The Thing about Relationships…

By Kate Wheeler

At about seven o’clock each morning, I do a practice that makes me grateful for the Buddhist teachings. Pushing aside the panting puppy who stands beside the bed, that hairy alarm clock who wants me to feed and entertain him, I lie flat on my back for a minute or two and try to come to my senses. I acknowledge as deeply as possible the nature of this day, this moment, and the complex, beloved human being who’s still asleep beside me. “You could be me,” I tell him silently, “I could be you. Being is indistinguishable from beings. Same goes for the dog, for everyone. May all of us be happy and free.”

Within minutes (or as soon as my partner wakes up), I’ll be swept up in irritation, lust, secretive self-righteousness. I save some of my most pungent delusions just for him—for example, why does he always want things from me I do not want to give? Yet because I began the day with reflection and also because I’ve trained for years in retreat, it’s getting easier to climb back into the present moment and to drop whatever prejudice is gnawing my brain and driving my behavior. The transparent heart of things shines out, making it easier to feel what I need to feel and to negotiate choices less confined by selfishness and fear.

My intimate relationship is the most reliable thing in my life, the place where the rubber meets the road. If there’s a divergence between what I think I know and how I’m acting, that gap inevitably shows up as suffering and misunderstanding with the man who is willing to share his precious life with me. If, on the other hand, I have even a tiny flash of generosity, I’ll experience that with my partner too. Samsara and nirvana are nowhere else than in the smoking toaster oven, the delights and obligations of sex, and our tensions around money. Is it real? Yes and no. It’s just as real and solid as I think it is in any given moment.

Examining the texts, much of the historical Buddha’s advice to householders sounds about as sketchy and traditional as my grandmother’s suggestion never to go to bed mad. Basically he says we should all respect and be faithful to our intimate partners. A husband should hand over authority to his wife, while she should always speak to him gently and behave as his best friend. Kind of cool, actually—but it might be hard to practice if you have any untamed neurotic patterns.

Luckily, many of the instructions he gave for monks work just as well for couples. The Sutta to the Kosambians, Majjhima Nikaya 48, applies to that horrible rigidity that tends to spring up in daily contact, also known as “familiarity breeds contempt.”

“The monks at Kosambi had taken to quarrelling and brawling and were deep in disputes, stabbing each other with verbal daggers. They could neither … persuade each other nor be persuaded by others. The Buddha then asked them, ‘When you [act in this way], do you on that occasion maintain acts of loving-kindness by body, speech and mind in public and in private towards your companions in the holy life?’ ‘No, venerable sir,’ they replied. ‘Misguided men, what can you possibly know, what can you see, that you take to [acting like this]? That will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.’”[i]

The Buddha then offers advice for creating love and respect in this intimate community. Monks should act with loving-kindness in public and in private, and share all things unselfishly, even the contents of their bowls. Finally, they should dwell in and practice the right view that leads to the complete destruction of suffering.

Returning to the advice for married couples, how can any wife (or husband or lover) be a true “best friend” to her husband (or wife or lover) if she cannot see the truth of who he is, who she is, and who they are in relation to one another? Here, we might begin to glimpse the naked tantric deities enjoying pristine, nondual union—and move toward a silent appreciation of what cannot be said—the fullness/emptiness of being which can neither be lost nor fully found, but which may be glimpsed as easily in the eyes of one’s intimate partner as in the uncluttered space around a meditation cushion.

The promise of dharma practice is not that liberation is hidden in caves and monasteries. It’s that wisdom, love and blessing grow anytime we apply ourselves to practice. Samsara may thrive in every family nest but it’s also destroyed in any moment of clear seeing. So let’s cultivate clear seeing, rather than holding a hierarchy of images in which ordinary life, people and relationships are held as mundane and second-best. The noble truth of suffering helps us not to blame our partners if intimacy doesn’t bring uninterrupted fulfillment. We’re each responsible for learning how to stop creating pain for ourselves and others. That means figuring out how to enact the profound instructions regardless of who we are or what our situation looks like.

Some close relationships seem blessedly conducive to mutual growth, but even they can be mixed with blindness. Most contain some reactivity that awareness needs to penetrate. Lessons need to be extracted and decisions made, perhaps whether to leave or stay. It usually takes years, but the dharma can always help us recognize and release our patterns of reactivity. Whether we’re afraid to get angry, or have trouble getting beyond dependency, or like to push our self-centered agendas unfairly onto others, awareness gently frees us. We unknit our projections. Learn to really listen to what’s being said. Hear what isn’t. Compassion practice, too, makes us less egocentric, and easier to live with, for ourselves and everyone else. And that’s what it is all about, whether we’re monks, nuns, husbands, wives, gay or straight, lovers or partners, or even just looking.


[i] Thanks to Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi for overall translation and to Andrew Olendszki for the summary portions.