Relationships As Spiritual Practice

Talk presented by Venerable Chi Chern
Report written by Chang Jie 08/01/2010

On Sunday, August 1, 2010, Venerable Chi Chern gave a talk entitled, "Relationships As Spiritual Practice" at CMC. Before the talk, Venerable shared some of his ink drawings to the audience, as well as a book of poems and paintings related to Silent Illumination and Huatou, and CDs with song lyrics written by him.

    According to Venerable, modern society is highly integrated, and we are constantly interacting with people, whether they are our family, friends or even distant strangers. In these interactions, we may ask ourselves, "Do I want to be happy, and others to be happy, or do I want to be miserable, and other people to be miserable?" Obviously, we want to be happy and have joyful relationships with others. But in our interactions with people, we inevitably get into arguments and conflicts, especially with those who are close to us, like our family members. This may be because of our habits, viewpoints, self-centeredness and inability to give people space and freedom. Although we want joyful interactions with others, we don't know how. The practice of the Buddha dharma can teach us how to make this wish into a reality and help us have joyful interactions with others.

    Venerable described what he refers to as the "three -rings"--caring, sharing and offering, as ways to remind us to use the dharma to create joyful interpersonal relationships. In terms of caring, parents especially may think that they care deeply for their children, but often times, they may feel that their children disregard their caring, and have an unexpectedly negative reaction to it. There is a Chinese saying, "A good intention turns out to be rotten," which, when literally translated means, "Good intention is like giving someone the lungs and liver of a donkey." If someone has a negative reaction to our caring, then we need to look at whether the type of caring we are giving is the most appropriate.

    The caring that we show for people, especially between parents and children, may be more a kind of control. Parents may have a lot of expectations or place high hopes on their children, and give the children pressure. For example, parents might ask their children how they are doing in school or require their children to play an instrument, so that they can boast to their friends. Originally, the parent might want their child to feel happy, open, and free, but in actuality, this may cause the child to feel suffocated and closed, and the child may eventually not even want to be with the parent. We should try to look at the needs of the other person and have more appropriate ways of caring, instead of imposing our own desires and expectations on others.

    Venerable said that his own motivation for sharing the teachings with people stems from his gratitude for receiving the teachings, and finding happiness, freedom and ease from the concepts and methods, with the hopes that others may gain the same benefits of learning from the Buddha dharma. When people find something good and want to share it with other people, it can turn out to be like propaganda or advertising. They may use a strong approach to promote their ideas and force it upon other people, not giving them space, and making them feel uncomfortable. This type of approach is not really sharing. We can look at the Buddha's approach to sharing, who told his disciples to not merely accept the teachings, but to examine, ponder and investigate them, giving them space for personal investigation to absorb the teachings. Likewise, when we share with people, we should reflect on our attitude and approach.

    When we make offerings to people or to society, again, we should reflect on our attitude. Sometimes, our intention is not simple, and we often add to our intentions. In making offerings, we may add expectations, such as getting back something good in return for helping someone. When we make offerings for the sake of self-benefit, things become complicated. We may get some benefit, but it will be very limited. When we have contaminants added to our intention, the response we receive will be less than positive. Our selfish intentions will have poorer results in comparison to simply offering ourselves with a simple intention and approach, based on knowing what we are capable of and understanding the needs of a person or society. The response to this type of simple or pure attitude will be great and wonderful, and we will feel joy and ease. For example, we may be motivated by self-interest when taking care of our children, expecting them to take care of us, or when contributing to society, we may expect something good in return. Venerable advised that when we make an offering of ourselves to our family or society, we should take a look at our intention.

    We must have compassion and gratitude to support this practice of the "three -rings." The word "compassion" in Chinese is comprised of two characters, "to bring joy" and "to relieve suffering". Bringing joy means bringing joy to ourselves and to others, and relieving suffering means relieving the suffering of others and our own. When we think we are compassionate and giving, but really have expectations of receiving something in return for our offerings, we will feel miserable and create suffering for ourselves. To be truly compassionate, we must have the right attitude, which is that of bringing joy to others and relieving their suffering, and feeling more joy for ourselves and alleviating our own suffering. In the example of parents and children, a wrong concept or approach may cause children to feel more closed and suffocated rather than open and happy, and consequently, the parent will suffer as well. If we have an unconditional approach to caring, sharing and offering, where we don't require anyone to give us anything in return and we don't expect any rewards, then we will truly be able to practice compassion.

    Whether we are facing adverse or favorable situations, we can generate an attitude of gratitude. During favorable situations, we can be grateful for easy conditions, and during adverse situations, we can be grateful to be able to learn from these difficulties. When we help others, it is normal to expect them to feel grateful and help us in return, and when we receive help from others, to return the favor to the other person by helping them. Venerable said that while these feelings of mutual reciprocation may naturally arise, it may not be the best course of action. An example that he gave is that of a person who wants to study at university but does not have enough money. Someone may give this person the money to support their education, after graduating and some success, the person may wish to show their gratitude by repaying the donor. While this is a normal approach, it is a very narrow approach to showing gratitude. By returning the favor to one person, we benefit just one person, who may not even need or want the money. A different approach is to, after receiving such kindness and benefiting from it, express our gratitude by making an offering of ourselves to society and other people. In this way, instead of benefiting just one person, we can share this benefit with many people and all of society. This is a broader and all-encompassing attitude in gratefulness. The same is true when we give-- instead of receiving something in return, we can encourage that person to help others, extending gratitude to many. This type of giving without self-centered expectations will result in joy and ease.

    When Master Sheng Yen was studying for his doctorate in Japan, he did not have enough money to pay for his studies. An unknown layperson donated money to pay for school. Shifu showed his gratitude and repaid his kindness, not by giving back the money to the donor, but by sharing his learning of the Buddha dharma and practice with the whole world. The effect of this kind of repayment is grand and wonderful, rather than the narrow approach of showing gratitude by paying back the donor.

    The practice of compassion must be supported by a right understanding of conditional arising, which is the coming together of causes and conditions. When we give to others with this right understanding, we will not feel like we are losing out. For example, when we make a donation, we might feel like we are giving too much, and end up giving less than our initial intention because we don't want to lose out by giving too much. We become self-centered in our giving, and may have vexations when we give. Venerable suggested that, when giving, we should remember that we are able to do so because of conditional arising. We should also know that our relationships with others are interconnected, so that when others benefit, we benefit too. If we give without concern, at the moment of giving, our minds will be open and free.

    When we couple the practice of being grateful with "the three -rings," our caring will not lead to giving pressure or trying to control other people. Our caring should be supported by the underlying practice of compassion. In caring for others, we won't have to seek for our own benefits, because we will benefit naturally. With this kind of approach, very naturally, our interpersonal relationships will improve. Using the approach of compassion when giving will help us to practice in an appropriate way. Our compassion must be supported by wisdom, which is the understanding of conditional arising and recognizing the intricate interconnections of our relationships. When we have wisdom, we will know the appropriate ways to handle situations in our daily lives and care, share and make offerings. In this way, naturally, we will be happy, our minds will be open and free, and our relationships with others will be harmonious. If we can have harmonious relationships, it will be easier to get things done as a community and as a society. Harmony in our interpersonal relationships is a strength and brings calm and stability to society. With harmony, we can be joyful and naturally help others to be joyful.

    In cultivating joyful and harmonious relationships with others, Chan practice--our cultivation of Chan meditation and Chan practice in daily life, is very important. It will help us to cultivate wisdom and practice within ourselves, so that we are more capable in practicing compassion, gratitude, and helping others. When we benefit others, we will naturally feel a sense of harmony and joy, and will be able to bring this harmony and joy in our interactions with others.

    Venerable Chi Chern is Master Sheng Yen's first dharma heir. Currently, he leads Silent Illumination and Huatou retreats in the United States, Malaysia and Europe. Venerable is also a self-taught artist.

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