Cooking “Me” into “We”
COLUMN: Acharya Corner
by Acharya Susan Chapman
This summer I performed two wedding ceremonies. Both couples were obviously in love and expressed their vows to each other with deep, tearful authenticity, witnessed by family and friends. My husband was there to give me a hand. He and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, still in love. None of the weddings I’ve performed have included the traditional phrase ‘till death do us part’, but it is obvious that this is the intention. As the preceptor for their vows, I offer an elder’s blessing for the survival of these young relationships. It matters to me that they will be happy, but most importantly that the vows they’ve made will be transformative.
As a family therapist, I’ve seen the shadow side of the marriage vow. While most begin with love and good intentions, many end up collapsing like the roof of a house that was built too hastily, without enough support. In Buddhist terms a happy marriage is like a precious human birth. It’s rare to find that one in a million person you can share a lifetime with. But for most of us, marriage dies before we do. And, when it does, there is no funeral ceremony, no formal comfort for the loss. Most often it involves some kind of betrayal, a messy divorce, a legal ruling and divisions among family and friends. Just as a wedding brings joy to friends and family, divorces can bring crippling life-long resentments.
I often ask myself how we, as a Shambhala community, can better support the marriage vow. Of all the vows we offer on our path, the marriage vow is the only one that’s weighted down with setting sun references. There are two main blind spots: eternalism, which I call mindless-heart, and nihilism, or heartless-mind. Mindless-heart encompasses all the patterns of wishful thinking that ignore the boundaries of reality. Setting sun society offers a fairy tale view that romantic love will bring eternal, blissful union. The intoxication of early love can easily slip into this misunderstanding and when the bubble bursts, the disappointment can be devastating.
That disappointment can trigger the opposite, heartless-mind. This is the shadow side, where love turns to hate. When something doesn’t feel good we should throw it away and buy a new, updated version. So we close our hearts and fixate on why our partner is to blame for our unhappiness. We punish our lover for letting us down. We’re angry with ourselves for having been so deluded. We feel mistrustful and isolated, giving up on love, citing statistics that one in every two marriages will fail. These two setting sun belief-systems prevent our marriage vows from transforming everyday ups and downs into genuine intimacy.
Cooking Me into We
During a wedding ceremony I often compare the vow to a cooking pot that can transform the raw ingredients of ‘me’ into a nourishing stew of ‘we’. This analogy from the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche summarizes what I learned during the nine years that my husband and I lived at Gampo Abbey, Shambhala’s monastery. All the residents of the Abbey take the traditional five Buddhist vows: not to kill, lie, steal, consume intoxicants or engage in sexual misconduct. For monastics, the last vow means to be celibate. For householders like Jerry and myself, it means to be faithful to the marriage.
Working with these vows gave me a clue about how the ancient teachings of Buddhism can support twenty-first century Shambhalians. You begin by letting the vow turn the flashlight inward. Before a problem manifests in speech or behavior, it arises as a thought in your mind. In that light, you can interrupt a sexual or romantic fantasy long before it gains traction in reality. So the vow is like a good friend who prevents craving from turning into grasping. It’s a protector, shedding light on the boundaries and asking what is helpful and what is harmful in our relationships.
My understanding of vows came to life at the Abbey for two reasons. First, the vow was central to our practice. This is something we could do at our Shambhala Centers. We could discuss the marriage vow along with the bodhisattva and the enlightened society vows. The Sakyong’s song ‘What about me’ is a key instruction. The path of marriage is the opposite of a setting sun comfort zone. It is exchanging self for other, transforming selfishness into generosity, irritation into patience, impulsiveness into discipline. Marriage literally brings these teachings down to earth, where the ‘rubber meets the road’. And we need a lot of support because the challenges are unpredictable and deeply embedded in the culture around us.
The shadow side: when the vow is broken
Cooking “me to we” can happen when all the ingredients are in place, the container is strong and both partners are willing to dissolve their personal territory while at the same time feeling the depth of their aloneness. But for one reason or another that doesn’t always work. What then?
This brings me to the second reason that the vows were so meaningful at the Abbey: we functioned interdependently, not in isolation. As a community, we met twice a month to dialogue about what we had learned from our mistakes. Traditionally this is the ‘confession’ ritual that is done by all monastics since the time of the Buddha. But the lay people adapted this by meeting in small groups, where we built trust and offered a friendly, emotionally safe environment to share our personal stories and life lessons with each other. So this is another way we could use our Shambhala villages to support the marriage vow. The Sakyong has been urging us to create a culture of mentorship in which we can learn how to go more deeply with each other to share the ups and downs of our path. The setting sun culture has isolated couples with the taboo that we shouldn’t talk about the hard times in our marriages, about our loneliness, about sexuality and our longing for tenderness. So if we want support and longevity for our marriages, perhaps we need to break that taboo and establish something new.
How can the Shambhala community create a graceful, supportive way to end marriages that are not working out?
I have no idea, but would like to put this question out there. In my professional work I met a few couples from the Bah’ai faith who had been asked by their church elders to attend counseling for one year prior to finalizing a divorce. This was called a ‘year of patience’ and both partners were asked to refrain from extra marital affairs during that time. It was a time to reflect upon the marriage, to build a bridge of communication for the future, and to attend to the needs of their children. I was impressed by the loyalty that the couples had to their faith and to the elders of their church who stepped in to oversee the separation and divorce process, with an eye on what is best for all. I also found the counseling sessions included a level of respect and spirituality that lubricated the friction in the failing marriage. Even the language ‘failed marriage’ and ‘broken home’ reflects setting sun view. Could we not find better terms that match the reality that the couple is transitioning from one season of life to another?
Marriage, like life, has a beginning, middle and end. There is no telling how long it will last, but there are ways to protect and strengthen this practice for the benefit of our children, family and for society as a whole. As the Sakyong says, enlightened society begins with a kiss. With the blessings of our lineage, we can delight in how that kiss matures from youth to old age, and how it might change along the way.