Seeing the best in life's challenges

Human Nature, Buddha Nature: Growing Up and Waking Up

on January 24, 2013

Here is a link to a wonderful, long interview with John Welwood at  You can find his biography here.  Following are some excerpts from the interview that I found interesting, and just might make you want to read the full article!


Growing Up and Waking Up:

We need a larger perspective that can recognize and include two different tracks of human development— which we might call growing up and waking up, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.


Absolute Truth and Relative Truth:

The great paradox of being both human and buddha is that we are both dependent and not dependent.  Part of us is completely dependent on people for everything—from food and clothing to love, connectedness, and inspiration and help with our development. Though our buddha nature is not dependent— that’s absolute truth— our human embodiment is — that’s relative truth.

Of course, in the largest sense, absolute and relative are completely interwoven and cannot be kept apart: The more we realize the absolute openness of what we are, the more deeply we come to recognize our relative interconnectedness with all beings.


In the field of developmental psychology known as “attachment theory,” one form of insecure attachment is called “avoidant attachment.” The avoidant attachment style develops in children whose parents are consistently unavailable emotionally. So these children learn to take care of themselves and not need anything from others. That’s their adaptive strategy, and it’s an intelligent and useful one. Obviously if your needs aren’t going to be met, it’s too painful to keep feeling them.  It’s better to turn away from them and develop a do-it-yourself, detached compensatory identity.

But I want to be clear that I’m not trying to pathologize anyone. All of this is just something to understand with kindness and compassion. It’s one of the ways we try to cope with the wound of the heart. Not needing anyone allows one to survive and manage in an emotional desert. But later on, in adulthood, the avoidant attachment type has a hard time developing deep ties with others, and this can lead to a deep feeling of isolation and alienation, which is a very painful state.

Becoming a Genuine Human Being:

…becoming a genuine human being through working honestly with emotional, psychological, and relational issues that prevent us from being fully present in our humanness. To be a genuine person is to relate to ourselves and others in an open and transparent way.

Spiritual Practice:

If there’s a large gap between our [spiritual] practice and our human side, we remain unripe. Our practice may ripen, but our life doesn’t.  And there’s a certain point when that gap becomes very painful.

One way [spiritual bypassing] blocks ripening is through making spiritual teachings into prescriptions about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel. Then our spiritual practice becomes taken over by what I call “the spiritual superego”— the voice that whispers “shoulds” in our ear. This is a big obstacle to ripening, because it feeds our sense of deficiency.

Trying to live up to an ideal instead of being authentically where you are can become a form of inner violence if it splits you in two and pits one side against the other. When we use spiritual practice to “be good” and to ward off an underlying sense of deficiency or unworthiness, then it turns into a sort of crusade.


In terms of human evolution, nonattachment is an advanced teaching. I’m suggesting that we need to be able to form satisfying human attachments before genuine nonattachment is possible. Otherwise, someone suffering from insecure attachment is likely to confuse nonattachment with avoidant attachment behavior. For avoidant types, attachment is actually threatening and scary.  So healing for avoidant types would involve becoming willing and able to feel their need for human connectedness, instead of spiritually bypassing it. Once that happens, then nonattachment starts to make more sense.

The late Dzogchen master Chagdud Tulku made a powerful statement about the relationship between attachment and nonattachment.  He said, “People often ask me do Lamas have attachments?  I don’t know how other Lamas might answer this, but I must say yes.  I recognize that my students, my family, my country have no inherent reality… [Here he’s speaking absolute truth.] Yet, I remain deeply attached to them. [Here he’s speaking relative truth.] I recognize that my attachment has no inherent reality. [absolute truth]. Yet I cannot deny the experience of it” [relative truth].  And he ends by saying, “Still, knowing the empty nature of attachment, I know my motivation to benefit sentient beings must supersede it.”
I find this a beautiful articulation of nonattached attachment and the both/and approach.  It joins absolute and relative truth while situating it all in the largest possible context.  Everything’s included.

This is what is often missing in dharma communities: acknowledging and embracing our humanness alongside our aspiration to go beyond ourselves.  Bringing these two together can be tremendously powerful.

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