Teachings of the Relationship Buddha

Joan Duncan Oliver

Shoshanna studied with the Japanese Zen masters Soen Nakagawa Roshi and Eido Shimano Roshi; the rigor of traditional monastic training shines through the spare language and format. Aspects of Zen practice that can be controversial or confounding are presented matter-of-factly. A few of the love lessons may even raise eyebrows. Consider this explanation of the keysaku, the wooden “encouragement” stick used to strike students during zazen (sitting meditation) to keep them alert: “Most important, it teaches the students how to receive sudden blows and pain. This is necessary, as a fundamental part of learning the art of falling in love is knowing how to receive the stick.”

Similarly, we are told that dokusan, the one-on-one student-teacher meeting central to Zen training, prepares us for “moments of dramatic choice” in a relationship. “When we have this intense, immediate, no-holds-barred encounter with the master, we are learning . . . what is essential in order to really be with another and available for love.” This description may seem ironic to readers familiar with the improprieties committed by a number of spiritual teachers in recent years.

Zen love, like Zen practice, is not for the timid. If the path at times seems too steep, the reader can just follow the “Stepping Stones to Love” in each chapter—small actions that, like consistent meditation practice, lead incrementally to awareness. “Each instruction in Zen training is a metaphor for our entire lives, an instruction to diligently follow and practice day by day,” Shoshanna reminds us. For those with love issues—isn’t that most of us, at one time or another?—she holds out the redemptive possibilities of practice: “By simply paying attention to each step we take, by becoming that attentive and present, we can turn around our relationships.”

If Zen is the direct path to relationship nirvana, Tibetan Buddhism is the ecstatic route. In The Passionate Buddha, Robert Sachs draws on twenty-seven years of marriage and Tibetan Buddhist practice (his teachers include Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lama Ole Nydahl, and Kungiz Shamar Rinpoche) to map the way to bodhicitta, the awakened heart. Like Shoshanna, Sachs is unequivocal about the spiritual significance of intimate relationships: “True love . . . [is] the only path to liberation and fulfillment . . . Knowing how to truly love in every moment and every situation is the quintessential perfection of being human.”

Sachs addresses the question “What does a conscious, loving, and enduring relationship look like?” with practices to foster flexibility, loving detachment, mutual respect, and compassion. There are instructions for basic Tibetan Buddhist meditations - shamatha, or calm abiding, and tonglen, receiving and sending—plus a visualization for channeling passion into intimacy and a “Don’t-Know” meditation Sachs learned from the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn.

Fully a third of the book deals with sex. For many, this material will be the most valuable. Sachs gives considered attention to the principles of tantra (sacred sexuality)—he tells readers to find a teacher for instruction in the practices—and even tiptoes into the minefield of teacher-student sex as a means of dharma transmission in the Vajrayana tradition. Some readers will particularly appreciate his evenhanded approach to topics seldom discussed in a Buddhist context: homosexual love, impotence, incestuous feelings, contraception, and abortion.

In the closing chapter on enduring love, Sachs recalls his own wedding years ago. Chime Rinpoche, who officiated, drew the bride and groom aside and asked, “Are you a vajra couple?” In living that question, Sachs has come to see that only when we are willing to embrace both the light and darkness in a relationship can we “live in vajra, in unshakeable awareness.”

However it’s put, that’s the underlying aspiration in all three of these books.

Joan Duncan Oliver is Tricycle’s editor-at-large.

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