5. The Zen of Intimate Relationship

Context and Preliminaries

Every sector and phase of our lives is potentially valuable as a field of Buddhist practice, whether it be work, parenting, intimate relationship, ageing, loss and bereavement, and so on. In all these fields we commonly experience some more or less painful dissatisfaction. This we attempt to resolve within that field unaware of its deeper origin in our characteristic existential sense of lack. Thus Erich Fromm remarked as follows of the majority of patients he observed in therapy:

They complain of being depressed, of having insomnia, being unhappy in their marriages, not enjoying their work, and any number of similar troubles. They usually believe that this or that particular symptom is their problem, and if only they could get rid of particular trouble they would be well... These patients do not see that these various complaints are the only conscious form in which our culture permits them to express something which lies much deeper and is common to the various people who believe they suffer from this or that particular symptom. The common suffering is the alienation from oneself, from one's fellow men and women, and from nature; the awareness that life runs out like sand, and that one will die without having lived.

Here we shall be concerned primarily with erotic relationships, whether of the transient "romantic" kind or committed as "partnerships" (married or not). However, a similar existential sense of lack or dukkha (somewhat misleadingly translated as "suffering") may be experienced in all close and potentially needy relationships, as between parents and children, or emotionally dependent friendships. And a similar diagnosis and treatment through emotional awareness practice likewise applies.

In the second half of the twentieth century the traditional, institutionalised and relatively stable model of marriage was displaced by the needy, restless individualism of high modernity, peeling off another layer of the existential onion in its search for authenticity at the heart. It has been supplanted by "partnership" in a committed relationship. Modernity is marked by an urge for intimacy which has become intense and compulsive, focussing upon "relationships", a word which, (like "partnership") assumed its present meaning only in the last fifty years or so.

The relationship is a unique phenomenon in that, unlike traditional marriage, it is totally disembedded from any external social conditions and exists only for itself. It must therefore accommodate all the emotional, intellectual and existential baggage of both parties often with unreasonably high mutual expectations. And it must do so in the midst of a speedy, agitated consumer society, (under the pressure, in the UK, of the longest working hours in Europe), and often with the demands of child rearing, (which may well push parents apart rather than pulling them together).

We may note, in parenthesis, that if there is not too great a mutual neediness then this emotional exposure may be mitigated by practical arrangements which ensure that each partner is able to lead a separate and autonomous life consistent with a loving relationship. That is to say, the distance should be appropriate for sustaining the relationship and not for evading its challenges. Thus the Sufi poet Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love...

Fill each other's cup, but drink not from the one cup...

Stand together yet not too near together;

For the pillars of the temple stand apart.

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

Nonetheless, whatever such practical adjustments may be made to reduce its pressures, to sustain an intimate relationship remains an emotionally demanding undertaking. Such demands are not obstacles or distractions in our Buddhist practice, just as our practice is more than a means of managing these demands. They are themselves our practice. In the following observation, Charlotte Joko Beck, that pioneer of contemporary "Ordinary Mind Zen", echoes a great many present-day Dharma teachers in all traditions:

Relationships with people, especially close and trusting ones, are our best way to grow. In them we can see what our mind, our body, our senses and our thoughts really are. There is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us to see where we are stuck and what we're holding onto. As long as our buttons are being pushed we have a great chance to learn and grow. So a relationship is a great gift not because it makes us happy - it often doesn't - but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.

However, we can only truly know a relationship to the extent that we deeply know ourselves, and this can be a long and arduous journey. The good news is that love motivates and inspires us to develop that deeper self knowledge, without which love may perish.

No matter in what part of our life we are practicing in order to mature wisdom and compassion, the Dharmic diagnosis and treatment are essentially the same. So at this point essential re-reading will be found in the earlier "Talk Three" on the practice of Emotional Awareness, and also "Talk One" on the Lifelong Lawsuit with Reality. In the latter, at the end of the section entitled "The Lawsuit", I have touched upon the distinction between two opposing impulsions both of which, confusingly may be termed "desire". On the one hand there is the delusive, egocentric clinging and grasping whereby the self struggles to defend and enlarge its identity and sphere of control - and nowhere, on the personal level, more strongly than in close relationship. By contrast, there is the compassionate desire, moved by a sense of at-one-ness with the other, which selflessly seeks the other's well-being, and which manifests naturally from our True (or Buddha) Nature. In the more subtle instances great clarity of mind, cultivated by a sustained meditation practice, is needed to discern the difference. We can easily deceive ourselves as to our true motives, and nowhere is the warning in the Hsin-Hsin-Ming more relevant than here: "Make a hair's breadth difference and Heaven and Earth are set apart." It is here that the shifting boundary runs between true love and egoisme à deux. This confusion surrounding the word "desire" in Buddhist teaching has been helpfully addressed in Mark Epstein's book Open to Desire.

The Dukkha of Relationships

In the blaze of erotic passion and romantic neediness we are customarily unaware how love thrives on lack. Or, as David Loy questions, "is it the reverse: does our lack thrive on love? We are not unaware that passion means suffering, but we imagine that such passion is nonetheless exciting and vital in a way ordinary life is not. Therefore we revel in pain, for all pain is endurable if we can see a reason for it and an end to it." In our heightened state of delusion we believe that the anxious self will at last find the ultimate in security and gratification - in terms of affection, recognition, appreciation, care and limitless sexual gratification -- in brief, the end of existential fear.

Subsequently we begin to see that the other is not quite what we had imagined him or her to be - that is, someone ideally suited to gratify a whole range of our needs. We may feel angry, resentful and let down. We may even begin to realise that we committed to them for what we felt they could give us, instead of who they now appear to be, with all their "inadequacies". We want them to be different from what we now see they are. These dissonances commonly make themselves felt in annoying disagreements over money, ways of spending the time, the other's friends and family, and so on. There may be interminable discussion, reasoning and argument to persuade the other to change their inconvenient ways. As always the mentality is about How can I fix that problem out there?

Furthermore, this whole reaction will doubtless be going on in the other person. He or she becomes aware of their own needs not being adequately addressed by the other, who is at the same time making demands that threaten his or her own precariously fortified identity. Instead of being able to help in the vain attempt to win one's lifelong lawsuit with reality he or she appears, on the contrary, to be destabilising the project.

For example, she may want love, romance and tenderness before she can feel the confidence and self-assurance to let herself go. He, however, may be hell bent on his own erotic passion, and unable to understand what he may see as her frigidity and romantic foibles.

If the couple do not split up, they may settle down to some unhappy mix of attempted control and autonomy. For example, one may attempt to maintain some control over the other so that his or her own needs are at least minimally satisfied. The other may, short of leaving, act as if they don't really need the other, emotionally or sexually. They may withdraw into a virtuous, cool, self-control - perhaps dedicating themselves to some "spiritual practice". In fact, they have deadened and repressed a vital part of themselves, (and maybe also have fallen into the trap of "spiritual by-passing").

There is a very different, possible accommodation between the couple, termed co-dependence. This indeed may have brought them together in the first place, and, far from being a cause of suffering, may make for a comfortable and agreeable lifelong relationship. There is here a more or less unconscious collusion; "I'll compensate you for ways in which you are emotionally intellectually and erotically incomplete, and you do the same for me."

Traditionally this was socially built in, in the form of separate male and female roles, most notably that of the male breadwinner and the female homemaker. Social changes have now diminished the importance of such roles, but not the co-dependence arising from the male and female aspects of personality. The male has no need to develop the female side of his personality because his partner, playing the opposite hand, provides for him the entire female side of their marriage. Typically she may take care of the social side of their lifestyle, and provide the nurturing and emotional backup and lubrication in family and marriage. She may apparently play no more than a supportive role to the hard-edged structural functionalism of the male, though in fact holding the real power in the family.

Many life-long marriages are founded on co-dependence, and reckoned to be "successful". But, as with other kinds of "accommodations" which enable some people to "get through" life without too much suffering, the price of co-dependence is that it blocks either party from developing their full potential, that is, the masculine or feminine side of their personalities. Arguably, this can affect their potential for full spiritual maturity. I do recall a particularly interesting talk by Roshi Reb Anderson in this connexion. And another experienced Zen teacher once remarked to me that, as his male and female students ripened in their practice over the years, each tended gradually to become more rounded and complete in their manifestation of masculine and feminine characteristics. I shall return later to the interdependence of what has been called "the inner marriage".

Relationship as Spiritual Practice

Often, when in love, we may feel ourselves being pulled in opposing directions. On the one hand, we truly desire to connect with the other in an unconditional love arising from our Buddha Nature. On the other hand we may still cling to promoting and defending our self-image. It is at this crossing point that significant transformation of the self and of the relationship becomes possible.

Indeed, we may instinctively be drawn to a partner who is a worthy challenger, strong enough to ensure that we don't get away with what we want, and obliging us to confront the behaviours by which we seek to evade our underlying fear. At the same time to provide loving support whilst stimulating, provoking and nurturing in this way requires skill, honesty, and courage. A bit of playfulness and black comedy also goes a long way...

A valuable orientation in this maturation process is the so-called "inner marriage", whereby the man is enabled to develop his feminine side (anima, yin) and the women her masculine side (animus, yang). The anima (or Wisdom principle) has an inner, receptive quality, open to insight, creativity and oblique thinking, opening to life and accepting ourselves as we are, with a grounded physicality. The animus (or Compassion principle) has the opposite qualities - action-orientated, intellectual, visionary, structural, functionalist and so on.

In our still substantially patriarchal culture, the precarious self in each gender may feel threatened by the other. He may feel threatened by her "emotionality" and "irrationality" and respond with an aggressive, corrupted animus. She may feel devalued and mistreated by his macho culture and, in hardening herself against it, may cut herself off from her feminine (yin) power. Thus there may be obstacles on both sides to opening up and letting in the anima or animus of the other.

In the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism this inner marriage has an important place in spiritual maturation. The story is told of the great yogin Naropa, who believed that he understood not only the words but the inner meaning of the Dharma until he was confounded by a playful (and wrathful) dakini hag who taught him he was not yet as spiritually advanced as he had supposed. In Zen a similar role is played by the obscure old woman running the tea stall outside the monastery, lying in wait to trounce the supposedly omniscient Master.

From the practical point of view, returning to the pair of "worthy challengers" introduced above, the first step (as always in Dharma practice) is to look within, -- preferably in the most contemplative state that can be mustered. One can consider this looking within in three stages: Analysis, Contemplation, and Positive Dialogue.


First, identify something which bothers you about your partner - some way he or she treats you and for which you blame them. Secondly, how do you experience this, feel it, interpret it? Thirdly, why does it bother you so much? (an affront, perhaps, to your dignity and autonomy?). Fourthly, What is there about you which causes this to get to you? (like, lack of confidence, feeling slighted by others). Here your emotional awareness practice will have made you familiar with your inner furniture and baggage; becoming intimate with this is surely one of the first undertakings in a Dharma practice, uncomfortable and disconcerting though it may be.

Working through the above steps we begin to see how anger and resentment is commonly born out of fear. And that fear is a key issue underlying most relationship difficulties. There is fear of being left alone, of being rejected, of being overwhelmed, of having our weaknesses exposed, of too much intimacy, of not getting what we want or losing what we have, and so on.


After this stage of analysis (which can, of course, be repeated as needs be) we come to the emotional awareness practice of becoming intimate with a workable feeling which has been identified in the previous paragraph, such as fear of being left alone (see "Talk Three -- The Practice of Emotional Awareness"). This second, contemplative stage is perhaps the most important in securing a successful outcome for the process as a whole.

Positive Dialogue

The third stage (though there will probably, of course, be several such episodes) has been called "The No-Fault Listening Zone". Even if your partner is not following the kind of practice set out here, providing you are undertaking the necessary work on yourself you can still initiate work with them in a positive and unthreatening way. This encourages them to reciprocate, and some kind of positive dialogue becomes possible. What were once implacably defended desires can become negotiable preferences. I am reminded of the following parable by the Taoist sage Chuang-Tzu:

If a man is crossing a river

And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,

Even though he be a bad tempered man

He will not become very angry.

But if he sees a man in the boat,

He will shout at him to steer clear.

And if his shout is not heard, he will shout again.

And yet again, and begin cursing,

If you can empty your own boat

Crossing the river of the world,

No one will oppose you,

No one will seek to harm you.

The No Fault Listening Zone may be set up when both parties are feeling well disposed - or, more audaciously, after some all-too-familiar row (in which case the process can reveal what lies beneath). Each takes it in turn to tell the truth about their experience and the hard time they are having with the relationship. They both agree not to assign blame. The one who is speaking is not to be interrupted. The other remains silent and tries hard to understand, and he or she may repeat back in their own words what they believe they have heard.

With this work it is possible that with a more realistic picture of their relationship one or both parties may decide that they are no longer sufficiently in love to sustain a partnership with any mutually acceptable degree of commitment, and they should part. Such a decision, of course, is not to be taken hastily, and much depends on the maturity and extent of self-knowledge of the couple. We live in a fast food culture in which patience and forgiveness are not prominent virtues. Some sense of commitment, of being in it for the long haul, can provide a helpful supportive framework, like sharing a home, marrying, and having children. The ultimate commitment is that of undertaking an intimate lifelong journey together, each maturing in the light of the other.. as well as maturing in their own light. Here there is no sacramental guarantee - only the playfulness of those who have learnt to live lightly in an impermanent and insubstantial world. And people may, of course, change and evolve away from one another in this world of arrivals and departures.

A committed, long term relationship of the kind I have outlined, ripening in unconditional love, can be a spiritual journey in a profound and yet non-explicit sense. It will draw upon what each partner has made of the maturing potential of other areas of their lives, including contemplative alone-ness. It will especially draw on how far they have learnt to accept - and even to love - themselves, and are thus freed to love others. One's partner may have traits which we might prefer were otherwise, but we learn not to view these personally; it is the whole person whom we love, beyond our likes and dislikes. This is an unconditional love which has been cleansed of our need to perceive the other in any self-serving way. This is the suchness of Zen, beyond wanting this and rejecting that. We relate to the other in the spirit of Dogen's quotation that "every creature covers the ground it stands on - no more nor no less. It never falls short of its completeness". Such a relationship embodies the Two Truths, as they are sometimes called in Buddhism, reflecting the oneness of form and emptiness. As Shunryu Suzuki playfully put it: "You're perfect as you are; but there's still room for improvement...."

Sexuality as Spiritual Practice

The more profane may well chortle at the above heading. "No sex, please, we're Buddhists!" The fact that sex so rarely appears, except in passing, in Western Buddhist teaching and practice is evidence of the enduring, taken-for-granted grip of the Asian monastic tradition. And yet we live in a culture saturated with sexuality. Sex is commodified both in itself (e.g. as pornography) and as an advertising lure. Moreover the preoccupation with sexual gratification helps to fill the void left in a highly individualistic culture in which traditional mores are in decline. "Good sex" has become a human right, essential for self esteem.

The sexual drive undoubtedly differs between individuals - those who have weak "engines" and strong "brakes" may even wonder what all the fuss is about. At its most powerful -- and especially when embellished with romantic love --it sweeps all before it, amounting to a veritable possession, a force of nature so overwhelming as to appear irresistible, so that it feels that sex is exploiting the helpless self rather than vice versa. Unsurprisingly it has aroused much fear, individually and socially, and been subject to all manner of controls, ranging from personal repression and guilt, through punitive moral judgement, to a fearsome range of religious and patriarchal taboos and prohibitions (particularly directed at the sinful daughters of Eve).

Sex is, of course, simply a strong biological drive, neither "good" nor "bad" in itself.

On the one hand, it can powerfully (if temporarily) fill our sense of lack, incorporated as a major addictive resource in our lifelong lawsuit with life. This is what Ven. Sangharakshita termed neurotic sex. Sexual passion can impart a seemingly omnipotent self-identity. This is particularly so where it is exploited to dominate and control another - or to be dominated by another. In a relationship it commonly supercharges some of the dissonances already referred to in this talk. "I have my own life to live - not to be exploited as some sexual chattel. And I'll let him /her know this by not letting them have their way just when they feel like it. And, who knows? -- I might get around to enjoying my sexuality somewhere else..."

On the other hand, providing that sexual chemistry is not predominant in bringing a couple together, passionate love-making can wipe clear the clogged, self-protecting windows of perception, softening and opening deep, selfless feeling for the beloved. For in Buddhism the physicality of the emotions receives full acknowledgement. And, in a different context, the Tantrayana surely bears witness to the spiritual potential of the erotic. Nonetheless, "a healthy sex life "is by no means essential for a committed relationship, as becomes clear in later years when the sexual urge diminishes and the love which sustains and delights the couple stands free of its earlier erotic highlighting.

It is noteworthy that the contrasting emotions in the above two paragraphs further exemplify the distinction I made earlier between the two radically different meanings of "desire".

In Zen Buddhism we find a general absence of concern for relationships and sexuality which presumably reflects its cultural and monastic origins, whereas in some of the Tibetan traditions sexuality receives a richer and more complex treatment. The asceticism of the Theravada is typically reflected in the aversion therapy of the well known meditation on the underlying loathsomeness of the body of one's would-be lover. For further reading in Asian Buddhist sexuality see Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, by John Stevens (1990) and Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality by Bernard Faure (1998).

For most Western lay practitioners the most significant teaching on sexuality is the Third Precept. This has been expressed as not doing harm to others by liaising with someone who is already in a committed relationship, or, more comprehensively (and usefully), not allowing oneself to be invaded by sexual greed. Fucking a body without significantly and fully relating to the person embodied is a denial of their humanity. This may of course, be mutual (and mutually debasing) in an egoisme à deux, but most reprehensible of all in the seduction of a weaker by a stronger personality (as may be the case in the teacher- student role).

The relationship between love and sexuality is, of course, tangled and complex, and there is no necessary connection between them. Love and mutual respect need time and opportunity to ripen, letting sex take its natural course within that context. Allowing erotic chemistry alone to become the basis, for a relationship is very likely to end in tears, with the waning of the original intensity of the affaire.

A situational rather than a literal ethic - see my "Talk Four" - is particularly important in respect of the Third Precept. In all intimate relationship (and especially when purple with passion), the self is especially fearful, needy, protective and aggressive when faced with transgression and betrayal. There is ready resort to a punitive righteousness in place of the wise and reflective compassion required in what are usually more complex situations than may first appear. And even when the ethical course of action is clear, as in the need to end an affair, patience will be necessary. An act of will, with the accompanying emotional suppression and anguished guilt, may provide an instant solution but only at the cost of storing up trouble for the future, since the underlying problems remain unresolved. Contemplative practices like emotional awareness are needed to "work through" feelings of bitterness, loss and resentment, and this takes patience and support. When the fruit has had time to ripen on the tree, it can be plucked without bringing down the whole tree.

There is a prevailing obsession with sexual intercourse as some kind of absolute in an intimate relationship -- "Yes, but did they ever really become lovers, and, if so, when?" Nonetheless, a strong relationship can survive and even mature in the face of sexual betrayal and failure. In this connection the three steps of a forgiveness practice may be helpful.

First, this is not about forgiving what the other has done, but forgiveness of the person. Rather than just telling oneself to "Drop it! Let it go!" it may be more helpful to acknowledge an unwillingness to forgive and a strong, gutsy preference to go on nursing resentment, bitterness and rage. Secondly, actually open up to those feelings ("No one should have to put up with this..." etc.) and become intimate with them without letting them carry you away. For the present, own, as your own responsibility, those feelings which are causing you so much grief and acknowledge their resolution as your own task. Attend to the tenseness and the other distresses of the body. Finally, sooner or later it will become possible to perceive more clearly what might be driving the other, and understanding and forgiveness - even voiced in words - may become possible.

Whether or not caught up in an impassioned (or threatening) situation, it is important for all followers of the Way to become fully aware of their sexuality, however manifested, to ensure that it is not by-passed in their practice, and, on the contrary, is treated as a spiritual resource. This applies no less to the chastity option, pursued with clarity and honesty in the face of an uncomprehending present-day culture.

Roshi Reb Anderson offers the following endorsement of the above contention, as welcoming as it is rare from a Zen teacher:

Intimacy with your sexuality is the ultimate fulfilment of the bodhisattva precept of no sexual greed. Intimacy with sexuality means that there is a deep understanding of no separation between self and other. This is using sexuality to purify sexuality. Realizing this intimacy is like putting the last piece into place in a jigsaw puzzle; it is like the moment when you finally learn a great poem by heart.


Erich Fromm is quoted from his essay in Zen Buddhism and Psycho-analysis, edited by D.T.Suzuki (Souvenir Press, 1974).

Charlotte Joko Beck has a substantial treatment of relationships in her book Everyday Zen: Love and Work (Harper Collins/Thorsons, 1997).

The David Loy quotation is from "Trying to become real: a Buddhist critique of some social heresies", International Philosophical Quarterly, 32(4) Dec.1992.

That by Reb Anderson is from Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Rodmell Press, Berkeley, USA, 2001, p118).

In preparing this talk I have found John Welwood's Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship (Harper Perennial, 1997) particularly valuable.

Ken and John Crook