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13 days ago

Stepping out of usual patterns, not out of relationships

by Denis Wallez (@DenisWallez)
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Buddhism is a path to get out of the samsaric ‘game’.

For the most part, practitioners know how to play the ‘game’… from jockeying for the work promotion, playing the seduction game only until one gets whatever one wanted, protecting one's interests, to beefing up one's reputation through networking, through lies, through blaming others or even stabbing ‘friends’ in the back if necessary… They know how to play, but they realized the futility of that game; they realized that happiness doesn't follow; the anxiety of potential losses, the fear of retaliations, the stress of constantly fighting just to stay afloat, only lead to some unsatisfactory survival, hardly a fulfilling life.


Lay life is definitely presented as a hindrance on the path, in the early suttas. Renouncing lay life —and abiding in homelessness— is presented as the starting point of dedicated practice towards Enlightenment, e.g. in the cūḷahatthipadopama sutta (MN 27):

Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shave off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and go forth from the home life into homelessness.

The muni sutta (Sn 1.12) ends with:

a householder cannot match a monk, a sage meditating in the woods.

The Buddha even voluntarily misled Nanda (how controversial is that?!) to renounce “a Sakyan girl — the envy of the countryside” he was smitten with1.


And yet, it can be quite self-serving for monks to rely on such quotes…

For starters, most monastics seem to have forgotten about forest dwelling, and rather enjoy the solid structures of monasteries; cherry-picking isn't very convincing (it wasn't convincing even during the Buddha's time: tatiyaovāda sutta, SN 16.8, or yasa sutta, AN 8.86).

Moreover, in Myanmar and Thailand, men transition between householder and monk and back to householder with regularity. Those who do so are easily put down by ‘life-long’ monks, based on monastic ‘seniority’ being nullified at each transition, but such dismissal comes from a mix of ‘conceit’ and “spiritual materialism”: it's been long established that the actual ‘attainments’ of a monastic aren't particularly dependent on monastic seniority!

Finally, kalyāṇa-mittatā is the Buddhist concept of "admirable friendship" (friendship with people who support you on the path). It is applicable not only to monastics but also to householders (as clearly indicated in Dīghajāṇu sutta, AN 8.54, which does not reduce it to supporting monastics or teachers); moreover, in the upaḍḍha sutta (SN 45.2), the Buddha declares that « good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship is the entire holy life[, not just half of it] »


If friendship isn't a problem, then relationship isn't a problem per se.

In fact, the grounds of making merit and the manifestations of “good character” mostly apply within relationships!

What matters is the sort of relationships one has (how one relates to someone else), who with, as well as how one relates to said relationships (in and of themselves).


The sort of relationships

Abusive relationships (either as the abuser or as the victim) aren't advised.

Putting teachers, or monastics, on a pedestal isn't advised either… in particular if the pedestal is so high that human errors —incl. those “in good faith”— might no longer be questioned, and are accepted as truths or examples… or if the pedestal is so high that ignorant harmful behaviours are too easily excused (or brushed under the carpet, based on some —falsely ‘utilitarian’— fallacy about “protecting the good done in other circumstances”).

One-way relationships are rarely sustainable. The ‘saviour’ syndrome might allow to cultivate compassion and loving-kindness, the ‘saviour’ might get some benefits from helping others, incl. spiritual satisfaction… and yet, it generally is too imbalanced to last. Wise care takes care of ‘all’ —oneself included,— not just of ‘others.’

Mutually supportive relationships are the basis of kalyāṇa-mittatā. It doesn't have to be transaction-like, tit-for-tat; in fact, the support might take the form of “ pay it forward” (apparently supporting some third party…): e.g. providing the ‘requisites’2 to a teacher surely is supportive, but spreading a message or creating a better world through embodying ethical teachings might also be supportive…

Who with?

For householders « who enjoy sensual pleasures and living at home with [their] children, [who] use sandalwood (…), wear garlands, perfumes and makeup, and accept gold and money »:

[One] resides in a town or village. And in that place there are householders or their children who may be young or old, but are mature in conduct, accomplished in faith, ethics, generosity, and wisdom. [One] associates with them, converses, and engages in discussion. And they emulate the same kind of accomplishment in faith, ethics, generosity, and wisdom.3

More generally, and although ‘enemies’ might prove to be our greatest teachers (for they require us to practice equanimity, patience, restraint, etc., more than those who please us), relationships with those who provide examples, who constitute role-models or who simply ask good questions are to be favoured… if a form of reciprocity, of mutual support, can be found.

How one relates to said relationship?

Looking at the relationship as an object in and of itself, how do you relate to such an object? Do you maintain the relationship because it's appropriate and wise to do so, or because you're chasing something else through such a relationship?

Do you maintain a relationship out of greed (or out of aversion)—seeking a gain (or the avoidance of a loss), seeking fame (or the avoidance of disgrace), seeking praise (or the avoidance of blame), seeking pleasure (or the avoidance of pain)?

Association with the powerful might offer a form of safety.

“Information bubbles” —association with only those you agree with— might offer a sentiment of safety through the delusion of “being right”; it might offer a reassurance born from apparent ‘certainties’, usable ‘truths’, levers / leverage to force reality to comply with one's wishes…

Name-dropping, or association with the famous, might allow to aggrandize oneself4.

Expecting others to make you happy is a classic: if ‘love’ is “wishing another to be happy,” then « I love you for what you give me » isn't representative of love, it is so of greed! Quite often, people expects a loving relationship to make them happy, it doesn't even depend who with, it's an expectation on the relationship as an object per se.

Alternatively, some people ‘exist’ primarily through having an enemy, someone or something they “have to” fight with. If their enemy disappears, they'll find another one! It's a way of existing (by defining oneself) by a reactive opposition, i.e. by a relationship (as an object in and of itself). They'll often call their attitude “having integrity and telling the truth”, except they actively seek situations where their ‘truth’ will contradict someone else's, anyone's.


If loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy or equanimity aren't a problem5, then relationship isn't a problem per se.

What matters is the sort of relationships one has (how one relates to some phenomenon), who / what with, as well as how one relates to the relationships (in and of themselves).


In fact, if you're embodied (be it in gross or subtle form), you live in a midst of relationships: it would be delusional / ignorant to pretend you have a ‘self’ which might be separate from ‘others.’ There's no other universe, and it is shared with all: relationships are unavoidable.

Having a birth implies being in relationships with stuff (incl. all sorts of sentient beings) and « relatives and friends get together and annoy you » (paṭhamasukha sutta, AN 10.65).

Relationships simply are dukkha, unsatisfactory / unreliable, like any other conditioned phenomenon. Hence you cannot live without them, yet you cannot bear with them either!

The Buddha saw no problem with relationships per se, it's just what life is: our processes of perception put us in ‘contact’ with the perceived… We have no choice but to relate with the perceived, it's a conditioned situation!

But the Buddha questioned how one relates to the perceived, and even how one relates to having relationships. The Buddha suggested to engage with relationships wisely, constructively, with compassion, love, equanimity, patience, without ill will, expectations, nor naïveness…

As per the classic simile of the “two arrows” (salla sutta, SN 36.6), one can avoid adding ‘suffering’ on top of reality, on top of whatever happens. Relationships are inescapable and unsatisfactory; wisdom then lies in relinquishing the expectation that if we could only have the ‘right’ relationships, then they'd reliably make us happy… If we relinquish such projections and unrealistic hopes, then we can engage with others, and with the concept itself of relationships, with open eyes and therefore constructively. By “seeing reality as it is,” by embracing the present as the starting point —rather than rejecting it as unsatisfactory, endlessly waiting for a ‘better’ opportunity,— we can influence how various phenomena evolve.


And so, if Buddhism is a way to step out of the samsaric ‘game’, and if homelessness is the highway to Liberation, what shall we do?


Home is the place of habits, of comfort… the place we most easily 'shape' to our liking and jealously guard from others —the place where we play out the delusion that we could be happy by controlling the conditions at hand, by solidifying what we like and dislike, by accumulating what we like and by avoiding what we dislike.

There is strong insistence on homelessness in Buddhism, but it is so often misinterpreted, it is painful to watch. This is not about you necessarily joining the monastic orders! The saṅgha is fourfold: nuns, monks, laywomen, laymen. This is not “nuns, monks, and some despised ‘rest’.”

If you think of it, mulling over the meaning of ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ instead of clinging to a literal reading, then lay life is compatible with homelessness… and monastic life (with roles, hierarchies, the pettiness common to living in communities, etc.) does not necessarily constitute homelessness:

When you challenge your habits, your views, your certainties, you leave home. When you decide to trust the intention of a teacher and listen (without necessarily agreeing, but at least making an effort not to automatically brush off what you dislike hearing), you leave home. When you embrace impermanence and selflessness, you leave home.

When you stick to a sense of knowing better than other people (e.g. because you are a monastic or a spiritual wanderer), you stay home. When you think you figured out the Path that is for you, you stay home. When you enter a routine of habits (e.g. because they're listed / categorized as wholesome), you stay home… because you stay in the cocoon of 'certainties', of barriers and protective walls.

To reuse a Sŏn (Korean Zen) saying:

Great Doubt, Great Awakening;
Small Doubt, Small Awakening;
No Doubt…


The practice is in what you do, not where you live. A particular social status makes no difference to this. Where you live, or what you wear, may provide more or less favourable conditions for the practice, sure —some noisy environments provide strong stimuli which easily overwhelm a mind in training— but the 'conditions' are not what it's about: your response is!

Buddhism is a path to step out of the samsaric ‘game’… so, respond without the usual patterns of appropriation, accumulation, possession, clinging; respond without taking things personally, without making yourself the center of the world…

Step out of conditioned, habitual, ignorant, survival-oriented, reactive unexamined impulses!

Be mindful: pay attention to how you relate, with who / what, for what… Enquire into these aspects, develop what deserves so, weaken what deserves so…


And therefore, for all its insistence on homelessness and wandering, no, Buddhism doesn't require you to stop loving your family… As per the second “Noble Truth”, it primarily questions the clinging, and its cohort of undesirable side effects:

Loving without clinging is possible. 'Loving' and 'clinging' are two different words; you wouldn't use 'loving' every time you use 'clinging', so they really mean different things too.

Loving without seeking a solid foundation to reassure oneself and to rest on, loving without defensiveness, loving without clinging, is a practice aligned with ‘homelessness’. Idem with compassion. Idem with equanimity.

Just don't kid yourself: this is hard to practice, in particular if the home is filled with others (e.g. children) not sharing the same view, still lost in accumulating, in surviving, in existing by creating drama… If the monastery is seen as a supportive environment, relatively speaking, it partly comes from people sharing views on the benefits of “letting go”.

To state that lay life is compatible with homelessness is not an excuse to maintain the status quo of saṃsāra, and if Awakening is hard in monastic environments, then it's harder in the midst of lay life. The Buddha had a point about that… Again, though, the game is not about social status or conditions: it's about how you respond to the situation at hand!

If you work on your responses, if you question your reactions, then you're practicing, and you're on the path! Accept your limitations and attachments as a starting point for your present spiritual work —there's no point in wishing they were different, and other “what if?”— but don't rest on them: engage with your attachments, question them, challenge them… Don't fall for the myth of the hermit on top of the mountain, but don't become complacent either.

If you chose the hard path of lay life, practice hard!