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In his introduction to the book, Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships, THICH NHAT HANH shows us how we can use loving relationships to cultivate the seeds of buddhahood inside us.
To commit to another person is to embark on a very adventurous journey. You must be very wise and very patient to keep your love alive so it will last for a long time. The first year of a committed relationship can already reveal how difficult it is. When you first commit to someone, you have a beautiful image of them, and you marry that image rather than the person. When you live with each other twenty-four hours a day, you begin to discover the reality of the other person, which doesn’t quite correspond with the image you have of him or of her. Sometimes we’re disappointed.
In the beginning you’re very passionate. But that passion for the other person may last only a short time—maybe six months, a year, or two years. Then, if you’re not skillful, if you don’t practice, if you’re not wise, suffering will be born in you and in the other person. When you see someone else, you might think you’d be happier with them. In Vietnamese we have a saying: “Standing on top of one mountain and gazing at the top of another, you think you’d rather be standing on the other mountain.”
When we commit to a partner, either in a marriage ceremony or in a private way, usually it is because we believe we can be and want to be faithful to our partner for the whole of our life. In the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the third training is to be faithful to the partner you commit to. That is a challenging practice that requires consistent strong practice. Many of us don’t have a lot of models of loyalty and faithfulness around us. The U.S. divorce rate is around fifty percent, and for nonmarried but committed partners the rates are similar or higher.
We tend to compare ourselves with others and to wonder if we have enough to offer in a relationship. Many of us feel unworthy. We’re thirsty for truth, goodness, compassion, spiritual beauty, and we’re sure these things don’t exist within us, so we go looking outside. Sometimes we think we’ve found the ideal partner who embodies all that is good, beautiful, and true. That person may be a romantic partner, a friend, or a spiritual teacher. We see all the good in that person and we fall in love. After a time, we usually discover that we’ve had a wrong perception of that person and we become disappointed.
Beauty and goodness are always there in each of us. This is the basic teaching of the Buddha. A true teacher, a true spiritual partner, is one who encourages you to look deeply in yourself for the beauty and love you are seeking. The true teacher is someone who helps you discover the teacher in yourself.
According to the Buddha, the birth of a human being is not a beginning but a continuation, and when we’re born, all the different kinds of seeds—seeds of goodness, of cruelty, of awakening—are already inside us. Whether the goodness or cruelty in us is revealed depends on what seeds we cultivate, our actions, and our way of life.
At the moment of his awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree, the Buddha declared, “How strange—all beings possess the capacity to be awakened, to understand, to love, to be free—yet they allow themselves to be carried away on the ocean of suffering.” He saw that, day and night, we’re seeking what is already there within us. We can call it buddhanature, awakened nature, the true freedom that is the foundation for all peace and happiness. The capacity to be enlightened isn’t something that someone else can offer to you. A teacher can only help you to remove the non-enlightened elements in you so that enlightenment can be revealed. If you have confidence that beauty, goodness, and the true teacher are in you, and if you take refuge in them, you will practice in a way that reveals these qualities more clearly each day.
Each one of us is sovereign over the territory of our own being and the five elements we are made of. These elements are form (body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Our practice is to look deeply into these five elements and discover the true nature of our being—the true nature of our suffering, our happiness, our peace, our fearlessness.
But when we’ve abandoned our territory, we’re not responsible rulers. We haven’t practiced and, every day, instead of taking care of our territory, we’ve run away from it and allowed conflicts and disorder to arise. We’re afraid to go back to our territory and face the difficulties and suffering there. Whenever we have fifteen “free” minutes, or an hour or two, we have the habit of using television, newspapers, music, conversation, or the telephone to forget and to run away from the reality of the elements that make up our being. We think, “I’m suffering too much, I have too many problems. I don’t want to go back to them anymore.”
We have to come back to our physical selves and put things in order. The Buddha gave us very concrete practices that show us how to do this. He was very clear that to clean up and transform the elements of our selves, we need to cultivate the energy of mindfulness. This is what will give us the strength to come back to ourselves.
The energy of mindfulness is something concrete that can be cultivated. When we practice walking mindfully, our solid, peaceful steps cultivate the energy of mindfulness and bring us back to the present moment. When we sit and follow our breathing, aware of our in- and out-breath, we are cultivating the energy of mindfulness. When we have a meal in mindfulness, we invest all our being in the present moment and are aware of our food and of those who are eating with us. We can cultivate the energy of mindfulness while we walk, while we breathe, while we work, while we wash the dishes or wash our clothes. A few days practicing like this can increase the energy of mindfulness in you, and that energy will help you, protect you, and give you courage to go back to yourself, to see and embrace what is there in your territory.
There are real, painful feelings, strong emotions, troubling perceptions that agitate or make us afraid. With the energy of mindfulness, we can spend time with these difficult feelings without running away. We can embrace them the way a parent embraces a child and say to them, “Darling, I am here for you; I have come back; I’m going to take care of you.” This is what we do with all our emotions, feelings, and perceptions.
When you begin to practice Buddhism, you begin as a part-time buddha and slowly you become a full-time buddha. Sometimes you fall back and become a part-time buddha again, but with steady practice you become a full-time buddha again. Buddhahood is within reach because, like the Buddha, you’re a human being. You can become a buddha whenever you like; the Buddha is available in the here and now, anytime, anywhere. When you are a part-time buddha, your romantic relationships may go well some of the time. When you are a full-time buddha, you can find a way to be present and happy in your relationship full-time, no matter what difficulties arise.