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Romance and family life

Romance and family life

Couple holding hands.
Attachment sees the desired thing as permanent, pleasurable, pure and existing in and of itself. (Image by Cher VernalEQ)

Excerpts from Buddhism for Beginners and The Path to Happiness by Venerable Thubten Chodron.

What does Buddhism say about romantic love and marriage?

Romantic love is generally plagued with attachment, which is why many marriages end in divorce. When people fall in love with an image they created of the person, instead of with the actual human being, false expectations proliferate. For example, many people in the West unrealistically expect their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. If someone came up to us and said, “I expect you to always be sensitive to me, continuously support me, understand me no matter what I do, and meet all my emotional needs,” what would we say? Undoubtedly, we would tell them that we are one limited being, they had the wrong person! In a similar way, we should avoid having such unrealistic expectations of our partners.

Each person has a variety of interests and emotional needs. Therefore, we need a variety of friends and relatives to share and communicate with. Nowadays, because people move so often, we may need to work harder to develop several stable, long-term friendships, but doing so strengthens our primary relationship.

For a romantic relationship to survive, more than romantic love is needed. We need to love the other person as a human being and as a friend. The sexual attraction that feeds romantic love is an insufficient basis on which to establish a long-term relationship. Deeper care and affection, as well as responsibility and trust, must be cultivated.

In addition, we do not fully understand ourselves and are a mystery to ourselves. Needless to say, other people are even more of a mystery to us. Therefore, we should never presuppose, with a bored attitude that craves excitement, that we know everything about our partner because we have been together so long. If we have the awareness of the other person being a mystery, we will continue to pay attention and be interested in him or her. Such interest is one key to a long-lasting relationship.

Dorothy’s letter


My boyfriend chose to end our five-year relationship one year ago even though I have tried my best to salvage it. This incident has a traumatic impact on me. I am still feeling very upset and hurt. After we parted, he only approaches me when he needs help. I still have strong feelings for him so I have never turned down his requests. When we are still together, I have loaned about $20,000 to him and his family who often have financial difficulties. My hopes are again shattered when he told me that he has already started a new relationship. This leads me into depression, lack confidence with my decisions and more pessimistic (negative) about life. I am deeply hurt once again from this piece of news.

I am really puzzled why he still approaches me to help him when he has no feelings for me anymore. He does not have a stable income but the loan is my hard-earned money. I don’t come from a wealthy family; I tried to save up every penny I have to help him, hoping that he will give me happiness one day.

Please advise whether this is the best approach. I have done all I can to maintain this relationship and all I want is just to find a soul mate to have a family but it seems so difficult for me to fulfill this dream.

Please enlighten me so that I can stay happy in my life. Thanks


Venerable Thubten Chodron’s response

Dear Dorothy,

I’m sorry to hear about your problems. They are all caused by attachment and clinging. Attachment is based on exaggerating the good qualities of someone; your mind has painted a glorified picture of the man that is not accurate. Look at him for what he really is: a confused sentient being who is overwhelmed by ignorance, anger, and attachment. He can’t make you happy. Only you can make you happy.

How do you make yourself happy? Realize that you are a whole human being. You don’t need a boyfriend to make you whole. You have many good qualities that you can use to benefit living beings. Instead of being so focused on your own situation, look at others’ situation—and by “others” I don’t mean this man, I mean all the other people you see around you all the time. Realize how they have been kind to you; smile at them and be kind back. Do something to help them. Compassionate action is an excellent remedy for self-pity.

He is using you by asking you to loan him money, and you are foolishly letting him do that. Let go of him and live your life happily.

My book Taming the Mind speaks a lot about how to have healthy relationships. You may want to read it.

Wishing you all the best,
Venerable Thubten Chodron

How can Buddhism help our family life?

Family harmony is extremely important, and divorce is traumatic for adults and children alike. If adults see the main purpose of marriage as pleasure, then arguments and the breakup of the family come about more easily. As soon as people don’t get as much pleasure as they want, discontent sets in, quarrels ensue and the marriage collapses. Many people go on to have numerous partners, but still fail to find satisfaction. This is a clear example of the way in which clinging to one’s own pleasure brings pain to oneself and others.

If both partners hold the Dharma as the center of their relationship, their relationship will be more satisfying. That is, both partners, are determined to live ethically and to develop their loving-kindness toward all beings impartially. Then they will support each other to grow and to practice. For example, when one partner becomes discouraged or starts to neglect Dharma practice, the other can help him or her get back on track through gentle encouragement and open discussion. If the couple has children, they can arrange for each other to have time for quiet reflection as well as time with the children.

Although raising children is time-intensive, parents should not see this as antithetical to Dharma practice. They can learn a lot about themselves from their children and they can help each other work through the challenges of parenthood in the light of Buddhist values.

Influenced by contemporary trends in psychology, many people have come to attribute most of their problems to childhood experiences. However, if this is done with an attitude of blame—”I have problems because of what my parents did when I was a child”—it sets the stage for them to feel guilty and fearful that they will damage their own children when they have families. This kind of anxiety is scarcely conducive to healthy child—rearing or to feeling compassion for ourselves. Viewing our childhood as if it were an illness that we have to recover from only damages us as well as our children.”

Although we cannot ignore detrimental influences from childhood, it’s just as important to pay attention to the kindness and benefit we have received from our families. No matter what our situation was when we were growing up, we were the recipients of much kindness from others. Remembering this, we allow ourselves to feel the gratitude that naturally arises for those who have helped us. If we do, we also can pass that same kindness and care on to our children.

I have children. How can I meditate or say prayers in the morning when they need my attention?

One way is to get up earlier than your children. Another idea is to invite your children to meditate or chant with you. One time I was staying with my brother’s family. My niece, who was about six or seven at that time, used to come into my room because we were the first two to wake up in the morning. As I was reciting prayers or meditating, I explained to her that this is a time when I am quiet and do not want to be disturbed. She would come in and sometimes she would draw. Other times, she would sit in my lap. Several times she asked me to sing to her, and I would chant prayers and mantras out loud. She really liked this and did not disturb me at all.

It is very good for children to see their parents sit still and be calm. That gives them the idea that maybe they too can do the same. If Mom and Dad are always busy, running around, talking on the phone, stressed out, or collapsed in front of the TV, the kids will also be like this. Is this what you want for your children? If you want your children to learn certain attitudes or behaviors, you have to cultivate them yourselves. Otherwise, how will your children learn? If you care about your children, you have to care about yourselves as well and be mindful of living a healthy and balanced life for their benefit as well as for your own.

You can also teach your children how to make offerings to the Buddha and how to recite simple prayers and mantras. Once, I stayed with a friend and her three-year-old daughter. Every morning when we got up, we would all bow three times to the Buddha. Then, the little girl would give the Buddha a present—a cookie or some fruit—and the Buddha would give her a present also, a sweet or a cracker. It was very nice for the child, because at age three she was establishing a good relationship with the Buddha and at the same time was learning to be generous and share things. When my friend cleaned the house, did chores or went places with her daughter, they would chant mantras together. The little girl loved the melodies of the mantras. This helped her because whenever she got upset or frightened, she knew she could chant mantras to calm herself down.

How can the Dharma help children? How can we teach the Dharma to children?

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. These are values that both Buddhist and non-Buddhist parents want to instill in their children so that they can live harmoniously with others. Since children learn largely through example, the most effective way for parents to teach their children good values is to live them themselves. Of course, this isn’t always so easy! But if parents try to practice well, their children will directly benefit from their example.

Growing up with Buddhism in the home helps children. If a family has a shrine, the children can keep it tidy and make offerings. One friend and her three-year-old daughter bow to the Buddha three times every morning. The child then gives the Buddha a present—some fruit or cookies—and the Buddha gives one back to the child (usually the previous day’s offering). The little girl loves this ritual. Children like music, and the melodies of prayers, mantras, and Buddhist songs can take the place of the usual commercial jingles and nursery rhymes. Many parents chant mantras to their babies when the infants are upset or sleepy, and the babies react positively to the gentle vibration. In another family I know, the five-year-old son leads the prayer when they offer their food before eating. These are simple yet profound ways for parents and children to share spirituality.

Several Buddhist families could gather together on a weekly or monthly basis to practice together. Rather than just taking the kids to Sunday School and letting someone else teach them, practicing together provides the opportunity for the parents and children to spend some peaceful time together apart from their harried schedules. It also enables Buddhist families to meet and support each other. Activities for young children could include singing Buddhist songs, prayers, and mantras, learning to bow to the Buddha and make offerings at the shrine, and doing a short breathing meditation. Parents and school-age children could role-play together, creating a scene in which all the characters think of their own happiness above others’ and then replaying it with one of the characters thinking of others’ happiness. Such activities teach children problem-solving and let them see the results of different behaviors. Families could also visit Buddhist temples and centers in the community together.

Reading Buddhist children’s books and watching Buddhist videos are other activities parents can share with their children. There is an excellent cartoon video of the Buddha’s life, and many children’s Dharma books. Informal discussions with children can be both amusing and instructive, and parents may be surprised how open their children are to concepts such as rebirth, karma, and kindness to animals.

Many parents exclaim, “My child can’t sit still!” My guess is that these children have seldom seen their parents sit peacefully either! When children see an adult sitting peacefully, they get the idea that they can as well. Sometimes a parent’s quiet time can be shared with their children. For example, a child can sit on his or her parent’s lap while the parent recites mantras. Other times, parents may want to be undisturbed when they meditate, and children learn to respect their parents’ wish for quiet time.

Discussion groups work well with teenagers. An adult can facilitate a discussion about friendship or other topics of concern to teenagers. The beauty of Buddhism is that its principles can apply to every aspect of life. The more children see the relevance of ethical values and loving-kindness to their lives, the more they will value those traits. Once I led a discussion group for twenty teenagers about boy-girl relationships. Each person spoke in turn, and although they were ostensibly talking about their lives and feelings, there was a lot of Dharma in what they said. For example, they brought out the importance of living ethically. As the facilitator, I didn’t teach or preach. I just listened and respected what they said. Afterward some of them carne up to me and said, “Wow! That’s the first time we’ve ever talked about that with a nun!” Not only were they able to talk openly in the presence of an adult about a sensitive topic, but they also understood that religious people are aware and sympathetic of teenagers’ concerns. In addition, they saw the relevance to their lives.

As a teacher, how can I teach children to meditate?

Teaching children how to be kind people helps both the individual child and society in general. You can discuss some of the topics in these talks with the children, but without calling it Buddhism. Many of the things the Buddha taught are not religious at all. They are simply common sense, and in that way you can easily discuss them with children and people who are not Buddhist. For example, there is nothing religious about observing our breath. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist—everybody breathes. Thus, you can teach children how to meditate on the breath and calm their minds. Make the meditation short so they have a good experience.

You can also talk to them about the kindness of others and our interdependence on each other. Children shouldn’t always have to hear about the wars their ancestors fought. They can also learn how they cooperated and worked together for the benefit of the group. In a social studies class, you could dwell on how people help each other in society, and ask the children to tell stories about who has helped them and whom they have helped. In the case of teenagers, you could discuss Buddhist approaches to working with emotions in a psychology class. This presents them with a healthy way to relate to our emotions and to resolve any pain or harm we have experienced in the past.

One time I was a guest speaker at a high school. I talked about emotions, relationships with parents, and expectations. The kids really opened up and we had an incredible discussion about anger. They found an adult with whom they could talk about their anger without being judged. Even the teacher was amazed at how open, honest, and sensitive the students were.

How can we introduce children to meditation?

Children are often curious when they see their parents do their daily meditation practice. This can be an opportunity to teach them a simple breathing meditation. Children enjoy sitting quietly alongside their parents for five or ten minutes. When their attention span sags, they can quietly get up and go in another room while the parents continue to meditate. If parents find this too disturbing, they can do their daily practice privately and meditate together with their youngsters at another time.

Children can also learn visualization meditation. Most children love to pretend and can easily imagine things. Parents can teach their children to imagine the Buddha, made of light. Then, while light radiates from the Buddha into them and all the beings around them, they can chant the Buddha’s mantra. If a child has a sick relative, friend, or pet, or if a friend is having problems, the child could visualize that person specifically and imagine the Buddha sending light to him or her. In that way, children increase their compassion and feel involved in helping those they care about.

What if our children aren’t interested in Buddhism? Should we allow them to go to church with their friends?

Religion should not be forced on anyone. If children aren’t interested in Buddhism, let them be. They can still learn how to be a kind person from observing their parents’ attitudes and actions.

Classmates are likely to invite their friends to go to church with them. Because we live in a multicultural and multireligious society, it’s helpful for children to learn about other traditions by attending their friends’ church or temple. When they do so, we should prepare them by discussing the fact that people have different beliefs, and thus mutual respect and tolerance are important. Our children can also invite their classmates to a Dharma center or Buddhist activities, thus promoting mutual learning and respect.

Dharma centers usually schedule events for adults and no child care is provided. What can we do?

Dharma centers need to gradually expand their range of activities. Parents who are members could meet together and discuss how to do this, utilizing some of the suggestions above. They then can organize family activities or activities for children at the centers.

How can we have good relationships with our children, especially when they’re teenagers?

Having an open relationship with teenagers is important, and this depends on how the parents relate to their children when they’re small. This, in turn, depends on spending time with the children and on having a positive attitude toward them. When parents are harried, they tend to see having children as a hassle—yet another thing to take care of before they collapse after a hard day at work. Children pick up on this, often feeling that their parents don’t care about them or don’t have time for them even if they care. Setting priorities is essential in building good relationships with children. This may mean accepting a job that pays less but has shorter hours or turning down a promotion that would have increased family income but meant more stress and less time at home. Love is more important to children than material possessions. Choosing to earn more money at the expense of good family relations may mean later having to spend that extra income on therapy and counseling for both parents and children!

Do children need discipline? How do we do that without getting angry?

Children often provide the best—and the most difficult—opportunity to practice patience! For that reason, parents are advised to become familiar with the antidotes to anger that the Buddha taught. Patience doesn’t mean letting children do whatever they want to. That is, in fact, being cruel to children, for it allows them to develop bad habits, which makes it more difficult for them to get along with others. Children need guidelines and limits. They need to learn the results of different behaviors, and how to discriminate between which to practice and which to abandon.

Contentment is an essential Buddhist principle. How can we teach it to children?

The attitude of contentment enables us to enjoy life more and experience more satisfaction. I believe one reason children are discontent is that they are given too many choices about their sense pleasures. From a young age, they are asked, “Do you want apple juice or orange juice?” “Do you want to watch this TV show or that one?” “Do you want this kind of bicycle or that?” “Do you want a red toy or a green one?” Children—not to mention adults—become confused by being bombarded with so many choices. Instead of learning to be content with whatever they have, they are constantly forced to think, “Which thing will bring me the most happiness? What else can I get to make me happy?” This increases their greed and confusion. Remedying this doesn’t mean that parents become authoritarian. Rather, they place less emphasis on the importance of these things in the home. Of course, this also depends on parents’ altering the ways they themselves relate to sense pleasures and material possessions. If parents cultivate contentment, their children will find it easier to do so as well.

My teenagers constantly come home late. As a parent, I know I can’t control it, but how do I tell myself this is not the result of my irresponsible actions?

As a parent, you nurtured your child from the time he or she was helpless and completely dependent on you. At that time, you were responsible for every aspect of the baby’s life. But as your child grows up and becomes more independent, he or she gradually assumes that responsibility and you are no longer responsible for every aspect of his life. Letting go of this is one of the challenges of parenting.

As parents, you want your children to be happy and not to suffer. Thus you teach them skills to deal with different situations. But you can’t follow them around their whole lives to protect them from suffering. That’s impossible, and it would be pretty miserable too! Would you want to follow your teenager around 24 hours a day? Our parents wanted us to be happy, but they had to let us live our own lives. They taught us skills, and in spite of all the mistakes we’ve made, we have managed to stay alive. We’ve dealt with our mistakes, learned from them, and moved on. That will happen to your children too.

It’s hard to watch somebody you love—your child, spouse, parent, friend—make a mistake. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to prevent it. We just have to be there and afterwards help them learn from their mistake.

Talk to your teenagers about things they are interested in, whether or not those things interest you. Don’t just talk to them about getting good grades and keeping their room clean. Talk to them about sports or the latest fashion. Keep the doors of communication open.

What are the Buddhist views on abortion and on teenage pregnancy?

In American society, there is a huge debate between those who favor pro-choice and those who favor pro-life. Each side says their position is right and attacks the other. Each group says their view is right because they care the most about others. However, I do not see much caring or compassion in this debate. Rather, both the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers are angry. Neither has much compassion, which is unfortunate, because in the case of unwanted pregnancy, compassion is direly needed. Everyone in the situation needs compassion—the mother, the father, the child, and the society. Unwanted pregnancy is difficult for everybody. Rather than having a judgmental attitude, we need to bring our compassion to the forefront.

From a Buddhist viewpoint, life starts at the time of conception. Thus abortion is taking life. But condemning people who have abortions does not benefit anyone. We need to give the parents, or at least the mother, support and understanding in the case of unwanted pregnancy. If we do, there will be a greater chance for the child to be born. Then, the baby can be adopted or given to another family to raise. If we as a society can give support rather than judgmental criticism, it could help save the lives of those children. I say this because it has touched my life directly. My younger sister was adopted as a newborn. She was the result of an unwanted pregnancy. But instead of having an abortion, her birth mother gave birth. Because of that, I am able to have a sister who I love very much. I’m very grateful for that.

Here we have to look at the issue of teens being sexually active. They learn to use their sexuality responsibly in two ways. First, adults must model wise sexual conduct. That means that both parents are faithful to each other and do not have relationships with other people. Second, adults must discuss sex and birth control with their children, or if they do not feel comfortable doing so, they should ask other adults to do so. If parents simply say, “Don’t have sex, but we don’t want to talk about it any further,” then from whom will teenagers learn? From magazines, from television, from all the stories they hear from their friends? Adults need to give them some good and accurate information and not be so shy about it.

Another factor which encourages teens to use their sexuality wisely is an atmosphere of love and acceptance at home. If they don’t feel loved and accepted by their parents, sex becomes more appealing because at least then somebody is caring about them. It’s very difficult to tell teens who don’t feel loved or accepted, “Don’t have sexual relations,” because they desperately want to feel close to other human beings. Emotionally they crave affection, and in addition the hormones in their bodies are making sexual desire arise. Both of these factors contribute to their sexual activity. If people create a more loving environment within families where parents talk with and spend time with their children instead of just telling them what to do, the children will feel supported by and bonded to their family. Then they won’t have as much emotional need to be sexually active.

I am a therapist and have several Chinese clients. When I ask them, “Have you communicated with your teenage children about sex?” they say, “We never touch the subject, because if we tell them about birth control, they will do more.”

Although some people think in this way, I do not believe this is the case. Each of us lived through adolescence. I don’t think learning about birth control would have propelled me to be more sexually active. Rather, it would have made me more responsible. Accurate information about sexual functions and birth control enables teens and young adults to think more clearly about these beforehand. They will take proper precautions and think about situations before they happen. For example, they will know that even if they use birth control, pregnancy could still occur. That could make them check, “Am I ready to become a parent?” and “Do I really care about this other person?” By thinking about these things, they will learn to discriminate and make good choices.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.