We relate to everything. We relate to mother, father, lover, friends, in the human sense; we relate to animals; and we relate to objects. Normally relationship is something akin to possession and desire, and if something is good, and feeds that desire, then we naturally want it to continue.
One here does not have to consider whether what we do and relate to is good, or bad, or anything moral in traditional Christian or humanist terms. It simply is a question about your own reactions to everything you relate to. If it makes you feel good you like it, desire it and want it.
The problem, which Buddhism identifies, is that everything is transient, changing and unfixed. Relatives change and will die; animals grow old and die too; objects decay, break and vanish. Science has a law of entropy - everything that becomes goes in the one direction of decay and obliteration.
So this presents a central dilemma regarding relationship, and relationship is compulsory. So what Buddhism does, usually tied up in a great deal of colourful mythology, is present a way to get that relationship right.
And ultimately, through this business of relating, it is about having a proper response in the self, therefore is ultimately about building your own mind state. For relationship making is sense-experience and usually produces sense experience of desire and a need to manage the mind in this regard.
Desire hung on to is on experience that will let you down. The sugary, gooey, desirous experience impacting on the self is going to fail you. It is because everything, absolutely everything, comes and goes. It is horrible, we just do not want it. So you see that what is good ultimately proves itself to be an ephemeral good. Best to do something about it.
Buddhism does not say we should therefore avoid completely all these sensations, relationships etc.. It rejects the sanyassin who gives up family and all possessions and just begs, What it does is say instead is know what these sensations of desire are, know that they are suffering because they reflect the ultimate desire in us for permanence. So experience such desires but know what they are, become wise to them. It is for this reason that Buddhism steers a middle way. Ultimately, if you know what these desires are, they cease to be desires in that sense. Such is the spiritual task.
Such knowing is not just knowledge. It is also a training of the mind in a learned way. Meditation or spiritual practice is therefore working on the mind to see things as they are, what desire is, You are still in the world, still in relationship with all around, but detached from it in a skilled way. The skill comes through knowing and through practice: I suppose a kind of calming, but it is more than that. There is a sense in which cultivating simplicity and nothingness in meditation is the cultivation of wisdom, because at the heart of things is nothingness, is impermanence.
Indeed, the self is itself the heart of desire. Lose desire and you lose, ultimately, self. Selflessness as wisdom is indeed just that.
Cultivating wisdom by practice is a discipline. Buddhists do this usually by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is the human who discovered the middle way, rejecting extremes including total disassociation with these relationships. Dharma is the path he discovered, a kind of morally based therapy with meditation, and the Sangha is the supporting community.
My own position is that I was attached to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) which is a loose grouping of people who come together for activities run by the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), which in turn is an ordained Order but not monastic. It draws on the findings and teachings of Sangharakshita who was ordained in both Hinayana and Nahayana traditions and angles Buddhism to a Western purpose. Whilst keeping a spiritual hierarchy, ethical businesses replace the isolation of the monastery, and the ideas it pursues are centrally focussed on repairing the ways of Westerners. Thus is promotes the idea of friendship above sexual desire, as it sees sexual desire as a Western problem. It promotes same sex relationships - friendships - because such is less desirous and possibly more productive than the relationship mess that most of the West now swims in. Again it is a matter of balance and a matter of emphasis, although this has organisatlonal consequences for the WBO.
There is no WBO/ FWBO in Hull. The dominant force of Buddhism is a Tibetan offshoot which stresses a universe of Karma and reincarnation, a tightly structured cosmic causal relationship of moral effects that continue through lives. I think it is rigid, dogmatic and puts the cart before the horse.
Rather it is best to view detachment in a selfless way, on its own terms. Detachment requires awareness in all things we do: "Why am I doing this particular action?" is a constant question. One is looking for a cool innocence. It does not need the innocence of a baby who can make no moral decisions, but the innocence of someone who can make active moral decisions. In other words, it needs active compassion. But if you are detached from impermanent things, if you pursue a loving kindness for its own sake, a motiveless compassion pursued to maybe an achievable limit will lead to a kind of bliss. If you achieve bliss you achieve it with attachment to nothing at all. The world of relationships is but a passing fancy. In other words, bliss is found at a point of nothingness, and the self goes self-less.
This is nirvana. It is nothing that is very much something and neither of these. It cannot be an object in itself, nirvana, otherwise it ceases to be pure detachment and nothingness. But it is hardly nothingness as it is a bliss. In other words, if you do Buddhism to achieve nirvana you will be regarding nirvana as yet another desire and it won´t be nirvana.
For myself, Buddhism is a kind of spiritual alternative after what I regard to be the intellectual death of Christianity. It does away with the supernatural and its objectivity offshoot based on the existence of God. It focusses directly on a problem that is psychological and individual, whilst recognising the place of community. If handled as an aid and not a thing in itself, Buddhism's rich traditions can be drawn upon for self improvement.
I offer the twist that any nobly ordered religious community can support ones own spiritual self practising. I also suggest that any calm worship can be as meditation practice, though obviously a community focussed on the spiritual essentials will do the job the best. My own attachment here is with Unitarians and I identify somewhat with the history of liberalising, which implies now, today, that Christianity has come to the end of the line. I also relate to Sea of Faith which also uses the insights of Buddhism in its non- realism. Buddhism lock, stock and barrel from other cultures can be a dogmatic distraction, and should be critically applied for its central purpose and insights.
This comes from probably 1995 and was presented to the Hull Unitarian Church discussion group. In 2002 I find I like it as a summary of Buddhism but I am no longer attached to the Unitarians (and I was not a member then).
It is not wrong to be selective in applying Buddhism. It has a role to play as outlined and it does fill a vacuum left by the loss of Christian supernaturalism and objectivity. It offers an explanation for spiritual activity even within the practice of Christian forms. Whether there is an intellectual recovery possible within Christianity is more open. At the time of writing (June 2002) I am re-exploring its tradition. The liberal critical path is the only way to find valid routes regarding the relevance of religion followed and practiced.