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The kindness of our parents

The kindness of our parents

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • Seeing all sentient beings as having been our mother
  • The challenge of thinking about rebirth
  • Fathers and difficult relationships with parents
  • Thinking of the kindness of our parents or caregivers
  • Making peace with difficult relationships with parents

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: Seven-point cause and effect, Part 1 (download)

We’ve been talking about developing altruism. Although you’ve all heard the teachings on bodhicitta before I think it’s good to review them because you may or may not have been thinking about them regularly during the retreat. Sometimes you focus on one thing and the other things you do very quickly. So this is good to bring it back to mind.

Based on generating equanimity we then cultivate bodhicitta by one of the two methods. The first one is the seven-point-cause-and-effect method, and it begins with seeing that all sentient beings have been our mother.

For Westerners this can sometimes possess a problem. First, because we’re not sure about rebirth. So have we really been reborn? Is it really true that everybody’s been every relationship to us before? How do we know that? This whole discussion of rebirth. But I’m not going to go into that right now because that could go off in another direction for a few weeks and I want to stay in this direction.

The second problem sometimes people have with this is that they don’t get along with their parents, and so seeing sentient beings kind like your mother they say, “Hmmmm.”

And then third, sometimes fathers object: “Wait a minute, how come it’s focusing on the mothers and what about us?” Especially the fathers who are more involved with child care nowadays.

Actually, it does include fathers. In olden times the fathers weren’t so involved in child care and it was mostly the mother who did it. Also I think they usually say the mother because of the biological things, because she’s the one who’s carrying the baby around in her belly for nine months and has to go through childbirth, which they say hurts like hell. To then have compassion for this crying, shrieking, peeing, pooping, thing that you went through such agony giving birth to is quite something on the part of the mother, when you think about it. So that’s maybe why they say mothers. But fathers are definitely included, so if you have a closer relationship with your father, do that. If you have a closer relationship with an aunt or uncle, or guardian, or grandparent, or foster parent, or somebody else, whoever it was who really helped you when you were a kid, use that person.

Having said to think that they’ve been our parents, and then to think of everything our parents have done for us, that’s really something. Like I just said, for the first few years after you have a baby you’re totally sleep deprived. I don’t think anybody here is a parent, we don’t have any direct experience. But if you talk to any parents, if you talk to your own parents, that’s one of the first things they say is the baby cries and they get up in the middle of the night to feed it, and they do so happily, which I can’t imagine. It’s bad enough when the cat wakes me up in the middle of the night. But a crying baby? The cat I can just push off. She’ll wait until the morning, she’s okay. She isn’t starving. But a baby? You can’t do that. You have to get up and feed it, and the parents do this gladly and happily, for years, every single night. It’s beyond my comprehension, almost. And that they don’t bring it up when you’re older. At least my parents didn’t. They brought up all these other things I did when I was a kid that are reported verbally at every family gathering and every introduction to new people: “Well, when she was ten she did this….” But the never say, “Oh, in her first few years she woke me up every night crying and I got up to feed her, and even though I couldn’t sleep a whole night through….” They never said that. It’s just astounding.

Then they have to protect us as we’re getting older. We do the most amazing things as toddlers and little kids. One time at DFF I remember we shared experiences. Were any of you there when people were telling things we did? It was amazing. Just naughty things we did. First of all, when we’re little kids, they used to have those wire curlers. Well, nowadays any kind of metal things. You stick them into to the electric socket. Now they have things to childproof it, but when we grew up they didn’t. How many of us tried to do that and our parents had to protect us from doing that. Then there was one person who saw, there was a can of some nice looking drink under the sink, which they thought “Oh, this is a pretty color I want to take a sip of it.” It was rat poisoning.

Also, when we’re babies we stick all sorts of things in our mouths. And you’re choking and your parent has to come along…. I saw this with Lama Osel when he was an itty bitty kid and he stuck something in his mouth and he’s starting to choke and there were a bunch of monastics standing there, none of us knew what to do because we didn’t have kids. And his mom just walked up, picked him up by the feet, hung him upside-down, whacked him, the thing came out, put him down, and she went on. He was her fourth or fifth kid by that time, she was well experienced. But you know, this is what parents have to do.

Then we ride our bicycles and we fall off, and we crack our head open. Did you crack your head open when you were a kid? My brother did something when he was little, with a bicycle…. I can’t remember what it was. He got up, but couldn’t walk, my parents rushed him to the emergency room, and they were so worried about him. It was also expensive to do the x-ray and everything like that. And then the x-ray is done and he jumps up and walks away from the x-ray table. They nearly had a fit with that one.

I told you about the time when he drove his tricycle into the deep end of the swimming pool and held onto it at the bottom of the swimming pool. And luckily there was the man who cleaned the swimming pools, he was around and had dived in and pried him off .

What people have to do to keep us alive when we’re kids is astounding. And they do it very happily.

Then they give us an education. They sit there and go “goo goo, gah gah” and move their mouths so that we know how to move our mouth and learn how to speak. We weren’t born knowing how to speak, people had to teach us. They would point to things and “what’s this?” You ever seen parents with babies? That’s what they do.

And then of course we would be in the supermarket where they were shopping and we would scream. We wanted something and they weren’t getting it and we screamed and we screamed. Or they take us to a movie and we screamed, and everybody’s looking at them.

Or we’re riding on a plane. Oh my goodness. I can’t believe…. I was three years old. My brother was like three months old, something like that. And my dad had already driven to California from Chicago. My mom took the plane with the two of us. This is in 1953, you know, with propeller planes that went really slow. All those hours from Chicago to Los Angeles with two little kids. Oh my goodness. I never thought about that until now, but having sat on enough flights with babies and toddlers, oh my goodness.

Then of course we go to school and we don’t want to do what the teachers say, we want to do what we want, and they have to help us get a good education and encourage us, go to all these teacher-parent meetings, remember? Remember when we used to get graded on our citizenship? Which meant: “Are you a brat or not?”

I hear many teachers now say that one of our presidential candidates would immediately be sent to the principal’s office if he dared walk into an elementary school nowadays. But our behavior may have been similar. And then all our tantrums, and all the times we got sick. I went through a period in first or second grade where I didn’t feel like going to school. I had a stomach ache every morning… Until I heard the school bus go around the corner, and then I felt better–well enough to get out of bed to watch television all day.

As parents you have to deal with all these kinds of things. And then if you have more than one kid you have to play cop, because they’re beating up on each other. [To audience] I bet you have a lot of tales about that, with six kids. And you have a lot of siblings, too. So then our parents have to break us up….

They really go through a lot to raise a child, and they’re usually pretty happy to do so. Okay, they get in bad moods and they scream at us, but we’re there. They don’t kick us out. If we were a tenant. If they had a guest visiting them who acted like their children, they would ask the guest to leave. Very quickly. But they don’t ask us to leave. Sometimes even when we’re 40 years old and we’re still living at home. Which is the new norm now. Most of us were out of the house at 18 at the latest. But now the kids are in the house until who-knows-what age.

Just think about that. I never had really thought about that until I met the Dharma because I always thought I was [special] and the world revolves around me, and my parents would say, “You’re such a wonderful kid,” so much that I believed them. And then I thought I was god’s gift to the world and my parents are my servants. I mean, I served them, I washed the dishes and I did these kinds of things, and answered the phone and said, “Green residence, Cherry Green speaking,” which all their friends thought was marvelous. So I earned my keep in some ways. But basically my attitude was just this spoiled kid who thought she deserved everything in the world, and never once thought of my parents’ feelings. My mom had three surgeries when I was a little kid. I was just concerned about myself. And the last surgery I knew something was really bad because it was like really hush-hush and all this stuff going on. Wound up she had cancer and she was worried she was going to die, and she was trying to think who my dad could marry to raise the kids when she died, because this was like 1963 and breast cancer then… She didn’t die, she lived another almost-fifty years. So all these things going on in the family. And financial stuff, and legal stuff. And I just spaced out, I just thought the world revolved around me.

And then taking some time to reflect on what my parents really did to raise the kids, it really made me appreciate it. And it made me think about all my complaining that I did about my parents, especially once I hit teenage years. Just complaint, complaint, complaint. It really made me see that a lot of my complaints were really just due to my own self-centeredness. Of course, I didn’t know the Dharma then. But it certainly would have been helpful to know the Dharma as a teenager.

But really, it gave me a whole different view of my parents. And it made me think that even if we’ve had a rocky relationship with our parents, still this meditation is very helpful because it makes us overcome a lot of our self-centered thoughts that were involved in the relationship problems with our parents. And it makes us really develop a mind of forgiving when we see how much our parents have done for us, and that they were doing their best. That they weren’t buddhas. Why did we expect them to be everything we wanted them to be, and do everything for us. They were limited sentient beings just like we are. They had physical problems, they had mental problems, financial problems, health problems, all sorts of problems, but they did the best they could given their own situation and their own capabilities. And doing this meditation really helped me to see that and to let go of a lot of the resentment that I had carried for a long time.

Even though you may do this meditation about seeing sentient beings as all having been our parents, and seeing their kindness, even though you may do that in terms of a guardian, grandparent, somebody else who isn’t your actual parents, still I think it’s helpful in addition to do it in relationship to our parents, especially if we’ve had a bad relationship, so that we can really make peace with it. And I think it’s important to make peace with our upbringing. And especially for people who are going to have kids of their own, it’s especially important to make peace with your parents. Because if you don’t make peace with your parents the way you relate to your own child is going to be influenced by that. And the example you set for your own child will be influenced by it.

In addition, who wants to carry around a lot of bad feelings our whole lives, blaming other people for our problems, when they were doing the best they could. And now as adults we can work with our mind and change our problems, change the attitudes that cause our problems.

Those are the first two of the seven: seeing sentient beings as having been our parents, and seeing their kindness.

After I met the Dharma and started doing this meditation, inside my own heart my whole attitude towards my parents shifted, and on several occasions I would write them “thank you” letters for having brought me up, and then I started realizing that every time on my birthday actually it was my parents who should be the star, not me, because they were the ones who gave me this precious human body, the basis of my precious human life, and brought me up, and taught me good things. So every time on my birthday, when I started to think like this, I started calling them and saying, “Thank you very much for having me.”

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.