Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
Zackpunk
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Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Zackpunk » Mon Aug 16, 2010 4:35 pm

I've been having a series of conversations about Buddhism with my girlfriend, who was raised Catholic, but has since rejected her faith -- and all faith, which is why I thought Buddhism would interest her, but she's been a bit resistant to the idea. She says she's very skeptical of anyone who claims to "know" how things "really" are. And I'm like, "Exactly! That's what Buddhism says too!" But still, I think based on her own experiences with religion, she sees Buddhism as just another set of "beliefs" that one is indoctrinated to. She sounds like a Buddhist to me. But if she's taught me anything, it's that I'm very bad at explaining Buddhism, and I need to go back to school, as it were.

Last night we were watching a movie about a man who suffers an intense and traumatic adolescence, and responds by leaving his home and family without visiting until fifteen years later when his father becomes ill. Upon his return, he's accused of "killing" his father by abandoning him. Here's how the conversation went after the film:

Me: I don't think that's fair. Maybe it was wrong for him to abandon his parents like that, but ultimately his father is responsible for his own happiness. It may have been very painful for him to lose his son, but that did not prevent him from living a full and healthy life.

Her: But the son has a responsibility to his parents.

Me: Yes, but he can't control whether or not his parents are happy.

Her: I basically agree with you, but I think there's a danger in what you're saying. If people are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, then why shouldn't the son just abandon his parents, if that's what he wants to do? If his parents are able to be happy without him, that let's him off the hook.

Me: When I say that people are responsible for their own happiness, I don't mean to be espousing some kind of ego-driven, "Objectivist," "rational self-interest" philosophy. I don't mean to suggest that people should just pursue their own happiness and screw everybody else.

Her: I understand, but still, if the father is ultimately responsible for his own happiness, and the son is happier on his own, why shouldn't he just ditch him? What's to stop him?

My response at this point was to place the onus on the son, and suggest that it would be unwise for him to abandon his parents. I then amended my earlier opinion. "Maybe it's not so much that his father is responsible for his own happiness, it's that he possess an innate ability to be happy. His son can't take that ability away from him. But even though we all possess that ability to be happy, we should still try and make it easier for others to practice that ability.

Her: I still find something dangerous about that idea. If we say that each person has an innate ability to be happy, then we could say that all the poor, hungry, and suffering people throughout the world should be able to just find happiness.

Me: I think there's a distinction between being happy and...

Her: Being complacent.

Me: Exactly. A person can be happy, while at the same time be engaged in a struggle for ethical treatment. Ghandi, for example. I imagine he was happy, but he was also fighting against oppression. Maybe "happy" isn't even the right word. Sometimes when we talk about these things, we get lost in the semantics and the rhetoric. Maybe we need another word for happy.

And although the conversation seemed to go well enough, I felt unsure of my arguments. When I get stuck, I often dive into that foxhole of "Maybe this isn't the right word, and maybe that isn't the right word..."

If anyone has any comments or thoughts on this subject of being personally responsible for ourselves, and how that relates to also being responsible to others, I'd like to hear them.

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Prasadachitta
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Prasadachitta » Mon Aug 16, 2010 5:09 pm

I don't think there are any "right words". If while discussing the story in question the two of you begin to be more sensitive to the nuance of the story and to the effect it has had on you as individuals then the I think your words are effective. If while discussing the story you both begin to have solidified views which create entrenchment and arguing then your words are not effective. There is no correct expression apart from the one who hears and understands.


Just my thoughts


Take care

Gabe
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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Fede
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Fede » Mon Aug 16, 2010 7:23 pm

Expanding on gabriel's take on this, examine also your motivation...
Are you discussing things with her to explain, to expound or to convince?

The main thing I find when discussing Buddhism with anyone, is that I have to consciously guard against trying to either defend Buddhism (it needs no defending) or convince others that I am right in my pursuit of it, and that therefore it would be a neat idea if they did too.....
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

Quieta movere magna merces videbatur. (Sallust, c.86-c.35 BC)
Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

I am sooooo happy - How on earth could I be otherwise?! :D


http://www.armchairadvice.co.uk/relationships/forum/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

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SDC
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by SDC » Mon Aug 16, 2010 7:58 pm

Zackpunk wrote:Last night we were watching a movie about a man who suffers an intense and traumatic adolescence, and responds by leaving his home and family without visiting until fifteen years later when his father becomes ill. Upon his return, he's accused of "killing" his father by abandoning him.
Zack, was the father the cause of the traumatic adolescence? I would like to know before I answer your overall question.

Zackpunk
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Zackpunk » Mon Aug 16, 2010 8:14 pm

Thanks to both of you.

To clarify, I'm using the word "argument" in the sense of how one frames a discussion. This really isn't about trying to convince anyone of anything, it's more about me developing a better understanding of certain concepts, and formulating a better way of talking about them. Perhaps it was a red herring for me to put this in context. You can ignore the background.

I'm interesting in hearing what other people think of this particular subject. How do people feel about this accusation that the son "killed" his father by abandoning him? What is the responsibility of the son in this case, and what is the responsibility of the father, and why? Naturally, I'm curious about the Buddhist perspective on this -- how other people would frame this issue.

Zackpunk
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Zackpunk » Mon Aug 16, 2010 8:17 pm

SDC wrote:
Zack, was the father the cause of the traumatic adolescence? I would like to know before I answer your overall question.
Good question. The answer is... not entirely the cause, no. He certainly didn't offer much support. The father was very unhelpful, and insensitive, but not outright abusive.

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m0rl0ck
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by m0rl0ck » Mon Aug 16, 2010 8:43 pm

Sounds like she values intelligence and compassion so you have plenty to work with :) This is my suggestion.

1. Stop talking about it.
2. Start a regular meditation practice, let her see you doing it.
3. When she asks about it, point here at this collection of articles on the subject at sciencedaily.com http://www.sciencedaily.com/search/?keyword=meditation" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

4. If faith or belief comes up, explain to her that faith in buddhism is based on individual experience, not required to start practicing or observing the precepts and nothing like faith in christianity (Beleiving what you know aint so ~Mark Twain)

If this plan goes terribly wrong, you will still get some good practice out of it :)
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling.” ― Robert M. Pirsig

Shonin
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Shonin » Mon Aug 16, 2010 8:47 pm

I would suggest avioiding making ethical or value judgements about people's behaviour ie. who is or isn't responsible. Unless specifically asked about it, just speak of your own experiences in concrete terms and if she requests it, give her advice about her life in concrete terms. I think that lecturing people in terms of value judgement and abstract philosophy can just sound like a lot of hot air and opinion. As I see it real dhamma emerges in people's actual everyday life experiences. But it doesn't need to be called 'dhamma', it can appear in many guises.

Perhaps introducing her to a non-religious mindfulness practice woul d be a good step if she's interested.

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SDC
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by SDC » Mon Aug 16, 2010 9:01 pm

Zackpunk wrote:Here's how the conversation went after the film:

Me: I don't think that's fair. Maybe it was wrong for him to abandon his parents like that, but ultimately his father is responsible for his own happiness. It may have been very painful for him to lose his son, but that did not prevent him from living a full and healthy life.

Her: But the son has a responsibility to his parents.

Me: Yes, but he can't control whether or not his parents are happy.
In several suttas the Buddha explains his position in regards to the children's responsibilities towards the parents. Here is one example from DN 31:

The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, wife and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.

"In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents as the East:
(i) Having supported me I shall support them, (ii) I shall do their duties, (iii) I shall keep the family tradition, (iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance, (v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.

"In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:
(i) they restrain them from evil, (ii) they encourage them to do good, (iii) they train them for a profession, (iv) they arrange a suitable marriage, (v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

"In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.


Now lets be honest. Some parents can make life so terrible for their children, and vise versa, that living up to this is nearly impossible. But I believe that is irrelevant here.

Your girlfriend pointed out early on in the discussion that she believed the son had a responsibility towards the parents. She based that answer on her ideas. That was her position and it aligns with what the Buddha saw and understood. I'm not saying she is an arahant, but it should be encouraging.

Give her time. If she is ready to make the move she will search and find her way towards Buddhism. She seems very intelligent. Just don't pressure her. That's all I can say for now being that I don't know enough about her, you or your relationship to give specific advice.

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jcsuperstar
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by jcsuperstar » Mon Aug 16, 2010 9:11 pm

as far as i understand it, relationships as taught by the Buddha are a two way street, if one party does not live up to their end of the bargain the other is under no obligation to do the same.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

Zackpunk
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Zackpunk » Mon Aug 16, 2010 9:47 pm

Shonin wrote:I would suggest avioiding making ethical or value judgements about people's behaviour ie. who is or isn't responsible. Unless specifically asked about it, just speak of your own experiences in concrete terms and if she requests it, give her advice about her life in concrete terms. I think that lecturing people in terms of value judgement and abstract philosophy can just sound like a lot of hot air and opinion...
Thanks. In this case the people were fictional characters -- so it was really just a philosophical conversation. And it was a mutual conversation that we both enjoyed, so this really wasn't one person lecturing another. We were just talking.

I may need to reiterate that this really isn't about trying to turn my girlfriend into a Buddhist. I fear that by giving the context, I've thrown people off. This is really just about developing the rhetoric to have an informed and well-formulated conversation about life from a Buddhist perspective.

I'm wondering what people think of this accusation -- that when the son abandoned his father, it was tantamount to a violent crime. That he essentially caused his father to die. Thoughts?

Zackpunk
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Zackpunk » Mon Aug 16, 2010 9:49 pm

jcsuperstar wrote:as far as i understand it, relationships as taught by the Buddha are a two way street, if one party does not live up to their end of the bargain the other is under no obligation to do the same.
And regarding a parent-child relationship, what is the "bargain" the child is born into?

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SDC
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by SDC » Mon Aug 16, 2010 10:20 pm

Zackpunk wrote:I'm wondering what people think of this accusation -- that when the son abandoned his father, it was tantamount to a violent crime. That he essentially caused his father to die. Thoughts?
I don't think it was a crime.

However, if the father was heartbroken and depressed by the son leaving that may have had an effect on his health. But that is due to the fathers perspective.

The reason I quoted that sutta was to bring out the fact that the Buddha felt that the child does have a responsibility to his parents. And I do agree with jc that it is a two way street. If the father was that sad and depressed for the family to accuse the son of murder, the father obviously depended on the son for something. I don't know the rest of the movie, but pending the father brought him up, at least providing him with the basics to survive, I feel, according to what the Buddha has said, that the son should have kept in some amount of contact with his father and mother/family at least at the same level as the father and mother/family looked after him. Even if it was one visit a year. Do you think the father didn't earn one visit a year? I know you say the father was negligent during the son's adolescence, but not even one visit a year? I think the son owed at least that much.

But once again I do not think it was a direct violent crime. EDIT - Not that it was indirect either, that was bad wording. I do not think it was a crime.

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Kim OHara
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Kim OHara » Mon Aug 16, 2010 10:50 pm

Zackpunk wrote:I've been having a series of conversations about Buddhism with my girlfriend, who was raised Catholic, but has since rejected her faith -- and all faith, which is why I thought Buddhism would interest her, but she's been a bit resistant to the idea. She says she's very skeptical of anyone who claims to "know" how things "really" are. And I'm like, "Exactly! That's what Buddhism says too!" But still, I think based on her own experiences with religion, she sees Buddhism as just another set of "beliefs" that one is indoctrinated to. She sounds like a Buddhist to me. But if she's taught me anything, it's that I'm very bad at explaining Buddhism, and I need to go back to school, as it were.
Getting away from the movie and back to this first part of your post:
There is absolutely no need to push Buddhism at your girlfriend - and doing so could easily be counter-productive - but I would like to suggest two books that she might find approachable if she is halfway interested -
The Naked Buddha by Adrienne Howley (simple, consistent, thoughtful, no nonsense) http://www.amazon.com/Naked-Buddha-Prac ... 1569244324
The Best of Inquiring Mind (lots of variety of viewpoint and style) http://www.wisdompubs.org/Pages/display ... n=&image=1
:namaste:
Kim

Shonin
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Re: Explaining Buddhism to my Girlfriend

Post by Shonin » Tue Aug 17, 2010 5:33 am

Zackpunk wrote: In this case the people were fictional characters -- so it was really just a philosophical conversation. And it was a mutual conversation that we both enjoyed, so this really wasn't one person lecturing another. We were just talking.
OK, I see, but I'd still give the same answer. I'm not sure that explaining in terms of a philosophy of ethics is really getting to the heart of it, especially for someone who may not share the same premises and world view as you and/or the Buddha.
Zackpunk wrote:I'm wondering what people think of this accusation -- that when the son abandoned his father, it was tantamount to a violent crime. That he essentially caused his father to die. Thoughts?
I think that it's something of a value judgment - a value which a listener may or may not share. Who has what rights and responsibilities is not an objective fact, but something agreed by consent and consensus. You also appear to have contradicted yourself, saying that the father has an innate ability to be happy and then that the son caused him to die through unhappiness (?). Also doing so would only be one of many causes contributing to the death. And who could have predicted it? And doesn't this imply that the son has responsibilities to the father but has no rights and the father has no responsibility to let him go. Frankly I think your girlfriend is winning the argument :D And I don't think this ethics thought experiment has much to do with Buddhism.

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