In the world of impermanence, everything changes. What we deem as traditional or normal is only a moment or period of time as transience takes place. In our Buddhist practice today, if we do not move along with the impermanence, we suffer.
What is the definition of family? Is there really much difference between traditional and nontraditional families? What is the role of religion in the family unit? All of these questions can be answered through the words of scholars, spiritual leaders, and religious teachings. As a member of Rissho Kosei-kai of Oklahoma, I turn to the teachings of the Buddha for an answer.
First, let us define the many different family units. There are traditional families for each and every culture, blended families that are parents, children, or both from other family units; there are same-sex families with and without children; and there are extended (nonrelated) families that expand the definition even further. Grandparents are raising their children's children. Single males and females are adopting children; and some single women are having children. There are even those who mutually care for each other in ways that they cannot care for themselves, thereby creating a family unit. One example of this is two women who have taken care of each other for more than thirty-five years. One of them is mentally challenged but physically capable, and the other has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Their strengths take care of each other's weaknesses. All of these families can have core values and beliefs, with an ever-present ability to practice their spirituality. Our world has created the opportunity for everyone to be a part of a family.
Spiritual orientation comes from many places. Family is one of these places. And spirituality as a belief comes to and from the individual. Imagine the many faces of the "family" unit. The parent, whoever that may be, begins the spiritual process along with the rest of the family members by practicing his or her chosen spiritual path. In fact, you could say it begins at the moment of conception and is the subtle transference of the buddha-nature from mother to child.
Some believe that the bonds of the family have weakened as the definition of family has expanded. I am more concerned about how the suffering within impermanence may weaken us as individuals and how that affects our family structures. As a child growing up, we do what is modeled in our family unit, and that is what we know. If that model does not transfer the teachings of the Buddha and only transfers the definition, spirituality becomes lost in the mask of religion, which is not being practiced. So let us go to the teachings of our faith. It immediately takes us to the state of transience. Eternal peace and fulfillment come from remembering impermanence.
The Seal of the Three Laws begins the journey.
1. All things are impermanent.
2. Nothing has an ego.
3. Nirvana is quiescence.
Impermanence teaches us that our experiences change in an instant and that if the ego hangs on to the challenges that come from the movement, we become shaken by circumstances. All things, without exception, are related to one another, existing from the same life energy. When we separate ourselves through our ego, the ability to provide the family with spiritual guidance or teachings becomes lost. However, as the illusions the ego creates are dispersed, peace and quietude return.
It seems in this day of transient families, the illusions of ego have grown to enormous proportion. Everyone has an opinion of what is family. Again, we are all interconnected with the same buddha-nature. When this is not realized, we see that "all existence is suffering," which we learn from the Four Noble Truths. This suffering is showing its many forms through juvenile crime, domestic violence, addictions, and withdrawal from society. Suffering exists when a person's buddha-nature is challenged and when the person's actions are judged to be "wrong" by "traditional society," even when this individual is practicing the Buddha's teachings. When following our buddha-nature, we go to the type of family unit to which we are most drawn: that which best expresses the spirit of our buddha-nature.
As I think back on the life of Shakyamuni, his way of being emanates transience. He lived in a wonderful house with family and friends around him. He did not want for anything, and that was his life. One day he saw the suffering of others outside the walls inside of which he lived. This was very troubling to him, and it became his mission to understand the truth. So Shakyamuni left his happy life and family and went out into the world, seeking the answer.
As the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, did he suffer? Of course. Did he give up? No. Then it came to him that everything is impermanent and at times we suffer and at times we feel joy. As fast, as hard, and as long as the suffering presents itself, so also does the joy of life emerge. Shakyamuni clearly understood causes and conditions and also saw that normal human beings are limited in their awareness of all aspects of causation and in recognition of the impermanence of all things. We are perplexed by things that seem to be out of our control. So in relationships change is immanent, and change in family structures is immanent. Shakyamuni did not leave us without answers when he entered nirvana.
In his book Cultivating the Buddhist Heart, President Nichiko Niwano wrote: "When a relationship with another person seems to be breaking down, we tend to believe that the tension and unhappiness will last forever. We become bitter and complain, and feel caught in an unending circle of accusation and despair." He describes what has happened on the family level. When an individual's situation becomes impermanent, those who do not understand or see the buddha-nature of that individual become bitter and accuse that person of not being the same person they thought they knew. However, this does offer the community of family the chance to grow and change, presenting a new opportunity for everybody to be part of a family. We are all connected and interconnected. Without acceptance, the six realms and egos bear down and many suffer.
The Buddha's teaching leaves us with hope for all things. Following the truth and the Dharma, we can look within ourselves and open our minds to compassion. How quickly the suffering changes to joy again. When we change, others change. We just do not change so that others will change. We change because that is our faith, our spirituality, and our religion. The role that religion can play in these troubled times is to make room for the understanding of transience.
Life is always an opportunity. We are all seeking a wise path through life, longing for inspiration and support. In Western psychology, we are looking for a vision to radiate human dignity. With the teachings of the Buddha, we find a practical path for realizing this vision in our own lives. Peace, happiness, and fulfillment come with seeing life as precious and having gratitude for all sentient beings.
Shakyamuni was a wonderful example of the true nature of family. He left his family of origin and became part of the families of the entire world. Those who are suffering while trying to find their way in this transient world can find their way as they look to the truth. I am in awe when I look to my teacher and am reminded of the wonderful teachings of the Dharma.
Carol J. Ewer is a member of Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma Center of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. As a licensed alcohol drug counselor, she also works as an Employee Assistance Program coordinator and Intern Program coordinator at Sunbeam Family Services, one of Oklahoma City's oldest volunteer-led and supported nonprofit agencies.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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