Reaching Enlightenment Through Relationships

By Alec Degnats 

Since its inception in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Buddhism as a practice and faith has continuously amassed popularity and followers. Buddhism is based on four noble truths: 

  1. The nature of all unenlightened experience is duhkha or suffering.
  2. There is a pattern in how duhkha arises. (Origins of suffering)
  3. There is a pattern in how duhkha is resolved . (Cessation of suffering)
  4. There is an Eightfold Path for turning duhkha toward meaningful resolution.[1]

These noble truths not only outline the tenets of the practice, but also outline the problems that Buddhism is trying to both address and solve in the lives of its followers. Buddhism’s application of alleviating suffering and its ability to adapt to different cultures have helped it endure throughout the millennia. This ability to adapt is one of the reasons Buddhism was successful in China, and why Chan Buddhism was able to rise and flourish. By examining the importance of relationships and the teachings of Bodhidharma, we can highlight an important difference between Chan Buddhism and traditional Buddhism. 

Traditionally, enlightenment and the release from duhkha is reached individually, after many generations and cycles of rebirth. This is not to say that community and others are not important in reaching enlightenment, but it is to say that one can reach enlightenment alone. 

In opposition to this, Chan Buddhism does not follow this idea of self-enlightenment, as the idea of self is radically different in Chinese culture. In the Chinese tradition the self is defined as the conglomeration of the relationships that create it.[2] There is no self outside of one’s relationships and it is one’s relationships that make up oneself. If the self is the sum of one’s relationships then it would follow that one could not reach enlightenment alone, because there is no self to reach it. We would only alleviate all suffering and karmic responsibility when our relationships are also free from suffering. We could only reach enlightenment if our relationships also reach it: “Freedom from suffering is not something realized alone or only from oneself.[3] 

This idea of realizing enlightenment as a whole and a group is an idea that is taught and passed along to us through the Bodhisattva’s of the Chan tradition and in particular, Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma’s primary teaching deals with this particular question of realizing enlightenment through relationships and groups. According to these teachings, seeing and embracing the relationships and interdependence among all of nature is key to enlightenment.[4] In this way we embrace and work with the differences, intricacies, and uniqueness of all objects in nature, and see them for their true value. “Jewelers do not oppose the patterning of the jade but rather work with it. Wood carvers are not limited by the wood grain but experience it as a crucial contribution to… artistic creativity.”[5] These are two things that normally would be viewed as detrimental to the process of jewelry or wood making, but in this sense of teaching these things are to be embraced and worked with throughout the artistic endeavor. 

The question may be raised about what does the relationship between us and jade or wood have to do with enlightenment? It all deals with the idea of interconnectedness and the First Noble Truth. According to the First Truth, suffering is always present in every situation from some perspective.[6] And as Peter Hershcok describes, a common understanding of this suffering is that it is not our fault and is somehow imposed upon us by chance, or destiny, that it is something outside of our control.[7] In this way, suffering is something that we need to overcome quickly or get past because it is some sort of injustice—it is something that we are not personally participating in or responsible for.  

However, Bodhidharma teaches that this is not the way to deal with suffering, because we are meant to bring meaningful resolution to suffering.[8] To do this we must accept our place and responsibility within the pattern of suffering so we can make a meaningful change. Only though acceptance can anyone begin to make a difference in suffering. If we accept our responsibility in suffering and accept the importance of relationships, as in Chinese culture and Chan Buddhism, we begin to clearly understand why we can only reach enlightenment as a whole.  

By combining these two ideals (from Chinese tradition and Bodhidharma) we gain a clear understanding and a key difference between traditional Indian and Chan Buddhism. Relationships are what define us. It is our relationship to the world, others, family, and friends that define who we are as a self. With this in mind, our suffering would only reach resolution once suffering within all of these relationships as a whole are also resolved. If I am a sum of my relationships, then the relieving of suffering as a whole becomes much more important, because it is only through resolving this suffering that I can resolve the suffering within myself. This is why Bodhidharma’s teaching about taking responsibility for suffering in every situation is important, because it may not be that you yourself are suffering or even feel responsibility for suffering in a situation. For example, you may be an accountant at a large firm, and this large firm contributes to the suffering of the homeless down the street (because they will not let them sleep outside of the building let’s say). Even though you are not suffering at all, you need to take some responsibility for the suffering of the homeless, because it is only through embracing one’s responsibility that meaningful resolution of the suffering can occur. If you separate yourself from their suffering then you cannot resolve the suffering and cannot bring yourself closer to enlightenment. Because the homeless are part of your relationships, they are a part of yourself. 

In Chan Buddhism one cannot reach enlightenment alone. The Chinese cultural understanding of relationships and the interconnectedness of all defines enlightenment as a group path. The marked difference between traditional Buddhism’s idea of self and the Chan understanding of relationships demonstrates just one example of the adaptability of Buddhist teachings.  


Alec Degnats is a graduate of the University of North Florida where he earned Bachelor’s degrees in Music performance and Philosophy. His philosophical interests include those in aesthetics, ethics, language, and music. Recently responsible for assisting in the publication of a jazz drumming textbook, Alec hopes to continue to publish both academic and literary works, while continuing to teach and pursue music. Toward these ends, Alec has applied to PHD programs in philosophy.


  • Hershock, Peter. Chan Buddhism. United States: University of Hawaii press, 2005. 
  • Dr. Mattice , Sarah . “A conversation about Chinese culture and philosophy .” 9 15, 2011.

 [1]   Peter Hershock,Chan Buddhism, (United States: University of Hawaii press, 2005). 13.  [2] Sarah Dr. Mattice , (Specialist in Chinese culture and philosophy), interview by Alec Degnats,Dr. Mattice office “A conversation about Chinese culture and philosophy ,” 9 15, 2011.  [3]     Hershock, 57.  [4]     Ibid, 57.  [5]     Ibid, 85.  [6]     Ibid, 86.  [7]     Ibid, 86.  [8]     Ibid, 87

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