminess, and dreamstates all of which subvert the substantiality of love. This makes love not the great, powerful and healing, positive presence that we often encounter in Western love narratives but instead a mere feeling, one that is quick to dissipate, is unreliable, and is ultimately void. In Buddhist-influenced narratives, “dream” never means “the ideal” as in “She is the one I always dreamed of meeting.” It means, instead, the unsubstantial and unreliable.

It is helpful if we use the following three terms to embrace some of the nuances of how Buddhism manifests in love narratives in terms of dreams and such. Dreams

These are actual dreams. They are, not coincidentally, frequent elements of Buddhist narratives. They help evoke the inward-looking, other-worldly perspective typical of such narratives. It is not a coincidence that the Chinese love narrative Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢, 红楼梦), and the Korean love narrative Nine Cloud Dream (九雲夢,구운몽) have the word “dream” in their titles. “Dream” in these titles suggests affinity to those stories that suggest: “This will be a story about the mortal plane, our world, not the heaven of immortals or some perfect world. It will include the pains and joys of our world and will almost surely include a love element.”

But I would like to note that students often make the interpretive error of asserting that a film is engaging a Buddhist *worldview simply because there are narrative events related to dreams. A dream in a narrative is not enough to claim Buddhism as a relevant *cultural context because, obviously, dreams are a common narrative element in many types of stories (from all over the world and across historical eras) that have nothing to do with Buddhism. Dreaminess

In this case, one or perhaps even all narrative figures are acting in non-realistic, sentimental ways. Perhaps the entire world of the narrative has this feeling to it. “Dreaminess” in not a positive state in Buddhist narratives. Instead of a ecstatic states or a pleasant sense of being free of trouble, “dreaminess” suggests in the blind in this painful world, acting somewhat foolishly. “Overly emotional, near-sighted, foolish” behavior might be a better description than “dreaminess.” The romantic swoon is often associated with such states. The romantic pain of being lost endlessly in one’s memories of past failed loves is also sometimes marked by this sense of disorientation. The train of the 21st-century Chinese film 2046 is like this. Actions within narratives heavy with dreaminess can be soft and mushy but that is not a requirement: when the man of the 21st-century Japanese film Dolls gouges out his eyes to try to establish a romantic connection with the pop-star who has had an accident, that is sentimental behavior associated with an overly emotional state that separates him from common sense. He is lost in his world of desire, making foolish choices. Buddhism, especially Chan (Zen) Buddhism, argues that your actions should be grounded in a clear-sighted appraisal of this real world, not derived of strong emotions, false hope and so forth. “Dreaminess” is not always, in fact probably usually is not, Buddhist-related. Martial arts films often criticize “dreaminess” and embrace other aspects of Buddhism despite the presence of Confucian zhong or faithfulness (xin). “Gritty” films often criticize dreaminess, too. That (classically speaking) is a type of naturalism. (We usually call this is common conversation “realism” or just “being realistic.”) “Dreaminess” if you encounter it, will require some careful thinking to establish relevant cultural contexts.

320.3.2.3. Dreamstates

This seems like an appropriate word to use when the narrative world or the characters that you are reading or seeing appear to operate in a parallel universe or some sort, of a “not-grounded” or “not-firmly-in-this-world” state. The world seems unreal to the narrative figure or the narrative world as a whole seems unreal. For us, there is an interpretive problem in that it seems to me it is just as likely that the narrative has a *derivative dreaminess rather than a Buddhist-like dreamstate, in which case it is misleading to posit a Buddhist cultural context. Films that take on issues of “what is reality” or “what is identity” can deploy dreamstates as part of the discourse around the theme. Memento (Los Angele, 2000) and Inception (Los Angeles, 2010) are case in point. It would be a stretch to evoke a Buddhist *cultural concept for either of those films. Similarly, calling them Buddhist-like does not seem too promising as a line of interpretation. It might say something about how Buddhist psychology and post-modern perceptions of the self are converging, but it says less about the relevant *cultural contexts of the films.

30.4. Desire and excessive emotion

Love that has a strong carnal aspect manifesting as the desire for someone, extreme attachment to someone, issues of possession of another, possessive jealousy, and so on are not celebrated in the Buddhist tradition. Unlike Greek philosophy that sees passion and desire as a movement towards truth even if misguided, passion, indeed any sort of intense emotion, from the Buddhist perspective is de-centering. Romantic love still has power and mystery, and still is compelling, but it almost certainly will be clothed in trouble and suffering.

The “Golden Mean” (zhōngyōng 中庸)—an appropriate, balanced response to a situation rather than a highly dynamic, assertive, passionate reaction—supports this idea but is not Buddhist in origin. It is a product of Confucianism although in my personal opinion is that this approach is cross-cultural and difficult to determine in origin since we see similar concepts in ancient Greek philosophy and early yogic Indian traditions. Confucianism and Buddhism have mixed thoroughly but classically speaking, Buddhist poise is not a balance of forces but rather a detached view of the phenomena of this world. The “Middle Way” is not a balance of forces but the ability to not be distracted by illusory phenomena although moderation is a behavior requirement of practicing Buddhist.

30.5. Change: Fragility, thinness, anxiety

Change in “Daoism” guarantees that if things are in their proper order, a healthy cyclic change can be expected: bad situations do not last forever, after winter there is spring, it is normal for those in power to fall later out of power, and so on. It doesn’t promise an endless string of happy states or situations but it does promise that bad situations, like all other things, have an end to them.

Buddhism, on the other hand, says that the fundamental human experience of change is painful: we either are dissatisfied because we do not have what we want or we fear losing what we have when we do have it. We are endlessly unhappy about not having what we want and endlessly fearful of losing what pleasure we have. So change is not reassuring. Both “Daoists” and Buddhists will show patience and restraint in the midst of painful situations but for different reasons: “Daoists” understand the still-point of wu wei (non-action) as a stance of wisdom in the face of unpleasant things that can’t be changed, Buddhism asks that we put aside a desire to escape our psychic pain. (By the way, Buddhism has never argued that if you are standing in front of a train that is about to hit you it doesn’t matter whether you jump out of the way or not. That is a misguided understanding of its teaching since it lacks compassion (in this case, for one’s own body), and blurs the distinction between physical dangers that should be properly taken care of and psychic pain that is a false mental state.)

In practice, Buddhism in love narratives tends to subvert the reliability of the bond and certainly does little to celebrate it. Being in love is often shown as debilitating, unhealthy, anxiety-ridden, riddled with mistrust, short-lived— all-in-all a very disturbing experience. Yet in some narratives these very conditions are beautified and such suffering becomes a type of glorious pain. That is hardly Buddhism—it is an adjustment to Buddhist claims. Again, because of the subversive teaching of Buddhism, existence itself can seem thin. It can seem like one is on the point of expiring. This thinness and uncertainty, too, is sometimes valorized as beautiful.

30.6. Karma as Fate, Wuwei vs Buddhist non-action

(This section is not yet written. The main argument is that Buddhism strongly supports an acceptance of “fate” and “fate” is a very common aspect of East Asian love narratives in two ways: “situations that are meant to be (for better or worse) and must be accepted not resisted” and “passive behavior that would be considered this or watered-down love in a Western context.” The Buddhist practioner realizes that actions generate karma and karma continues the cycle of rebirth. Action, if taken, must be not done with the ignorant notion of an actor—that would perpetuate a false belief in the self. In practice this simple leads to no action at all: passivity.)


30.7. Karma as Bonds Universal truth

Buddhism had a theoretical problem: If nothing has essence why is it that a table continues to look like a table from one moment to the next? If things exist, this isn’t a problem that needs an answer. But if things don’t exist, then why do they persist in the same form more or less? The Buddhist solution to this is karma: state-moment A via karma causes state- moment B to arise. Moments are connected in meaningful cause-and-effect through karma. Good actions lead to good karma in the future; bad actions lead to bad karma. This is the popular way the idea is embraced. (If we were to be accurate: all karma causes one state to follow another, including our rebirth into another miserable existence on this earth. Enlightenment is the cessation of karma—one shouldn’t want to have good karma any more than one should want to avoid bad karma but as a practical matter, the concept of retribution is an important way to invoke good behavior.)

30.7.1. Karma and passivity

Because actions generate karma, limited action is generally proscribed.

30.7.2. Karma and fate

If one is thinking as a Buddhist, one sees karma as governing the chain of cause-and-effect: one’s current situation is the result of one’s past condition and one’s future state turns on actions both current and past. This affords a huge power to one’s personal past and one’s group’s past. Although in theory one’s actions in the present moment should also be able to contribute to one’s future, generally speaking one concludes that one’s past trumps one’s current choices. This is the Buddhist view of “fate”; that is, one’s past has already more or less conditioned one’s present and future and the best that one can do is accept it. Buddhist fate is a fate into which one is entrapped, in most cases. Now and then fate delivers positive circumstances but this is less usual. This is different than a fate that is a description of circumstances that seem unusual and have no obvious earthly cause (a young man and young woman finding themselves in the same elevator several days in a row). And it is different than a star-crossed lovers type of fate which implies that the gods have helped create the romantic pair — a “match made in Heaven”.

Americans, with their generally faint interest in history and tendency to see themselves as individuals rather than fore- mostly responsible to a group, are often impatient with behavior fashioned with a Buddhist notion of fate. Love narratives that show individuals drifting through a painful relationship doing little to improve their situation seem overly negative, pessimistic, or otherwise odd. The Confucian view is similar for, like American optimism, it tends to believe that problems have solutions. In the Buddhist view, there is no immediate solution to the problem of suffering. One needs to get out of the game entirely.

30.7.3. Karma and interpersonal bonds

At the level of biology certain people are mysteriously attracted to certain other specific people. Investigating whether this is a chemical phenomenon or a psychological one is beyond the scope of this course. What we can say, however, is that instant, powerful attraction is a frequent event in love narratives for all of our East Asian countries. If this is or can be interpreted via Buddhist lines of thought, the explanation will be “a karmic bond from a previous existence”. Karma may be used more generally, for example, as a man’s approach to a woman or as an excuse for a couple. A “karmic bond” to one’s partner suggests that it is affirmed as some transcendent, mystical or metaphysical level and should not, cannot, be resisted. Again, this can lead to passive behavior.

“Bonds” in this view are powerful, deep, and not generated by one’s present-time actions. Karma cannot be ignored or removed. Such bonds are close to sacred except that karma is an impersonal, cosmic force, just the result of things.

30.8. Working with Buddhism in our films

The presence of Buddhism in a narrative can be exceptionally difficult to determine with any confidence.

Clearly in *premodern times Buddhism functions primarily as a subversive element in love narratives by suggesting that being in love is a state of ignorance (since we live in a world of illusion and romantic love is very much of that world), or weakening / debilitating (since desire, even desire for stability and security causes suffering) in some way, or unreliable/fleeting (since everything changes).

However, in modern times we are confronted with narratives that might include existential angst, or simple ennui, or urban malaise, or cynicism, or a host of other negative values that subvert or problematize romantic feelings. In your essays and projects, it might be tempting to connect your narratives to Buddhist perspectives. But, actually, in this class we definitely consider what of *traditional values remains, or not, in modern love narratives. So make your own decision on how “Buddhist” a narrative that seems uncertain and painful really is. This is important.

Further, not all sadness (the variety of sad feelings that come from mourning or feeling loss) in *premodern texts is “Buddhist” sadness (awareness of the fleeting, unreliable, unsatisfying nature of the world). Please be careful not to quickly assert that Buddhist concepts are what are behind the unhappy feelings of any given situation. Further, try to understand the distance between classical Buddhist teachings and the more “lay” or generic or popular understanding of Buddhist teachings as they appear in narratives.

  1. While this final comment is made in a humorous vein, perhaps we should indeed take more seriously how frequently now happiness is marketed as a sense of a sudden moment of pleasure that comes from activities that release dopamine in our systems.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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