Relationships Without Attachment
Understanding personal relationships in a spiritual system that asserts non-attachment is difficult, though essentially it is neither complicated nor obtuse. Stated concisely, emptiness tells us to relate to all beings in the same way–with an open heart filled with compassion and love. But which beings we relate to and the intensity and commitment with which we do this is often much less clear.
Interpersonal relationships fall on a spectrum:
This runs from the unconditionally loved, such as children, to those we like, those to whom we are indifferent, those we dislike, and at the far end, to those we hate.
Who falls where on the spectrum is the result of our karmic connection to them. These are not static placements. For example, during a divorce, a once loved spouse can become hated and later one can be indifferent and perhaps even develop a liking for her again.
Speaking literally and metaphorically, we start at our own doorstep. Our most intense commitments are to our nuclear families, then our more extended families, then to friends and colleagues, and so on to those toward whom we are indifferent. How much you are able and willing to do for an individual is a reflection of their closeness to your karmic doorstep.
Unfortunately, as we move from indifferent at the midpoint toward those we dislike, feel anger toward, or perhaps even hate, the intensity increases because we have a story that places them front-and-center, on our doorstep. So where we choose to put someone on the spectrum is very consequential.
Regardless of whether they are loved or hated, emptiness tells us to treat everyone the same–with the vast open compassionate heart that arises from our Buddhanature. To do this, we must realize that regardless of where we place someone on the love-to-hate scale, our spiritual practice remains the same: we respond to them with universal love, with patience, compassion and generosity.
This is not to dismiss the love-to-hate scale as unimportant. We do need to know the different between our daughter and the neighbor’s kid, our business partner and our jogging buddy. Relationships, which are in large part reflected by the scale, establish the karmic responsibilities and obligations we have to others and in dong so establish the intensity and extent to which we respond. I might save to pay for my daughter’s college education, for example, but I am not likely to do that for the neighbor’s child. Although I always want to be dependable with both, to use another example, I am much more likely to take a call from my partner at the office when I am on vacation than from the neighbor with whom I jog on Sunday mornings. A married woman with three children has very different karmic responsibilities than a novice nun at a monastery, and so on.
These are simply karmic parameters within which we function in the everyday world. They are the conditions of our life. They determine the extent of our internal and external energies, of the emotional and material resources we devote to other living beings.
Our spiritual path tells us not to attach to these roles, however. To be a good mother, we don’t need to attach to being a mother, to define ourselves in a spiritually unhealthy way by some permanent understanding of me-as-mother. That’s not about relating to our children, that’s about me and my needs. Instead, we need to look at the karmic conditions of our relationship with our children, seeing clearly where our responsibilities lie. Noting that they are constantly changing, we fulfill those obligations as best we can, with an open loving heart that arises from a profound sense of compassion, from our Buddhanature, from bodhichitta. This is about being of benefit to our children, not about attaching to self; this is about compassion and love, not self-cherishing. This is about responding to conditions without attachments.
Our karmic responsibilities to our children modulate as they grow older, as they leave the house, as do our obligations and responsibilities to them. We need to love them without attaching to our old stories about who we are.
We need to see karmic obligations and responsibilities as conditions, conditions as conditions, not as attachments. Then we are able to respond appropriately to each and every living being, regardless of where they are on the love-to hate scale, appropriately.
No living being deserves us to be self-cherishing and arrogant, which comes from the love side of the scale, nor does any living being deserve our anger or scorn, which comes from the hate end of the scale, nor our indifference, which comes from the middle. The scale reminds us of our responsibilities, emptiness shows us how to act. These must be understood and practiced together, as one.
For further study: The monks who composed the Diamond Sutra looked back from nirvana at how they had created their idea of who they were and described it as having four aspects: Self, Person, Being, and Soul. Self is the self-cherishing/attachment aspect, Person is the roles and responsibilities aspect, Being is the deluded perception aspect; we don’t need to concern ourselves much with Soul here. Studying the first three of these will deepen your understanding of how to achieve a mind of universal compassion and love and further you along the path to right relationships.