Zen and relationships

What could Zen possibly have to say about intimate, committed relationships? After all, Zen is a meditative tradition carried on for centuries mostly by celibate monks and nuns. If you had to conjure up a visual image to represent Zen, it would probably not be a bridegroom and a bride in tux and gown atop a wedding cake. More likely, it would be something like a monk with a shaved head wearing sandals and a robe. Zen and marriage are not two topics linked together very often. This is not surprising, considering how Buddhism originally took root and remembering that one defining act of the Buddha’s life was his decision to abandon his wife and child to set out on the spiritual path.

The Buddha said, “Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life.” Given the path he chose and this view, you might expect the Buddha to advocate more for divorce than marriage. And Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor, was himself a celibate monk. While many householders have practiced and do practice Zen, the torchlight of Zen has been carried forward through many generations mostly by monks attempting to live what the Buddha described as “the holy life.”

But what does it really mean to lead the holy life? Is the holy life the exclusive province of monks? In Buddha’s day, living the holy life meant according with norms and standards embodied in a set of monks’ precepts. These precepts included and still include broad guidelines for compassionate, contemplative, ethical living, as well as very specific rules that even today some Buddhists rely on to regulate the details of daily life. They also included celibacy and warned against any intimate relationship between the sexes.

Speaking as a householder practicing Zen for many years, I can testify to the truth of the Buddha’s teaching: it’s not easy while living in a home to lead the holy life. It’s really not. Still, I can’t say I know a single monk who would say that leading a holy life as a home-leaver is so easy either. The fact is that leading a so-called holy life, a truly wide open and free life, is hard. It is the work of a lifetime, whatever your circumstances.

Spiritual practice in general and Zen practice in particular are about how to live such a life, although these days we shy away from the word “holy.” In today’s terms, we talk more about awakening from the foggy dream of conditioning, preconceptions, emotional reactivity, and attachments. This idea of awakening is at the heart of Zen. The very word “Buddha” translates as “awakened one”. And Zen teaches that the initial experience of awakening – the kensho/Satori enlightenment experience for which Zen is famous – is not the end of the path but a kind of beginning. Like a great inheritance, the important question is what you do with it.

That is the actual work of spiritual practice: living an awakened life day by day, moment by moment. A Zen practitioner vows to bring awareness, attention, and awakening to every aspect of life and in my personal experience, there is no better place to do this work than in a committed, long term relationship. Such a relationship turns out to be an exceptionally rich and promising arena for encouraging, activating, and nourishing awakening. In other words, for a Zen student, a marriage can be its own little monastery.

Over the next few months I’ll be continuing to reflect on this topic, exploring what arises at the intersection of practice and intimate relationship.


  1. Ken Jackson says:

    Great topic! I appreciate your insights in this important area of our lives. Look forward to more on this.