Category Archives: Relationships

Wise intentions

[The Buddha responded:] “Here, monk, a wise person of great wisdom does not intend for his own affliction, or for the affliction of others, or for the affliction of both. Rather, when he plans, he plans for his own welfare, the welfare of others, the welfare of both, and the welfare of the whole world. It is in this way that one is a wise person of great wisdom.”  – from AN 4:186, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

There are a number of similar suttas in the Pali canon in which the Buddha points out that some people consider only their own welfare, some consider only the welfare of others, some don’t think of the welfare of either themselves or others, and some think of the welfare of both themselves and others.

This categorization broadens our consideration from friendships between two people to how we relate, not just to an individual friend, but to all those we come into contact with. If we consider the welfare of ourselves and others, then our attitude towards other beings isn’t divided into us and them, but takes in the question of whether an action is good for everyone affected. If not, we can try to figure out how things might be arranged so that everyone benefits. We can try to cleave to this principle of setting our intentions so that no one (including ourselves) is harmed and that, as much as possible, everyone’s situation is improved. Once the intention is set, then every new set of circumstances presents us with a fresh opportunity to hone our wisdom.

It’s true that these decisions are not always clear-cut. Sometimes we find out later that our good intentions didn’t bring about the desired results, or we discover that someone we didn’t know might be affected by our action felt hurt. Often we think there’s no time to consider all the consequences, that action must be taken now.

One way we can mature on the path is to incorporate a moment of reflection before we take action or speak to others. In that momentary pause, we can ask ourselves whether we are acting from kindness or compassion, and also whether anyone might be harmed. Even if there is no discernible answer, no way to know, it’s worth asking ourselves the question. It’s a training in attitude, which will make us wiser, more compassionate human beings.

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Friendships and communities

Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between their members, and the most basic relation between people outside the family connection is that of friendship. … The Buddha placed special emphasis on one’s choice of friends, which he saw as having a profound influence on one’s individual development as well as on the creation of a harmonious and ethically upright community. Good friendship is essential not only because it benefits us in times of trouble, satisfies our social instincts, and enlarges our sphere of concern from the self to others. It is critical because good friendship plants in us the sense of discretion, the ability to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, and to choose the honorable over the expedient.
— from the introduction to chapter “Good Friendships” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

What choices do we have regarding friendships? We have relationships with family members, co-workers, fellow students, neighbors, members of our various communities, and others with whom we come into contact, but only a subset of these relationships develop into friendships.

There’s no magic formula for making and keeping friends. Some essential ingredients are: a desire for connection, regularly giving our time to our friends, listening and attending to what they say and do, avoiding comparing them with ourselves, overlooking small flaws, and wishing them well. If we find a friendship rewarding, we look past habits that we don’t like because the overall package is so worthwhile.  When we are annoyed with someone we generally like, it pays to remember their favorable qualities. Someone who is generous, kind, and thoughtful might be a sloppy eater or housekeeper. So what? Someone who is honest and humble may be a very slow walker – again, so what? We can ask ourselves, what’s important here? And as a friend once advised me: “Go with the love.” When given the choice of criticizing or loving, we can choose to go with the love.

In the suttas, there are examples in which monks get along well with each other and when asked how they live harmoniously they describe the specific ways in which they defer to each other, make way for each other, clean up after each other, and prepare things for each other. Just as the people who cared for us when we were newborn did, we can care for those in our immediate world. With friends, this is a reciprocal process and only grows more rewarding with practice.

In the previous post, Sumi Loudon Kim used the word “attunement” to describe how parents empathetically observe their children, and suggested that this is a skill we can develop and (eventually) apply to all of our relationships. May it be so.

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Children and attachment

In a recent issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly (Spring 2017), in the department called “Ask the Teachers”, the question posed is “How do I reconcile parenting with nonattachment?” I recommend the journal itself (, and this article in particular. Since this article is not freely available on line, I offer here the part that seems most helpful.

Q: I’m a longtime practitioner, but now that I have children, I’m struggling with the notion of nonattachment. How do I reconcile nonattachment with the deep connection I have with my kids – and with my concerns for their well-being and safety?

A: [Answers are given from Buddhist teachers in three different traditions. Here is only the third answer, from Sumi Loudon Kim, a minister with Buddhist Families of Durham, NC.]

The heart of this humdinger question is that the word “attachment” means one thing in the context of parenting and another in the context of Buddhist teachings. The association of the word “attachment” with parenting has its origins in the phrase “attachment parenting”, a theory of child-rearing developed by pediatrician William Sears in the 1980s. In parenting, attachment is thought to provide a foundational sense of safety and security, giving a child the courage to explore and thus learn essential facts about their world. Your concern for your children’s well-being and safety comes from a healthy, natural bonding derived from empathy, care, and love – none of which are against the dharma.

In the Buddhist world, attachment is understood as a mental factor, a psychological pattern that is a mega-cause of suffering. However, the neutral sense of the English word “attachment” doesn’t convey the potency and misery of what Buddhists mean by it. Buddhist texts use the Sanskrit word trsna, an English-language cognate of which is the word “thirst”. “Thirst” accurately conveys the sense of need that characterizes this mental state. We are thirsty for sense gratification, thirsty for experiences. Other translations of this kind of attachment are “clinging”, “craving”, and “desire”. Although it doesn’t sound human to say, “Don’t be attached to your children,” it does sound right to say, “Don’t cling to them.” (We even disapprove of overly clingy parents.)

Nonetheless, the Buddhist notion of attachment, as craving, can teach us something about parenting pitfalls. Since we can crave just about anything, it’s possible to develop a sticky clinginess to our own children. For example, we might crave their demonstrations of affection, respect, or loyalty. We can become attached to our children behaving or performing in a particular way, believing that our child should be a good soccer player, academically successful, polite to others, and so on, because we are worried about our own public image, self-worth, unresolved issues, or value as a “good” parent. This kind of attachment is primarily self-centered, serving our own needs. As many of us know from experience, staking our happiness on a child fulfilling our expectations invariably results in suffering. (Although I’m quite certain that the moment my children stop leaving dirty socks around the house, my life will be perfect.) In the final analysis of this type of clingy attachment, it’s not so much that we are directly attached to our children as we are attached to our misconception of what will bring us happiness.

The parenting notion of attachment as bonding can also teach us something about parenting potential. In fact, the Buddha himself urges us to create the “bonds of fellowship”, as taught in the Sangaha Sutta. Through generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of changing conditions, he said, parents sustain a favorable, respectful relationship with their children. In other words, parenting is dharma practice. Far from trying to detach ourselves from our children, our relationship with our children is an amazing ground on which we can practice attunement, the gift of creating safety, generosity, aid, and unconditional love. This in turn develops our capacity to feel the same bonds of fellowship for the children of others – and for others as once-children. In the end, we are called to discover the bonds of fellowship we have with all beings.

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Knowing what we’re doing

In MN 61, the Buddha instructs his young son, a monk, to reflect on his own wholesome and unwholesome actions. He recommends that this reflection be done before taking action, while taking action, and after taking action:

Also, Rahula, while you are doing an action with the body, you should reflect upon that same bodily action thus: ‘Does this action that I am doing with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?’ When you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body leads to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results,’ then you should suspend such a bodily action. But when you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body does not lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is a wholesome bodily action with pleasant consequences, with pleasant results,’ then you may continue in such a bodily action. (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In later posts we’ll get into some particulars of wholesome and unwholesome actions, but this sutta suggests an a priori requirement – reflection. It can make the difference between carelessly repeating habitual patterns vs. training our bodies and minds to see ourselves and others in a new way. Rather than viewing other people as obstacles to our desires, or reminders of our inadequacies, or as insignificant, we can start to see that we’re all in the same situation. We all want to live peacefully and happily, without stress or conflict, and we all try, sometimes in misguided ways, to get what we want. What we forget is that when our motivation is to get something for ourselves by excluding or rejecting others, or ignoring our fundamental equality with them, it cannot improve our situation. Clinging, in all of its various forms, can only create suffering.

A special case of unwholesome clinging is “us vs. them” thinking. Unless we try to understand where other people are coming from, we’ll only move further apart.

On the other hand, if we broaden the scope of our intentions to include ourselves and others, we may discover ways to bring joy, or resolution, or release, to all concerned. When we let go of our greedy, me-centered framework, a whole range of possible actions may become apparent.

The key is to notice what we’re doing, ideally before we act, or while we are in the process of doing something. A dharma friend once said to me, “Listen to yourself!” That would be a good start, but we could broaden the instruction to “Observe your intentions and actions.” If we observe ourselves closely as we go about our daily business we will see when our actions are motivated by selfishness and when they are motivated by generosity and beneficial intentions.

Failing that, we can recognize the discomfort that comes afterwards if we know we’ve done something harmful, and the pleasant feeling of having done something beneficial. An after-the-fact assessment can sometimes cut through habitual thinking and provide the opportunity to re-frame a situation.

We can always return to this starting point – we can watch what we’re doing, with care.

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Right view -> right action

Just as a seed of neem, bitter cucumber, or bitter gourd, planted in moist soil and receiving water, would all lead to fruits with a bitter flavour, so for a person of wrong view…whatever bodily action, verbal action, and mental action he undertakes in accordance with that view, and whatever his volition, yearning, inclination and activities, all lead to harm and suffering. For what reason? Because the view is bad.

Just as a seed of sugar cane, hill rice, or grape, planted in moist soil and receiving water, would all lead to fruits with a sweet and delectable flavour, just so, for a person of right view…whatever bodily action, verbal action, and mental action he undertakes in accordance with that view, and whatever his volition, yearning, inclination and activities, all lead to well-being and happiness. For what reason? Because the view is good. (from AN 10:104, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The second section of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, is called Personal Training. The personal training referred to starts with generosity and moves on to various forms of moral conduct and culminates in loving kindness practices. But all of the training is dependent on having a mental framework that supports moving in a wholesome direction, that is, right view.

If we think that our actions don’t matter, that we can behave as we like without regard for effects on others and habits in ourselves, then we cannot develop. If we understand that whatever we do has consequences for ourselves and others, then we are facing in the right direction. Our intentions, motivations, desires and inclinations will all follow from our view.

One way we can understand ourselves better is by watching where our attention goes during any given day. Sometimes we feel that our life is just one interruption after the other and that we can’t actually “get” anywhere. Sometimes we feel adrift and aimless. Other times we may be so focused on one project or worry that everything else falls away. Through any of these or other experiences, we can remember that our interactions with other beings illuminate our view. The quality of the conversations we have, the tasks we remember or forget to do, the people we seek out or avoid – all of these are indicators of our view.

If we feel sour or sweet, we can observe the effects of our actions on other people, and take them as guiding evidence, showing us (and others) when we are spreading harm or benefit. No one is perfect, but if we give it our attention, our view can (gradually) become sweeter  and our influence more beneficial.

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The Golden Rule

Direct from the Pali canon, these words  are from SN 55:7, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

“What, householders, is the Dhamma exposition applicable to oneself? Here, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die; I desire happiness and am averse to suffering. Since I am someone who wishes to live … and am averse to suffering, if someone were to take my life, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. Now if I were to take the life of another – of one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die, who desires happiness and is averse to suffering – that would not be pleasing and agreeable to the other. What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to the other too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’ Having reflected thus, he himself abstains from the destruction of life, exhorts others to abstain from the destruction of life, and speaks in praise of abstinence from the destruction of life. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to take from me what I have not given, that is, to commit theft, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to commit adultery with my wife, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to damage my welfare with false speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to divide me from my friends by divisive speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with harsh speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with frivolous speech and idle chatter, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. … How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’

The beauty of this reflection is that it starts with considering how we would feel if someone treated us in specific, hurtful ways. It is easy to imagine how pained and angry we might be if we were attacked, robbed, lied to, etc. We might even enjoy exploring the sensations of righteous anger. But the essential step is the next one, to ask ourselves: How can I inflict on another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?

This is an exhortation to examine how we would like to be treated, in these seven specific areas, and to pause and consider whether we are inflicting any of these behaviors on anyone else. This should include everyone else – slow service people, people whose opinions we disagree with, friends or relatives who try our patience – everyone.

We can refrain from harming others, discourage others from causing suffering, and take every opportunity to sing the praises of people (in their presence or absence) who refrain from these forms of harm. These are things we can do, not because anyone has said we have to, but because this is how we can refine our own behavior and thinking. We can change our relationship with the world and everyone in it, gradually diminishing any harm we might be causing and increasing whatever benefits we bestow. These can be our gifts to the people around us.

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Know for yourself

The Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) is probably the most often misrepresented of the Buddha’s teachings.

“It is fitting for you to be perplexed, Kālāmas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”

Many people are enchanted with the Buddha’s listing of sources NOT to trust as guides to behavior and don’t look any further; but the important point is to know for ourselves which actions lead to harm and which lead to benefit. This is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” or “Use your intuition.” It’s using an evidence-based approach to figuring out how to live for one’s own benefit and the benefit of others.

“…But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them.

“What do you think, Kālāmas? When a person is without greed, hatred, and delusion, is it for his welfare or for his harm?” – “For his welfare, Bhante.” – “Kālāmas, a person not overcome by greed, hatred, and delusion, whose mind is not obsessed by them, does not destroy life, take what is not given, transgress with another’s wife, or speak falsehood; nor does he encourage others to do likewise. Will that lead to his welfare and happiness for a long time?” – “Yes, Bhante.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)

The Buddha points out that it’s impossible to consider the results of our (or anyone’s) actions and conclude that it doesn’t matter if we lie, steal, cheat, or harm living beings. If we observe closely what happens when people treat each other in these ways, we can see that harm and suffering ensue.

The most likely way for us to cause grief to others is by not paying attention to what we’re doing. We may continue habitual behaviors without considering that we have a choice. The five precepts are guidelines for making wholesome choices. The practice implied by this sutta is to STOP and reflect on potential consequences before we act. Failing that, we can review our actions and their actual effects on ourselves and others, and resolve to act (or not act) accordingly.



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