Sometimes people ask me if there isn’t a conflict between the Mahayana instruction to see all beings as close relatives, worthy of our affection and compassion, and Buddhist teachings on nonattachment. Perhaps they are thinking of Jetsun Milarepa’s words:
When you look at your child
Firstly he is a soft-spoken young god.
Then he is a distant-hearted neighbour.
Finally he is an enemy and creditor.
So I let go of children.
We cannot separate Buddhist doctrine and practice from how Buddhists actually live in the world. How do they square nonattachment with love and compassion, and what does this say about how we should relate to our families? Most Buddhists in Asia, far from exhibiting some chilly spiritual disdain for such matters, usually demonstrate great affection for their families. I can testify that my own teachers are no exception. Indeed, my master, Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, is a wonderful example of a father and now grandfather who is, at the same time, an unflagging source of kindness and loving guidance to his students. It’s striking how often my other principal teacher, Karma Thinley Rinpoche, though an ordained abbot, emphasizes the value of family life as an environment for training in the key Mahayana virtues.
It is, however, undeniable that we must let go of some level of attachment in our personal relationships. Insofar as attachment is a self-centered way of relating to others, it sees others only in terms of what use they can be to me, and thus leads to destructive behavior toward them. Moreover, since we ourselves, in the end, will have to part from our loved ones, the greater our clinging to others, the sharper will be the disappointment, regret, and misery experienced at that time.
As Shantideva says:
If I’m attached to sentient beings
Reality is completely obscured;
My disillusionment perishes
And in the end I am afflicted by misery.
While an attitude of nonattachment is essential, it would be sadly misguided to imagine we need to give up love and affection for our children or other family members in order to follow the Bodhisattva Way of universal compassion. Indeed, meditation upon lovingkindness usually begins with and rests upon extending to close members of our family, whether parent or child, the wish and resolution that they be endowed with happiness and the causes of happiness. We then widen the love evoked in this manner in ever-expanding circles of inclusion by perceiving others as like our mother or child, as indeed has been the case in this beginningless cycle of birth and death.
As Sakya Pandita says:
It is easiest to cultivate lovingkindness towards all sentient beings after recognizing that they are one’s relatives. Hence some sutras teach that one should cultivate it by considering them as one’s mother, while some tantras, such as the Vajrasekhara, teach that one should cultivate it by considering them as one’s child.
The significant point here is that the love we already feel for our parents or children, far from blocking a wider love, is actually its precondition. In other words, although we are aiming at an all-inclusive lovingkindness unrestricted by the partiality that divides the world into “mine” and “yours,” it needs to start with simple, uncontrived loving feelings toward those closest to us. Otherwise our attitude will likely be no more than a vague abstraction, a love for everybody in general and no one in particular. All too often we see that kind of love demonstrated by the utopians, revolutionaries, and others who feel they have a duty to remake the world at large, but lack a sense of genuine, felt love.
Related: Against “Common Sense” Buddhism
Furthermore, without detachment, genuine love will remain forever out of reach. Even within our families and friendships, effective love requires a measure of detachment. Consider how wise parents are able to set aside their attachments to their own ambitions for the sake of their children, thinking instead of what is beneficial for them. Consider also how often self-clinging becomes entangled with a natural love for one’s family, a corrupted, narrow kind of love that sets off one family from another or even turns brother against brother.
Of course, some point to Lord Buddha’s renunciation as a sign of disregard for his family. Tradition tells us, however, that immediately after his enlightenment, the Buddha journeyed mystically to the heavenly realms in order to bestow his liberating teaching upon his deceased mother Mayadevi, an event commemorated by one of the four great festivals of the Buddhist year. Subsequently, Buddha shared the dharma with his wife, his son, his father, and his beloved aunt Prajapati. The Buddha’s early act of renunciation was thus necessary to find the wisdom, compassion, and power through which he could bring an end to the suffering experienced by his family and all sentient beings.
After all, even now, if we are immersed in our own attachments, we have no possibility to offer authentic help to those whom we claim to love most dearly.
[This story was first published in 2014]
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