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 (https://www.lionsroar.com/category/buddhadharma/), 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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Understanding dukkha

One useful definition if dukkha is not getting what we want, and getting what we don’t want.

We are constitutionally inclined to want stability, reliability, and predictability, even more than we want pleasure. But all of our experience is characterized by anicca — instability. Everything that we can perceive or know is changing: short-term or long-term, visibly or invisibly, growing or diminishing, blooming or rotting, beginning or ending. Everything in nature, including all of us, our bodies and minds, falls into this category. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of our existence.

Largely because we wish things wouldn’t change in ways we don’t like, dukkha arises in our experience. We may not be aware of the specific cause of our dukkha, which can be frustrating, can make life seem unfair, and can sometimes make us angry or upset. But here’s the opportunity: we can accept and work with life as it is, or we can reject and resist it.

One area in which it’s particularly difficult to discern and accept dukkha is in the realm of love and attachment. In romantic love, feelings are often mercurial, up and down, intense and unpredictable. Love between friends can take many various forms. Love of our parents can be mixed with reservations of all kinds, or can be brightened with admiration and gratitude. Love for our children is probably the strongest and most complicated bond of all, and I’ll address it in the next post.

In our affections, as in most things, we desire stability. And yet all of our relationships are in constant flux; we need flexibility and forgiveness to make them last. If the challenges are accepted as normal events, we may be able to respond more constructively, with less reactivity.

We want our children, friends, parents, siblings, and ourselves to be happy, to be confident and successful (by any definition). These are wishes and feelings that might be directed to anyone and everyone, and when they are offered freely, that is mettā. When we recognize the fluctuations of sukkha and dukkha in our experience, dwelling in and radiating mettā can become a natural state.

 

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What is dukkha?

A dear friend told me recently that when she heard that the first noble truth was “life is suffering”, she felt that Buddhism couldn’t be for her. This is so common a misunderstanding of the first truth that I feel we need to clarify things; we need to learn how to discuss the Buddha’s teachings in less absolute and more useful terms.

The first truth is: there is dukkha. It’s not “all life is suffering” or “everything stinks”, it’s a recognition that within every aspect of our ongoing experience, there is (at least) a grain of dissatisfaction. The primary way in which our experiences are colored by dukkha is that every moment of our day “could be better”. We are always feeling that if only this or that aspect of what’s happening were different, it would be perfect. Moments of complete satisfaction and joy last only as long as it takes for the thought “I wish this could last forever” to form. Even when we find the perfect physical position to relax into, with no immediate worries and nothing to do, these conditions change (against our wishes). The body wants to adjust itself or something we need to do pops into our head and we get agitated. This is a description of sitting meditation, if you think about it.

So, with respect to the first truth, our instruction is to acknowledge it. If we can recognize these moments of dissatisfaction with the way things are, we can investigate what is causing the dukkha, and possibly find release.

The Pali word dukkha has a very broad meaning that includes more or less everything that we don’t like, from the smallest itch to a major catastrophe. One image associated with the word is a wagon wheel where the axle and hub don’t fit together smoothly, so wherever the cart goes, the ride will be bumpy. Our awareness of dukkha can be when things are going well or badly. There is always some “sand in the gears”, even if it’s something like “I wish person X could be here to enjoy this”.

The opposite of dukkha is sukkha, which includes everything we like, from worldly satisfactions to subtly joyful mindstates. Sometimes we think that sukkha is our birthright and that dukkha is a error, an unacceptable aberration. It’s easier to accept sukkha than dukkha.

If we recognize a moment in which dukkha is apparent, rather than turning away from it, trying to rush past it to something we like better, we can turn inward and investigate. Often just by naming our dissatisfactions, we take some power away from them. When someone else’s behavior annoys or frustrates us, we may be able to work out that their behavior and our reaction to it are two different things. We can’t control their behavior, but we may be able to re-direct our reaction, or at least understand and have compassion for it.

The second truth is the truth of the origin of dukkha. We can simply say that some form of clinging is always at the root of dukkha, but it is more useful to recognize this in our experience. What does dukkha feel like? Is there some way in which we are wishing that things were different from how they are? How strong is that feeling? Where does it resonate in the body? What desire of ours is making this experience uncomfortable?

 

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Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

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The right words to the right person

Monks, a talk is wrongly addressed when, having weighed one type of person against another, it is addressed to these five [inappropriate] types of persons. A talk on faith is wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith; a talk on virtuous behavior is wrongly addressed to an immoral person; a talk on learning is wrongly addressed to one of little learning; a talk on generosity is wrongly addressed to a miser; a talk on wisdom is wrongly addressed to an unwise person.

And why is a talk on faith wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith? When a talk on faith is being given, a person devoid of faith loses his temper and becomes irritated, hostile, and stubborn; he displays anger, hatred and bitterness. For what reason? Because he does not perceive that faith in himself and rejoice in it. Therefore a talk on faith is wrongly addressed to a person devoid of faith…[etc. for each of the other wrongly addressed talks, and then the same list in reverse for properly addressed talks on each subject]. – from AN 5:157, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Buddha is making a narrow point here: don’t give the benefit of your wisdom to people who won’t appreciate it; it will only aggravate them. Most of us have had this experience. We say something that we think is obvious and find that the person listening has an opposing point of view; they might even get angry, sparking an argument. This is a matter of discernment. For every view that we hold, we have to assume that others may hold differing views; there is no truly safe topic of conversation. Even if we are praising someone we see as clearly praiseworthy, someone else will object to that characterization.

We can talk about faith, virtuous behavior, learning, generosity, or wisdom, and these are wholesome subjects for discussion, but we must consider whether we are approaching a willing companion in conversation of each of these topics.

We also have the choice of starting every conversation with a complaint, a criticism, or a report of injustice (usually to ourselves). There’s a certain temporary comfort to be found in assuming the posture of a put-upon citizen. But over days and weeks, this becomes tiresome for everyone. Once again, holding to silence may become an appealing option.

We could think of the advice given in this sutta as a corollary to cultivating wholesome companions. With whom could we discuss generosity? Ethical behavior? Learning as a positive virtue? Wise acts? These are the people we might do well to seek out.

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Listening to ourselves – error

Friends. It appears that the cartoon that I embedded in today’s post shrank in the process of being sent as an email. To see the cartoon clearly, please click the link on the bottom of that email or this one.

Very sorry. It’s a mystery.

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