Do Buddhist teachings specifically address the value of family life and relationships on the path of practice? Traditional scriptures rarely give explicit guidance for our lives as parents and family members, householders, career people, and so forth. Because of this, many North American Buddhists seek to develop new and relevant teachings for our family contexts. On the other hand, when we examine our traditional sources, there are many teachings that speak directly to our family practice. Especially helpful are the bodhisattva practices for working with attachment.
When Buddhism was founded in India, the life of the devoted practitioner was depicted as one of “leaving home and becoming homeless.” Those serious about the practice became monks or nuns, leaving householder life behind, foregoing family life and relationships. But in the later developments of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, there were many models for practicing as lay people in the midst of life’s complexities. Vimalakirti had a family and was a respected member of his community. King Indrabhuti was introduced to Vajrayana practice based on a lifestyle that included the responsibilities of ruling an entire country, and presiding over a complicated family and domestic life. There are also examples of many accomplished yogins and yoginis who had families, such as Machik Lapdron who was married with children.
The great yogin Milarepa routinely disavowed family life, and often warned of the dangers of the entrapment by one’s family. When a married couple encouraged him to take a wife and have children, he responded in horror, depicting a nightmare of domestic relationships. Proclaiming, “I have no need of these things!” he sang:
At first, when a man greets his relatives,
He is happy and joyful; with enthusiasm
He serves, entertains, and talks to them.
Later, they share his meat and wine.
He offers something to them once, they may reciprocate.
In the end, they cause anger, craving, and bitterness;
They are a fountain of regret and unhappiness.
With this in mind, I renounce pleasant and sociable friends;
For kinsmen and neighbors, I have no appetite.
Still, Milarepa was the heart-son of the great householder-yogin Marpa, who had a wife, children, and ran a large farm in Tibet. When his cherished son Tarma Dode died in an accident, he and his wife Dakmema grieved mightily and long.
How are we to understand the practice of family life as dharma students? How are we to reconcile contradictory instructions from our most respected teachers regarding family life? The rash dharma practitioner might consider one’s family members to be the obstacles to meditation. But when we examine further, we realize that is not true. The obstacle is our own mind. The great siddha Tilopa taught,
Appearances don’t bind; attachments bind.
The essence of the entire path of dharma is working with our attachments. If we can work effectively with our own minds, especially with our own attachments, our family environments are the most conducive for dharma practice that we can ever find.
|This excerpt is part of the contents published in Bodhi Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 2002). You can purchase this issue or subscribe to Bodhi at the Bodhi Dharma Store.|