I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately. I’m a single woman, and my children have recently grown up enough to leave home. So family seems like what I haven’t got anymore, at least when I sit down to breakfast. Actually, I have a lot of family—people that are related to me by blood—but they’re spread all over the place. So one of the reasons that I’m drawn to my Buddhist practice and I go to the Berkeley Zen Center is that it provides some family feeling for me. Of course sangha, which is one of the three treasures, actually, is family. It means that community in which we practice, the family of all sentient beings.
With the mobility of American society and the “collapse” of the nuclear family, there are probably more and more people who, like me, hope to get a feeling of family from their sanghas. So I think our Buddhist sanghas need to find a way to respond. And further, it’s important that we find ways that the sangha and the biological family can support one another, so that the home family with our children doesn’t feel like it’s in conflict with the practice family.
Family means different things to different people. Someone told me, “Family is the blood that burdens you. The friends you can’t walk away from when you don’t want to be friends anymore.” Somebody else said, “Family is the people you can fart with.” A teenage girl said, “Family is the people you love because you have to, because they’re a part of you.” A teenage boy said, “Family is my dad sitting around with friends in the evening, playing the guitar.”
We tend to think of family as a place where you feel safe and protected. This is what we want it to be, what it’s supposed to be. For animals, family is where the young of the species learn the skills they need to survive outside in the big dangerous world. So family is a safe place. Lion cubs play at ferocity, but they play at it in the safety of their den. But we are learning that the human family is all too often an unsafe place, in fact, one of the most dangerous places of all for children. And the danger can even hide behind the curtain of family safety. Our very assumption that family is a safe place sometimes makes it dangerous.
Family is also supposed to be a place where a person has a sense of “I belong here. I belong in the world.” Yet, blood family is sometimes again the very place where one experiences oneself as not belonging, as a stranger, as an outsider.
We’re beginning to see that the same kinds of dysfunctions that happen in families—the kind of abuse that makes it an unsafe place, or the alienation that makes it a place where people don’t feel a sense of belonging—can happen in sanghas, in Buddhist communities. So they really are families in the best and the worst ways. And the more we learn about biological family, the more we can apply that learning to our sanghas.
Another important aspect of family is that it’s not chosen. We don’t get to choose who our blood relatives are, but we are responsible to them whether we like it or not. As my friend said, family is “the friends you can’t walk away from.”
In Robert Frost’s “the Death of the Hired Man” the hired man, old and a derelict, comes back to his former home to die, and the man that he worked for says
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in
The wife replies,
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.
Both are suggesting that home, almost synonymous with family, is the place you go and belong automatically. One of the things that I like about the sangha is that anybody can come here and be a part of this family. And when we join together in communities, in Buddhist communities or in work communities, we are interacting with people that we don’t choose. We don’t get to pick every single one of them as the people that we want for our dearest friends. And this is really good because we learn to interact with, and make a commitment to, different kinds of people. And of course it works both ways. When I’m the one who is sick and crotchety, they have to take me in. In my sangha.
The first time I was ever away from my children I went as a guest to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. I found it such a magical place with all the monks flapping down the path in their robes, the blue jays, the stream, and the temple bell. I said to myself, “If I didn’t have children, I would come here and be a monk.” That was where I first sat zazen almost twenty years ago. And now I’m just about to go to Tassajara and be a monk for three months because my children have grown up, and I don’t have that kind of family anymore. Now I’m going to be in another kind of family, a family of monks in the mountains. So I love the way it’s come full circle, and the way family changes forms as our lives change.
For a very small child, family is the air that they breathe. It’s the life they live, like water to a fish. There’s a truth in this first understanding. Family spreads out into everything. It becomes the whole world. When we join a Buddhist community we learn through practice that sangha is not only the people that are sitting next to us in the meditation hall, but that sangha is every creature with whom we share our life. The mosquitoes that bite us and the white flies that come and eat our fruit are all part of our family whether we like it or not. We don’t get to choose. We deepen our understanding, to see what we assumed as children—that we are all related. This makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from Dogen.
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims, there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large, their field is large. When their need is small, their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm.
In that way, family is the element in which we live. No matter how far we move, we can’t get out of our family, our sangha. We are all part of one family.