Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 10, 2012—February 14, 2012

February 10, 2012
Today I was reading Be Like a Tree: Zen Talks by Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh. I was feeling waves of delicious gratitude for the beauty, simplicity and freshness with which he teaches mindfulness and its wonderful benefits. I drank it up with beginner’s mind. I came next—so coincidentally—to his talk on Gratitude, and instead of deepened pleasure, I felt a kind of shock and abrupt coldness as he pressed on to insist on the most important gratitude—towards one’s parents.

Bettina and I have struggled not just with what we call “premature forgiveness” of those who oppressed us in childhood, but with the drumbeat insistence in Buddhist teaching on gratitude towards parents, the supremacy of mother love to all other love.

In Be Like a Tree, the glimpses the Venerable gives of his own mother remind me of conversations with patients in the hospital that have saddened me. On one hand, in a chapter on Parenting, he reveals that his mother used to sit him down as a child and talk for two hours at a time about his errors (“like reciting a sutra”). He can see that this is deeply harmful to a child, and yet it does not diminish his idealization of mother love. The positive memory of his mother that he provides is that once when he was very sick and no hospital was nearby she carried him to a doctor. He knows she loved him because she did not allow him to die.

I have found it striking how often the patients I visit in the hospital, no matter how cruelly abusive their childhoods, will pull out some slender precious memory that means to them, “In spite of everything, she did love me.” The Ven. Phuoc Tinh has one other proof of mother-love, a memory from young adulthood—long after a bombing in Vietnam, his mother spotted him in a field and actually came running towards him with tears in her eyes. This kind of longed-for image has the power for my patients to cancel years of the most shocking abuse or neglect. (In the entry October 20, 2009, I write about the patient Holly, just one example of the many I meet who clutch, as children will, at their scraps of proof that they were not unloved.) Such wispy evidence from his own childhood allows the Venerable to elevate motherhood above all other loves.

It occurs to me in writing these words that the teachings that eulogize motherhood derive not only from the child’s need to believe that even the most cruelly abusive parent loves them, or from a culture in which the family has been the essential survival unit—but come historically from men who, in a traditional patriarchal society, probably couldn’t fathom giving birth, wiping children’s behinds and noses, responding all day to children’s demands, performing the kinds of work that motherhood entails.

Mothers are idealized in the teachings much more than fathers, but we are also enjoined to be profoundly grateful to our “parents.” Barbara and I years ago noted that in this country working class parents are usually especially appreciated by their children, since even an indifferent or cruel parent can be seen as working long hours and coming home exhausted “for the sake of the children.”

In Eastern and Western teachings, there is never—I think I can use that word—an acknowledgement that parents are, not so infrequently, unloving, uncaring, self-absorbed, cruel, physically or emotionally brutal, that mothers exist who have caged and starved their children. (Thich Nhat Hanh, in his gentle way, tactfully suggests that he knows parents can be emotionally abusive to their children, while the real exception is Krishnamurti, who understood the deeper truth that most parents have not developed the capacity to love their children.) The teachers of loving-kindness and gratitude do not provide even a suggestion of help for the adult child who has experienced this kind of parent and who bears the scars. How does she interpret “gratitude”? What should she be “grateful” for? What guidance is there for Delores, whose mother made her, at eleven or twelve, sleep with strangers that she brought to the house, or Larry whose ear and jaw were broken by his father during one of many beatings? Working in the hospital these stories are frequent, and painful enough so that later I find myself sobbing with the terrible suffering that still lives in these adult children. Is the proper response to urge them to be grateful?

Since there’s no help anywhere in Buddhist writings, I will provide my own answer to the question of gratitude:

The Venerable recounts the story of a woman the Buddha meets who tells him that she has now reached a state where the grass, the trees, the birds are all suffused with a beautiful light, and the Buddha asks, “Is the dog poop also suffused with light?”

In a state of enlightenment, cruel or neglectful parents can, like poop, be suffused with light. In this state we are grateful for the miracle of the existence of everything, not for what it can do for us. We are grateful to the rain, not because it helps our vegetables to grow, but because it is. Our gratitude in this state is not transactional. In a conventional state, I am grateful to Bettina for making us delicious and nourishing meals, for leading us in chi gong and yoga, and so on. In an enlightened state, I simply bathe in her being.

In a conventional state, I am not filled with gratitude towards my parents, not even for my mother’s labor to bring me into the world. I do not believe my mother wanted a child, except to please my father, did not want a girl, since that would not please him or anyone else, and did not cherish me after I was born except to be relieved that I was pretty. In a conventional state, I am grateful, not to her but to life, that, for whatever reasons, my mother went through the pain of pregnancy and childbirth because that made possible the beautiful life I have today. I am grateful to life that my parents, for their own purposes, provided plenty of delicious food, warm clothes, books to read and so on.

When I am in an enlightened state, I am grateful to my entire painful history because it is the manure that Trungpa speaks of in Meditation in Action as necessary for bodhi—it had to be as it was for this moment to be as it is.

My suggestion to the patients at the hospital is to steer them away from an obligatory gratitude and compassion towards their parents, and to first turn that light of appreciation and compassion directly on the children that they were, so that they can, usually as never before, see themselves fully through the eyes of love.

February 14, 2012
Bettina tells me that Gina, a teacher in her school, was seen weeping in the corridor because news had come that another teacher Heather would be assigned to a different school in the coming year. Gina and Heather have taught in adjacent classrooms for thirteen years, have shared so much, worked together so well. Bettina also told me that Karen, her supervisor, assured her that it wouldn’t happen. Karen knows the workings of the school system well, and in five years her predictions have never missed a beat.

Over the years there have been many such announcements, made with great confidence, of what would happen at Cadmon—last year it was a certainty, met with great anguish, that the school would be closed. It wasn’t.

It occurred to me that through these years Cadmon School has provided a beautiful lesson, not just—like the rest of life—of impermanence or it is uncertain.

Cadmon can also stand for the insanity and waste of time spent living in the future—it reminds us that the future is a ghost town, and when we visit it we become ghosts, choosing the insubstantial, the unreal over what is before us in the present.

It is as though, while eating our dinner we were to spend our time thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast—will there be pancakes? Will the oatmeal be cold?