More on Zen and relationships

Lessening self- centeredness – both the idea of an unchanging self at the center of things and the habits and behavior that constellate around such a self – is the essential task of every spiritual practice, including Zen. This is why a marriage or any sustained, intimate, committed relationship has the potential to function as a spiritual practice place. Marriage becomes a kind of monastery when we treat it as a place to recognize and work on our defenses, to try to put our selfish desires aside in favor of another person’s needs, and to identify and work on our delusions and mistakes.

One reason marriage offers enormous potential for practice is because it pulls many of our most precious fantasies and desires to the surface. In an intimate, committed relationship, this material is exposed. At the same time, eventually, our mistakes and limitations are impossible to conceal. The initial glow of falling in love loses some of its luster and the mood lighting yields to the less flattering light of day. Our partners see us and we see ourselves through their eyes. We find out what we’re made of. We live in a hall of mirrors, and not all of them are flattering. We recognize the challenge our habits, cravings, and delusions represent to our partner. We see the pain our self-centeredness and our inconsideration cause our partner. In a nutshell, we see the extent to which we succeed or fail to bring our deepest ethical and spiritual intentions and our awakened mind to life, day in and day out.


  1. Paul C says:

    This is such an important point in a contemplative tradition. So much of the work is done internally that we can go for years without holding ourselves completely accountable. We can practice noticing, letting go and accepting and feel very good about ourselves. This is my own experience, anyway. But through deep relationship it’s not so easy. Not so comfortable. If it is easy, the relationship stagnates.

    Maybe this is where Buddhism stretches itself in the 21st century. Where a more explicit value is placed upon nurturing deep and abiding relationships. Where we think and speak about developing our shared space in the same way we do about our cultivating own inner space.

    For me, in my all too self-centered practice but also as a deeply committed partner (40 yrs together), I can see this could lead into greater skill and liberation.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Paul,
    How nice to hear from you. I think there’s been too much of a tendency to hold up celibate monastic practice as a kind of gold standard. This is in part because the record of Zen is mostly a record of monks’ practice and teaching. Interestingly, as more and more is uncovered about the history of women in the Zen lineage, one sees that they more often practiced in relationship and at work, in large part because women’s practice places received so little support. Until recently, the record of women’s teachings and even of their very presence was unknown and in many cases deliberately erased. Now that it’s coming to light, we’re finding very interesting material relevant to how contemporary Westerners are taking up spiritual practice – with partners and jobs and kids and so forth.
    Please stay in touch.