I met my husband twenty-five years ago when he was a Buddhist monk. We were both full of enthusiasm for the traditional Rinzai practice in which we were intensely involved. We entered the relationship carrying a load of personal baggage and, unfortunately for us, practice offered little help in navigating our personal intimacy. It was all empty—except off the cushion. There, it was a catastrophe and full of drama.
At the time, there were many unethical goings-on happening in a number of monasteries and training centers, and we, like many others, left our community feeling betrayed and confused. We went on with our lives, staying together through determination and sheer luck. We became professionals, had two children, and got lots of therapy. Both of us yearned for what we had once tasted with practice, but we did not know how to find it again.
Eventually we stumbled into the community where we now practice as a couple and as a family. Here our teachers offer the teaching of “seamless practice”: there is no separation between the zafu, the dining room, the bathroom or the bedroom. Our children are our koans, as is our marriage. Our teachers and the monastics provide examples of how to make practice alive everywhere.
The result is that practice is the essence of our life; it offers a profound space for intimacy. When an argument arises, which invariably many do, it is less about the ego than about connecting to each other and living the commitment we have made. Practice offers the opportunity for the ego to become more malleable and for the heart to open wide. In short, our relationship and our family life have become the core of our practice—they are inseparable.
Garden City, New York
Any relationship can be a field for training and enlightenment, especially a committed one like a domestic partnership or marriage. The traditional marriage vows read: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…. ” We enter into these unions full of optimism, rarely giving much attention to the ominous side of the equation. These are solemn vows, just like the bodhisattva vows.
Now, well into my twenty-fourth year of marriage, I am realizing how difficult yet sustaining both sets of vows are. Over the past few years, my wife has descended into a severe mental illness that will be with us for the remainder of her life. Suddenly the field of our training has expanded wider and deeper than I ever could have imagined; the ominous part of the marriage vow is now part of our everyday reality. All is not bleak; there are blessings in it, though I would not wish this particular path on anyone.
The hindrances are external and internal. The external hindrances relate to the course of my wife’s illness and its effects on her, the family and our finances. The amount of caregiving she requires has limited my ability to contribute financially to the sangha, to practice with my teacher and to attend sesshins. Even my home practice is disrupted at times. The internal hindrances are mine: the fallout from having contended with an undiagnosed illness for decades, anger, frustration and resentment—all tools of the ego. At the same time though, these hindrances are opportunities.
I find sustenance and guidance in the vows. One reinforces and supports the other. The living out of the bodhisattva vows is a huge task that’s not for the faint-hearted. I find the vows of Kwan seum bosal (Kannon) and Ji-jang bosal (Jizo) to be particularly helpful as I try to call forth from within me the energies these bodhisattvas represent—compassion and skillful means—and the vow to be present and a companion in all the realms of existence.
There are times when my wife seems like a hungry ghost and times when she inhabits her own hells. It is a constant challenge to find the balance between compassionate helping and co-dependence (or, as Pema Chödrön puts it, “idiot compassion”). Most of the time, though, I rest in the “thusness” of a situation, “just this.” “Just this” is taking our son to work, hanging out laundry and taking my wife out for some ice cream. Recent storms have deposited an oak tree on our house, so today “just this” is chopping wood.
Name withheld by request
I dreamed last night that after living together for many years, my husband George and I were going to get married. In my dream I was very pleased with this turn of events. (We’ve actually been married for thirty-four years.) This dream represented a significant shift in my relationship with George, a change that has occurred as a result of nine years of daily vipassana practice, in addition to years of therapy.
George, by his own admission, is not spiritual. We do not have one of those “conscious relationships” I’ve read about. He can be difficult, meaning that our personalities, temperaments, and ways of viewing the world are quite different. He thinks my interest in daily meditation and silent retreats is a little weird (O.K., a lot weird), but he does support my practice by not interrupting when I’m doing my morning meditation, and by holding down the fort when I go on retreat. When he comes upon articles and cartoons related to meditation or Buddhism, he lays them out for me.
In truth, George has been one of my very best teachers. When I was young, I leaned on him, expecting that he would take care of me. Then there was a phase in our marriage when I arrogantly thought that I was leaving him behind in the dust—I was growing, he was not—and I admit that I tormented him with efforts to drag him along on my path. But in recent years a most remarkable shift has been occurring: as I continue in persistent, dedicated Buddhist practice, I am naturally including George in an increasingly spacious worldview. I’m not leaving him behind at all—how could I?
Santa Clara, CA
Three-and-a-half years ago I joined a sangha, after studying Buddhism for more than four years. I wanted a lady companion who would empathize with my deep appreciation of the arts, nature and Buddhism.
I put an ad in the personals and soon found myself talking to a “candidate” over the phone about all those topics and much more. The day after our first dinner date, I invited my new friend, Christine, to a sangha service. She was curious about every aspect of Buddhism and her questions were challenging. The service consisted of a twenty-minute sitting meditation, a short dharma talk and an extended walking meditation outdoors. Since I was very attracted to Christine, I remember hoping that none of these exercises would flip her out. My concerns turned out to be baseless.
Christine and I have been engaged for three years. We are both middle-aged. I have two grown children and she has a thirteen-year-old son. Since those early days, we have developed a wonderfully loving and spiritual relationship. Each morning she holds the dorje and I hold the drilbu as we look into each other’s eyes and recite the refuge prayer. We take turns reading dharma every night before bed. We belong to a sangha and have met many wonderful people on the path. Our separate lives have been transformed into one.
Our spiritual practices have helped us overcome many tests over these early years. We have endured the deaths of close relatives on both sides. I beat a long-term illness after several painful months. While her family business faced serious financial strains, I was laid off from a good job. Through it all, we have rejoiced in the gifts of Buddha and his teachings. We feel as if we are always on the upswing even though life has thrown us many a curve.
At the moment, my seven-year relationship is at a very tenuous place. My partner has engaged in behaviors that have caused me pain and make it hard for me to imagine that I can trust him enough to continue opening my heart to him. Of course I feel anger and judgement and self-righteousness. But because of my spiritual practice I know that this is only the beginning of the process.
I know that I will continue to move through a myriad of emotions with the ultimate destination being love and forgiveness. And I know that that doesn’t mean excusing his behavior or blindly believing in his ability or willingness to be faithful to our commitment. But it does mean that I endeavor to be fully present with what is true and, with love and kindness for both of us, to make my decision about whether to stay. I also know that if I choose to stay I must continue to practice being fully present, not living in the past, and fully accepting the reality that my decision creates. Because of my practice, I feel able to embody my freedom as an adult and to accept the responsibility for my actions that comes with that freedom.
Name witheld by request
Mill Valley, CA
From the time we were children, we developed the idea of the perfect wife or husband. Although, if we were children of divorce, we may not see marriage the same way a child from a two-parent home would. The partner we choose wears many hats—brother, sister, boss, employee, wife, husband, father or mother. To see a person only as “partner” is to cut them off at the knee, so to speak. We must see those in our life as all the people they have to be. My wife is also a sister and a teacher, a daughter and a friend.
The relationship that I share with my wife is not at all separate or in union with my practice. At certain moments my relationship is a strong and integral part of my practice and my total existence. Yet, my wife is also a separate, uninvolved party in my investigations into truth and what is real. The question was, “How does your relationship affect your practice?” At night I kiss my wife goodnight and in the morning I see her beautiful smile.