Is it possible to be in a committed sexual relationship and follow the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment? Does loving someone deeply by definition mean we’re attached to them? Sunada doesn’t see these ideas as contradictory, and explores what an enlightened relationship might look like.
This year, my husband David and I will mark 27 years of being happily married. Am I attached to him? You bet I am. If he were to die tomorrow, of course I would be devastated. And am I completely unselfish in my regard for him? If I were honest, I’d have to say no. After all, what if he were to come home one day and say, “Sunada, I met a new woman and we love each other very much.” A completely other-regarding response would be, “I’m happy for you!” No, I couldn’t possibly imagine saying that.
My understanding of attachment is that it’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what our expectations of them are.
So does that make me a bad, overly-attached Buddhist? I would argue no.
First of all, let’s clarify what the Buddha said about sexual relationships. He said that a man and a woman in a loving, supportive relationship are like a pairing of a god and a goddess.1, 2 Hardly sounds like disapproval, does it? It turns out the Buddha encouraged people to engage in relationships and enjoy them to their full extent. His teachings imply that all human relationships are wonderful opportunities to practice loving-kindness, generosity, and mutual support. A long-term committed one was all the more an opportunity to go deeper in one’s understanding and cultivation of these qualities.
So then what is non-attachment in a loving, committed relationship? My understanding of attachment is that it’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what our expectations of them are. As unenlightened people, we live with a persistent delusion that people and things will provide us with more happiness and satisfaction than they really can. And this is where we get tripped up.
…real contentment can only come from within ourselves. A partner can’t provide that for us, and to expect it will only lead to disappointment.
So for example, how much am I using my partner’s love to fill a void in my own love and acceptance of myself? A truly healthy individual is one who is complete by herself, and doesn’t need to depend on anything or anyone else to feel whole and content. I don’t mean we should go it alone and isolate ourselves from others. I mean simply not to depend on someone or something external to me as a necessary condition for my happiness.
But the fact is I’m not enlightened. Sure, it’s great to know what the ideal is, but very few people are actually there. I’m sure not. We all have times when we come up against feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, or insecurity. It’s a very normal human response to try to compensate for these unpleasant feelings by using a partner’s love to cover them over. But the truth is, real contentment can only come from within ourselves. A partner can’t provide that for us, and to expect it will only lead to disappointment.
But does that make it wrong to succumb to our habits of attachment? Perhaps this is the subtle effect of Judeo-Christian conditioning on the Western mind, but I often hear people judging our very human imperfections as somehow wrong – things to be ashamed of or gotten rid of at the very least.
A relationship with a partner, because it’s by nature where we open ourselves completely to another person, is a great working ground for understanding the true nature of self and other.
I see it differently. I’m not enlightened, I’m not perfect. I still live under the delusion that David will be with me forever. I depend on him from time to time to fill emotional voids that I’m unable to fill on my own. But through my growing understanding of non-attachment, I’m seeing more clearly what I’m doing. And I understand, at least intellectually, that my views don’t accurately reflect the way things really are. For me to be out of alignment with that reality is to create my own suffering. There’s nothing wrong with that – maybe uninformed and unwise, but not wrong. So I continue to work toward becoming a more complete individual who is capable of standing on her own. There is no good or bad here — simply a natural, human process of growth as it’s taking shape for me.
So let’s not get caught up in our ideas of what attachment should or shouldn’t look like, what’s right or wrong. Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. A relationship with a partner, because it’s by nature where we open ourselves completely to another person, is a great working ground for understanding the true nature of self and other. When we have our defenses down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, we have the opportunity to explore deeply the nature of our own egos, desires, and expectations. We can challenge ourselves to aspire toward an enlightened relationship — one which is marked by a pure, unselfish, and unconditional love. What emerges is a partnership of strong individuals who don’t NEED each other, but openly give and take in loving support of one another.
2. As an aside, I don’t interpret the Buddha’s use of the words “a man and a woman” here to mean that he disapproved of homosexual relationships. In this particular case, he was speaking to a group of husbands and wives. Although there’s no record of him explicitly addressing the topic of homosexuality, more generally, it seems his criteria for a positive relationship is that it’s between two individuals who love, respect, and support each other.