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Saturday, June 10, 2006


Buddhism & marriage

A friend in Bangkok emailed me recently and said that her mother had encouraged her to remain single because of a Buddhist belief that marriage causes suffering. My friend asked my opinion, which I now share with my blog readers.

I think the Buddha was quite clear about the cause of suffering. To me that is the essence of Buddhism. After his enlightenment the first sermon given by the Buddha was on the four noble truths.

The first noble truth states the existence of dukkha—usually translated into English either as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. I'm not sure if there is a more appropriate Thai word but neither English word is quite accurate. Perhaps dukkha relates to both suffering and the general unsatisfactoriness of life. Dukkha is a condition of existence whether one is married or single.

The second noble truth states that the cause of dukkha is attachment to one's desires.

When I was young I used to think that money was the root of all evil. Then I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and learned that money is neither good nor bad. It is the attachment to money that leads us to evil and other forms of dukkha.

Likewise, marriage is neither good nor evil. However, I have to wonder how many marriages there are that are free from attachment.

To my mind, what most people perceive as love is actually attachment. When we make statements like 'I can't live without you', we are expressing our attachment to that person.

In both Thailand and Cambodia I often hear people say 'I miss you'. I don't know if this means quite the same here as it does in English. If it does, then what people are saying is, 'I am unhappy/sad/disappointed when you are not with me.' This sounds like dukkha to me and if that is what is really happening for people, it comes from their attachment to the other person.

Buddhism also teaches that nothing is as it appears. We all create our own illusions that we believe to be real. When we 'fall in love', invariably what we have fallen in love with is an illusion. If, for example, we love someone for their beauty, that beauty may be created by makeup, undergarments, a hairdresser or something else that is artificial. Perhaps the beauty is natural, but it is still subject to the conditions of existence, ie, it is impermanent. Will we still love that person when the beauty fades?

It is not uncommon for people to try to find out what their intended partner is looking for in a partner and then try to be that person. Perhaps most people do this to some degree. In doing so, they are creating an illusion. Can they, or would they want to, keep this illusion up for the rest of their lives? Or perhaps they maintain it until the wedding ceremony is over and then revert to their true selves.

The point is that what we become attached to is rarely the reality of that person. Later we realize this and feel disappointed. Sometimes we feel we have been cheated. But we had a part in creating the illusion. And what we are experiencing is dukkha. It has come from our attachment. Perhaps we try to get them to change or try to get out of the relationship. But we need to ask ourselves are we once again motivated by our attachments. If so, we will be in for more dukkha.

This sounds very negative and seems to suggest that marriage can only lead to dukkha. However, as I said, the single person is also subject to dukkha. One cannot avoid it simply by staying single. To be dukkha-free, one must be free of attachment no matter one's marital state.

The Theravada tradition teaches monks many techniques to free themselves from attachment to women. The reasoning is, I gather, that lust is one of the great hindrances to achieving enlightenment. Therefore monks are taught that when they are lusting over a particular woman they should imagine her, for example, as a rotting corpse.

I personally have little time for these techniques. We are biologically programmed to be attracted to the opposite sex. That is what keeps the human race alive. I don't know if the monks who I teach are also taught these techniques. If they are, the techniques don't work for them. Most of these guys are monks out of poverty. Yes, they value the teachings, but most of them long for the day when they will finish their study, can disrobe, get a job and be free to take a wife.

For the lifetime monk whose goal is enlightenment the Buddha has created the Sangha to support them in their goal. They can work on achieving their enlightenment without the distractions created by sexual relationships. However, I question if this enlightenment is real. I suspect it is also an illusion. Baba Ram Das (not a Buddhist) has said in his writings that whenever he feels he is starting to get there—that perhaps he has finally reached enlightenment—he puts himself into a relationship and that brings him back to reality. How real is one's enlightenment if one can only hold onto it within an environment of withdrawal from society?

I think it is worthwhile to consider just what marriage is. I wonder if there was a time when human beings did not marry. If that was the case, there must have been a lot of kids running wild without fathers. Mothers must have had a hard time finding food and keeping their kids under control at the same time. As society became more socialized, I suspect the leaders of societies created marriage as a solution to this problem. The problem was easier to cope with when it was shared. In some cultures marriage was seen as so important to be given the label 'holy'.

Marriage and relationships have evolved over the centuries as life has evolved. It is now possible for people to have sexual relationships without bringing children into the world. The need to marry is not really relevant to people who make this decision. Of course many still choose to do so but I wonder if this is not simply because centuries of enculturation is hard to give up. Perhaps they are attached to the idea of marriage.

Both your culture and mine have had strong taboos against premarital and extramarital sex. In my lifetime, I have seen some evolution in these attitudes particularly in Western society. Except with the most devout Christians, I believe that premarital sex is pretty much fully accepted in the West, so long as it is between consenting adults. People no longer need to marry to have sex. They are free to do as they please, so long as they take the necessary precautions and both partners agree.

I believe that in a society where premarital sex is forbidden, the desire to marry is stronger. When I was a young man, it was common for couples to marry in their early 20s. The next generation probably waited ten years longer than that. I don't know if they are bringing any more wisdom to their decisions.

My observation is that Asian society is moving in a similar direction. Thailand is a little further down this track than Cambodia.

Both of our cultures promote the idea of 'until death us do part'. I can't see that this concept is really Buddhist. Another of the conditions of existence is impermanence. So why should marriage be expected to last forever?

I believe this concept was introduced for practical reasons. When practised it ensures that children are raised in a permanent family environment. Of course this belief is not practised so widely in the West anymore. Perhaps it has become less of an issue with prosperity. The average one-parent family in Australia is probably more wealthy than the average two-parent family in Thailand and certainly more so than most two parent families in Cambodia.

Another issue with marriage is that of fidelity. It seems that in both Western and Asian cultures society encourages fidelity but how many actually practise it? In the West, perhaps infidelity often leads to divorce. In Asian cultures it seems the woman usually turns a blind eye. I don't know if there is an answer to this but I would observe that this is simply another example of desire and attachment leading to dukkha.

To marry or not marry? Each individual must decide. However, avoiding marriage to avoid suffering is a misunderstanding. The challenge is to live life without attachment. This is probably equally difficult whether one is married or not.

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