Thesis 2: Marriage's transitions
My second thesis is that marriage passes through what Zen Buddhism calls gates or barriers. One of these is the transition from personal to familial love.
Behind this is the Buddhist notion of practice. Gates and barriers in Zen parlance are not markers of progress, but of a depth of exploration of the same phenomenon, so to speak. Love, marriage, and friendship are practices, too. Family is one of their contexts.
When I first arrived at this thesis, I was thinking quite literally of the birth of my oldest son, a remarkable event that even now I can remember vividly. Birth reminds you that we are a species, part of the "great chain of being." It places us in the timeframe of evolution, faster moving than geological time, for example, but also subject to time's riverlike shaping. My son stared at us and we at him, meeting for the first time in one of life's sacramental moments. In this respect, acts of lovemaking are like the collisions of galaxies, each bringing a unique but overlapping ancestry, conjoined at the heart.
Marriage exists in everyday time and evolutionary time. The family is both a socio-economic unit and an evolutionary unfolding, dynastic and genetic. Against this background, the partners in a marriage work through their own and their shared desires, dilemmas, and frustrations. They acquiesce and they rebel. They age. Life unfolds and the marriage experiences the stresses and strains characteristic of our situations. Many of these are age-old. Sometimes they break us, break the marriage, break the family.
But the family can also be a refuge. Families are typically more accepting, between the generations and among siblings, than the partners in a marriage may be in the midst of its stresses and strains. The family in this sense provides both a reason to keep the marriage going and a model for how to do so. What families exhibit - familial love - is more likely to forgive, more likely to be unconditional and accepting, more likely to see ruptures as an aberration, a product of ego rather than of nature.
Behind this is a consciousness of evolutionary time that becomes clearer as we get older. We begin to understand that our own life has threads, that "heaping up small acts," as both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching put it - continual modest effort, may get us further than repeated acts of "reinvention." Time is the unseen dimension in life, but families can bring it into higher relief. One of the purposes of marriage is to bring us out of ourselves - something that work, for example, only partly accomplishes.
Behind this, too, is individual ripening, the slow shedding of ego for being. The "great matter," as the Zen Buddhists call it, seems to relate to this. (I'm not an adept, so all I know is what I've read.) Familial love exemplifies being as much as having. In their dynastic aspects, families appear rooted in having, but when you scratch the surface, being is what persists - what families possess is more often the means to new ends.