Buddhist Monk on Marriage
By Jason Lim
Holiday seasons, where families get together for celebration and merrymaking, can be anything but such a time for people like me who are way past their prime age for marriage.
Some delays are expected and are even fashionable these days, but when you begin to hit that purgatory timeline for marriage defined by mid to late 30-somethings (perhaps a bit earlier for women), then the encouraging winks become frowns, soft whispers become explicit orders, and parental sighs strengthen to gale-force winds. And if you manage to get through the purgatory without marrying, then the fierce winds die down to soft zephyrs as dirges are sung over your future happiness because, for sure, you are in hell. After all, what else comes after purgatory?
But if you made peace with your damnation and think you are safely nestled in the boiling bosom of everlasting fire, then you would be wrong because one of your parents will come to you during a quiet moment when your guard is down and say with the gentlest and most reasonable of whispers, ``Why don't you want to get married?''
Unfortunately, I was born a ``contrarian'' and this always led me to rephrase the question: ``Why do you want to get married?'' No one was able to satisfactorily answer this question for me until I came across a marriage sermon by Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist Zen master. It's a bit ironic that I found a Buddhist monk's take on marriage the most cogent of any I have heard, but let me make my case by paraphrasing a few things that he said.
He starts off his marriage sermon with a devastating question: ``These two are getting married today filled with warm, loving emotions towards each other. Wouldn't it be great if the same emotions could last for 10, 20, or even 30 years?'' (Point well taken. But if I were the groom, I might have an issue with the Venerable's timing of the lesson on the transient nature of emotions.)
Then he goes on to share his observation on the reality of most marriages: ``Everyone takes a solemn wedding vow when they get married. But how many of you sitting here in the wedding hall can honestly say that you have kept your wedding vows? You all say yes to the wedding vows and then turn around three days, three months, or three years later telling everyone who would listen that you can't possible stay married to your spouse because of this and that and that you would have been better off not getting married in the first place.''
The underlying reason that sees most marriages lead to such suffering and regret is the basic profit motive that goes into choosing the right spouse. Venerable Pomnyun explains: ``When choosing marriage partners, people over-shop for the right so-called conditions. What does that person do? What religion? How much money does he or she earn? What's the family background? Is he or she tall, good-looking, healthy? Did he or she go to the right schools? Are we compatible personality-wise? They over-shop because they want to be sure to invest well and profit from their investment choice. Everyone's calculating. No one wants to take a loss on what they want out of a marriage. Unfortunately, one of the side-effects of over-shopping is that you end up confusing yourself and choosing the totally wrong one.''
This is where the basic problem lies: ``If each spouse wants to invest only 30 percent but get back 70 percent in return, then they are both bound to be disappointed when they get back 50 percent each, which is only fair and equitable, because their expectations have been unrealistic to begin with. By getting back 50%, you think you have been mislead or somehow tricked because you thought you would be getting back 70 percent. The same goes for the other spouse. It's a fatal case of a competing sense of entitlement.''
In short, we want unrealistic investment returns without any meaningful sacrifice on our part. This didn't work so well on Wall Street, and it doesn't work in a marriage either. Therefore, the key to a happy marriage is to realize that marriage is not an investment vehicle subject to quarterly profit/loss statements that could only be dreamt up by Bernie Madoff.
What Venerable Pomnyun says about marriage resonated with me because it made me realize that I, unbeknown to me, was also calculating and shopping my way to a marriage. All the well-meaning advice about the so-called realities of marriage had somehow positioned marriage in my mind as a project to be managed with maximum profits and comfort to myself rather than an organic and often messy process of falling and staying in love. Marriage became a selfish goal, which is fundamentally incompatible with love, which is all about sharing. No wonder I felt confused.
That's when I suddenly realized that I missed having crushes on girls. Innocent, mindless, and all-consuming crushes that had nothing to do with any thoughts about compatibility, future earnings potential, chances for healthy offspring, etc. Irrational, crazy crushes that made you skip classes or get up at 6 a.m. to go jogging because you wanted to ``accidentally" run into her. I desperately missed falling in love and being willing to go through anything difficult and do anything foolish to see that smile on her face.
Maybe it's the New Year that's making my head spin in crazy ways and spout off like Romeo. But, in this New Year, when someone asks me the question, ``Why do you want to get married?'' I want to be able to honestly answer: ``Because I love her and nothing else.'' Wouldn't this be a great New Year's resolution?
Jason Lim is a 2007-2008 fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org