The Great Affair
I read a lot of advice about relationship “wisdom” and how to protect oneself from being hurt. Often this advice
includes quotes from the Buddha on impermanence and attachment, placing the Buddha’s words in a context one
would expect of a “life coach,” teaching how to cope with cyclic existence, rather than end it.
Impermanence and non-attachment are world-transcending dharmas that are not aimed at relationship therapy, and
yet I cannot help but marvel at those who put to “New Age” tasks, ancient wisdom. Buddhism is not about how to get
on in the world, but how to leave it. When the Buddha speaks of “suffering” and “attachment” in the “Four Noble
Truths” he is referring to the unsatisfactory nature of “samsaric existence, ” and this would include relationship gone
sour as much as those that went well. The Buddha said “samsara is suffering,” unqualified.
When the Buddha teaches us impermanence and the fact that we will die, he is telling us to contemplate that fact of
life. These teachings which are found in the “Four Noble Truths” are not relationship strategies, yet sometimes they
are mistaken to be, which is not OK.
Recently, I read an essay about relationships as it applies to Buddhism: “If the relationship doesn’t end due to a
breakup, it will eventually end due to natural death” as she urged her readers not to allow themselves to become
attached to a relationship. But, I cannot help but wonder if I don’t put my heart in a relationship fully and become
completely vulnerable, how can I be in a relationship?
I have been in several relationships and had my heart broken The relationships that went wrong taught me
impermanence far better than the ones that went right. In fact, recently one of the greatest living Buddhist masters,
Dzongsar Rinpoche, said that he believes that many of the leading Buddhist Masters should fall in love and
experience getting rejected because that is the best teaching on impermanence they could receive! (http://dharmata.
On the flip side of the coin, let us put ourselves for the moment in the shoes of giving our heart to someone who puts
up the impermanence barrier a la “If the relationship doesn’t end due to a breakup, it will eventually end due to
natural death” attitude We are open and vulnerable, but our partner does not allow herself to open up and be
vulnerable. In other words, we are willing to become fully attached, but our partner isn’t and uses the death and
impermanence platform to shield herself from being hurt. Can we call bifurcated priorities a relationship?
Either I am going to get in a relationship or not, and if I am afraid to get kicked around and ultimately rejected I
shouldn’t step into the tar-pit, to begin with. The obvious upside is that my approach might lead to true love,
something not possible for anyone not willing to be attached and vulnerable.
If I am afraid of attachment and guard myself against it, then half the relationship is bad. If my partner does the same
thing, then the entire relationship is bad. A good relationship is one where both partners enter fully, ready or not,
here I come! If there is fear of attachment and rejection, maybe experiencing that will be the best thing for us. So,
jump in anyway.
What happens to “trust” when we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable? Without trust, there can be no relationship.
If our trust turns out to be misplaced, at least we did our part, not so if we didn’t trust.
The article also noted: “Some partners become so immersed in each other that they lose their individuality. Then,
when they break up, not only do they have to deal with the pain of separation, but they also struggle to find their own
Well losing one’s individuality is the purpose of a “relationship,” the ideal outcome, and it is the same for the celibate
monk’s monastic endeavors, for that matter. Individuality is an illusion; there is no such thing because we cannot help
but be conditioned by the people in our lives and the environment we live in. We are social beings and are
continually molded by social conditioning.
Who hasn’t walked away with a broken heart a little wiser for it? As paradoxical as it may seem, entering a romantic
relationship is like entering a boxing match. If you are not committed, you cannot fare well. Just as romantic partners
seek out their approximate equal and give their all, so do boxers find their equal and give their all. If one fighter
doesn’t give his all, or worse yet, neither do, you don’t have a match. If two romantic partners don’t put everything in
it, again, you don’t have a match (no pun intended).
Relationships are complicated affairs (no pun intended). We can be a fine Buddhist whether we get our heart broken
and rejected or not. The Buddha will love us no matter what. So, we should learn to love despite its often-tortuous
Although it is true that the aim of the Buddha’s teaching is to end cyclic existence and stop spinning on the wheel of
birth and death, this does not preclude that Buddhism can help us approach our worldly concerns in a more
enlightened way, relationships included.
As a Buddhist entering a relationship, we should make it a priority that we do not harm the other person. Ahimsa,
harmlessness, is one of the eleven outstanding attributes a Buddhist should have (as outline in Vasubandhu's
“Hundred Dharmas.”) Harmlessness covers a wide territory and will keep us protected on many fronts.
If we are approaching a relationship motivated by lust, and our partner is motivated by love, for example,
harmlessness will tell us we are going to hurt someone, and we better cut our selfish ambitions short. If we can't-do
that, we can at least be truthful and reveal clearly that we have no long-term intention. This second option employs
three good Buddhist qualities: truthfulness, openness, and clarity.
Selfishness is a fault on many levels, and Buddhism constantly reminds us to avoid selfish ambitions, whether it be at
work (don’t step on other people’s toes), sports, hobbies, or other activities (don’t allow peer recognition be the
overarching ambition), and in relationships it would mean respecting the other person entirely and having a genuine
concern that person realizes their wish to be happy, and ideally we contribute to that realization.
Harmlessness, openness, truthfulness, being respectful, unselfish, caring, giving, and vulnerable, are watchwords
that will assure that our motivation for being in a relationship will not conflict with higher ideals we wish to adhere to.
This is the Middle Way between licentious behavior and celibacy and for most of us the better option.