Love & Relationships: What the Buddhists Teach

905px-Buddha_with_Rahula"Buddha with Rahula" - Picture of Wallpainting in a Laotian monastery. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

From the profound to the practical, from the basic split between self and other to dealing with your partner’s anger, four prominent teachers and psychologists talked about all the issues of relationships at this year’s annual Shambhala Sun/Omega Institute program, “What the Buddhists Teach.” Here are four essays on the dharma of relationships, adapted from their presentations.

The Great Mirror


Our so-called life, from the Buddhist point of view, is simply experience, and experience is relationship. Put simply, we don’t have independent existence. We cannot exist without depending on others. When I go to the grocery store and buy an apple, I might feel very independent. I walk in, grab an apple, pay with my own money, and go home and eat by myself. But in fact I can only enjoy this apple because it is connected to so many people and conditions: the store owner, the shelf stockers, the truckers, the farmers, all the way back to the seed and the Earth. There’s so much connection, all the time.

Of all of the relationships we have in this interdependent experience of ours, the most direct, most emotional, and most apt to bring great joy and suffering is a close, intimate relationship with another human being. We give it great, special prominence in our mind, but it helps to remember that it is the same as the apple. It’s about interconnection, interdependence.

From a Buddhist point of view, relationship is a great mirror. It is the mirror in which we see ourselves, in which we discover ourselves. That mirror can be distorted. I remember the first time I saw myself in a funhouse mirror: “Oh, what happened to me? I’m all stretched out.” [laughter] The mirror can also be very clear. We can see ourselves and what we are up to so directly. That makes relationship a beautiful experience.

When we sit by ourselves, it’s easy to enjoy our mental games, fantasies, ego trips, and so forth. We can go on and on and on without any problem. But try that with your partner! Then here comes the mirror. The mirror will reflect and show you your ugly ego trips. A mirror is very neutral—it just reflects. It doesn’t take any sides. It is just a mirror for both of us.

In this mirror, we discover ourselves—our tendencies, our weaknesses, and our strengths. We discover our good qualities as well as our negative qualities. So this mirror becomes a very precious teacher for us, a very precious path. The mirror of relationship becomes a very precious teaching for us to discover who we really are and where we are on the path and in the world altogether.

This is a lot to take in, so our tendency is to see what we want to see in this relationship mirror. The problem with this approach in a close relationship is that two people are seeing two different things. If I want to see something and she wants to see something else, we’re both seeing two different things. As a result, we’re being thrown off from the balance, the benefit, the preciousness of the relationship, the mirror. We would rather idealize our relationship; we would rather escape. We would rather live in the future than in this very immediate present moment. But if we can practice being in this present moment, relationship can become a path and the mirror can be a great teacher.

In our relationship with another, we often misunderstand how we are connected. We may think we are two made into one, or we may think we are completely independent. My father taught me that a marriage or partnership, an intimate relationship with another human being, is like two rings coming together. You can illustrate it with your fingers. Make a ring with each hand, then join the rings together. There’s a common space in the center. There is mutual responsibility, joy, and sharing, yet at the same time, we must understand there are also the two sides. There is not only the middle; individual space is also necessary.

If we try to overlap these two rings totally, we lose balance. There is a common bond, but there are also two individual mind streams. We must respect that and allow the other independence. The common space respects the individual space. We cannot overpower the other or make them just like us. The other not only has needs but also individual, habitual karmic habits that you cannot change. They need to initiate change themselves; you cannot forcibly change them. Buddhism teaches us that you cannot change someone’s karma; not even Buddha can do that. He said, “I can only show you the path; to do it is totally up to you.”

That’s the basic principle in a relationship—we share. We share our wisdom, our knowledge, we allow ourselves to be a mirror, but it’s up to the individual to make the choice. We must respect that. We must know that the other acts out of habit pattern, just as we do. Just as we cannot be forcibly changed from the outside, so too with them.

Problems begin when we lose the balance that comes from understanding the interplay of connection and separateness. We lose the sense of mindfulness when we lose the basic balance of the selfless, egoless teaching, and become selfish, ego-centered, or even ego-maniacal.

That’s where dukkha (suffering) begins and joy ends, where the joy of relationship ends and the dukkha of relationship begins. When a relationship is troubling, that will stimulate our path. We can’t expect it to always be perfect. In the mirror of relationship, we discover all these things. We discover the real nature of relationship and we discover how we go off balance, how we lose the egoless, selfless view, how we lose the sense of love and caring.

Practicing mindfulness and awareness can help us see in the mirror more clearly. Mindfulness can tame the mental wildness that causes us to go so off balance. Mindfulness puts that wild mind in a corral. Once the wild horse of our mind is a little settled, we can train it by tying it to the post of awareness. Then we can train the horse to do all sorts of things, including to exert itself on the path of relationship and take joy and delight in loving.

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a contemporary master in the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the president of Nalandabodhi and the author of “Mind Beyond Death.”

We Are All Wayfarers


It’s very easy to get annoyed, particularly with our loved ones. I’ve been married to someone for fifty-three years and in a close relationship with him for fifty-six. Sometimes that person makes a stupid remark that hurts my feelings, doesn’t know he did it, and barrels right on.

Well, I might take umbrage. I feel bad. I radiate back that I’m feeling bad. Still the other person doesn’t notice that I feel bad, doesn’t even notice that anything happened, just keeps on saying what he’s saying or doing what he’s doing. So, I think to myself, I’m just not going to say anything back. As a matter of fact, I’ll just go out to my study now. And I go in there and get a little more aggravated, because he still hasn’t figured it out. So I decide I’m not going to cook that special dish the other person likes [laughter].

But perhaps at some point I see that the mind is hatching revenge. It may take me a little while to catch on to this fact, but if I am paying attention, I eventually see the truth of this moment. The truth is I’m plotting revenge. That’s unwise, unskillful action, because it’s compounding my distress. I didn’t feel good to begin with and now I have the added difficulty of a vengeful mind, which hurts even more. If I allow myself, I can see that he actually loves me and simply said a ridiculous thing because he wasn’t paying attention. All of that other stuff is just editorial chatter I’ve saved up as proof that he doesn’t love me. I’ve manufactured a fable and then frightened myself with it.

The ninth branch of the eightfold path is relationship, and its path is metta, loving-kindness practice. Loving-kindness is really mindfulness, telling the truth about what’s really going on. One way we can practice it is to say on the in-breath, “May I meet this moment fully,” and on the out-breath, “May I meet it as a friend.” Try that, and see how it feels. When we meet the moment fully, in relationship, as a friend, we combine mindfulness and loving-kindness. We stop plotting our fable, our story about who did what to whom.

Buddhism is very optimistic about the human capacity for love, about the potential of what we can do with love. We can develop a love that is steadfast and universal. We develop it not because we force ourselves to love so fully. Rather, we discover that loving unconditionally is the greatest source of joy, and that we are the loser for any hesitation or interruption in that love, such as “I would really love you if you would just do your share of the cooking, if you would just do this, if you would just do that.” Whenever we hesitate like that, we lose.

Buddhism tells us that in spite of all the circumstances we face, we could have a steadfast love for all beings. For most people who come to study dharma, this kind of love begins to feel right to them. It seems right to them when they realize that this world only becomes problematic when we hesitate to love.

There’s a phrase that I’m very fond of that comes from the late Nyanaponika Thera, a wonderful German-born mindfulness teacher who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. Thera spoke of a “love that embraces all human beings, knowing well that we are all wayfarers through this round of existence and that we all experience the same laws of suffering.”

This is such a moving phrase, because if I can see that the person who has irritated me has, like me, very simple wants, then I can embrace the moment fully and as a friend. This person irritating me really just wants to get through this life without too much suffering. This person, like all people, suffers in the same ways I do: Things don’t happen the way they want. Things that are dear to them don’t last. Things keep changing. They are “wayfarers through this round of existence,” and they suffer just like I do.

There’s a line from the Buddha that may seem discouraging of relationships. The Buddha says that everything that is dear to us causes pain. I didn’t like that when I first read it at the beginning of my practice, but after a while I realized that it’s simply an expression of the truth. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have relationships. It doesn’t mean not to have things dear to you. It just means that in this life of change, we will lose everything that’s dear to us, unless that which is dear loses us first. Everything will change. It won’t be what it was, or it will no longer be what we wanted, or we’ll stop loving it and then we’ll feel bad about it, or we’ll love it so very much and something will happen to it, and then it won’t be available to us, and on and on and on. This life is full of getting used to losses. The only adequate response is to love fully and realize we have a precious short life.

The teaching that everything dear to us causes pain has helped me to be more clear that I’m eager to use relationship as a practice. It helps me remember not to mortgage away any of my days by having a grudge or a grievance or making myself distant. That would simply cause a rupture in that steadfast, universal love that is so joyful.

Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a co-founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and a practicing psychotherapist. She is the author of many best-selling books and a regular contributor to the “Shambhala Sun.”

Not Knowing Is the Most Intimate


Having a meditation practice is a way of fully entering your life, without reservation. When you meditate, when you sit and notice without assessing how you’re doing, you just show up for your life. In the moment of meditation, nothing is required of you. It’s enough to be here on the planet, to experience a moment of presence, to fully honor the gift of being alive. And it is a gift, one that just comes to you. You don’t have to ask.

If we don’t show up for our own life, we tend to ask other people to fill in the bits we won’t show up for. That makes it hard on them. So love begins with really showing up. And practice helps. It’s a way of not dodging the difficult, painful bits. It’s also not dodging the beauty and the marvel of life, the wonder and our capacity to connect to others. Love starts there.

But we often make a few really basic errors. We sometimes have the idea that a relationship is like a machine, one we can fix if we put the right oil on it or replace a few sprockets. We also can think that a relationship is a matter of calculating the sums of good and bad, what we’re getting and not getting.

If we start looking at other people as a gift, it helps us out of these traps. I have a teenage daughter and I’m close to her. You notice with a child that you show up without wanting a lot in return. It’s not an exchange: give this, get that. It could be like that in all our relationships, with lovers, teachers, friends, what have you. It’s not a trade. The word bodhichitta conveys wanting to open our own hearts and minds because it’s good for the world, not just for us (but it is good for us, too). Bodhichitta is not esoteric; it’s a fundamental human experience. It’s part of the nature of mind.

Relationship is not an event isolated from our spiritual practice. We’re involved in a relationship because we’re on our path. We have a practice and somehow our relationship has become part of our practice. It’s not something different from our practice. It’s not this thing over there that makes me happy so I can have a practice over here. It’s not the other thing that pays the rent or gets me laid. It’s part of practice.

There’s a long arc to love, just the way there’s a long arc to having a spiritual practice. When you’re on that long arc, you don’t say, “I tried meditation once, and I didn’t get what I wanted, so it’s not right for me.” If you have a spiritual practice in your life, you’re actually showing up for your life. If your mind is restless and uneasy, you’re showing up for your mind being restless and uneasy.  If you stop fighting it, stop thinking it should be different, if you allow a little bit of an opening—even just having compassion for your inability to have compassion—the donkey will start to turn toward home.

You don’t have to be good at this stuff. You just have to have a little bit of turning toward it and it will start teaching you and giving you gifts. It’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than not to do it. In fact, it’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than to do it well, because if you’re doing it badly you’ll probably learn something, so long as you keep doing it.

A while ago my mother was dying. I traveled home, went to the hospital, held her hand, and sat with her. The next morning she was still alive, so I did the same thing. Meanwhile, my sisters were negotiating with the nurses about oxygen levels, my father was trying to encourage mom to stay in this world, to eat for him (“May I tempt you with just a spoonful of this custard, Allison?”), and my mom was holding off my dad with garlic and crosses. But I didn’t have anything to do, no special role, and I began to think that was probably good. I noticed that when I wanted anybody in that room to be different, it became rather painful. “Dad, ease up. I mean, she’s dying. She doesn’t want to eat.” Or, “Mom, he just loves you and he’s trying to be helpful and it probably would help if you ate.” Or, “Girls, you could relax; the oxygen is not going to help her now.” I had all those let’s-improve-the-world thoughts, but I noticed that when I didn’t go with those, everything was completely at peace. People were doing what they were doing because they needed to. Who am I to know what they should be doing? It was beautiful appreciating how much they cared about each other.

The koan for that situation is, “Not knowing is most intimate.” What if someone shouldn’t be improved? Maybe if they gave up smoking, they’d turn out to be a serial killer. How about not wanting to change others? How about not wanting to change yourself?

We spend a lot of time whipping the donkey. If we stopped doing that, we might find we change in unexpected ways, and others do as well. Most projects to change other people or ourselves are really projects about interior decoration for the prison. A spiritual practice is really about jail breaking. When you show up for your life, what kind of ride do you want to take? Do you want to spend your time telling other people they should be different?

Love means bearing people’s differences without trying to change them—not just bearing, but valuing and appreciating and loving people’s uniqueness. That’s a path all by itself. What if the fact that you’re different from me is a gateway rather than an obstacle?

John Tarrant, Ph.D., is a Zen teacher who for many years had a practice in Jungian psychoanalysis. Author of “Bring Me the Rhinoceros” and “The Light Inside the Dark,” he teaches physicians and executives at Duke Integrative Medicine and directs the Pacific Zen Institute.

The Training of Love


The Buddhist lay precepts can be translated as, “I vow, I set my intention, to take the training not to kill, not to harm, etc.” The precepts ask us to commit to a training of the mind. If you enter the path of relationships, you are vowing to take the training of love. It is a training to break your heart. If you’re willing to break your heart, you’re willing to take the training of love. It is a training of the highest level, requiring an enormous amount of development, because it’s not something immediately present at birth. The potential for love is present, but the requirements are actually quite demanding.

Love requires knowledge. One must know, really know, the beloved. Sometimes we wonder whether the people who supposedly love us, such as our parents, really know us. We wonder whether we really know the people we supposedly love. You have to have a knowledge of the beloved to actually love. The other requirement is equanimity, a friendly, gentle, matter-of-fact awareness that you return to again and again. Combining knowledge of the beloved and the equanimity to accept what is presented by them with a friendly, appreciative attitude is the very stuff of love.

Why would Buddhists have anything particularly special to say about love and relationship? At a basic level, the buddhadharma is about being taught by reality. As long as you can love reality, it will teach you. You will learn that loving is training for a broken heart. How could it be otherwise?

When you feel an enormous connection with someone, when you get to really know someone, which is the first requirement for love, then you know that they’re going to get ill, you know that they’re going to grow old, and you know that they’re going to die. You know that everything is going to change. Of course you don’t really like that, but love requires that you continue to cherish them even while those things are taking place. That’s the equanimity part.

Broken hearts happen because of impermanence, which in Buddhist teaching is one of the three marks of existence. When we idealize, as we so often do in love, we try to overlook the ups and downs of life, but that means we’re avoiding the training that’s offered, the training of the broken heart.

My current teacher, Shinzen Young, first trained in Rinzai Zen but then decided that Vipassana was the best way to teach Americans. Vipassana teaches us the awareness of ever-present expansion and contraction, and having no preference between them. There are good feelings and bad feelings, good days and bad days, expansion and contraction. This is the way it is for all of us. Nobody gets anything better than that.

But we so often make a steady state our ideal, especially in relationships. When you pick someone, you think you’re going to escape suffering, get out of the expansion and contraction. Your ideals for relationship might be so high that you never get into one, because every time you put your toe in, you say, “Ahh! This doesn’t work. This is falling short.” You never even get on the path of love, because you’re holding on to your ideal.

Or perhaps you get on the path of love, and then you are looking for those highs within the ups and downs of life. You put great store in them. Occasionally you have a really good day, or even a peak experience, and there is this wonderful opening. You recognize that you and the other person are absolutely in tune, totally accepting of each other. You think to yourself, “OK, now I’ve got it. In the future I will do exactly this, and I’ll get these results again.” But of course, it doesn’t work, because the waves go up and down, up and down.

Here’s the secret: get a surfboard. As the waves go up and down, the surfboard allows you to maintain your balance. When things are going well, you maintain your balance and don’t go whole hog into it. And when things are going badly, you can see that painful as it is, it’s interesting and even fascinating to observe. By surfing the waves and maintaining your balance, it starts to feel less like bouncing up and down all the time.

Meditation practice, mindfulness, psychotherapy, clear observation of your experience—all these will give you this capacity to surf. However, everybody falls off the surfboard at some point, so you need one of those little ankle bracelets that keeps you and the surfboard together. Whether it’s psychotherapy or meditation, you need to stay with it long enough to get the bracelet that connects you. If you don’t, then one day you will fall off hard and you might say, “I worked hard on that surfboard and it didn’t work, so screw it. I won’t work on one of those again.” That is the worst outcome. The things that could help you have been tossed away.

When the shit hits the fan in your life―and it will―you will need your surfboard and the bracelet that ties you to it. You will need your training and you will need a bigger view of love, one that encompasses and accepts a broken heart. You will need something that reminds you of your vow to “take the training” to love.

Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., is a Jungian psychoanalyst and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. A longtime practitioner of Zen and Vipassana meditation, she is author of fourteen books, including her most recent, “The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance.”