What does it mean to be practicing the Dharma in 2019, with the devastating effects of climate change, divisive polarization throughout society, the absence of dialogue in public discourse, a growing refugee crisis and increased violence towards immigrants, people of color, and marginalized communities? How do we understand teachings on nonattachment and still respond to the dire need and suffering within and around us?
The Buddhist path can be easily mistaken for a solitary affair in which the practitioner strives for personal enlightenment independently. When I first began contemplative practice, seeking some relief from emotional pain and more perspective on the confusion and angst of my early 20s, it was easy to think that the goal was to “detach” from life and become impervious to the effects of others’ actions. Indeed, the Buddha himself was often referred to as a “lone tusker.”
When we hear (or read about) the emphasis that the Buddha placed on solitude, it’s essential to bear in mind the context within which he lived—ancient Indian society, where the bonds of family and community were so closely knit that the sense of individuality could easily be eclipsed. (Even today, many Asian societies and traditional cultures place more emphasis on identity as membership in a group than on being an individual).
A Modern Context
I grew up in the opposite world. The dominant, white, western culture’s focus on hyper-individualism encouraged me to see myself primarily, if not exclusively, as a separate, autonomous individual. This idea was reinforced daily through the media, through idealized images of being a “unique individual,” through a narrative of satisfaction through personal achievement and consumption, as well as through stories and myths of the lone hero conquering challenges.
Given this context, it is no wonder that many practitioners mistakenly hear the teachings on nonattachment and solitude as a validation of unquestioned cultural assumptions about the primacy of the individual and the devaluing of relationship.
This, in my view, is a dangerous misinterpretation of the Buddhist path—dangerous because it warps one’s own spiritual development, because it can be used to avoid the very real suffering that millions experience on a daily basis, and because it can make us complacent in the face of institutions and systems that are destroying people, animals, communities and life on the planet.
What I have come to understand is that rather than cutting us off from one another, this path brings us into the web of life more fully, illuminating the intricate nature of our relationships and nourishing a tender appreciation for the interdependence and vulnerability of all life. The more one examines the teachings, the practice and the way of life taught by the Buddha, the more clearly one sees that this path is at its heart relational. This realization moves us to act.
The Buddha’s Guidance
In guiding people towards freedom, the Buddha began with a very simple instruction: see how it feels to give. Generosity (dāna) connects us to one another. We all know how it feels to receive a gift, the sense of being seen and cared for it can spark. Giving develops healthy relationships based on mutual respect and care.
In this way, generosity creates a sense of belonging and community, which begins to counteract many of the most corrosive effects of modern society. It brings joy and delight, heals the sense of alienation and separation that is so endemic today, and enhances our sense of self-respect and dignity—all essential qualities for meditation and a healthy society. On a deeper level, the practice of generosity reveals the value of letting go, helping us to ease out of the narrow confines of any self-centeredness.
From here, the Buddha instructs a disciple to observe the five precepts, a training in ethical sensitivity that cultivates inner awareness of mind states and intentions, as well as relational awareness of the effects of our actions. This deepens empathy, strengthens our capacity to be present with others, and further enhances the sense of connection we feel to life on the planet. When our thoughts, words and deeds are imbued with care, reverence, and harmlessness, the heart-mind is freed from remorse, and we begin to feel more at home in the world.
Thus, the path begins with creating a healthy balance of loving relationship with others in which we feel seen, held and valued. The practices of dāna and sila create an inner foundation of well-being, and a relational space of safety and connection. Learning occurs best in a such safe, trusting relationships—both externally, as well as internally in terms of the relationship with oneself.
The Buddha’s emphasis on healthy relationship as a foundation for the path is echoed in many other key teachings. Right view gives value to relationship, and acknowledges the central importance of our actions. As Ajahn Sucitto points out in his book, Parami:
[Right view] encompasses acknowledgement of and gratitude to mother and father and other supportive people, as well as the sense that there are wise beings from whom we can learn… Right view reminds us that we are not just an isolated point that is only relevant for the moment. We are in a field of present awareness that absorbs and carries the consequences of what we’ve done in our life or had happen to us. (p.36)
We live in a world of relationship, where we have each received generosity, and where actions have effects on ourselves and others. Acknowledging this relational nature of existence is the beginning of the development of wisdom.
The Buddha also places immense emphasis on the company we keep. He repeatedly extols the benefits of associating with wise friends, kaliyanamitta. He waxes poetic: just as the dawn is the precursor for the rising of the sun, so too having a good friend is the precursor for developing the Noble Eightfold Path (SN.45.29). He even goes so far as to say:
“I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as good friendship” (AN.1.71).
Consider for a moment how you found this practice. Whether it was a friend, an author, or a podcast, we all learn about the Dharma through a relationship. The Buddha called this “the voice of the other.” The presence of a wise friend is one of the two causes for the arising of right view (the other being our own deep and careful attention).
The Heart of the Practice
The importance of relationship on the path goes even further. From the Buddhist understanding, experience itself is a relationship of different factors coming together. The path to awakening rests upon understanding the functioning of these factors, learning which conditions lead to stress and suffering, and which lead to peace and release. We slowly and deliberately nourish the wholesome ones and reduce the unwholesome ones, while developing a fundamentally different relationship to all experience.
Being alive is a relational experience. As soon as there is “me” there is the “other,” the world out there. Consciousness is by definition awareness of something: the mind is knowing an object.
Thus, Dhamma practice is a relational activity. The question we examine again and again on this path is: what qualities of heart/mind constitute that relationship? Is it characterized by confusion, craving, fear, manipulation, hostility? Or is it characterized by the clarity of wisdom, the brightness of generosity, and the warmth of compassion?
The core teachings of the Four Noble Truths—dukkha (the stress, difficulty and underlying anxiety inherent to life), its cause, end, and the way leading to that end—is a teaching on relationship. Dukkha arises not from the external conditions or circumstances of life, but lies in our relationship to those conditions.
Thus, cultivating healthy relationships externally becomes a template and a support for cultivating a different relationship with moment-to-moment experience. (And in turn, transforming our relationship with phenomenal experience informs and shapes our interpersonal relationships in a reciprocal fashion).
What’s more, suffering is not just personal; it is also relational and social. Again, step back and consider: how much of the dukkha that you experience involves relationship: with others, with yourself, or with our society and planet? Recognizing this, we learn how wounds that were created in relationship are often healed in relationship.
As consciousness becomes infused with healthy qualities, we can investigate the process of conditioned awareness itself. We start to question the very sense of self that appears to be at the center of our lives, and liberating insight into the true nature of relationship can occur: all things are dependently arisen, changing. With this understanding, our way of being in the world continues to shift from a rigid, self-centered focus, to a more fluid and responsive participation in life.
Integrating Relationship in Practice
The question, then, is how to integrate these perspectives on the relational nature of mindfulness into our formal practice and our daily lives?
The Noble Eightfold Path itself provides a useful framework. The first step is adjusting our view—recognizing the inherently relational nature of this path and its practice. The second step is bringing forth a firm intention to explore our relationships as a core part of our spiritual practice. From there, we deepen our understanding and practice of ethics, and learn to cultivate effort, mindfulness and concentration, all in real-time relationship.
On my own path, I have found complimentary, modern disciplines like Insight Dialogue and Nonviolent Communication to be incredibly supportive in deepening my exploration of relationship as a contemplative practice.
Insight Dialogue offers a potent method for “interpersonal meditation,” cultivating the Factors of Awakening through structured exercises, while speaking and listening, seeing, hearing and interacting. From this basis of presence, we can begin to examine the content of our lives: the feedback loops and connections between our personality conditioning, relationships, and society.
The tools of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) provide a powerful framework for this investigation. When the mind is clear and receptive from contemplative practice, the process of NVC reveals how mechanisms of thought and perception feed unhealthy mind states and impulses, and how shifting our view, intention, or focus of attention can transform our relationships and interactions.
Relational practice allows us to experience the Noble Eight Fold Path here and now, in this very mind and body, from the most ordinary to the most intimate interactions of life. It strengthens healthy qualities of mind and reveals the unhealthy ones.
When we include relationship as a central focus of the path, we uncover how family and society has shaped and molded our views, biases, and personalities. This investigation itself can open into deep and liberating insight into the conditioned nature of all experience, as well as forge robust tools for engaging in dialogue and working for social change.
The forms of Dharma practice have always changed and evolved over time as these teachings have moved from one culture to another. Today, as we face the immense challenges of our times, I am deeply interested in the question: what does an authentic practice of the Buddha’s teachings look like in 2019?
If we are to rise to the occasion and meet these challenges, if we are to preserve what is left of our biodiversity, protect the life support systems of our planet for future generations, and support those most vulnerable in society, we must be willing to investigate this beloved path, to honor the tremendous gifts it has to offer, as well as to acknowledge any limitations or gaps it may contain. If it is only a path to solitary freedom, what does that mean for our planet and future generations? If it is a path of relationship, there is hope.