attachment

Attachment in intimate relationships

For as long as I’ve been practicing Buddhism, people have been talking about attachment in intimate relationships in a particular way; they’ve talked about the problem as being attachment to the other person.

To be sure, attachment to another person can be a source of pain. When you’re first in love with someone you may find that you make yourself miserable wanting to be with the other person. When they’re unavailable or you’re not sure they’re attracted to you, then this can be agonizing.

In an established relationship, when there’s insecurity along with your attachment you might be jealous of them spending time with others, or fearful that they don’t love you as much as you love them. Those things are painful as well.

Attachment to another person can be such that we fear them changing, because we sense that they’re turning into a different person, and that’s perceived as a threat to our relationship.

And you might just miss the other person when they’re away, although I think most couples healthily appreciate having some time apart.

Those forms of attachment to another person are talked about often, and for many years that limited the way I looked at attachment in intimate relationships. Recently, though, I’ve come to think that a far more important problem with attachment is that which we have to our own habits. Self-clinging is the principal problem we face.

For example, if you’re constantly criticizing a partner because they don’t do things the way you want them to be done, what’s really going on is that you’re attached to having certain things happen in a certain way — and you’re attached to criticism as a communication style. If that’s ongoing and outweighs the positive aspects of the relationship, then you’re going to cause suffering. So the question comes up, are you prepared to be flexible in your own habits? It’s not just a question of putting up with socks on the bedroom floor, or hairs in the shower drain, but of learning new ways of communicating about such things. Can you learn to be more playful, for example, or to use praise and affection as a way of encouraging your partner to change — or are you attached to using criticism?

Wanting to be right all the time is another form of attachment. When this happens we’re attached to a particular kind of “status” (being “the one who is right”), assuming that it’ll bring us happiness. The trouble is that if you’re attached to being right all the time, you’re going to be rigid and unempathetic, and be in an unhappy relationship. Humility and empathy are qualities that are much more likely to lead to a harmonious relationship. So can you let go of your attachment to winning arguments and being right? Can you embrace the need to admit your faults? Can you embrace vulnerability? Vulnerability is an open space in which growth can take place.

Avoiding conflict is another deadly problem in relationships that we can be attached to. We assume that if we ignore a problem it’ll go away. Well, any one particular problem might go away, but it’ll be replaced by a dozen more. Courage requires letting go of the habit of conflict-avoidance.

Grudges are another thing we can get attached to. We get attached to being the victim. This kind of attachment has been described as like grasping a red-hot coal with the intention of throwing it at the other person. Who gets hurt most in that scenario? Forgiveness is a form of letting go of this particular attachment.

These are just a few examples of how being attached to habits can cause suffering in relationships. But any relationship problem I can think of involves attachment of this nature: being attached to drama, being dishonest, ignoring your partner because you’re focused on work or recreation, letting your sexual desire (or the lack of it) conflict with your partner’s well-being—and thus the well-being of your relationship. These all involve self-clinging.

The measure of how deep our self-clinging can be is how painful and how difficult it is to become aware of, never mind change, our habits. It’s painful to admit when we’re at fault, to communicate honestly and courageously, and to forgive. We can put a lot of energy into resisting doing these things, and when we do face up to our habits we can feel raw, exposed, and humiliated.

While attachment to our partners can be a very real thing, it’s attachment to ourselves and our habits that I see as the most destructive force in intimate relationships.

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The Four Noble Truths of intimate relationships

Couple on a beach, back to back, with one leaning back upon the other

Because Buddhist teachings have been passed on by celibate monks, we often get the impression intimate relationships are no more than a distraction or hindrance to the spiritual life. But the Buddha himself described marriage as potentially a source of great happiness:

Both husband and wife are endowed with faith, charitable and self-controlled, living their lives ethically, addressing each other with pleasant words. Then many benefits accrue to them and they dwell at ease.

He went as far as to claim that a happy marriage was divine or angelic in nature when he said that a couple can be like two devas (angels, gods) living together.

Moving in the direction of having this kind of fulfilling relationship involves recognizing what I call “The Four Noble Truths of Relationships.”

1. Suffering is a part of all intimate relationships.

Some of this is inevitable, but most of it is unnecessary.

Our task here is to recognize this suffering in the first place, and to understand that we create most of it ourselves, taking responsibility for our own actions.

2. Relationships are unnecessarily hard when we cling to unhelpful conditioned beliefs and patterns of action.

We often act in ways that cause us, and our partners, pain. This includes blaming, wanting to be “right,” keeping score, thinking that the other person “makes” you feel things, seeing your partner as the source of your happiness, using passive-aggressive “hinting” instead of direct communication, withdrawing affection as a means of punishing our partner, and using sex as a substitute for emotional intimacy.

See also:

These are all forms of attachment. Most of the problems of attachment in relationships involve us clinging to our own desires rather than to our partner. It’s this clinging to our own wants that causes most of the problems in intimate relationships.

Our task here is to let go of these unhelpful patterns, so that we can make room for more creative, kind, and helpful ways of being.

3. Relationships can be a source of joy, fulfillment, and of personal growth.

This statement comes with a caveat: it doesn’t mean that every relationship has this potential. If one partner is abusive and unwilling to change, then joy and fulfillment likely lie elsewhere. But assuming that both partners are open to change and growth, and genuinely want a fulfilling relationship, then this is possible.

Our task now is to learn to accept any current difficulties without seeing them as defining the relationship. This involves having the faith that the relationship can blossom, perhaps in unexpected ways, should we commit to mindfulness, honesty, courage, and kindness.

4. There is a path that consists of developing mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, which leads to the realization of this potential.

This is the “eightfold path of relationships.”

This eightfold path starts with:

  1. exploring our views about relationships, discarding those that hinder our growth and adopting those that facilitate it. It continues with
  2. clarifying our intentions, expectations, and core values. It involves
  3. cultivating truthful yet compassionate speech and
  4. ethical action, as well as
  5. balancing work and family life. It includes
  6. making an effort to grow in every aspect of our lives, and to
  7. develop greater mindfulness. And it involves
  8. taking time out in order to meditate, reflect, and transform ourselves.

Our task is to walk that path.

Being in a relationship involves the direct realization of interconnectedness, where we recognize that our own personal happiness is inextricable interwoven with that of another person. Instead of focusing narrowly on our own happiness, we have instead to consider our mutual wellbeing as partners. Intimate relationships thus present us with an opportunity for self-transcendence.

To do all this isn’t easy. An intimate relationship requires constant attention and constant “work.” It requires us to courageously accept uncomfortable truths about our own unhelpful views and habits. It requires us to let go, again and again, of those unskillful tendencies. It involves the humility of accepting that we don’t have all the answers, and that we maybe don’t even know what the important questions are. It involves taking risks, and exposing our own vulnerability. But it’s from these challenges that joy and fulfillment come.

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Get over it

Vimalasara

So I have survived one month of mentorship through my own programme of ‘Eight Step Recovery.’ I’ve relapsed twice, and am back on track with three days of abstinence. I tried harm reduction and it didn’t work for me. Told myself I will eat a handful of raw cashews a day. I even left them out on the kitchen counter so my hosts could share them with me too. But once they were finished, I went out bought a 500 gram packet and proceeded to eat them for my lunch, during a period of three hours. Now you may think: ‘Get over it, you don’t have an addiction. It’s not a matter of life and death. You’re hardly going to wreck the family, or cause any great harm’.

While I do have a mild allergy to nuts, I can’t claim that if I carried on eating them that they would kill me, but I do know that consuming them stunts my emotional growth. Why? Because the nuts have replaced the cigarette I once used to put in my mouth, it has replaced the gum I used to chew obsessively, the food I used to binge on and purge, the substances I used to consume.

Although I’m not in the throes of a life threatening addiction and admittedly avoiding my direct experience has lessened, I still at times turn away from my direct experience enough to disturb my peace of mind. Every time I turn away or avoid, I am resisting and triggering the urges to pick up. These urges manifest into the mental proliferation and mental obsessing, multiplying my initial experience of discomfort several fold. ‘Now I must eat those cashews because it has become too overwhelming.’

I took the opportunity to reflect on my attachment to raw cashew nuts and I wrote this to my sponsor.

‘I’m on the bus licking my wounds and thought I could email you from my phone. As I walked today I realized I do not want to let go of cashews and that is my problem. I know I need to and that I should do as it is a neurotic behaviour that usurps my equilibrium. After that thought, I found myself buying cashews and ate them all over the next two hours not a huge amount but now I feel sick and wish I could turn the clocks back but I can’t. I can see I was turning away from the discomfort of knowing I don’t want to stop. So the question is how do I move from not wanting to let go or knowing I need to let go, to wanting to let go?’ I know eating them in small doses does not work as I end up bingeing as I did today’.

“What I recommend for you is to meditate and reflect on what you are believing about this behavior that is not true. Usually we are believing an untruth. And usually its a variation on ‘it will be okay this time’ (in spite of what has always happened in the past) or ‘even if it’s not okay, it will be worth it’. These are the lies that we most often keep on deluding ourselves with. Another common one is that: ‘I just can’t do this and I might as well give up’. It may be as simple as ‘it will make me feel better’, which of course is not true, because it never does. So there’s your challenge, to bring awareness to your unspoken beliefs, and then to investigate them for current validity. Uncover the lie that you’re believing.

Most of these bad habits did actually have a valid coping function at one point in our lives, before they became debilitating addictions. They did help us cope. But now we have to uncover the dynamics, and ask ourselves ‘what did this do for me in the past?’, ‘what is it doing for me now?’, and ‘what is it doing TO me now?’. But mindfulness of the inner dynamics is a prerequisite. Then we can face our issues instead of having them ambush from behind.”

Great advice for somebody who has co-created Mindfulness Based Addiction Recovery MBAR course. While delivering the training the trainer MBAR course this weekend, I could not help realize, that I had few thoughts about eating cashews over the three days.

I realized that I have needed the dharma, the mindfulness teachings, rather than actually wanting them. It’s a subtle and gross difference. Nothing wrong in needing the teachings, but what does one do once they have been rescued by the teachings? Often go back to their ways.

If I want the dharma enough, I will wholeheartedly place positive values at the centre of my life moment by moment. I did this while delivering the training. I needed to, to deliver the course, but now the course is over, can I want the dharma enough to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, effectively and absolutely. This is step six. More about this step next month.

For a free sample of the book study and 21 meditations of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Auntie Suvanna: Seeking love in the wrong place

strictly ballroom movie poster

What do you do when your heart says “yes” to someone who’s determined to break it? Auntie Suvanna’s wisdom and compassion manifest in advising a woman who’s looking for love in the wrong place.

Dear Auntie,

I have been practicing Buddhism for several years. However, I keep getting caught in the Shempa with this particular man. I am 60 years old and divorced for 8 years. I met this man 3 years ago when I started dancing. He was attentive and pursued me for a short time (I won’t go into details) and then dumped me in pursuit of a 31 year old (30 years his junior) who had emotional problems and confided in him. He told me at first that she was only a friend who saw him as a father figure, but I later found out that they had a sexual encounter. I did not speak to him for about a year but did see him all the time at the dances. But, it goes on.

Because we both love dancing and there is no other place to go, we see each other almost every week. After some time, and given the fact that the girl has moved to California, my rapport with him has been better. Recently, I have seen him a few times under the guise of him wanting to “practice” dance. This has led to a few for lack of better words (since he is now 65) sexual encounters, after which he is very pleasant and then goes his merry way. He calls me his “friend” and best dancing partner he has ever had, and then of course, goes on to take another woman to the dance the next week. I have not been with anyone else, although there have been a few opportunities.

I am ashamed that I can’t keep away from him and always seem pleasant and friendly towards him. I know it has to do with not feeling loved by my father and there are thoughts in my head that if I just am…pretty enough, good enough…then…all of this I know intellectually…I have sent myself Loving Kindness, but, still I am left with this shame that I can let myself be treated so poorly. Because he edges himself into my life as my friend…and because I feel I have no rights since he makes no commitment and I go along with it, I am trapped by my feelings. He is now pursuing someone else at the dance and I see the same MO taking place. I feel that he really wants her and a relationship with her. This of course only makes me feel like chopped liver. I do not want to give up dancing, but seeing them together breaks my heart. I need practices to help me with this. Please!

Seeking love in the wrong place


Dear Seeking Love:

Several years ago Auntie had the idea to write a humorous Buddhist advice column. Since then, the sad relationship questions have been pouring in…well, trickling. So, again, duty calls, and humor will have to wait!

Anyway thanks for all the detail – that is helpful.

Unfortunately the answer for anything that we want to run away from seems to always be to go more into it. There are several angles we could choose. One is how the man feels about other women. Another is how he feels about you. Another is how you feel about him. And finally, how you feel about yourself. Maybe you can guess which one Auntie is going to pursue.

You described how you feel about yourself in terms of shame, I have no rights, I am not pretty enough, and I am chopped liver. What is shameful about loving someone or being fond of someone who does not give you what you want? We are addicted and we chase after sources of suffering. This is being human. There is the idea in Buddhism that the cup is already broken. This applies to the heart as well. Your father maybe helped break it. It was maybe half broken when you were born. Other people probably chipped in. Seeing this and being creative with this is our work. Some level of satisfaction may be achieved when we can lean this far into craving and despair.

You know yourself pretty well and perhaps already know this. This man is not the cause but the occasion of your pain. Yes, many men your age like younger women. And many women much younger than you like older men. But beyond all that, beyond all conceptions of who is a victim and who is not, and who has the power and who does not – seeing for a moment through the veil of craving – it looks like this man is helping you see the vulnerability and tenderness of your own heart. And you don’t want to see that, and none of us do, and yet it is part of our life.

To the degree that you’re acting like you’re ok with the situation, you are participating in it, you are helping create it. Perhaps he doesn’t want what you want. He thinks of you as an FWB (Friend With Benefits). There’s nothing wrong with what he wants, and there’s nothing wrong with what you want – on the other hand he doesn’t know what you want. You are withholding information, trying to protect yourself, but this only makes it more lonely and painful. You cannot protect yourself from the truth, from how you feel, from desire. If you feel bad about yourself, the best thing you can do is be honest.

In terms of more formal practices…Are you familiar with tonglen? Especially what Pema Chodron calls ‘Tonglen on the spot’ — for chopped liver-ness and shame. Just don’t count on it getting rid of the pain. Don’t use getting rid of the pain as the motivation. Let your motivation be that you want to more deeply understand and appreciate your life.

I also suggest not just practicing formal loving kindness meditation, but actively putting more work into deepening friendships and expressing more love in your life. Really being kinder to yourself and to others. For some of us, this might mean going into therapy and/or talking about issues with good friends.

Auntie’s friend Paramananda suggests chanting the Green Tara mantra.

It also could be useful to reflect on the third precept:

I undertake to abstain from harming [even myself] because of sexuality.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment [and straightforwardness], I purify my body.

I haven’t actually read either of these books but perhaps they could help: Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire and Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance.

I hope this has been of some use. If you feel like giving an update later, please do!
Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Love, sex, and non-attachment

Stone carvings at ancient temple, Sri Lanka

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. 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.

See also:

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.


As an aside, when the Buddha said that a man and a woman are like a god and a goddess in the above referenced scripture, I don’t think it meant 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.

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The Upper Middle Way – Have North American Buddhists renounced renunciation?

woman meditating in front of an Indonesian shrine

Historians of religion often repeat the accepted truth that it takes about two centuries for a culture to absorb a new religion and make it its own. Buddhism is certainly not a new religion on the world scene; nevertheless, it may be turning into something new as it is adapted to fit Euro-American culture. And this revised Buddhism might be neglecting crucial elements of the original teachings in favor of values and practices that give comfort to us in the receiving culture. As North Americans and Europeans, we seem particularly attracted to the enticing and psychologized project of spiritual enlightenment, but we are neglecting, at our peril, other fundamental Buddhist values and practices.

As we find ourselves one-quarter of the way through this two-century process, one of the original themes of the historical Buddha’s teaching, namely, the ideal of renunciation, is being conveniently renounced in the West. While the original Pali term (nekkhamma) means the negation of kama (desire), or “withdrawing from sensuality,” the English word has come to mean something like “putting aside the things of the world.” Thus, in English, we refer to monks and nuns as renunciants. Yet the suttas show us that all serious practitioners must in some way be renunciant. The Buddha held forth a rather strict standard of renunciation for his monks compared to his householder followers. The Pali canon makes clear in many places that householders, as well as monks and nuns, can all attain nirvana. A particularly beautiful expression of this truth is found in the Mahavacchagotta Sutta:

Just as the river Ganges inclines towards the sea, slopes towards the sea, flows towards the sea, and extends all the way the sea, so too Master Gotama’s assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines towards Nibbana, slopes towards Nibbana, flows towards Nibbana, and extends all the way to Nibbana. (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 73:14)

Although the layperson may not be “homeless,” to use another phrase that refers to monks and nuns, it is still very clear that renunciation must be a part of every follower’s path as they incline, or slide, toward nirvana. In the Dantabhumi Sutta, the Buddha addresses Aggivessana and talks about the layman, Prince Jayasena:

So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this—the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures,…could know, see, or realize that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, realized through renunciation. (MN 125:10)

Here, the Buddha is talking about someone very much like himself as a young man. Some Western teachers have explained that what the Buddha meant by renunciation was that his followers should relinquish their attachment to things, not necessarily the things themselves, a notion that the American Theravadin teacher Santikaro calls “a liberal legalism, à la Bill Clinton.”

There is perhaps confusion between the term relinquishment (patinissagga), which could be defined as this mental exercise, and the more concrete concept of renouncing those things which embroil us in desire. But both these actions are necessary in the Buddha’s outline of the path to nirvana. We must give up things, people, and concepts, as well as extinguish the mental mechanism of attaching to them.

Abandoning the trappings of wealth, as Gotama did, is still put forward in the teachings as a practice for householders. Speaking to the monk Udayin in the Latukikopama Sutta, Gotama says,

There are certain clansmen here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this’ …abandon that and do not show discourtesy towards me or towards those bhikkhus desirous of training. Having abandoned it, they live at ease, unruffled, subsisting on others’ gifts, with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s. (MN 66:12)

In the Dhammapada, one of the most revered and accessible of Buddhist scriptures, it says, “I do not call him a Brahman merely because he was born in the caste of holy ones, or of a Brahman mother.… But one who is free from possessions and worldly attachments—him I call a Brahman.” (XXVI:396) (The word brahman referred originally to any holy person, but now when capitalized refers to the caste of Vedic priests.) This quote makes clear that both the mental attachments and the possessions themselves are to be renounced, but Buddhist teachers in the West rarely cite such passages.

Santikaro says that the Buddha never required his lay disciples to lead lives of voluntary simplicity, they just did it as a result of their deepening spiritual insight. “You see that most of the really important lay leaders in the early sangha renounced their wealth and status,” explains Santikaro. “King Pasenandi gives up his throne, the merchant banker Anathapindika gives his wealth away; Citta, the foremost dhamma speaker among the laity and Visakha, a very accomplished laywoman, do the same.”

Writings and dharma talks by North American Buddhist interpreters soothe middle-class devotees with the diminished expectations of Buddhism-lite. Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire, to pick only one recent example, says: “Renunciation need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.” Zen teacher Ed Brown once summarized this concept by saying, “It’s OK to pick something up, as long as you can put it back down again.” These simple dicta are true as far as they go, but emphasizing the importance of detachment, or nonattachment to things, as mere mental attitude, without any real-life implications, compromises the nature of the original teachings. This smoothed-out version of Buddhism gives us permission to have our lifestyle, to be wealthy—even pampered—without having to wring our hands in guilt. It requires no concrete action in the real world—except for the occasional retreat with our favorite teacher.

But it’s important to notice a few things before we rest easy in this comforting interpretation of the dharma. The first principle that should not escape our attention is the original teaching on generosity (dana). The Buddha saw poverty as a curse and wanted householders to earn enough to support themselves and their families—and to help their villages. He even gave very specific advice to Anathapindika, one of his wealthiest lay followers, on what today we call “asset allocation.” As Robert Aitken Roshi said once, “Someone has to make money so others of us can be poor.” And this is indeed the Buddhist formula for supporting monastics. It relies on a laity with enough disposable income to support the monks.

In Asia, Buddhist teachers summarize the path for laypeople as being composed of dana, sila (ethical behavior), and bhavana (spiritual development). In the West, however, the formula is recited, and emphasized, in reverse: bhavana (more specifically, “meditation,” which was the formula for monks) sila, dana. Middle-class North Americans want to become accomplished meditators, and many of us spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to attend retreats and workshops in an effort to “get” enlightenment, as though it were one more accomplishment, one more thing to cross off our to-do list. We want to buy enlightenment rather than sacrifice for it.

But instead of getting, the early teachings suggest that we engage in the practice of giving. Dana is really a spiritual method. Practicing generosity helps us to overcome greed and clinging; it facilitates the realization of no-self—and it feels good. The Dhammapada says clearly:

These three ways lead to the deathless realm:
living in the truth,
not yielding to anger,
and giving, even if you have
only a little to share. (XVII:224)

The difficulties of householder life are also noted:

Renunciation of the worldly life is difficult;
difficult it is to be happy in the monastic life;
equally difficult and painful it is
to lead the householder’s life. (XXI:303)

Renunciation is difficult, yes, but as contemporary Buddhists, we have fled from this challenge and we have turned renunciation into a painless mental exercise. It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, but I’m not attached to my BMW.” That way we never have to question what could have been done with the money we spent on an upscale car, house, or vacation. Thus, we avoid the implications of simplicity, nonconsumption, and generosity enshrined in the original teachings. And few Euro-American Buddhist teachers call on their followers to set aside wealth and comfort for the practice of real, tangible renunciation and simplicity.

There are some exceptions. Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Australian Theravadin abbot, was recently teaching in the U.S. and, referring to practice, said, “You don’t have to go for the big idea, but just keep moving forward, toward greater simplicity—a smaller home, for example. Less clutter in the physical world leads to less clutter in the mind and more freedom.” As Buddhist discourse in the U.S. goes, this is a very rare sentiment.

Of course, I cannot know in any statistical sense what my Buddhist colleagues are doing with their incomes, but I have plenty of anecdotal experience. For instance, I’m on the board of a small Buddhist nonprofit called Paramita House, which helps released prison inmates reintegrate into the community. In our routine solicitations to sanghas in the region, only a few Buddhist groups have responded positively. When we ask groups why they can’t contribute, they often say, “We’re raising money for the new temple.” If they’ve built their temple, they say they need money for landscaping. If the landscaping is done, they talk about keeping a prudent reserve and, of course, once there are sufficient reserves, it’s time to fund the endowment. Some sanghas do engage in social justice commitments, but all too many spend their time fluffing up the meditation cushions, waiting for the next retreat.

Many in my own generation, the boomers, are immensely wealthy—yet we don’t feel that way. Investment firms and retirement advisors constantly challenge us with the huge amounts of money they say will be needed to fund our retirement lifestyles. So we feel we haven’t saved enough to support that eighty-six-year-old person who does not yet—and may never—exist. As Buddhism entered various cultures over the last two and a half millennia, it changed as it incorporated various spiritual traditions—the Brahmanistic and animistic traditions of South and Southeast Asia, Taoism and Confucianism in China, and the Bonpo practices of Tibet. But Santikaro points out that “As Buddhism is adapting to the West, rather than incorporating a healthy or effective spiritual tradition, it is adapting to secularism. This is unique in Buddhist history. It is being molded and changed—not by the Western monotheisms—but by pop-psychology and consumerist capitalism. Perhaps the only thing Western Buddhism is inheriting from monotheism is a tendency toward dogmatism.”

I am not asking that North American Buddhists turn into tottering Mother Teresas or throw the BMW keys to the ground and walk off into the mountain mists, but if we really took up the ideal of householder renunciation, we would become more generous—much more generous—with our time and our money and our talents. We could vow to make do with less and stop consuming needlessly. Boomers might consider the old Indo-Aryan ideal that the final decades of life ought best be devoted to simplicity and spiritual development. Many of us will play golf in gated communities till that final trumpet sounds, but those of us who call ourselves Buddhists owe the world, and ourselves, much more. What if we turned our backs on the false security of our L.L. Bean lifestyles? What if we gave generously to the causes that stir our hearts? What if we worked hard to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized in our own communities? That would give us what Buddhism promises, and what we’ve longed for all along—the taste of genuine freedom.

 

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Monks work to construct mandala (The Penn Online, Pennsylvania)

The Penn: Meditation, as practiced by the 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting IUP this week, provides “stability and calmness” and opens the potential of one’s mind, said Eleanor Mannikka, Monday’s Six O’Clock Series speaker.

“What powers your behavior is your mind,” said Mannikka, an IUP art professor and 25-year practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. “All the minds that human beings have are the most powerful tools in the universe. Without meditation you’re using a small fraction of your mind.”

Buddhists practice the teachings of Siddhartha Gotama — the Buddha — who after six years of meditation about 2,500 years ago, found the “middle path,” or enlightenment, in his search for the ways to avoid suffering and be happy.

Much of that suffering, Mannikka said, comes from attachment to worldly things, whether it’s material or a connection with others.

“[Buddha] didn’t say it’s love and compassion for your friends that causes suffering, but if you have an attachment with that love where you want good feedback … If you want something in return, you’re going to suffer,” she said.

Buddhism — the fourth-largest religion and only one with enlightenment as the goal — seeks to break that attachment through meditation, which must be taught by an instructor first-hand and “altruistic thinking,” Mannikka said.

In stages and with years of practice, one achieves enlightenment, “a state of emptiness” that comes from wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline, she said.

“Underlying everything in the entire universe is the basis of what we call emptiness,” which “cannot be described because it lies beyond concept,” she said. “It is very different for us to imagine that our minds can actually operate beyond concept.”

Eventually, those who meditate might experience “nanoseconds of what that emptiness is, and it is so mind-blowing. You would not believe that your mind can exist in that particular state,” she said.

For the master Tibetan monks, that transcendence may have metaphysical implications, she said.

“The Tibetans are notorious for doing things like walking through walls,” levitating or flying, she said. “This world that we see is illusory. … When the mind transcends the illusion of solidity in all objects, then solid objects cease to maintain their obstacle nature.”

Meditation typically involves controlled breathing, a focus on relieving tension and introspection.

“You don’t have to be a Buddhist to do the basic meditation. … When you think of yourself in that way, that you’re much bigger than this moment, that your life has meaning. It is then your job to fulfill that meaning,” she said.

Article no longer available in the original website (Original URL.)

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