Feb 8, 2010

A Buddhist view of Relationships Pt 1

by Eddy Canfor-Dumas

1990 was a bad year for divorce in Britain. Or rather, it was a good year for divorce, but not such a good year for marriage. 153,386 of them broke down ‘irretrievably’, the sole grounds for divorce in English law. Currently, that figure (the most up-to-date available) represents forty-six per cent – almost a half – of all new marriages in England and Wales (331,150).

It’s a sobering thought. Yet for many people the sorry wreckage of so many marriages in our society has not proved a deterrent to splicing the knot. In love, it seems, hope truly does spring eternal.

To many others, though, the number of failed marriages they can see has put them off the idea of matrimony, but not, it seems, the idea of living together in a marriage-type relationship. Even here, though, there is no guarantee that such a relationship is any more likely to succeed than a ‘formal’ marriage. In fact, if the number of marriage-type relationships that broke down could be counted, the overall proportion of ‘divorces’ to enduring relationships might be even higher.

And this is just counting heterosexual relationships. Add in the number of homosexual partnerships that fail and one might wonder how it is that any two people ever manage to stay together and build a successful relationship through their lives.

There have been many reasons put forward as to why so many relationships fail today – amongst others, the decline of the influence of the Church, the advent of the Pill, the growing financial-independence of women and a rise of intolerance generally between people. But whatever the reasons, two conclusions at least can be drawn from the present state of affairs.

First, our judgement as to who would make a good partner is not, on present statistics, all that reliable. And second, even if we do manage to meet and marry (or live with) Mr or Miss Right, our ability to sustain and develop that relationship is frequently tested to breaking point.

Given that, for many people, an enduring and emotionally satisfying (and almost certainly monogamous) relationship with another person is a goal most devoutly to be wished, what does Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism have to offer on these two fundamental problems. – finding the right partner and then working at the relationship so it grows and flourishes, ‘till death do us part’?

Before answering those questions, it is important to understand that, for those practising Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings, the most fundamental relationship he or she can have is with the Gohonzon, not with another person. This is because the purpose of Buddhist practice is to establish absolute and unshakeable happiness within one’s own life, and to teach others how to do the same. Essentially this is achieved through chanting Nam myoho renge kyo to the Gohonzon. As Nichiren Daishonin states:

A woman who devotes herself to the Gohonzon invites happiness in this life; and in the next, the Gohonzon will be with her and protect her always (Major Writings, Vol.1, p.213).

He is even more direct in the Gosho Happiness in this World:

There is no greater happiness for human beings than chanting Nam myoho renge kyo… There is no greater happiness than having faith in the Lotus Sutra [Gohonzon] (Major Writings, Vol.1, p.161).

This is a difficult lesson to learn, however, living as we do in a society which places romantic love alongside wealth, fame and beauty as perhaps the most desirable of all goals. One might actually say that the real struggle in practising Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism lies in truly accepting the reality that happiness lies within your own life; in developing and revealing your Buddha nature more and more; in discovering your own unique mission in this world; and should not rely on external – and ultimately unreliable – factors like your relationship with your lover or spouse.

In fact, Buddhism has traditionally viewed romantic love with ambivalence, if not downright negativity. This is because desire – including romantic desire – is intimately and inevitably bound up with suffering. . (see ‘Basics of Buddhism, pp31-2) Only the altruistic ‘love’ for others – comparable to the compassionate love of parents for their children – is seen in a positive light. This love – called jihi in Buddhism – is best exemplified in traditional Buddhist teachings by the merciful actions of Shakyamuni Buddha, based on his desire to remove suffering and five happiness to all living beings.

All very well, you might think, but what has this got to do with the real world, where we often find it difficult to get on with our nearest and dearest, let alone feel any stirrings of compassion for ‘all living beings’? Where we fancy each other, fall in love, have affairs and one-night stands? Where we fight and scream, then kiss and make up – or break up?

The answer touches on the basic difference between the ‘traditional’ Buddhism associated with Shakyamuni and the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. Whereas traditional Buddhist teachings stress the necessity of trying to eliminate desire to avoid suffering, Nichiren Daishonin teaches that desire is an unavoidable and fundamental aspect of human life. Quite simply, if we had no desires we would never do anything. Even to live, for example, we have to want to go on living.

So instead of suppressing our earthly desires, Nichiren Daishonin taught that through chanting for them we can attain enlightened happiness. As he states:

When one chants Nam myoho renge kyo even during the sexual union of man and woman, then earthly desires are enlightenment and the sufferings of life and death are nirvana (Major Writings, Vol 2, p.229).

In short, what this means in the context of relationships is that, through chanting Nam myoho renge kyo to find the right partner or to improve our relationship with our existing partner, we reveal our Buddhahood. And it is this process of revealing and strengthening our Buddhahood, with its characteristic qualities of wisdom, courage, compassion and life force, which puts us on the right path towards a happy and fulfilling relationship; a relationship based on mutual respect and a deep spiritual bond, and one in which we share the same dreams, goals and aspirations as our partner. So how does this work in practice?

Why a relationship?
A good starting-point in answering this question might be to ask why one wants ‘a relationship’ – put in apostrophes, thus, because often we seem to regard this intimate connection with another human being almost as a commodity; a ‘thing’ to be desired and possessed and then, as with a car whose performance doesn’t quite match our expectations, discarded or exchanged for another. (Perhaps we should add the dominance of the values of materialism to the list of why so many relationships fail these days.)

Of course, there are many reasons why one should want a close relationship with another person: for company; for sex; for a family; for status; security, money; to be ‘grown-up’ or to escape from one’s family; for vanity – the kudos of ‘catching’ someone generally admired or desired; or the impulse to mother or lord it over another person. And then there’s the intoxicating rapture of simply falling head over heels in love – the true ‘magic’ of romantic love, where reason flies out of the window and we are borne along on a tide of passion.

More prosaically, though, our motives are usually mixed together into a vague, generalized longing for ‘a relationship’, which often seems to proceed meeting anyone ‘special’. Rather, we simply look for someone to fit the template of the ideal partner we have constructed in our minds.

One thing these motives have in common, however, is that they are directed outwards. They are based on the assumption that the other person will make us happy by filling some kind of void in our lives. This, Buddhism teaches, is a mistake.

A relationship with another person might provide many of the things listed above – stimulating companionship, a fulfilling sexual relationship and a happy, healthy family life are among the basic joys of human existence. But to base one’s happiness on it is to fail to recognize the essential instability of the situation. A lifelong companion, however wonderful, will eventually die. Even the best sexual relationship can suffer if other factors alter. And as one’s children grow and mature, their attitude towards their parents can often change for the worse.

So one of the main purposes of chanting about our attitude to relationships is to understand what lies at its root. Is it fear of loneliness? The desire to be loved because, in our heart of hearts, we are so unsure of our true worth? Or simply a restless sexual energy?

Why him? Why her?
In fact, as we chant and study the life-philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin, we can go even deeper into ourselves and begin to see and understand the pattern of our attraction to certain people. For, as Nichiren Daishonin teaches, two people who have chosen to live in a close relationship fit each other perfectly, in all their strengths and weaknesses. Describing the relationship of husband and wife in thirteenth century Japan, he says:

When a husband is happy, his wife will be fulfilled. If a husband is a thief, his wife will become one, too. This is not a matter of this life alone. A man and wife are as close as a body and shadow, flowers and fruit, or roots and leaves, in every existence of life (Major writings, Vol.1, p.146).

This observation is based on the Buddhist principle of the Ten Worlds. Buddhism teaches that all people share ten basic life conditions – Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Tranquility, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood, all of which have certain characteristics.

Hell is the world of suffering; Hunger is the world of insatiable desire; Animality is the world of the instinct. Anger is dominated by the ego, Tranquility (Humanity) by calmness, Rapture by momentary pleasure, Learning is characterized by the desire to learn from the teachings of others, Realization by the desire to improve oneself through one’s own efforts, and Bodhisattva by the exercise of compassion. Buddhahood, which is revealed through chanting Nam myoho renge kyo, acts as a kind of positive filter which brings out all of the beneficial, value-creating aspects of the other nine worlds.

Everyone tends to live predominantly in one or two of these life conditions, which, although they are displayed according to the personality of each individual, retain their basic characteristics. Thus, one person might be brash and boastful and another quietly superior, but both are exhibiting aspects of the world of Anger, the ego.

The important thing about this, as far as relationships go, is that we tend to be attracted to those people who share the same basic life condition as ourselves.

A person in the grip of Animality, for instance, will take every opportunity to indulge in instinctive pleasures – sex, food, drink, sleep – usually with little thought for the consequences of his actions. He will tend to be attracted to someone who is also in the grip of Animality, even though the object of his attentions might not exhibit all the same aspects of the life condition. For instance, both might share an appetite for sex and alcohol, but one might consistently defer to the wishes of the other in all other matters – as Nichiren Daishonin says of Animality, ‘It is the nature of beasts to threaten the weak and fear the strong’ (Major Writings, Vol.1, p.34).

Exactly how the Ten Worlds operate in individuals can be extremely subtle, and there is no space here to analyse all their various nuances. And they are by no means all bad. Each of the Ten Worlds has both negative and positive aspects (except Buddhahood, which is wholly positive), so if we are fortunate enough to be dominated by, say, the positive aspects of the world of Tranquility (or Humanity) – clear, reasoned judgement – our chances of forging a successful relationship will be much higher than if we are in the clutches of Hell, whether or not we chant Nam myoho renge kyo.

Even so, as we chant about our present and past relationships, we begin to identify which of the Ten Worlds have been dominant in them. Almost invariably, we see that we have been attracted to the same type of person, ‘chosen’ by our own dominant life state.

This pattern Buddhism calls our ‘karma’, habitual behaviour which we are bound to repeat. Take the couple described above. If the man begins to despise his partner’s weakness and continual deference – one of the very things that attracts him in the first place – he might eventually end the relationship. Being dominated by Animality, however, he is only attracted to those who share characteristics similar to the person he has just left. They might appear in a different form –this time, for instance, he might play the subservient role – but essentially he will find himself in the same kind of relationship.

Breaking the pattern.
It is to break out of the pattern imposed on us by our karma that we chant. As we do so and reflect on our actions, we begin to see our motives more clearly. And after a time (it varies from person to person), if we conclude that our attitude is based on the negative aspects of one of the Ten Worlds – especially the ‘lower worlds’ of Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Tranquility or Rapture – we determine to challenge and change it, for the happiness of both ourselves and our partner (present or future).

At the same time we struggle to base our relationships increasingly on the world of Buddhahood, with its deep respect for the inherent dignity of life and for the fundamental equality of all people. For ultimately, Buddhism teaches, it is a relationship based on shared goals, respect and equality that stands more chance of enduring and growing than one based on passion, romance or unrealistic expectations of our partner’s ability to make us happy. As Nichiren Daishonin states:

Explain all this to your wife, and work together like the sun and the moon, a pair of eyes, or the two winds of a bird. With the sun and the moon, how can you fall into the path of darkness? With a pair of eyes, how can you fail to behold the faces of Shakyamuni, Taho and all the other Buddhas of the universe? With a pair of wings, you will surely be able to fly in an instant to the Buddha land of eternal happiness (Major Writings, Vol.2, p.231).

What does this mean in practical terms? First, if we are not involved with anyone at present but wish to be, it means making a strong determination to meet the right person for our happiness – which also means the right person for kosen-rufu – and then, effectively, forgetting about it. Lodged deep in our lives, the desire to meet the right person, coupled with a strong daily practice, will eventually draw that person to us when the time is right.

In the meantime, instead of being obsessed with having ‘a relationship’ and feeling sorry for ourselves that we are alone, we can concentrate on creating value in our society and growing as strong and independent individuals – who are, anyway, generally more attractive to others than those who are always desperately seeking someone.

‘The right partner for kosen-rufu’ does not mean, however, that there will only ever be one person ‘out there’ with whom we can possibly build a happy relationship, whom we somehow hunt out with our chanting; neither does it mean that he or she should necessarily be a Buddhist.

There may, in fact, be more than one person with whom we forge successful, creative relationships on the path of our human revolution towards finding our partner for life. They may or may not be Buddhists (although this would be hard with someone vehemently and consistently opposed to our practice). And even if our partner never chants, if we do our utmost to respect and support him or her in the fulfillment of his or her unique purpose in this life, he or she will respect and support us in turn, and help us fulfil our unique purpose, too.

In this context, chanting is a means of developing sufficient good fortune, through our thoughts, words and deeds based on Buddhahood, to be in the right position to meet the right person at the right time. Chanting also helps us develop enough wisdom to recognize the potential that exists in that other person (and any existing relationship we might have), and then to decide whether to act or not.

So, secondly, once we meet someone to whom we are attracted, we should chant seriously before we become romantically (or sexually) involved with him or her. We need the wisdom (and courage) of our Buddhahood to look clearly and honestly at the nature of our attraction. And if our wisdom counsels against involvement, we must listen to it – or face the inevitable consequences. Our karma to be drawn to a certain type of person may be very strong, but if we have suffered from it in the past, it is only by not succumbing to it now that we can hope to change our pattern of unhappy relationships.

Sex and ‘the learning curve’
But isn’t all this chanting before falling into someone’s arms (or bed) just frankly unrealistic? What about passion? Excitement? Romance? Does Buddhism really advocate sex only within the bounds of marriage or a life-long commitment? If we don’t become involved in the first place, how can we ever know whether or not we want to commit ourselves to this other person? And surely people learn from experience and even ‘failed’ relationships can teach us something?

These are all good questions. In addressing them, it might be useful to bear a couple of points in mind.

First, attitudes to relationships, particularly sexual relationships, vary according to the age and the culture of any society. Broadly speaking, in this country, we have alternated between eras of sexual repression and sexual permissiveness, often running the two in parallel – historically (and hypocritically), for example, there have been different standards of sexual behavior for men and women. Currently, we are going through a stage of sexual permissiveness, where many people feel that it is perfectly natural – indeed, even healthy – to have a number of different sexual partners before settling down with ‘the chosen one’, supposedly for life.

The important question – certainly in terms of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism – is not one of morality but pragmatism. Quite simply, have our current fashions led to greater happiness? To longer, stronger relationships? The answer can hardly be an unqualified ‘yes’.

Take ‘trial marriages’ – living together before deciding to make a legal commitment. A recent study by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys came to the startling conclusion that, of couples who married for the first time in the early 1980’s, those who had previously lived together were fifty per cent more likely to have divorced after five years of marriage – and sixty per cent more likely to have divorced after eight years of marriage – than similar couples who had not lived together.

(Photos by deviantart,photobucket)


Nerv said...

i am an SGI member from Vegas.. Execellent post about buddhism and relationships.. this topic needs discussion.. and I needed to read it.. Thank You !!

Lotus Flower said...

You are welcome Nerv!

Priyanka Shah said...

Hello, I am an SGI member from India. This is an excellent post and believe me i encountered it at the right time, when my life needs it the most. Request, if you have something more on relationships.. it will help me n many more to understand Bussist view on relationships more clearly.. THis article ofcourse was also veru clear :) Thanks again

Lotus Flower said...

Hello Priyanka!
You are very welcome. I'm going to be adding more articles on Buddhism and relationships, so be on the look out for those. :D

Tanushri said...

I wonder if you have any article on accumulating financial fortune. I always feel my partner should make more money. Is it right to expect or should it be I will do my human revolution to increase my capacity to make more money?
Please guide.

Nick Onassis said...

Hi Lotus!

Thank you so much for all your wonderful writings in your blog. They make such perfect sense, and finally helped me to clarify all the answers in my mind that revolve around what Buddhism is about (and my life, and all our lives together!), right here, and right now. Your way of explaining things is so valuable and unique that I think I would be hard pressed to find someone explain it any better so that it makes any more sense. Now I feel like I can completely let go of my fears to pursue true happiness without giving up my life and desires, rather, finally once and for reclaiming it, and proclaiming it to myself and the world! And I'm excited about starting to see that happiness radiate through me and out to others in my life, finally, once again! Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. May you continue to experience ever growing levels of love, knowledge, understanding, peace, harmony, (insert any extra special thing here that you wish for) and Buddhism for all of eternity. :-) Love and light! Namaste

Lotus Flower said...

Hi Nick!

I wish I could take credit for these wonderful articles but I can't! I do contribute my own musings here and there but I do thank you for your sweet and thoughtful words. And really happy to hear that my blog can help you clarify your answers to our practice and your life. This was my sole intention in making it. I appreciate your thanks and hope it can continue to aid you. Sincerely, Seleus

Ashita said...

Dear Lotus Flower,

As I have only recently been introduced to Nichiren Buddhism's practice in SGI, I was very curious to find answers to some very unsettling questions on marriage. I have searched and searched and when I stumbled upon this article on your blog, my faith in this practice is even further strengthened as I feel I can relate to what is being written or told. Thank you so much for this wonderful piece of information. I hope you continue to write more and frequently too! :)

Lotus Flower said...

Hi there Ashita!
Im so glad you came upon my blog. And congratulations on becoming a SGI Member. That is great that the article was able to answer your relationship problems. This particular article is a very popular one since it is hard to find any Buddhist articles about personal relationships that can be used and understood in today's context. I don't claim ownership of this article but I strive to share/post anything that I know will be inspiring for others. Take care and thanks for visiting!

Madhuparna said...

Dear Lotus Flower,

I am Madhuparna. I am very much thankful to you for sharing such wonderful articles. I have a basic weakpoint in me that is loneliness and i always wanted to find a person close to my heart as my partner and i encountered many bad experiences. I still cant forget my break up as he showed himself to be very caring and sensitive towards me and after some months he was changed by listening his mother's advice and left me. How shoul i chant?? please tell me and whenever i memorized those things i became very low.

Anne Loponen said...

Hi Seleus! It was great to rediscover your blog after a year when I first found something interesting to read here! The most wonderful thing about this practise is that no piece of writing 'expires', the guidance and thoughts of many wonderful wise people reach others at times which are right for them, in other words they're waiting to manifest in their lives! I love Eddie's book "Buddha, Geoff & Me" and this blog entry was amazing to read as I've often thought about getting guidance on relationship matters. There isn't a lot of discussion on the earthly desires/sex/passion front in SGI meetings, I've found – at least in the UK. Have you had further dialogue with people since this post? Is the subject somewhat sensitive to bring up at meetings?
Tons of daimoku from the UK! :)

Selly said...

I am so happy everyone has taken to these particular posts/entries about relationships. I will try to find and share more if I can. NMRK! To Anne, I've been getting a lot of positive feedback on these posts. There is definitely a hunger for these because its not talked about a lot.

Sanjit Kaur said...

Hi, Is there a part two to this wonderful inspiring article..? I cannot find it on the blog and would live read further. Thanks. Sanjit

Seleus said...

Hi Sanjit. Part two is here : http://lotusflowersgi.blogspot.com/2010/02/buddhist-view-of-relationships-pt-2.html You can also find it under February of 2010

john meralaskd said...

I never ever read such type of info before this was really incredible. Full Thetical Man Article

TokyoForeigner said...

I am a foreigner living in Japan dating an SGI member for the past two years. I have always been supportive & never got in the way of her religion. But now after buying a house together & getting engaged she has asked me to become a member!! This seems like Blackmail to me as I will lose my house if she leaves me as we had to put it in her name. I am interested in SGI but is this a common tactic?
When we have sex I have often felt it is out of her compassion for me as a human being & as she cares for me in this way rather than loves me I wonder if she would have the same attitude to any other men that she meets. It seems that she is not capable of real love & seems cold as she is only in love with the Gozonhon & does not have any real love for human beings even her family.
I am really not sure I want to join SGI but I have no choice. As it has now become a matter of financial survival. But will I be happy once I become a member under these circumstances??

Taurus Hawk said...

TokyoForeigner, I find your situation not so unusual and I once found myself in a similar situation, yet on the other side. I was born into this practice and married an Okinawan woman who did not practice. I had the same desire to see her practice and made similar demands for her to join SGI in order for us to marry. Thankfully, after speaking with my parents (American father, Japanese mother), they told me it is no problem that she does not practice. What is important is that I pray for our true happiness as individuals, as a couple, and ultimately as a family. We have been married now for 15 years; I still practice, she does not (neither do our children), but she supports me as I support her, and we are all happy because we are together and respect each other. BTW, the desire I have for my wife and children's happiness serve as a tremendous blessing for me and provides an endless stream of motivation and energy for my practice and continued journey. Your significant other will need to find that in herself; I ask that you support her practice and only decide to join the SGI because your hold the desire in your heart, no other reason. I will pray for the happiness of both of you. Taurus

Stacey Gates said...

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Anonymous said...

Nice post! Thanks for sharing! I been practicing since I was in 6th grade and was introduced by my mother, my wife was not supportive of the practice and in the last five years our relationship as human beings have suffered immense damage to the point where we're living separately for the second time and this time she's been away for over 9 months and I have been able to start practicing again and feel very nourished as I had practically stopped practicing regularly and would do Gongyo, Daimoku only when I could. Her behavior has made me question her credibility and at this point I'm unable to trust her or any of her actions! She comes from another faith and they believe they will be sent to hell if they or anyone from the family marries outside the community/religion and hence her family has done everything to disrupt the marriage and she has allowed them to aswell. I really wish to be re-marry someone who believes in the lotus sutra and chants, however once divorced I'm looked at as a divorcee and its close to impossible for someone who has never been divorced to consider marrying me. Problem is people practicing are pretty successful and the odds of finding a practitioner who is a divorcee are again close to none.... Plus with the whole men's and women's division it's detrimental to interact with people on a personal level and we look at everyone as a Buddhist / Buddha and the purpose for SGI meetings and activities is to learn spiritually and carve a path for oneself rather than look for potential individuals to date/marry. How to deal with this. I know of a member who chanted for a kosen rufu partner for years and finally is still not married and might have given up the idea of marriage altogether too! I sometimes feel it might be the same for me and that's a scary proposition. Any tips on overcoming this funny syndrome?

DaimokuTing said...

I am so happy and grateful to found this article in the middle of the night when I could not fall asleep because being sick for days and suddenly very sad about being alone and have been a tough time and relationships as well! Thank you ! I will keep chanting and focus more on my true happiness and kosen rufu

Maithili Bandarkar said...

Thanks. This is helpful. But it takes wisdom and patience to implement.
Nam myoho renge kyo

Maithili Bandarkar said...

Thanks. This is helpful. It will however take wisdom, faith and patience to implement.
Nam myoho renge kyo

Malini said...

Thanku so much. I am grateful to have found the article when I needed it the most. Thanks again.
Nam myoho range kyo

Anonymous said...

Report this matter to SGI....it is not encouraged in SGI to force anyone to practice this philosophy....if possible write a letter to daisaku ikeda....we believe in SGI that if it is in your karma you will get connected to Lotus sutra.....my mother is practising from 12 years but my father doesnt.....no one forces each other to quit or to take up the faith....