The crucible of spiritual practice in marriage

I often say that zazen is a crucible. It is like an alchemical vessel or scientific beaker sitting on a Bunsen burner, which allows a transformation to occur within the beaker. By sitting still with no escape, we allow the flotsam and jetsam of our life to float up to the surface and get burned away. It is grist for the mill. Harada Roshi, (from Bukkoku-ji Temple) years ago at Hokyoji Monastery said, the stones of the mill, rub and rub the grist until there is nothing left, (he indicated this by rubbing his hand together over and over) and that is similar to our sense of self being rubbed away by the intensity and clarity of zazen. After a while, we are just clear and open. Ready to meet the moment just as it is.

Today, I am going to participate in a marriage ceremony and I think of marriage in much the same way. Two people make a vessel together that won’t be broken. In this day and age, perhaps we should say, hope won’t be broken. But nevertheless, at a marriage ceremony the assumption is “can’t be broken”,  or “until death do us part.” We cut off the avenues of escape so that the abandonment issue is less prevalent in our minds, and then the real work of character building begins. The alchemical vessels heats up. The flotsam and jetsam of our life issues arise indeed! And perhaps I could add, endlessly arise. Greed, anger and ignorance arise endlessly. Who knows and sees are faults or perhaps I should say, our humanness, the most? — our partner! This marriage vessel becomes a laboratory for digesting and working out the stuck places in ourselves, so that we can become the best human we can be. It is a container to explore our growth in the safety of unconditional love.

It is quite a different kind of “Love” then we see in the media and in our culture. The common place “love” is based on — what can I get out of this partnership? What can the other person give to me? Will that other person fill the hole in my stomach of loneliness and anxiety? But spiritually speaking, marriage is quite the opposite. Love is something that you do, not something that you get. Marriage is a verb, not a noun. It is an every day practice. We actively love, accept and support our partners to become the best human being that they can be. The other person’s growth and wholeness as a human being is equally important to us as our own .

In The Tibetan tradition they have two sayings. One is “Equalizing yourself and other” which is the first practice of finding the equality of concern for yourself and others. We are all in exactly the same human predicament. We begin to see that “I” and “Other” are not real. If after beginning to see all our suffering as universal, we can go even further with the phrase “exchanging yourself with the other”. This is quite the pinnacle of a bodhisattva practice where you can, by a feat of sympathetic imagination, place oneself in the position of others. In so doing, one gains an appreciation of both how and why others feel the way they do, and how one appears in their eyes. This leads us to an understanding of appropriate action for our partner’s benefit.

Through this kind of understanding, marriage has a different meaning and can be used as a deep practice of exploring all the Buddhist principles. It is evident that our marriage problems can be the grist for the mill of establishing an understanding of no centralized self. It brings forth the on-going moment-to-moment practice of mindfulness. My partner’s problems are my problems and vice-versa. It is also a place to cultivate kindness, compassion, joy, forgiveness and equanimity under all circumstances. For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

There is one other koan explored in marriage, which produces a very active practice. How do we maintain our individuality and get our needs met, at the same time we are surrendering or compromising for the benefit of the “other”. It is an example of oneness that doesn’t eradicate twoness. The deep paradox of Zen practice.

This individuation really is helped by a deep practice of Right Speech and loving communication. Honest, direct and loving communication is a “learned” skill, I think, and something that is practiced day in and day out. Knowing when we are pressing the doorbell of our partner’s reactivity, and choosing to communicate in a different way, is true intimacy and a deep kind of listening. It is a type of tenderness in communication that exemplifies a good marriage and also helps us to be able to work through all the thorny differences and issues that arise throughout a lifetime together.

From Erich Fromm:

Love is union with somebody, or something outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.