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Marriage and eightfold path
August 8th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Marriage and eightfold path

Buddhism in general says little about marriage, usually relegating it to a social construct which might play a role in conventional lay life but is mostly irrelevant to one's Liberation (once considered that a person is not a monastic).
This had unfortunate consequences, e.g. pushing Buddhism to be the religion for funerals but not for marriages in Japan… This is unfortunate because Buddhism is relevant to matrimony!

Below is an example of declination of the eightfold path within the social construct of marriage —others declinations are of course possible (usually complementary):

Ethical conduct (sīla):

Right speech: it is sad to observe couples where spouses talk to each other with a tone they'd never dare to use with anyone else. Marriage is an opportunity to practice right speech: saying whatever idea comes to your mind (no matter how delusional, ignorant or unwholesome) is neither mindful nor wholesome.
« Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: this is called right speech. »
Sometimes, people justify being nasty with their partner as "telling the truth", but they miss three points: • the truth usually may be told with love and attentiveness; • unless you're enlightened, what you think is unlikely to be the truth; • truth is often subjective: what's true for you isn't necessarily so for others (e.g. what's physically true for a man is not necessarily so for a woman)!

Right action: this should be obvious, domestic violence is not supported by Buddhism, even when (or in particular when) you feel it's justified. Right action consists precisely in not acting on unwholesome 'narratives', inappropriate justifications (out of not fully seeing the consequences of your acts).
« There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his... knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. Abandoning sensual misconduct, he abstains from sensual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action. »

Right livelihood: this usually covers "wealth obtained through rightful means." In a marriage, this notably means avoiding the appropriation of wealth of your partner. While you should consider supporting your spouse as much as you can, you're not entitled to 'force' your spouse to support you by appropriating their wealth under the justification that they 'should' support you. Two wrongs don't make one right… This also means refraining from any interest in your partner's inheritance and other 'wider family' matters. Any abuse of, or undue lower standards vis-à-vis, 'your' network (notably via your spouse's family) is in breach of right livelihood.

Concentration (samādhi):

Right effort: diligence in matrimony is just as good a training for higher concentration as some meditation exercises. Constantly supporting your spouse, no matter their 'faults' in your eyes, is a choice: nothing your partner does will justify you drop your attention. A typical advice for meditation beginners is to let the disturbances pass, to mentally note them but keep practising without holding onto them… Is it difficult to imagine how to translate this into married life? Your spouse might get on your nerves, but this is about your nerves and you working on understanding why you have these buttons ready to be pushed…

Right mindfulness: "being present" is fundamental for communication (on all levels). If you regularly switch off when your partner talks to you, don't make a narrative that this is due to your partner: you're the one switching off. If you practice breathing meditation, no matter what they do, any interaction with your partner is a lot richer experience than breathing, so any justification of boredom ("after X years of marriage") is clearly you looking for an easy cop-out. Pay attention to your partner and you can attain the highest realisation Buddhism has to offer. I regularly write: "don't know, pay attention", this may easily be adapted as "don't know your partner, pay attention". Not knowing your partner means paying attention to how they evolve throughout their life, rather than relying on some outdated image of who they were when you married them! 

Right concentration: listening to your partner is actually listening to your partner, not just saying "yes" from time to time while watching the TV or thinking about some issue at work. Listening to your partner —when you do— might become an experience as self-less as the jhānas, a state where the information about facts and emotions and thoughts of your partner are accessed without any bias from your own concerns and views.

Wisdom (paññā):

Right view: your marriage is not forever, it will end (sooner… or when you die). It is neither intrinsic nor permanent: it is what you make it to be (hence the importance of the other points!). The root cause of suffering is the mismatch between expectations (based on prejudiced certainties) and contingent reality: the end of suffering is found in paying attention (to changes, evolutions) and taking responsibility for what you can act on here&now, taking responsibility for "responding appropriately to what the situation requires".

Right intention: if you don't try the above, why did you take vows?

Lay life is not an obstacle to the Dharma, and marriage provides a great opportunity to get out of self-centred views. It is up to you to practice your marriage like you practice meditation ;-)

photo: Fariyal and Denis Wallez, four years ago.