I am so filled with thirst to be involved with people that there is no room in me for judging whether a person is good or evil, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. This is not the result of some concept such as “one lives to love and be loved.” Any concept, faith, or “ism” cannot separate me from other people. My spirit shines with the heart/mind of embracing all beings. Without logic or argument, I only want to embrace everyone. My work of spreading the dharma is nothing but the expression of this heart/mind.
—Haya Akegarasu (1877–1954)
A couple of years ago, I was invited to be one of the congratulatory speakers at a Buddhist wedding in Kyoto. When I spoke, I pointed out that at Christian weddings in America the marriage bond is described as if it were a thick rope binding the bride and groom together for eternity: “Let no man put asunder what God hath joined together.” But for Mike and Kayoko’s wedding I wanted to offer an image from Buddhism: Indra’s jeweled net, which is described in the Avatamsaka Sutra. At each intersection of the strings is a multifaceted jewel, so that each jewel reflects all the other jewels. Instead of being tied up tightly by a thick rope, Mike and Kayoko’s relationship is supported and nurtured by a vast net of their families, friends, teachers, and associates. For them, I said, it is the awareness of the net that will help them grow together and minimize the stress of clashing egos.
All of us are the evolving product of relationships, and all of us are participating in the changes affecting others. Even the hermit on the mountaintop interacts with people, or at least feels a connection to the plants and animals he depends on for his physical and mental well-being. So why do some people interpret the Buddhist teaching of nonattachment to mean cutting yourself off from all relationships? It’s true for most of us that at some point in our life we come to leave our childhood, exploring options our parents opposed or could not have even imagined. But this “leaving home” doesn’t necessarily involve physically moving away or ceasing to be in contact with our families. After the historical Buddha became known as a revered teacher, the early scriptures show him interacting with his war-minded father, Shuddhodana, and record that his own son, Rahula, joined the ranks of disciples along with the Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara, and Mahaprajapati, the aunt who raised him after his mother’s death. The Buddha may have left his family at age 29, but in his later life he had relatives close at hand, to argue with and to learn from, up to and beyond their passing away.
They say the Buddha had to leave his family in order to find enlightenment. The notion that we can disengage from relationships is unrealistic. Although in monastic practice the monk or nun has physically ceased contact with their families and former associates, they interact with each other as well as with the laypeople who support the temple and go there for inspiration and guidance. The Pure Land Buddhist tradition started out as a way for laypeople, the “householders,” to work toward nirvana without having to abandon their familial obligations. The sutras and commentaries of the Pure Land tradition are not just offering an alternative path to those who are unfit or too entangled in worldly affairs to be monastics. They also offer a stern critique of the monastic life’s major potential pitfall: transcending the ego-self becomes more unlikely when practitioners take pride in their own efforts and feel they’ve placed themselves on a level superior to and apart from householders and fellow monastics. Instead of attaining freedom from the self, falling into such pride can then lead them to weave themselves into a web of self-attachment.
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