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Buddhism and Relationships

At memorial services, I have been sharing an insight that I recently had: that Buddhism is very much about relationships.

If you learn about Buddhism only from textbooks or the internet, then this may not seem obvious — in fact, it may not make sense at all! What do relationships have to do with meditation? Isn’t the Buddhist ideal to leave the family and embark on a quest for enlightenment?

Other schools of Buddhism might not emphasize relationships, but in Jodo Shinshu, we can see the importance of relationships in a number of ways. Let’s start with the obvious — interpersonal relationships. Perhaps the earliest relationships we have are with family, such as our parents, siblings, and if we’re lucky, extended family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. These relationships are so important, with a deep impact on how we develop as we grow.

We also encounter other people outside of our family — some of them even become friends. I am fortunate to still be in contact with someone who was my first friend — we had moved from Japan to Massachusetts, and our next-door neighbors in our new house had a kid about a year younger than me. I have pictures of us playing while we were infants. We moved to a different house soon after, but fortunately, our families stayed connected.

Sometimes, though, we encounter people who don’t become friends. I have a clear memory of my mother taking me to a local nursery school to check it out. We went into the place, and it was chaos! I remember kids screaming and yelling — I was terrified! I must have begged my mother not to leave me there because I didn’t end up going to nursery school. That was maybe not the best move — it just isolated me from other kids that much more. In hindsight, we may have just had bad timing — it must have been recess when we arrived. It was sensory overload and set up patterns that would continue for years.

And here is one of the key aspects of why relationships are important — I can gain insight into myself by reflecting on my relationships with others.

Whether chance encounters like my first visit to nursery school, or much deeper relationships with family and friends, we can recognize the impact on ourselves. The next step might be, then, to become more aware of my impact on others. As Buddhists, we aspire to be “kind and gentle to every living thing,” but we also need to reflect realistically on how we treat others. I believe that these interpersonal relationships are at the core of our lives as Buddhists.

Another kind of relationship is that between myself and Buddha. One way to understand the Buddha is as someone to emulate. Many of Shakyamuni’s teachings and the interpretations of following masters and schools offer practices that will ideally lead one to some form of enlightenment. They often involve leaving home and becoming a monk.

As a young monk on Mount Hiei, Shinran is thought to have strenuously set himself to this task, but after 20 years, he realized that it wasn’t working. So he left the mountain, encountered his teacher Honen, and embarked on a different path.

In this path, one does not have to leave home. You don’t have to be special or talented — it is a path for ordinary people. Rather than try strenuously to become Buddha, one recognizes to what extent one is not a Buddha.

Rather than try and exterminate the Three Poisons of Desire, Anger, and Ignorance, we realize that we are made up of those Three Poisons.

And yet, we have encountered the Buddha, we listen to the Dharma, we become part of the Sangha. As we reflect on ourselves, in relation to others, we call out to the Buddha, reciting the Nembutsu — Namo Amida Butsu — finding ourselves embraced by Wisdom and Compassion.

From my perspective, Buddha is what I am not. But from Buddha’s perspective, it’s all one, the true reality of light and life, Wisdom and Compassion. So although Buddha may be “other,” this “Other Power” envelops us, transforms us, encouraging us to see ourselves “as we are,” to accept ourselves, and yet also to inspire us to be better, to transform us into something we could not have become otherwise.


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