‘Why are you doing this? Why get married?’
Geraldine, my niece, responded with a relaxed smile. ‘Well, it’s like we’re friends, you know…’ After being together for seven years it felt to her and her partner that marriage was a way of following through: to ‘just go with the flow.’
I did some life-arithmetic: Hmm. Seven years… And she’s thirty-two, old enough to take hold of her life. ‘So…what would you like me to do.’ ‘Oh, maybe you could give us a blessing. Say a few words or something. You’re wise.’ ‘OK, I can do that.’
I have been a rare frequenter of family occasions for the past forty years. The only wedding I’d been to before was of a cousin’s – and that was even longer ago than that. It’s not that there are any family problems, it’s more that we’re like planets in a solar system in our own spin and orbit, and I’m rarely coming into conjunction. Still I have always had affection and admiration for my elder brother; he has played the lay life like a sound batsman in a long cricket match: resilient, reliable, full of applied effort and with occasional flashes of genius. The result of which has been a very solid marriage, three fine daughters, and enough money for a comfortable life – as comfortable as life in the world can get, that is. So when I received the invitation to Geraldine’s wedding, I was pleased to have the opportunity to connect, spend time with my kin and help out in any way that I could.
But why get married? In my childhood it was an absolute must for an extended male-female relationship; but these days: shared resources, companionship, sexual relations, children – you can do it all without the legal procedures. Let alone the expense! My niece had organized everything down to the last detail – the medieval hall for the ceremony, the menus, the dresses; she’d even specified and bought the ties that she expected the officiating male guests (me excepted) to wear. Not only that, but as her husband-to-be was a Muslim, they’d already had an Islamic wedding ceremony. Two weddings! This was no casual commitment.
As such it had to be carried by ritual. By the time we’d moved to the meeting hall, the stage-craft was carefully at work. We – the assembly – gathered and then stood up as the bride, who had swapped her sweatshirt and jeans for the traditional regalia, came floating down the aisle on the arm of my brother (who was also dressed to fit a shop window, but to his credit looked only slightly embarrassed). The registrar carefully questioned the couple as to legal impediments; the rings were exchanged and they each made the vows ‘as long as life shall last.’ Vows: this was about solemnizing, a strong binding. And that meant, as I commented in my address, stretching the softer aspects of love to include patience, compassion and a resolute act of faith in each other’s capacity to work through the challenges. An enjoyable partnership had just turned into a potentially deepening union.
So how real is all this? How can there be union for lives that are inevitably individually defined, marked with separation? As a notion it makes the same kind of sense as the statement that the Buddha attained the Deathless, years before his life-span terminated in disease under a tree. And from one perspective, the Son of God didn’t look very divine when he was nailed to the Cross. Perhaps we’re talking about spirit here, and about how consciousness can deepen beyond self – ultimately to a depth that goes past life’s exit door.
However, in this life the value of a vow can be experienced every time the mind wobbles, and the reminder comes up: ‘But you’ve made a commitment to this.’ Rightly held, commitment refers our actions and attitudes to core values, and steers the mind towards deepening. Or, in Buddhist terms, wise resolution (adhitthāna) is the foundation for the spiritual perfections (pāramī): generosity, morality, renunciation and the rest. Perhaps now that marriage is more a conscious extra to a relationship, it can encourage those virtues.
The decision to make any commitment casts a cool light over the drama of the human plane. It’s about maintaining values while the world of surfaces swirls around and sometimes over you. And what causes us to make a resolve is perhaps a recognition of the swirling and unsteady nature of all surfaces. That recognition, and sometimes even the decision, is more of a felt thing than an idea. When people ask me why I became a monk, all I can say is that at that time, it felt like the right thing to do; it offered a steady reference point, for a while. But once I’d started to explore my own awareness, I couldn’t see how the way I had been living previously was going to work. It wasn’t that I had a clear idea of becoming a monk; it was just that in my lay life there were too many diversions, and too many requirements to stay on the surface. Deeper felt like the way to go, but where that trajectory would take me wasn’t immediately apparent.
Of course the crunch points of living in a monastery – letting go of socializing, music, food and sexual activity – come even before one has made the full commitment. That’s why I never suggest to someone that they take it on, and in our sangha, there are preparatory stages of several years before one can even be considered ready for training as a monk or nun. It gives an aspirant fair time to let any starry-eyed idealism fade out of the mind. But with full commitment come the gritty realities of obedience to a communal rule, and of clearly representing something in other people’s eyes; the latter in particular being something that one has no negotiating power over. Furthermore, Sangha commitment is to formal occasions and public events that aren’t always one’s cup of tea. And come to think of it, it’s not that every samana whom I’m affiliated with is someone I get on with swimmingly well.
It’s also true that there are more options nowadays for Dhamma practice than in my youth. Now one can meditate, do retreats, study, and learn Dhamma as a layperson. Still, in that scenario, each individual makes their choices, sets up the routines, and keeps one hand on the steering wheel. The further deepening, into psychological self-surrender, takes understanding and integrity: even in Sangha life, you can find ways to carve out your own niche. But the cultivation that psychological renunciation encourages is about meeting one’s preferences and opinions, softening their grip and deepening into something beyond that. And in the end, it’s the deepening that counts: I’ve never conceived of how my life could be made richer or more worthwhile.
However, as mysteriously as the aspiration comes, it can also change. More people leave the Sangha after a few years (or even months) than stay in it for life. Those who persist in samana life are probably fewer than the number who stay in a marriage. As a phenomenon this has its good points. The ability to leave without disgrace keeps the individual referring the commitment to the present moment. Is this worth working with? (Go deep and check it out.) It also curbs the tendency for the Sangha to become an institution that deprives people of authority over their lives. Self-surrender has to be personally authorized and reviewed. Do you trust the field that you’re in? If not – and you may be right, not all religious communities are reliable – it isn’t going to work. As it is, I would also say that at least in the communities that I’ve been involved with, the majority of post-monastics stay with Dhamma. The deepening has been irreversible, and represents a process that predates their commitment to the outward form and practices.
As for marriage and divorce: amongst the people I know, most of the marriages have lasted and strengthened. On the other hand, recent reflections from post-marriage friends also bear witness to what that can take. A woman who had stayed with her husband for fifty years until death commented that although the marriage had been rashly undertaken, and although when the romantic glow faded she didn’t like her mate that much – yet she had loved him. Others remarked on how freeing the divorces had been for all concerned: like getting out of a cage. It wasn’t as if the marriage commitment had been to get beyond desire and realize nibbāna in the first place; but even that commitment had checked a lot of self-centredness and thrown light on emotions and attitudes. Whether it’s to another person, or to a Sangha life, commitment to ‘the other’ always helps us to learn what we can’t see in ourselves.
People might imagine that you get out of all that in Sangha life; that awakening could somehow happen without revealing – revealing a lot about oneself and the human condition. The myth of the tranquil haven where those others are running away from the world still lingers. (If one could run away from the world, and if that were a good thing, then indeed why not). But the ‘dark matter’ which apparently makes up most of the Universe, and whose psychological aspect wells up from beneath the waves of personal mood and inclinations, isn’t something that is escaped from. Go to a tropical island, and it sits on the beach beside you; douse it in wine – it blinks once and grips you harder; sit cross-legged and focused on your breathing – it murmurs in your heart. And when one enters community life, the dark matter whinges, recoils, judges and caricatures one’s fellow aspirants. It seems to be the fault of the others, the tradition or the sense of being a public icon – but when all that changes, the restlessness, the desires and resistances, and the doubts and gloom stay on. So one either has to adjust to another way of life, or breathe gently, patiently through it all. Reveal what seems to be your self, meet it in a clear and reflective place, and deal with it. As in a marriage, the commitment asks us to keep putting more of our attention and consideration into it – or it goes flat and even toxic.
So commitments don’t carry guarantees – but without them, how far, how deep do you go? A part of us wants to play around on the surface, to splash and skim, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But in the heart there’s also the inclination towards deepening: to be taken beyond our personal moods, to be made to work on ourselves. Inspiration and tedium, joy, grief, and all the nothing special in between: to meet what life brings up and work through holding on to any of it. Then when death grabs all we're bound up with, spirit has a way to get through. Because if you can’t handle getting taken to uncomfortable depths – why get married, why become a monk? In fact where’s the growth, and what’s the point of being alive? After all, you have to take your life like a hoop and throw it towards the peg that feels right. Who knows how good a throw is until you’ve made it?
Life is made sublime through sacrifice, and something in us knows that.
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint.
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
T.S.Eliot: The Dry Salvages V
So here’s the challenge for commitment: see the anxiety, darkness or pain in yourself or another; take hold of the mundane and by working out your expectations, biases, impatience and all the rest – widen into this strange space called love. Then include it all.