DHAMMA AND FAMILY LIFE
Based on a talk given by Ajahn Viradhammo at the Auckland Vihara
I just returned yesterday from a trip to visit my Mum and brother in Ottawa, and then I was in Toronto, teaching for a couple of weeks. So, today's topic of "Dhamma and Family Life" is very relevant to me now. The feelings that we have in the family are very powerful. The feelings that I have for my Mother and brother and his children - and for my Father, who died several years ago - are very powerful conditions of the human heart, and these have to be understood. Dhamma is the truth of the way things are, so Dhamma in family life is the practice of understanding truth in the context of family situations
Our lives are both individual and social. We have an inner world which is
very personal, but we function in an outer world, of people, things and situations.
As individuals we are alone. For instance, when we are born into this world
we come from a nice, warm, cozy, womb out into the bright lights of an operating
theatre, and then we might even get slapped on the bottom. It's quite a shocking
experience. We then live our lives and we have our sorrows, joys, hopes and
expectations, fears, anxieties, worries, successes and failures. All of this
goes on in a very personal way. Often it is a very lonely experience. Although
we do share some of these aspects with each other, there is much we can't share,
which we have to feel ourselves. And then death comes, and that is something
that we have to do alone also. No one is going to do that for us. Death is a
personal experience. Others may be with us to give comfort and support but still
we die alone.
As well as the individual aspect we have the social aspect which is related to the world around us: to the family, to the environment, to social conditioning, to education, to the kind of culture that we are born into, to the values of society that are put upon us and that we imbibe, to the literature that we read, to the food that we eat, to television programmes, and so many other things. All of these affect the inner life. That is pretty obvious, isn't it? The inner life and outer life are not separate. They are connected. We have a responsibility to understand the inner world, and we have a responsibility to live skillfully in the outer world. These two are not in any way mutually exclusive; they are interdependent.
In Canada there is a lot of talk of racism; unfortunately it's raising its ugly head. Consider a person who has a racist upbringing which causes him to perceive one part of society in a racist or bigoted way. Then the view he has alters his world, doesn't it? It alters the world he sees. It is a world of hatred and bigotry. His reality is actually created by his inner world. Or we could say, the way I view you is the way I'll affect you, and the way you affect me is the way I'll view you. The outer becomes what the inner dictates. And that can seem very real. This bigoted or racist viewpoint can seem like ultimate truth. As much as one might argue, this person would hold onto his view and thus be fixed in his own creation; suffer accordingly from that view, and never really understand why. To this person, the world would be that reality. In Buddhist contemplation, both of these aspects have to be considered. And what we try to see is that our life is this interdependence. It is neither just me, alone in the world, floating around as a kind of a satellite, but also neither just the outer world.
Now when the inner is not paid attention to in the proper way, or when it is obsessively paid attention to in an improper way, then that creates all kinds of problems in family life. If the inner isn't paid attention to then we either act on impulses which are unskilful, or we deny aspects of our heart through constant distraction. This lack of attention to our inner world creates confusion around us. The Buddhist teaching encourages us to take responsibility for the inner world. Basically it means that when we relate to each other we should speak from a basis of compassion, not from greed, hatred, or delusion. All right - that is a pretty easy thing to say, but it is often quite hard to enact. Confusion, delusion, fear, all kinds of expectations that we have for each other, demands we make of each other - all of these come from a place which is not compassionate. For instance, I can make demands on you because I want you to be a certain kind of person, not because I feel compassionate and care for you.
I remember as a child, being from a refugee family and wanting my parents to be ordinary (whatever that was in Canada) and feeling embarrassed at speaking a foreign language. Rather than seeing the suffering of my parents and their tremendous courage, my own fears and my own insecurities projected demands on them, which was very painful. Even though I had terrific parents who were really very kind and generous, my own fears created suffering in my heart as well as theirs.
Several years ago my father and I took a walk together. It was a long walk... He said to me, "Why didn't you ever listen to me when you made your decisions?" And my perception was, "Why didn't you ever ask?" Here were two good people who had lived together for many years but hadn't really communicated. One expecting the other to say something but nothing ever happening. Who was right and who was wrong? I don't know, there is no blame. These are the kinds of problems that arise in the family when we're not awake, not aware. Strangely enough, however, when we awaken to our own inner world we also become more sensitive to those around us. What happens if we don't do that, if we don't understand our inner being, then what? Let's say we're acting from greed. If I want status, recognition, or power, then this is a form of wanting for myself. The result is that the other people in the family are no longer human, they become objects. If I don't take responsibility for greed at least in some way, then what happens? Then I look at you in order to fulfil my greed. I don't look at you as a human being anymore; instead you are an object of my desires. You are no longer a person who wants to be happy, you are something that is either in the way of my happiness, or you're some kind of a tool to fulfil my needs. This is how we lose our humanity, and when we begin to manipulate each other. Consequently this is when we suffer.
When I don't take responsibility for anger in my heart, then what happens? If you are the person who is making me angry then again you become an object. That is, you are no longer a person who suffers like I suffer, and who wants happiness as I want happiness. Since you are an object that is doing something wrong, I therefore have to somehow change you. Making you the object of my anger, we both lose our humanity. Fear, doubt, and worry function in the same way. They take away from our humanity and our ability to relate sincerely with others. And yet these are very human qualities. It is very human to have anger. It is very human to feel fear. So in one sense we have to accept our inner feelings, but also we have to take responsibility for them. Taking responsibility means we awaken to the unskillfulness of living on energies based upon greed, hatred and delusion.
Even when we do act from greed, hatred and confusion, we still want to be happy. We all have desires, don't we? All of us have a yearning in our hearts to be happy, if we didn't we would not be human. It's not that wanting is bad. This is just the nature of our lives. But we must want in a skillful manner. I want to be happy and that's why I'm a monk. Sometimes Buddhists say we can't have any wanting. Well, that's silly. When we come here to the temple we want knowledge, we want to contemplate Dhamma. Wanting is natural. However, we must ask ourselves, "What is the deepest fulfilment of wanting? Where do we find true fulfilment?" Buddhism describes true fulfilment in terms of wisdom and compassion. Look at the times when you have been able to relate to others with no demands or expectations, with an open and generous heart. Didn't you also feel liberated from wanting? The end of wanting has to do with giving and unconditional love, rather than acquiring something I want or getting rid of something I don't want.
But how do you manage to love unconditionally when it is human to feel fear, when it is human to have anger, and to worry? Just how in the world can a person succeed in this? The answer to how we can love unconditionally is found within the Buddhist way of transformation, which means actually practising the Dhamma. It doesn't come for free. When you take the precepts you don't get your Buddhist-badge, and then think, "OK, now I'm going to be a nice Buddhist, and love everyone, and love my kids all the time, and my kids will love me, and we'll live happily ever after".
To facilitate inner transformation our lifestyle is tremendously important. If our standards of outer behaviour are confused and insensitive to others, then inner transformation is not possible. If I cheat on my taxes I will be fearfully waiting for the knock of the tax collector on my door. Thus our responsibility to the outer - those with whom we live and the environment we dwell in - is based on the basic moral principles of not harming oneself or others with action or speech. As well as moral responsibility we need to be careful about our business affairs. If we are continually living on bank overdrafts our minds will be preoccupied with financial survival rather than inner transformation. Thus the practical aspects of making a living and paying the bills are very important to the spiritual life. Most of you who are here tonight have been very diligent in acquiring worldly skills so that you can live comfortably and offer good opportunities for your children. This is very good. As an end in itself, though, it will not bring fulfilment. A stable lifestyle does, however, give you the opportunity to observe the inner world and practise the transformation of the heart. This is part of the good kamma of all your diligent efforts to establish a stable household life.
The practice of Dhamma is the way of transformation, and is the priority in family life. It's really understanding the heart and using family life as a spiritual vehicle. And as a Dhamma vehicle, what we mean is that the family is not there to make me happy. The family is not there to make me secure, the kids aren't there to fulfil my desires, and my parents aren't there to cook my meals and wash my clothes. Rather, the family is an opportunity for me to let go of selfishness and develop the compassionate heart. When family life is a vehicle for self-gratification, however, everyone becomes a loser. We sometimes project onto children or parents what we think they should be. We forget their humanity, and we don't touch their hearts. And how do we touch each other's humanity? It's when we can look beyond our expectations, projections, demands, and fears, and say, "This person is a human being. This person suffers like I suffer. This person has moods, this person wants to be happy, this person doesn't like pain." This ability to change our perception is the essence of Buddhist transformation of heart.
Whether it is monastic life or family life, the same kind of transformation applies. I can only talk from my own experience, but if one of my fellow monks is in a bad mood and I don't want that, then he becomes an object of my irritation. The trick is for me to change that perception in that moment and to think "Well although he's irritating me now, he's also probably suffering, and he wants to be happy. I've been there, he's like me." Now to actually change one's mind in order to perceive the world differently is very difficult. Why is it so difficult? Because we get so pulled by the perceptions of selfishness that arise. So this is the Buddhist work of transformation: to actually feel the sense of fear, anger, or worry, and in that moment to transform it. This transformation really takes place in friction, in argument, in contention, where we don't get along. We can then begin to feel these things arise, become more conscious of them, and then change our perceptions. That's real practice. It's what we call "marketplace practice," or "watching TV practice," or "sitting at the dinner table practice", or whatever. It's not in the temple, it's in our hearts. Sitting meditation will not necessarily heal that for you. It has be done when our buttons get pressed.
Now, on the external level, there is still the requirement that society has legal systems, and we have to be responsible within these laws. Similarly, parents are responsible for kids, and they have to lay down the law. It's necessary because they have more experience, and they're paying the bills, too! Parents must direct children, but the direction must be from wisdom, not from anger. It has to be directed from freedom rather than from enslavement, otherwise it doesn't work. We don't just say "May you be happy, may you be happy," and just let things happen. Instead, we direct, we say "Yes!" or "No!" But it's the attitude that's behind the words which really counts.
Dhamma is the first priority and good decisions are made from this foundation. I think the clarity of a parent saying "no" or "yes" comes from the compassionate heart. It is not compassionate, however, to say "yes" to everything that a child wants. That's one of the worst things that you can do for a child, isn't it? "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Johnny,"......and Johnny is going to hate you when he is 28! The idea that compassion is some kind of indulgence - that's not it. Compassion is a strength . People are often unsure what is meant by compassion. They sometimes mistake infatuation or attachment for compassion. When we love someone in a passionate way the love may easily change to anger or jealousy. If this is what's happening we can't call it compassion. Attachment is very up and down but compassion is calm. It is not a demand that you make me happy. It is not an expectation of fulfilment from someone else. Instead compassion is a concern for the welfare of others irrespective of one's own desires. Thus, when we are compassionate we make the best choices and decisions because we have a clarity that isn't prejudiced by personal desires and fears.
Much of the work of transformation involves patience because we often don't get what we want or expect from life. For example, if I have to catch a train or a plane to come up here to Auckland I can get very impatient when we are late. In the monastery I'll say, "O.K. I've got to be at the airport and I want the car ready at such and such a time." Life is unpredictable, and invariably something goes wrong and I can get very impatient - justifiably so, of course! But that's where I can develop patience. Where else can I develop patience except in the midst of frustration? I won't develop patience when all my desires are being satisfied. The work of transformation takes place right there where I can't get what I want.
Many people expect the world to be a place that's always going to make them happy. Within a family, people may think, "If my kids were always good, if they weren't so difficult," or "If my parents were always calm, and if they weren't so old fashioned, then life would be great." or " If my partner was different, I'd be happy." If we have this type of thinking, we're going to be waiting a long time before we're satisfied. It's a foolish view, isn't it, to think that if the whole world was just right I wouldn't suffer. In other words, if the whole world would fit my desire patterns; if it met all my expectations, then I'd be happy. Well, the world isn't that way, is it?
One of the greatest difficulties in using family life as a spiritual vehicle is the tendency to project our passions and inner turmoil onto the members of our family. For instance, I might feel bored in a marriage and project this onto my partner. Rather than contemplating boredom as Dhamma, I might easily blame my partner thinking that I was unable to realise true fulfilment because of them. This wouldn't be very honest, in fact we would call it delusion. The same holds true for anger, jealousy, fear and worry. These things seem so real and we can thus easily create a world of suffering around them. Look at the times we have been angry. Hasn't the anger seemed very true? "Yes, you are a fool. You are wrong," and the mind goes on and on. Perhaps we have yelled at someone, and afterwards felt embarrassed by our own foolishness. Yet at the time it seemed that the world was really that way. This is the nature of delusion. The confusion of the inner world projects onto those around us creating family situations which become even more confusing. Let's take greed. How many times have we felt we really need something? Then we go and buy it and a few months later it's collecting dust in a corner of the room. We didn't really need it but it certainly seemed that way at the time. It is this tendency to believe in greed or anger or fear as a reality that we call delusion or ignorance.
The interdependence between inner and outer means that when I believe in anger my world is an angry world; when I believe in worry my world is an anxious world; when I believe in fear it is a threatening world. This tendency to believe and hence follow all the whims and passions of the inner world is the greatest source of family strife. And yet because we are human, the tendencies of anger, greed and worry are bound to come up in family life. What are we to do?
For me the secret is to see the arising of inner suffering as a chance for transformation, a chance to see old patterns of ignorance. By not believing them, I can watch them fade away and their power to delude me will diminish. In Buddhism we say that ignorance is not knowing, or not seeing clearly. This is not a lack of academic understanding but a lack of insight into the way things are, a lack of heartfelt understanding. If we can be fully sensitive to our inner world and yet not blindly believe in our projections, then family life is a wonderful possibility for inner freedom and outer harmony.
When we speak of awareness or mindfulness being the path to freedom it means that we are fully aware of things like anger, fear, and jealously. But we see them as conditions of mind rather than concrete realities. If these things change and we don't believe in them, then our world is not conditioned by them. So whether I'm angry at the kids, the dog, the government or my in-laws, it's just anger. Don't attach and don't create a world around it. Be patient - it will pass.
If I crave a new car, a new computer, a better stereo then it's all just craving. Better to be patient and watch craving cease, rather than feed the endless cravings that our consumer society stimulates. What do television adverts tell people all day long? - "If you get this you'll really be happy, you'll really be satisfied." And so you get it, and you get it, and you get it, and you never look at the getting. It never leads to an end of craving. So I want to own something, the latest whatever. It's not that we deny the desire to want things, but to actually move to something more peaceful, you have to act in that moment, you have to give that up. How do you do that? If you can say, " I don't need that, I can do without that", then that's a transformation of the heart and the mind. This is not repression, but a movement towards the peace of the mind. Whatever it is, whether it is the greed for things, or the anger at people, or the fears and worries that we have - to make it conscious, to transform, to let go, is an arduous practice. It's not ascetic in the sense that you have to torture yourself but transformation does mean that you have to give up a lot. The idea that we can be free and peaceful and follow any old mood - it can't work that way.
Family life can at times flow with love and harmony, but it can also be fraught with difficulties. Even if everything is relatively safe and comfortable, the future is uncertain and so worry is a common problem in family life. We may be made redundant. Our children may fail at school. We may get sick in the future. The worry-mind is not proud, it will grab at anything and worry. So whether it's my job, my mortgage, the size of my middle-age stomach or what my neighbours think of me - it's all just worry. The complications of life can be accommodated by skillful living and adapting to life's changes. If, however, worry is a strong habit, it will keep muttering away in the back of our minds no matter what we do. So how can we go beyond worry? How can we move to a more trusting and peaceful heart, and what actually can we trust in?
Well, you can't trust in anything that is subject to change - that's all uncertain. You can't trust in your body staying healthy; you can't trust in the economy; you can't trust in having a permanent job. So what can you trust in? Well, in Buddhism we say you can trust in the Three Refuges. You can trust in your capacity to be awake and to be aware - this is Buddha. You can trust in the Truth of the way things are - this is Dhamma. You can trust in the goodness of your intentions, in the goodness of your moral and generous actions - this is Sangha. For instance if you feel angry and you trust that anger, what happens? In a word - suffering! But if you trust in knowing that this is the feeling of anger, that this is an object of mind and not a permanent reality, then this is wise knowing - our refuge in Buddha. If you trust that this anger will pass and you need not repress nor indulge, then this is in harmony with nature and is our refuge in Dhamma. Even though the anger pulls you towards violence, you trust in the virtue of not harming others - this is refuge in Sangha.
This third refuge of Sangha stands for the practice of transformation, that is, being a good person and actually doing it. Being a good person is very difficult, but having an idea of being a good person is easy. Perhaps I sit there in the morning and say to myself, "Today I'll be a good person and I won't make any mistakes. I'll listen to Bhante's talk, trust everything, won't overeat, be fearless, and have compassion for my kids." So you set up your programme but feel very disappointed at the end of the day and even end up hating yourself. Instead, if one says, "When fear arises I'm going to develop trust. I'm going to observe it and know it as a condition of mind rather than believing it as a permanent reality," then what happens? Then we are beginning to trust in transformation rather than fear. In the same way, when anger arises we can try to transform that into patience and compassion. When greed arises we can be aware and transform that into renunciation - giving up what we don't need. It's not just an ideal, it's something we can do.
You can't get it perfect immediately, but you can make an intention. Buddhist practice is very much based on right intention or right suggestion. We have to make the right suggestions to ourselves and to our families. If I make this suggestion to you, "You're a no good creep!" , then what's that going to do to you? Well, you're going to feel like a no good creep, or you're going to hate me. So that's not a healthy suggestion. If I make that suggestion to myself, "I'm a no good creep!" that's not healthy either. What I must do is to make compassionate suggestions such as, "May I be free from anger. May I be free from greed. May I be free from fear." These are good suggestions to make. On the other hand, if I wake up in the morning, and it's winter, and it's rainy and grey, and the economy is going down the tube, and I've just heard about another six rapes in Auckland, and fourteen murders, and I'm very depressed, and then I turn on the radio to get more news, and I get more depressed, then my first thought is of course: "Life is miserable but I have to go to work, and oh, what a terrible country it is....." What kind of suggestion is that? That's a suggestion of misery. And that's what I create in my world. Therefore I must move away from that kind of suggestion. When my mind says " I can't take it anymore"....I wake up! Then I can say "So that's what it's like to feel miserable." And as I see this, then the misery just becomes an object. It has no power, it is something that can be known.
So, I have a choice. I can believe in my misery, or I can let go. The way to let go is to say "I'm going to try to be more aware today. I'm going to try to be more sensitive to the people around me, I'm going to try to be more compassionate to myself." These are beautiful suggestions to the heart. This doesn't sound like much, but contemplate your own mind. How often in the day do you make skillful suggestions to yourself and how often do you just go on automatic pilot? Being on automatic pilot is very dangerous because you can run into mountains. And the way we think when we are on automatic pilot is often negative, " Life is miserable... mumble... groan... these kids, or these parents... nah, nah...." But to awaken means that we no longer run on automatic pilot. It means we are fully alive. To notice a thought which is unskilful, such as the thought of worry, the thought of fear, the thought of anger, is the way of mindfulness. And then to not invest any energy into all of that is the way of transformation. It's a lifetime's work and we keep having to do it. Because it is a lifetime's work we must always be compassionate to ourselves. If we judge ourselves all the time, it just does not work.
The way of transformation means that we take responsibility for our wrong actions and wrong speech. We develop right intention by thinking "That's an area where I have to work, I have to make more effort, I have to be more awake, I have to transform." There is a sense of personal responsibility, isn't there? If I blame the world around me, if I'm never awake to the fact that I'm angry, if I'm never awake to the fact that I'm full of worry or if I'm never aware that I always want something else then I can't be at peace. I will always need something else. I will always need some kind of distraction or I will always need to get rid of something. There will be no peace for me nor for my family.
If we are to realise our human potential and not just live at the animal level, we must fully awaken to life. Being awake to our inner world with all of it's passions and energies is part of being truly alive. We sometimes call this the practice of Buddha knowing Dhamma. If we can't be fully awake then the life of the individual and the life of the family becomes an aimless succession of actions and reactions. The joyous possibility of family life as spiritual transformation is lost.
Just as it is harmful to follow negative patterns of mind, it is also harmful to hate these patterns and deny and repress them. So what is the Middle Way? It means that we honestly see tendencies that cause confusion in our own hearts and that create suffering in our families. We put forth the effort to practice transformation, being willing to work on that for a lifetime.