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For those of us who do not or cannot choose a path of celibacy, the challenge is to include our beloved or our family as a part of our practice, as exactly an avenue for the development of wide and broad love for the whole world. The fact is that there is no way that love can ever be narrow or exclusive. There is a tendency to see love in a limited way, as if, if we love or are loyal to one person or group, we cannot love or be loyal to another. But this is a perversion of love’s real nature. Love’s salient characteristic is that it is unlimited. It starts locally but always seeks to find through the local the universal. If that natural process is subverted, love becomes perverted: it must either grow or go sour. It can’t be reduced or hemmed in.
It is very common, of course, for the initial pure impulse toward love to become reduced, to find ourselves domesticating the beloved, as if they were known and predictable, subject to our needs, possessable. Once this happens there is jealousy, selfishness, disappointment, the desire to control and the fear of change. What was once love becomes a mutual conspiracy of smallness, and nothing is more common among long-lasting and seemingly successful relationships than this embattled holding on to the past in a way that is usually quite unhappy. It is debatable whether this is preferable to the endless seeking for the perfect mate that goes on among those who see divorce or breakup as the better remedy for inner restlessness.
These are, unfortunately, the usual paths that intimate relationships take, and it is astonishing to me that the power of love and longing for love is such that people keep trying in the face of such painfully poor odds.
The alternative is to see that it is absolutely necessary to practice renunciation within the context of loving relationships. This means that we are willing to give the beloved up, to recognize that we can never really know her, or, in any absolute sense, depend on her, any more than we can depend on our own body or on the weather. She is a mystery and as such unpossessable, so giving her up is not a matter of sacrifice.
If we had our eyes open from the start, we would have seen that the real vision of love was showing us this all along. All things are impermanent, created fresh each moment, and then gone. This being so, the miracle of love between two people, or within a family, is something precious and brief. In fact any human relationship is brief. We are together for a while and then inevitably we part. To love someone truly is to recognize this every day, to see the preciousness of the beloved and of the time we have together, to renounce any clinging need for or dependency on the other, and to make the effort to open our hands, so that instead of holding on we are nurturing and supporting.
People often wonder how it is possible, in the face of impermanence, to make a commitment to a relationship. It certainly seems logical that we either deny impermanence and assert our undying vow, or accept it and move on as soon as things change. But it is exactly impermanence that inspires commitment. Exactly because things always change, and we cannot prevent that, we give rise to a vow to remain faithful to love, because love is the only thing that is in harmony with change. Love is change; it is the movement and color of the world. Love is a feeling of constancy, openness, and appreciation for the wonder of the world, a feeling that we can be true to, no matter what circumstances may bring.
Although this may sounds impossibly idealistic, I believe it is quite practical. To respect the beloved, to give and ask for nothing in return, in faith that what we ourselves need will be provided without our insisting on it too much, may seem like the work of a saint, but I do not think there is any other way. In order to do it we will have to condition our ego, soften its edges, so that it becomes pliable and fearless enough to be open to what comes, and to be permissive, in the best sense of that word, for another. This is the basic spiritual practice.
It seems to me that for most of us, the journey of loving relationship, though quite difficult, is our best chance to develop bodhicitta. In mahayana Buddhism, this seemingly impossible and unlimited aspiration for the enlightenment of all is the heart of the practice, the beginning and end of it. And it seems only logical that in order to develop a love that big and thorough, it is good if we have somewhere to start, someone to practice on. To really love your lover, husband, wife, or child, taking that on as the most challenging and worthwhile of life’s projects, is a noble thing and it is possible. We know it is possible because we have all felt the compelling force of love at one time or another, even if we have forgotten it.