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The Human Family

Ajahn Sumedho


At this time, we tend to be more concerned with ourselves than with our families. This is an age in which individualism has been emphasized to the point of absurdity. The opportunity that we have to develop as individuals in the modern world is quite amazing, isn't it? Each of us has been given free rein to be a self-sufficient, independent person. We are told to be a personality, to develop our creativity, to develop our lives in any way we want as free individuals. We can do what we personally want to do, whether our family likes it or not. Now the problem with glorifying individualism as an end in itself, is that it promotes a neurotic and meaningless existence. Just being a free agent - an individual person who can do what he or she wants - can give us certain pleasant moments, and we can appreciate that in some ways. But at other times it is very depressing not to be truly related to anyone, not to be able to serve anyone. There is something in all of us, both men and women, that makes us want to give ourselves. We would all like to sacrifice or give ourselves to another person or to a cause - to something that is beyond ourselves.

Living the religious life is a giving of oneself - to the Dhamma, to God, or to whatever is the ultimate truth in a particular religion. The purpose of monasticism is to give yourself completely. You let go of the desire for personal reward or acknowledgement of any sort, just to be able to become a good monk or nun, and to give yourself totally to the refuges of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

The ideal of family life is for man and woman to join together to give themselves to each other. So the sense of being one independent person has to be sacrificed for being a couple. Then with the ensuing children, it becomes a family, and the couple has to give up everything for the children. I see how parents must surrender totally to the needs of their children, and I find it very admirable. It seems to be about 24 hours a day of continuous giving to another being. In some ways, it must be exasperating and annoying, but in other ways you can see that it is very fulfilling. You can see that parents can really give wisely, not out of necessity, but out of real reflection and understanding of the situation. They get tremendous joy out of giving up personal interest, privacy, rights, and much more, for a helpless child.

In this present time, there's a lot of confusion about the roles of men and women, because the traditional roles are now in question. We can't take for granted that `a man's duties are this,' and `a woman's duties are that.' In my mother's generation, they could take that for granted, because the roles were more clearly defined. And even now, the roles are unquestioned in a more traditional society, such as the rice farming communities of Northeast Thailand. Everybody knows what they are supposed to do. The social structure, the whole way of life, is accepted as natural, as being in harmony with nature, so no one questions it.

But then, especially when you are educated, you start questioning when you leave the security of a situation. You start reading, and you start listening to other people. You hear different views and opinions, and you begin to doubt. You ask, "Does life have to be just like this, or is there some other way of looking at it? Does a woman have to be just this way? And if she changes, is she wrong or right? What should a man be? What is the duty of a mother and of a father?"

Traditional Roles

I'd like to summarize the advice in the Pali Canon on the duties that people have in their various roles. These are the guidelines of an Asian culture from 2,500 years ago. The Sigaalaka Sutta lists the duties of parents and children, pupils and teachers, husbands and wives, friends, masters and servants, and spiritual teachers and their disciples.

The first guidelines are about parents and children. A parent should not let the child do evil; a parent should encourage the child to do good, see that he or she receives training in the arts and sciences, find a suitable spouse for him or her, and give over their wealth at the right time. And a child, in turn, should help look after the parents' affairs, ensure the endurance of the family name, conduct himself or herself in ways that make the child worthy to receive inherited wealth, and make offerings in the parents' memory when they've died.

I don't remember ever getting advice like that. In fact, my parents said, "We want you to grow up and be completely independent of us. And for our part, we hope to save enough money so that, when we are old, we will never have to be dependent upon you." There was a sense of independence on both sides. Clearly, we have a different model for how parents and children should behave towards each other in our modern society.

The second set of guidelines is about pupils and teachers. A pupil should stand up to receive the teacher as a sign of respect, wait in attendance on the teacher, pay attention to what the teacher says, and learn with a respectful attitude. The teacher, having been upheld in these ways, should lead a pupil well, keep nothing about the subject matter secret or undisclosed, praise the pupil among friends, and protect and look after the pupil. Unfortunately, nowadays very few pupils receive such nurturing from a teacher, and most teachers would be surprised to receive such treatment from a pupil.

The third set of guidelines is about husbands and wives. A husband should praise his wife, affirming that she is truly his wife; he should not look down on her; he should not be unfaithful; he should let her be in charge of the home, family, and money; and he should give her trinkets and adornments. A wife, in her turn, should organize the family affairs well, help the husband's relatives and friends, not be unfaithful, look after the family property, and be energetic in her duties. This is the advice for a traditional marriage; it presents an ideal of what each partner was expected to do. These were the guidelines for a cooperative relationship, in which there could be mutual support and respect, rather than independence, rights, and conflicts.

The fourth set of guidelines is about the relationship between two friends. One should share things with a friend, talk pleasantly, do things that are useful, be even-minded without pride, and speak truthfully without pretention. In return, the friend should give protection when one has been careless, protect one's property when one has been careless, give shelter when there is danger, not abandon one in a time of adversity, and uphold one along with one's relatives.

The fifth set of guidelines is about masters and servants. A master should arrange a servant's work so that it is suitable and in accordance with their strength, give them food and rewards, look after them and nurse them when they are sick, share unusual or tasty delicacies with them, and give them time off. A servant should get up in the morning and start work before the master, finish work after the master, take away as their own only what the master gives them (in other words, not steal from him), constantly try to do better work, and praise the virtues of the master.

The final set of guidelines is about the relationship between spiritual teachers and their disciples. A spiritual teacher should encourage a disciple to do good, help them with a compassionate mind, tell them things they had not previously heard, make clear things they had already heard, and tell them how to attain the heavenly realms. A disciple should support the teacher, through loving-kindness, with actions of body, actions of speech, and actions of mind. In addition, the disciple should not forbid the teacher to enter his or her house, and the disciple should provide the requisites of food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.

These guidelines represent the traditional Buddhist advice regarding relationships. But right now, in our culture, we have to contemplate for ourselves: "What is a relationship? How should we relate? What do we expect? What do we want or demand? And what are we willing to give?" We have to ask ourselves these questions, and consider whether we know how to relate to another person.

Finding Balance Without Traditional Roles

If we come from an idealistic position, such as, "We are all equal, we are all exactly the same, there is no difference," then in various situations it's difficult to relate, isn't it? Who's going to do the dishes? Who's going to empty the dustbin? Who is going to lead? Who is going to follow? If we all feel that we are the same, then we can become confused because we don't know how to relate to each other in a structure or in a hierarchy of duties and responsibilities. So sometimes, if we are attached to the ultimate view of equality and freedom, we can become very confused, disgruntled, and even threatened by the practical side of life.

In the practice of Dhamma, we are opening the mind to the way things actually are. We begin to notice that nature itself is hierarchical, that there is always form or structure, and that when you have form, you are always going to have sequence. One is always going to be followed by two, and two is always going to be followed by three; A is followed by B, and B is followed by C. You can't say A is the same as B. If you spelled everything with an A, it would be meaningless, wouldn't it? In the conditioned world we recognize that there are sequences.

Now if we take a fixed position on hierarchy, we become tyrannical. Someone who says that they have to be the boss at all times - always number one and never number two - becomes a tyrant. But, on the other hand, an idealistic egalitarian, someone who says that we must always be equal and always the same, is setting up the situation for confusion and contention. When it's time for a meal, everyone wants to be first in line. But if we are willing to designate a sequence, we can relate to that sequence. That's a relationship, isn't it? You are relating as being senior or junior, teacher or student, parent or child. A sequence provides a structure for relationships, so that we know how to live with each other without endless conflicts and confusion.

In the monastic life we have a particular form and structure, to which we all agree. It's a voluntary life. It would be a tyranny if everyone were forced to become monks and nuns and live within the structure. But because people join the community by choice, it is not a tyranny; it's a cooperative, harmonious way of living.

You can apply these principles to family life. If you, as mother and father or husband and wife, do not decide on some clear guidelines for duties and responsibilities, then who is going to do what? Who is going to go to work? Who is going to stay home? Who is going to do the dishes? Who is going to take care of the children when they are ill? What are our duties and responsibilities in relating to each other in a family?

Nowadays, a relationship between a man and a woman can tend to be a competition, because there are no guidelines for mutual respect and understanding. You can see that in some marriages, where the husband and wife are competing with each other. They feel that they have to prove that one is as good as the other, or better than the other. But how can you have a family relationship with a competitor? The purpose of family is to live as a unit where there is harmony, where you've established enough agreement to let you relate to each other in a decent way in everyday life.

In a traditional society, the agreements are made by the society. But now we all choose our mates - who we are going to marry, who we are going to live with, who we are going to have a relationship with. Oftentimes we base that choice only on personal preference in the moment, rather than wise reflection on what kind of person would most be suitable for us to live with. We might choose the one who is most attractive, most charming, wealthiest, or most interesting at the moment. Or we might just need support: a man might be looking for a maternal woman, a mother who is going to replace his own mother; a woman might be looking for a father, some strong protective man who will take care of her.

Often these desires are never really acknowledged because of our idealism. We think we are going to have the perfect relationship, based on total honesty. By `total honesty,' people tend to mean saying exactly what they think whenever they feel like it, which to me is a description of a hell realm! I am really grateful that I don't say all the things I think. Sometimes what one is thinking should not be repeated; it would only cause pain, confusion, fear, and depression in the minds of those listening.

The way of mindfulness is the way of allowing ourselves to open up to the situation. Rather than waiting for the perfect person, or thinking you have to get rid of the one you are with because you're not getting on, or thinking that you can find someone better, you can contemplate how to use the situation. You can reflect that this is the way it is, rather than expecting somebody to change or blaming yourself because you can't live up to your high ideals. So you become more aware of the way life actually is, the way it has to be, whether you like it or don't like it. This is the way of reflection, of mindfulness. You are not demanding happiness, or even fulfillment, from the world, but you are willing to take on the challenge that exists by beginning to work with life. Now you can only do this kind of reflection by yourself - you cannot expect someone else to tell you what you should do in your relationship, because there are so many things to take into account. Only you know them all.

For example, many people ask themselves, "Should I just live my life for myself, for my own development, even at the expense of the people who are close to me? Or should I give up any hope of ever developing myself, in order to further their welfare?" Those are the two extremes: the selfish extreme and the self-sacrificing extreme. Self-sacrificing sounds noble, doesn't it? It sounds like something we should be doing. And selfishness sounds like something we shouldn't be doing. We think it's not nice, it's wrong, to be selfish. But the Buddhist position is not an intimidating one, saying we should be totally self-sacrificing and unselfish; it encourages us to open up to that very selfishness, or to our desire to sacrifice ourselves.

We can contemplate this in our own lives. For example, instead of thinking of ourselves as selfish and then feeling guilty about it, or being caught up in the other extreme of endless giving, nurturing, and caring for others, without taking any time for ourselves, we can recognize our inclination, whatever it is. Then, having recognized it, we can look at it without judging it and try to reach a balance.

Using Opposites for Spiritual Development

We can begin to see that family life can be regarded as a symbol for inner spiritual development, because the family is a religious archetype. In Christian symbolism, we have God the father, Mary the mother, and Christ the child. In other religions, we might have the Divine Father and the Earth Mother symbolizing the marriage between the heavens and the earth. When you begin to really look at yourself, you find there is both a mother and a father inside, and these opposites can be reflected upon as part of your spiritual practice.

You find that just the fact that you have a female body or a male body doesn't mean that everything about you is totally female or totally male. What we need to open up to in spiritual development is the opposite; a man needs to open up to the female within, and a woman needs to open up to the male. This is not an easy thing to do, but we can use the external presence of the opposite gender to help in our practice. When a man sees a woman, or a woman sees a man, they can use the external characteristics as reminders. In a monastic community where there are monks and nuns, rather than getting involved in relationships, monks can see the external female, and they can begin to acknowledge the feminine qualities that they find internally. And for the nuns, it's the same: they can find the masculine qualities within.

My own experience as a monk, from the masculine side, is that men usually have a lot of drive; they are quite aggressive and have a lot of will power. So you often find monks becoming internally aggressive to themselves. They try to exterminate anger, destroy fear, wipe out jealousy, and annihilate lust. But where does that get you? You get so stiff that your head aches. You become internally sterilized; you are just dried up like a parched desert. There is nothing, no emotion – just will power sitting there. You develop a lot of strength that way, because it does take a lot of strength to maintain that attitude for any length of time, but it is also fragile in the sense that it can be easily upset. It becomes very dependent on blind will, not on wisdom or love - not on anything that is malleable, flexible, and receptive.

So until a monk begins to open up to the inner female, he has no balance. For a man to learn to be a receptive, sensitive being, he has to stop using his will power and forcing issues all the time. He has to let go of things and become kind, gentle, and patient with himself - and with others. He needs to learn how to be extremely patient with the people he finds irritating.

One time Ajahn Chah pointed this out to me, when I was going through one of those phases of will power. There was one monk in the monastery who really irritated me. I couldn't bear him. Just at the sound of his voice, I would feel aversion arising in my mind. I asked Ajahn Chah what to do, and he said, "Ah, that monk is very good for you. He's your real friend. All those nice friends, those other bhikkhus that you get on so well with, they aren't very good for you. It's that one who's really going to help you." Because Ajahn Chah was a wise man, I considered seriously what he said. And I began to see that somehow I had to just totally accept that monk - accept the irritation - and let him be as he was. The masculine energy always tends to want to set someone right: `Let me tell you what's wrong with you.' But to find the feminine quality of acceptance - to just sit there and let that monk be irritating and to bear with the inner irritation - I had to learn how to be patient. I began to understand what it meant to find that balance within, because I could see that I had been out of balance.

And it seems that for women the imbalance tends to be the opposite. Oftentimes they would rather be accepting of everything, no matter what it is. They are often willing to be told what they should do next. But to relate to the inner male, a woman needs to find that in herself which she can trust - that which is strong within her, that which is guiding - instead of waiting for some external authority figure to tell her what she should do. I see that it's difficult for many women to trust in their own strength. Often they find a lack of confidence in themselves. It takes the willingness not to just wait and be receptive to things as they come, but to be firm in a situation. In general, a woman needs to develop a sense of strength; she must trust in being wise, rather than waiting for some external wise person to direct her.

We need to be reminded of our opposite, don't we. So we can use the external balance, the external male and female, as reminders of the internal male and female. One can use a marital relationship or a monastic situation wisely in this way. If you forget and become lost in your habitual tendencies, then whenever you see the opposite, that is a chance to remember. Rather than just seeing the opposite through the eyes of sexual attraction, or desire, or judgment, or just through the discriminative faculty, you can use the situation to remind yourself to open up within. That way, for a man, all women can be symbols for the internal female, so there can be a sense of respect for all women, because they represent that symbol. I assume that men can serve the same symbolic function for women.

Question: How about non-attachment within a relationship?
Answer: First you must recognize what attachment is, and then you let go. That's when you realize non-attachment. However, if you're coming from the view that you shouldn't be attached, then that's still not it. The point is not to take a position against attachment, as if there were a commandment against it; the point is to observe. We ask the questions, "What is attachment? Does being attached to things bring happiness or suffering?" Then we begin to have insight. We begin to see what attachment is, and then we can let go.

If you're coming from a high-minded position in which you think that you shouldn't be attached to anything, then you come up with ideas like, "Well, I can't be a Buddhist because I love my wife - because I'm attached to my wife. I love her, and I just can't let her go. I can't send her away." Those kinds of thoughts come from the view that you shouldn't be attached.

The recognition of attachment doesn't mean that you get rid of your wife. It means you free yourself from wrong views about yourself and your wife. Then you find that there's love there, but it's not attached. It's not distorting, clinging, and grasping. The empty mind is quite capable of caring about others and loving in the pure sense of love. But any attachment will always distort that.

If you love somebody and then start grasping them, it tends to go off; then what you love gives you pain. For example, you love your children, but if you become attached to them, then you don't really love them any more, because you're not with them as they are. You have all kinds of ideas about what they should be and what you want them to be. You want them to obey you, and you want them to be good, and you want them to pass their exams. With this attitude, you're not really loving them – because if they don't fulfill your wishes, you feel angry and frustrated and averse to them. So attachment to children prevents us from loving them. But as we let go of attachment, we find that our natural way of relating is to love. We find that we are able to be aware of our children as they are, rather than having fixed ideas of what we want them to be.

When I talk to parents, they say how much suffering there is in having children, because there's a lot of wanting. When we're wanting them to be a certain way and not wanting them to be another way, we create this anguish and suffering in our minds. But the more we let go of that, the more we discover an amazing ability to be sensitive to, and aware of, children as they are. Then, of course, that openness allows them to respond, rather than just react to our attachment. You know, a lot of children are just reacting to our saying, "I want you to be like this."

The empty mind - the pure mind - is not a blank, zero-land, where you're not feeling or caring about anything. It's an effulgence of the mind. It's a brightness that is truly sensitive and accepting. It's an ability to accept life as it is. When we accept life as it is, we can respond appropriately to the way we're experiencing it, rather than just reacting out of fear and aversion.

Ajahn Sumedho

Source:  Forest Sangha Newsletter, October 1995/2538, Number 34,

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