Thursday, September 16, 2010

Zen and the Art of Marriage

I sometimes say I was raised Zen, but that's a shorthand for a more complex truth. I was raised by a spiritual but non-religious mother who was profoundly influenced by Zen teachings. She told me some strange things.

Perhaps in Christian households the children hear, again and again, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But the Zen teachings of my mother took things a step further: "The others are you."

There is, she told me, again and again, no real boundary between reality and illusion. The world of dreams is as real as the waking world, and just as important. And these people we see walking around, these people we talk with and befriend and fall in love with? They are us, and we are them. There is no real separation between us. In a very true sense, the Self is the greatest illusion of all.

The core teaching of Buddhism is that suffering arises from mistaken beliefs about the nature of the world. Belief that you are a being separate from other people; belief that you have an eternal soul; belief that worldly things like money, possessions, health, travel, etc. can make you truly happy, and so on... These beliefs are false, and they lead to suffering. And they must be let go, released, so that you can see things as they are, and become awakened &mdash enlightened.

Which brings me to marriage.

For Buddhism, marriage is sort of beside the point. There are no prohibitions against it, and also no doctrine that encourages it; it's not held to be a sacred or profane thing. It's a matter for culture and secular society. It's barely mentioned at all in the ancient texts.

However, in modern times, and especially among the emerging Western practitioners of Zen, a more nuanced view is emerging. Marriage is coming to be seen as a kind of practice itself &mdash a way in which two souls can act as each other's teachers as they walk the way of release and awakening.

"In an intense emotional relationship like marriage the experience of the self is stretched. When the self and the other get intermingled, it challenges our sense that our identity is fixed, and when we get hurt it makes the illusion of the self very visible. We can have all of these experiences of the self because love and marriage are the intermingling of emptiness and bliss." &mdash Mark Epstein

Marriage is not easy. To bind oneself to another person is no light matter. It can be seen as a spiritual practice, one much more intense than fasting, or going on pilgrimage. It may even be more powerful than committing oneself to a monastery. Like these other spiritual practices, you are voluntarily restricting your freedom of choice, which is, perhaps, the defining Gift of humanity. But it gives unique rewards: the regular practice of engagement with another person, in the closest, most intimate possible way.

"We are impermanent, we are of the dust of the world, beautiful, but passing. We have no special part of us that is separate from this world. And as part of this world, we are spun out of each other and all things, and so dust motes and the stars are all our family. And this, all taken together, is our true nature, wild, extravagant, precious, boundless, always open. ...

In our relationships we need to hold with open hands, understanding that all things are in flux, and nothing remains the same forever. But as we apply this boundlessness, this openness to our seeing each other, and caring for each other, we quickly discover how powerful and transformative it can be." &mdash James Ishmael Ford

One of the core Buddhist teachings of ethics is the Five Precepts, which can be stated this way:

  1. Do not do harm. Promote health.

  2. Do not steal. Be generous.

  3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct. Promote healthy sexual relationships.

  4. Do not lie. Encourage truth-telling and openness.

  5. Do not cloud the soul with intoxication. Promote clarity of mind and heart.

Living according to these five precepts opens the way toward awakening and releasing the false beliefs that cause suffering. In particular, by not harming others, by being generous, by promoting health (sexual and otherwise), telling only the truth, and seeking clarity, you break down barriers between yourself and other people, and thereby begin to expose the illusion of Self.

"As our practice together matures we discover we can't tell when we're trying, when it follows our acts of will, our concentration, and when it just rises from deep within the soil of the earth, as natural as a green shoot in the spring. At that point we are practicing the great way of equanimity, of joyful abiding. Then our spouse is our principle teacher, and our household is the sangha, the community of wisdom." &mdash James Ishmael Ford

What more intense practice of the Five Percepts could there be than marriage? When you awaken in the morning next to someone; and break your fast with them; when you share your morning and evening labors with them, and go out with them into the larger community, and then return in the evening to hearth again with them, and speak of the day with them, and lie down and dream with them &mdash this is joyful abiding, this is loving kindness, this is generosity and truth and healing and clarity, this is engagement, this is the conscious tracing of the intertwining lacework of Self and Other until all illusion of separation is released.

"And as we come to this place of integration, where our joy in each other is our practice, and our practice is the work of the world, then we have fallen into the great way, and our actions with each other are the saving of the world." &mdash James Ishmael Ford


  1. Marriage as spiritual practice. Yes. I like this.

  2. It's so cool to see you quoting James Ishmael Ford, he is someone I respect highly (I'm sending you a Facebook "friend suggestion" to connect with him). And I agree with Cat, 100%. Fran and I use the Christian language of sacrament: we are Christ to one another. But naturally there are numerous ways to express a similar sacramentality in Pagan terms. :-)