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Verse 8: The prison of personal entanglements

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Suffering comes from being attached to our loved ones and friends
  • Entangled personal relationships distract us from our spiritual practice.

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 8 (download)

Verse 7 review

I checked on the one yesterday:

What enemies of the state are destroying our happiness and prosperity?
All the various emotional afflictions that disturb the threads of thought.

That verse was actually an analogy to a state or a country. We’re kind of, in a way, our own state with our own ministers that take care of different aspects of ourselves, that manage different parts of our lives. And just as a state has a ruler and then the cabinet. It’s that kind of thing. The analogy is that if the ruler and the cabinet—or if we and the various parts of us—are overwhelmed by afflictions then the whole thing doesn’t run well. So we don’t run well as a human being, and our country doesn’t run well, which is in evidence.

Verse 8

“What is the prison difficult to escape even though we hold the keys?”

It’s not samsara, this one. “What is the prison difficult to escape even though we hold the keys?”

This one’s hard. I’m going to tell you this one. “Entangled personal relationships, such as attachment to family and friends.”

What is the prison difficult to escape even though we hold the keys?
Entangled personal relationships, such as attachment to family and friends.

Entangled personal relationships, where we’re so emotionally hooked in with somebody, especially due to attachment. We were talking about this in our NVC [Non-violent Communication] class yesterday. When we take responsibility for other people’s emotions instead of our own. When we don’t take responsibility for what is ours and blame it on other people. When we get very attached to people so that it becomes difficult to say, “I want to go on retreat,” or, “I want to go to meditation class.” Or whatever it is. It’s very difficult when our relationships are entangled because very often the other person doesn’t want it.

I had one friend, and her kids when they were teenagers they would go off here and there and here and there. But when she was very active going to the Dharma center they would complain that mom’s not home. So that kind of thing. Your spouse or your whoever, they want you home. Even though if she sat home she would be doing nothing because the kids would be out somewhere else. So she just said, “Kids, look, I’m going. You can manage.” And everything worked out okay.

But that happens. Or sometimes, again, people say, “Oh, let’s go on vacation, don’t go to retreat.” Or, “Don’t make a donation towards that charity, let’s use the money to get some new furniture for the house.” When we get very entangled in relationships then we’re not as free of an agent as before. Unless the couple really, really supports each other and has common values and so on, but that is often not as easy as it sounds.

The prison of attachment

It’s a prison in the sense that we’re really locked in by our commitment and by our attachment.

And it’s not just romantic relationships. It could be with our parents, with our children, with our siblings, with very close friends. We want to please these people…. It could happen with colleagues, too. We don’t want to appear different than they are. We don’t want them to think that we’re strange or we’re weird. So we do what we think they think we should do, and thereby we lose our freedom. Even in a work situation, everybody thinks you should know everything about all the latest movies, so you watch all the latest movies and then you have no time for your Dharma practice. So all sorts of things like that, when we’re in an entangled relationship….

Also, those entangled relationships with attachment, they take a lot of time, don’t they? Because you have to talk about them, and all the communicating, and how are we doing, and are we as close as before? And what are you unhappy about and what am I unhappy about? You know, all these kinds of things. So it’s a prison.

We do hold the keys

We hold the keys in the sense that we’re the ones that let our attachment blossom and get hooked. And so it’s not that monastics are immune from this. It can happen with monastics, too. Which is why in a monastery you really refrain from having special relationships with people. You know, if there are some monastics that just kind of team up and are always together, that’s not so healthy. We should learn to relate to everybody and be friends with everybody, and not just always seek one special friend.

“Entangled personal relationships such as attachment to family and friends.”

Then of course when we’re separate from those people we miss them. A lot of people, they think of ordaining but then they’re not going to be close to their family so they miss their family. Or when your family dies—family members are going to die, unless we die first—then, you know, we get all involved in that. And family dramas. It’s very easy to get really hooked in by what’s going on in the family—this one’s not speaking to that one, and this one this here and that…. We all know what that’s like, don’t we? And then you’re trying to be in the monastery doing that but your attention’s always going outward because you’re trying to solve the family problems.

Cultivating healthy relationships

The kind of relationships we want to have are ones that are very direct and friendly and honest and clear, without attachment. Of course, without attachment is a very high call. So we’re working on it. We all have attachment. We’re working on lessening our attachment. But really trying to make it so when we say, “May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,” as much as possible, all sentient beings means all of them in an equal way. Not favoring the people that we’re attached to, but really looking upon everybody with an attitude of kindness and friendliness and a genuine wish for them to be happy. Instead of the sticky relationships with, “I like you because you do this and this and this. And you like me because I do that and that and that.” And then it becomes very difficult, you know. Because you’re so bonded together.

That there’s space in relationships. And also, our mind feels space.

Sometimes even if you’re a couple, you go to a retreat together, you’re always checking in with your partner. “What did you think about that? What do you think about that? Oh I noticed you were slouching during meditation. Are you okay?” What were you during your meditation looking at your partner’s meditation position? So this kind of thing of like, “I always have to take care of somebody and make sure they’re okay.” So beginning to relax that so that you can really focus on what you need to focus on and let the other person focus on what they need to focus on.

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.