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Oct 08
Dharma Teachings
Cooking “Me” into “We”

Wedding-ringThe Marriage Vow…and the culture of Enlightened Society

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.

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7 responses to “ Cooking “Me” into “We” ”
  1. Thank you for engaging in a very important discussion.
    In my work, as a researcher and counselor, the “shadow side” is more than disappointment and anger – it is the reality of partner violence and abuse, including sexualized abuse of partners and children. Any discussion of the end of relationships must be alive to the facts that 50% of Canadian women will experience partner violence in their lifetime, and that 1 in 3 will experience sexual assault often by a partner or family member.
    In these circumstances, a “year of patience” may be far from advisable, not only for the targetted partner but for children who are often also victimized by the violent partner. For many who are finally finding the courage and self-care to exit an abusive relationship, what is needed is support for their livelihood, housing and continued place in the community, not additional roadblocks such as community expectations to “keep trying.” The average target of violence is assaulted 33 times before seeking interventions, and will make 6 to 7 attempts to leave before actually being able to. We must acknowledge that not all marriages are failing due to individuals’ mutual karma and klesa, but rather due to worldwide trends of misogynist violence that have little to do with particular individual targets. People need to be encouraged to believe that their own (and their children’s) humanity and safety are important, regardless of societal expectations around marriage.

  2. madeleine winfield
    Oct 15, 2013

    Thank you very much for this discussion. It feels quite basic to me. I agree so much, that our relationships, whether they be in a marriage or not, are what our society is all about. and making community out of all these relationships.

    I too was married, for 32 years. There is no ceremony for that, no ending of stature and shared loss and gain. We muddle thru. Our children muddle thru. There is so much we can gain from this lineage. The work of creating networks of communication for relationships is in its infancy. Maybe this is what the 21st century is about. The setting sun culture does not relate well. We have been wreaking havoc on our home for a very long time. We have an opportunity and the tools to uplift our cultural confusion.

  3. Cathy Baker
    Oct 14, 2013

    Since my 39 year relationship and marriage ended 2 years ago, I have reflected much on the fact that the Shambhala community has ceremonies and support for everything else, including hospice care, death and 49 days after death, but no ceremony or organized support for the ending of a marriage or significant relationship. I have wondered how we can aspire to create an Enlightened Society if we simply ignore, avoid, or abandon members of a couple ending their relationship. Seems to me it is up near the top of important transitions individuals can make in their lifetimes, and can be an opportunity for significant growth, or, at the very least, a ripening of negative karma from which one can be either thankful or resentful..

    Setting sun culture doesn’t see any positive side to relationships ending, and leaves individuals on their own, with the secret hope they will “fall in love” quickly with someone else to again feel ok or even happy. Sadly, so far, it doesn’t seem that our Shambhalian culture handles it much differently. My hope, is that we can do a better job of supporting individuals in relating with themselves, preparing individuals for committed relationships, regular support during the relationship, and special support when it ends, for example, in the form of an uplifted ceremony focused on gratitude, growth, and forward movement for all involved and affected. Please let us keep this conversation going. Otherwise, how can we genuinely create a solid foundation for Enlightened Society if we are caught up in fantasy, negative emotions, and unresolved disrespect and misunderstanding in our homes?

  4. Linda Willow
    Oct 14, 2013

    Love these insightful reflections, Acharya Chapman, thanks! This truly targets the faulty thinking that undermines so many relationships from the start, and honors that some marriages are meant to end prior to death and it is a grief but not necessarily a failure: when I tell people my parents divorced when I was a child I’m angry at those who felt sorry for me since I saw it as a brave achievement on behalf of my mother who chose be authentic and admit she married for the wrong reasons and did not want to spend her life in a false, unhappy situation. It was hard but it set the example of living the truth rather than from fairy tale.

  5. Trime Persinger
    Oct 11, 2013

    I love what you have written, Acharya Chapman. In my first marriage my main strategy was perseverance; I did not understand the degree of surrender and personal accountability that are essential for long-term intimacy. I learned much after that marriage ended, and my second marriage is a source of refuge, learning, and joy for me. Marriage is truly path.

  6. My husband and I were married by a Buddhist Jewish Rabbi. We wrote our own vows, very much influenced by Buddhist philosophy. The process of looking within our selves and at our relationship, writing these committal vows was in itself a strengthening moment in our relationship– versus a call and repeat of vows we did not write. We also did something else, we wrote another set of vows and we married our guests to themselves. Among other things, we asked them to honor themselves, to see their special beauty, and to love themselves. It was a beautiful moment when we had a crowd of 120 people saying “I Promise.” Vows are filled with so much good intention. Staying true to ourselves first, is a challenge that is worth paying attention to, as much as staying true to the one we’re loving in a relationship.

  7. Susan Rees Rosquist
    Oct 9, 2013

    Brilliant, thank you for sharing! This, “there is no funeral ceremony, no formal comfort for the loss.” triggered in me that at a certain point it’s not just the loss off the person that needs acknowledged but the loss of the shared dreams, friendships and collective memories that of necessity, must die too.

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