Family Matters

For most of us, family is a matter of great concern. Obviously, without our father and mother having come together, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. And then, of course, you may have brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties, cousins, nephews and nieces in ever-widening circles. We are all members of a certain bloodline that goes back to the very origins of humankind. And even if, for whatever reason, you yourself have no children, there is no need to worry too much about human procreation. UNICEF estimates that an average of 353,000 babies are born each day around the world (while 151,600 people die every day). It seems that, on a very basic level, we know the value of human life and – if it were up to us – we’d live on forever.

Family ties are often strong and being of the same blood has a mysterious and often indelible power. Families provide coherence and also gives us a certain identity. Some time ago, one of my friends told me that his mother had passed away – not long after his father had died – and he added that he now felt as if he no longer had a roof over his head. His remark really touched me. Besides the obvious feeling of grief, it seemed to communicate something very simple yet profound. He is a successful middle-aged man with plenty of responsibilities, but his parents had still given him a certain kind of shelter that he really appreciated. I recognized the feeling from my own experience – it is as if one is suddenly bereft of a sense of belonging and one is therefore more exposed.

No wonder we often try to understand ourselves and our place in the world by reflecting on our genealogy and upbringing. So it is only natural that most cultures stress the importance of family lineage and, over time, developed ceremonial observances to honour family ancestors. Yet, although certain talents, preferences, behavioural patterns and personality quirks may be shared within a single family, there is also often plenty of room for interesting differences – both positive and negative ones. And family members can turn against one another; it just seems to be part of the human condition. Last year’s Family Week concluded with a grand performance of the six realms of existence and the youngsters had no trouble recognizing the intricate relationships between the various inhabitants of those realms as the usual family affairs.

Fortunately, besides family lineages there are also Dharma lineages and these too have been maintained throughout the ages, transmitting ancient wisdom that can help us to do real justice to this human existence and learn how to live up to our inherent bodhisattva qualities. According to Buddhism this wisdom is our birth-right – but it can only be revealed by ongoing practice. So it would be best to appreciate and honour both family and Dharma lineages. In that sense, we humans seem to have a double responsibility. Yet taking care of each one of these lineages takes time and energy, and not everyone manages. It is difficult to be a hard-working mother with three kids and, simultaneously, aspire to become a fully-fledged Buddhist master. In Bhutan, I heard that for laypeople their social responsibilities come first and spiritual responsibility comes second, while for monks it is just the other way round.

In the West, we don’t yet have such a clear model; there are many variations on the theme. I often feel that we actually have to reinvent monkhood here because the traditional roles don’t seem to work so well anymore. For example, at Zen River one of the primary jobs of the monks is to create a bed of practice for laypeople. I often even call our temple a lay monastery because the number of non-resident laypeople that regularly participate in our programme far exceeds the number of resident monks. Yet without the monks Zen River would not be able to flow either: to make a monastery work it apparently takes a good number of residents, people who see it as their vocation to serve the Dharma with their whole lives. We are all members of a Dharma family and, all together, the image of traveling through the six realms still applies. But we may just learn to enjoy the ride. And over time we may start to appreciate that our family extends to all people on this planet and – who knows? – far beyond. That means that our roof is really endless!

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