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Seeing the kindness of our mothers

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Boise, Idaho.

  • Developing gratitude for the kindness we have received in our lives
  • Benefits of opening our hearts towards our parents
  • Meditating on the kindness of our mother

Bodhicitta 05: Seeing the kindness of our mother (download)

This brings us to the second of the seven points: seeing the kindness of our mother. It could also be the kindness of whoever took care of you when you were little. Even though I say “mother,” you can substitute someone else; just think of the kindness that we received, especially when we were young and couldn’t take care of ourselves.

The kindness of our parents

I think it’s important to think about this because this is one of the things we take for granted. We might be very upset, “Oh, you know, my Mom didn’t take care of me; she just put me in day care.” Or, “My Dad didn’t take me to the baseball game; he was too busy working overtime.” We might just complain. But, hey, they gave us a body, and they arranged for somebody to take care of us even if they weren’t able to be with us 24 hours a day. And for those of you who have kids, you know that you cannot be with your infant 24 hours a day, can you? You need a break sometimes, don’t you? To be a good parent you need a break from your kids. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do for your kids—Mom and Dad take a time out.

We know that when we look at our parents they couldn’t have been with us all the time, but they arranged for other people to take care of us. How do we know that they arranged for other people to take care of us? Because we are alive today, and without having care when we were infants or toddlers, we would have died. It’s very clear. If you leave an infant alone without any care, he’ll starve to death. They choke, they can’t roll over, they get too hot, they get too cold, they die—even a toddler. We probably all have stories that our parents have told us about things we’ve done as kids, how we’ve almost killed ourselves. Anybody have a story they want to tell?

There are always stories. I remember Lama Osel, the incarnation of Lama Yeshe, whose is one of my teachers. He is the little boy who was born in Spain. Some of you may have heard about him; they found him when he was an infant. I remember when he was very, very young—probably a year and a half or two years old at this time—and he was in India. He was at the Dharma center, so there were a lot of people around. He put something in his mouth and started to choke. All the monks and nuns were saying, “What do we do!” because most of the monks and nuns didn’t have kids. “Lama Osel is choking, what do we do?” His mother came up at that time, and it was the most remarkable thing. He was her fifth child, so she’d had lots of practice. She just scooped him up by his feet, hung him upside down, whacked him on the back, and what he was choking on came out, and she put him right side up again. For her, that was just a common day’s work, and she just did it so smoothly. It made such an impression on me. I thought, “This is what our parents did for us,” because for sure we were always putting stuff in our mouths, and choking, and putting our fingers in the electric plugs. We’ve done all sorts of things. So ask your parents sometime to tell you stories, because I’m sure there are many of them. And, you know, our parents just stepped in and took care of us. Or if they weren’t there, somebody else stepped in and took care of us. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here.

The kindness we received as an infant

Just thinking about that kindness from when we were a helpless infant is very important. It really helps us get in tune with the kindness that we have received in our lives and to feel grateful about it. Then think a little bit about what else our parents have given to us. They provided for us. We got shoes, we got clothes, we got toys—not as many toys as we wanted, and not the clothes we wanted, and not always the food we wanted, but we got what we needed, didn’t we?

I look at myself. I was a picky, fussy eater. I didn’t like most of the clothes that I got—just constantly complaining. I will do a true confession here. I remember being a kid and having a birthday party. My parents went completely out of their way to have a birthday party for me, invite my friends over, and have a cake and a clown and the whole thing. And at the end of the day what do I do? I go in my room and cry because it’s going to be a whole year until I have another birthday. This is what I did. I confess. I mean, this mind that complains—isn’t it always looking for, “How come I didn’t have more? How come I didn’t get better?”

I remember having a pair of shoes that I didn’t like, and I was taught that you wear things until they wear out. Besides, I hate shopping—too lazy to get new stuff. But I was taught that you just don’t wear something and throw it out, that you wear it until it’s old. So I remember (this is another true confession. I’ve never told my mother this) when I walked home from school I would drag the toe of my shoe on the asphalt, so that it would get all scuffed up and wrecked. Then I could throw those shoes out and, hopefully, get some that I liked. You’re looking at me like, “I didn’t do anything wrong as a kid.” Is it only me? Was I the only obnoxious, bratty kid? [laughter]

Audience: I didn’t do that one.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): What did you do?

Audience: I don’t know.

VTC: You don’t remember doing anything? Well, ask your parents. I’m sure they remember.

Audience: My parents remind me of the things I did as a kid, like the time that I wanted to help them, so I went into the garden to dig up the weeds, and I dug up the new plants they had just planted instead. [laughter]

VTC: What I’m getting at is to look back and see how much our parents gave us and how much they did take care of us. Sometimes our parents may have made arrangements for us to have an education. And they taught us themselves. They did the whole goo goo ga ga bit so we would learn to talk. And when we started to talk, they couldn’t shut us up. All we could say is “I want” and “Give me” and “No.” That is our usual vocabulary. But they taught us to talk. They made sure we got an education, didn’t they? Just sending us to school, making us do our homework. Sometimes we didn’t even want to do our homework. They made us do our homework. We may have had fits because we had to do homework, but looking back on it now, it’s good that they made us do the homework, isn’t it?

I remember sometimes as a kid my parents would make me do things that I didn’t want to do, and at the time, I would throw fits. I’m so glad, now, that they did that. I see that, as an adult, I have the ability to do unpleasant things that need to be done (not too unpleasant, of course). But I’m okay with doing things I don’t want to do because they trained me as a kid sometimes to do things I didn’t want to do. And I’m very glad now that they insisted, that they didn’t just let me get out of it every time I said, “No.”

Often I wouldn’t want to go to different activities. “Oh, the kids are playing ball,” and I was lousy at that, so I’d say, “I don’t want to do that.” Or “I don’t want to go here; I don’t know anybody.” Or “I don’t want to do this; I don’t want to do that.” And my parents would always say, “Just go. You’ll have a good time. You’ll make some friends, and you’ll have a good time.” But I’d still say, “No, I don’t want to go.”

Well, they made me go, and I would always have a good time, and I would always make some friends. I see that now, and I’m very grateful to them, because it helped me get over this fear of going into environments where I don’t know anybody. And it helped me get over the thing of being too shy. They would always say, “Go, you’ll make friends,” and I went and I had some friends. It was also very useful because my teacher did the same thing to me. I remember many years ago, there was a group of people going to Tibet, and I didn’t want to go. I thought, “Oh, it’s too long traveling over the land,” because going over land is really hard. “I’ve been traveling so much, and I’m tired. I don’t want to go over land, and I’ll get sick. Rinpoche, I don’t want to go to Tibet. I just want to stay here in India.” He said, “Go, you’ll have a good time, you’ll make some friends.” [laughter] The way I was brought up as a Dharma student is if your teacher tells you to do something, you do it. So I went and I had a good time, and in fact, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in Tibet.

What I’m getting at is that in the process of getting me an education, even though I was resistant to some things and didn’t want to do some of the things my parents wanted me to do, looking back on it now, I’m very, very glad that they had me do those things because it gave me skills. It gave me the ability to have confidence that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

In your meditations, look back on your own lives. Think about things from your childhood. Somebody once said, “In America we look at childhood as a disease you have to recover from,” because we’re all complaining about our parents. But don’t look at your childhood that way. Look at the things you did as a child, even the things you didn’t enjoy.

My dad tried to teach me to play tennis. You have “Miss Klutz” here. I don’t like competitive sports; there’s too much pressure and my fragile ego couldn’t handle it. So here’s my dad trying to teach me to play tennis. I was just a disaster. Luckily, my brother turned out to be a good tennis player. Even though I put up a fight about that, I tried, and I didn’t do very well, but I look back at how kind my dad was just to have the endurance to try and teach me something. I wasn’t necessarily always a cooperative kid, so just that he had that patience, that willingness to teach me something, was so kind, even though it wasn’t something I did well or something I wanted to do. So look back in your own family background and think about some of these things.

I also think about how my parents went to work. As a kid, did you ever think about how your folks got the money to support you and get you your rulers and your toys and things like that? You didn’t. But think about what they did all day long.

My dad was a dentist. He spent hours looking in people’s mouths every day. I mean what a job! Can you imagine that? Hours every day looking inside somebody’s smelly mouth trying to fix it and make the teeth good, pulling out the teeth and blood coming, and the whole thing: my dad did that. And then I was this brat that cried because I wouldn’t have another birthday party for a whole year. Just think about what they did just to get the money so that I had the things to live. So spend some time thinking about that. Some of you may be as old as I am, where your mom stayed at home, or some of your moms may have had to go out and work. Think of what they did just to get the money to give us clothes and a place to live, and how taxing that was for them. They’d go out to work, they’d come home, and there were these demanding kids. Think what it took for them to be a parent and appreciate that—see their kindness. Really spend some time to think about it in terms of your own parents, and then generalize from there to, “Well, everybody’s been my parent,” so everybody at one time or another has been kind to me in this same way.

The kindness of our parents in giving us a body

In your meditation go back through and think of the kindness of our parents for giving us this body. Think of what your mother went through being pregnant. It’s called labor for a good reason—it’s the hardest work you’re ever going to do. You’re exhausted afterwards, and then here is this baby that you still look at with total delight. No matter what you went through physically and how painful it was, the baby is always a delight. Now, imagine that. I wouldn’t go through anything painful and then look at somebody else happily afterwards.

Think of all the discomfort your mother went through being pregnant: having her body go out to here, how that must be very uncomfortable, and she had to watch what she ate, and she couldn’t move, she had that pregnant waddle, and then the labor pains, the whole thing. Think about our mother going through that for us and giving us the body that we have. That’s an incredible amount of kindness right there.

And then think about our parents taking care of us when we were young; they protected us. Think about how they made sure we got an education and how they taught us things themselves. Think about how they gave us enjoyments and things that we liked. And think about how they also had to teach us manners. That must have been a real drag as a parent to have to teach your kid manners. It would be so nice to have a kid who was just well behaved and polite to start with, wouldn’t it? Some nice kid who always said, “Please” and “Thank you” and always cleaned up after herself. But we weren’t like that, and our parents had to discipline us sometimes because we misbehaved.

I never liked being disciplined because it was never my fault; I never did anything wrong, never ever. Remember when you were a kid, did you ever do anything wrong? No, we never did anything wrong. It was always our brother’s or sister’s fault, or the kid across the street who made us do it. It was always somebody else’s fault; we never did anything wrong and yet our parents were there, and they had to discipline us and teach us manners. They also had to teach us how to deal with not being able to get what we wanted. I think that’s a great skill that parents teach kids: how to deal with frustration and not being able to get what you want, because there is no way that kids can go through life always getting what they want. Those of you who are parents know you have to teach your kids how to deal with that frustration, and our parents taught us. They may not have always taught us in the way we wanted to be taught. They could have given us a little bit more of what we wanted. But think about it: they had to really teach us some very basic life skills. They had to teach us manners and how to be polite and how to pick up after ourselves. Sometimes we were still not very good at that.

The skills our parents taught us

There are so many skills and things that we need to know in order to live and function in society. They taught us to look both ways before crossing the street or how to ride a tricycle, all these things that we take for granted. And yet there were people in our lives when we were little that taught us all these things. Think about all these kinds of things, and when you do—this is your homework assignment, this is your meditation for this week—when you do, really try and let your heart open and feel the kindness of your parents. Let yourself experience that. It can be very beneficial if you do this meditation and really get in touch with the kindness of your parents. If you feel like you want to express it by calling or writing them, don’t hold back. Do it. It can be very, very rewarding for them.

Okay, questions or comments?

Questions and answers

Audience: You were saying that hungry ghosts don’t have parents?

VTC: Some have parents and some don’t. Some hungry ghosts have parents and some are like spirits who are just born. They are called transformations. They are a magical rebirth like that. They just appear.

Audience:And the ones that have parents? They are already hungry ghosts and they meet and …

VTC: Yes, yes. Everybody’s interested in hungry ghosts. It’s interesting, isn’t it? We talk about the kindness of our parents, something very personal, and what do we ask questions about? Something unrelated to ourselves.

There’s this story of one hungry ghost at the time of the Buddha that had 500 kids who were all hungry, and she was stealing food. And the Buddha said, “That’s not so good to steal food, even for your kids.” And so he began the practice of having the monastics, and other people too, make offerings to the hungry ghosts to feed them. Different Buddhist traditions do it in different ways. In the Tibetan tradition, we take a little bit of food after our last meal, and we hold it in our hand. We make it a certain shape, and we say a mantra and throw it out and offer it to the hungry ghosts. In the Chinese tradition, they offer some grains of rice to the hungry ghosts before they eat. But it’s the whole idea of offering food.

Audience: What really is a hungry ghost? It’s always so nebulous.

VTC: Let’s talk about what I just talked about, our mothers. Maybe I’ll talk about hungry ghosts a little bit later. I was hoping that what I said generated some feelings inside of you. Let’s stay with that instead of exiting from it. Okay?

Audience: This is on topic. As you described the meditation concerning the kindness of your mother, it seemed like there was a lot of stuff about appreciating what you got so you would make good use of it. It’s kind of working both ways. Not only are you the grand recipient of having all this stuff; it’s a done deal and you’re thankful that you’ve already got it. I think about some of the lessons that I haven’t really followed … so is that the purpose of this?

VTC: Okay. This feeling of appreciation or wanting to do something good with all that we received actually comes into the next step, which is repaying the kindness. That’s why the next step is repaying the kindness. They say that generating the feeling to repay the kindness comes automatically once you’ve thought about the kindness you received. So you’re doing it right. It’s kind of automatic when we see ourselves as the recipient of a lot of kindness; automatically we want to give back, and we want to make use of what we’ve been given because we appreciate it. So that comes automatically. That’s actually the third step.

Audience: In my work, I see a lot of children brought in. They seem to have tragic situations, pretty much what you’re talking about in terms of the people in prison. How would I work with that?

VTC: Okay, okay. So, she works in an ER room, and we left out that part. She sees many children in a tragic circumstance. So you’re not their parent; you can’t solve their situation, but you have some contact with them. There are few different things you can do. One is you can be one kind adult in their life. There may be a lot of drunken or drug-using adults in their lives, but you can be one sane, kind adult who respects and treats them well as a child. If a child is suffering from some kind of abuse that needs to be reported, then you report it. Another way to help the child might be if you have a chance to talk to the parents. It doesn’t have to be a big thing with the parents. Give the parent an idea about how to handle their frustration, their own rage, so they don’t take it out on the kids. But I think it’s especially helpful just to be one sane adult for that kid. It’s the same for your nieces and nephews. Your brothers and sisters may be excellent parents, but I think kids also need other adults in their lives. If you can be a good aunt and uncle or a good next-door neighbor—being an adult in some other kid’s life—that can be very, very powerful.

Let’s spend a few minutes sitting silently.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.