To be a mother is sweet,
And a father.
It is sweet to live arduously,
And to master yourself.
O how sweet it is to enjoy life,
Living in honesty and strength!
One summer morning in 1983, during a three-month meditation retreat, I was assigned to sweep the sidewalk in front of the temple. The teacher, a strong-willed Korean monk, had declared “no talking,” and in the “silence” which we humans so often fill with chatter, I discovered a world rich with sensation: the fly that suddenly buzzed at the window, the hiss of a candle flame, the breath circling through my body—all felt equally alive and wonderful.
Using a heavy push broom, I worked my way down the sidewalk. A large black beetle, startled, leaped from a crack in the cement and scrambled across my path beneath the upswung broom. The sky went black, my body melted, there was an electrifying split-second in which I was simultaneously looking down at the beetle, and gazing up into a great darkness. Then, as if in a dream, I lifted the broom off the sidewalk and saw the beetle stagger, right itself, and run off. My heart was pounding, and tears of relief filled my eyes.
All beings want to live and be happy. A potent and inescapable truth had inscribed itself into every cell of my body. My life and the beetle’s were equal expressions of Life itself. We were distinct, yet we were one. We were vulnerable to one another, having changed roles and forms countless times in previous existences. We were intimate.
All beings want to live and be happy. From this realization emerges the first Buddhist precept: Not to kill, but to cherish all life. It has been said that the precepts, which some people first view as restrictions or commandments, are actually koans, unsolvable riddles that we must nevertheless answer in each moment. A few years later, possibly the greatest koan of my life was put to me in the unlikely setting of a Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Seoul, Korea, where a kindly American doctor informed me that I was pregnant. My head shaven, dressed in the gray garments of a Buddhist nun, I had in my knapsack a few clothes, a small amount of cash, and the return half of a round-trip ticket, U.S.-South Korea. The situation was clearly impossible.
“Do you intend to keep the baby?” the doctor asked.
To my own astonishment, I answered immediately and without doubt. “Oh, yes!” I said. A second later, I thought, “I must be crazy. How can I do this?” And again the answer came strong and clear: “You can do this because now you are a mother.” To step forward, to join lay life, to embrace the human future, this was to be my spiritual path for many years. Yet, unlike the decision to begin monastic Zen training, this decision came easily, perhaps because I was not making it alone. Tiny but definite as a candle flame, my son had joined me. We would make our way together.
I knew that once my baby came, my opportunities to sit in the meditation hall would be limited.
Practice continued. After returning to the U.S., I joined a household of Buddhist meditators, worked, and sat in meditation daily. When I was five and a half months pregnant, I traveled to Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles to join Joshu Sasaki Roshi for the December Rohatsu sesshin, the annual Japanese Zen retreat celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment. I knew that once my baby came, my opportunities to sit in the meditation hall would be limited.
During sesshin, all students lead the monk’s life, waking at 2:30 a.m. and proceeding through various rounds of sitting, chanting, formal meals, work, and so on, in a schedule timed to the minute. Each student meets privately in face-to-face interview with Sasaki Roshi several times a day. In this simple fashion, the seven days passed, with the last night being a time of continuous practice in honor of Shakyamuni Buddha’s effort.
Obviously an exception to the rule, I was well accommodated by the supportive staff. I slept in a private room, usually the infirmary, fairly close to one of the outdoor porta-toilets, and meditated in the “second zendo” across the path from the main zendo. I was by myself for long hours, joined occasionally by a member of the kitchen staff or other monks and nuns whose duties necessitated a departure from the main schedule. I could leave the zendo whenever I needed to use the toilet or rest, an unusual freedom that made the retreat feel very vast and spacious, almost playful.
The full moon lit my way; each step, and my koan, and the precious burden of my lively unborn child, became one with my visible breath.
Soon after the sesshin began, a heavy snowfall blanketed the mountain, piling up on the zendo roof, covering the path, and weighing down the branches of the pine trees. After the evening sitting ended, I would wait for the main zendo to empty, then carefully trudge down the icy path through the forest. The full moon lit my way; each step, and my koan, and the precious burden of my lively unborn child, became one with my visible breath. The entire snow-covered world felt silent and pregnant, alive with a minute circuitry of energy.
Over time, I felt a friendly relationship developing between myself and the meditators in the main zendo; I could hear the sticks clapping, bells ringing, and shuffling of feet from their building, and sometimes I stood outside and watched the black-robed figures doing walking meditation in the snow.
Joshua sat within me. Each morning in the sutra hall he would respond vigorously to the drum and gong accompanying the recitation of the Heart Sutra. During zazen he napped or turned in his warm, tidepool world. Despite the intense cold and the snow, I felt like a gardener in spring, watching a seed sprouting, pushing through soil into the sunlight, and growing leaf by leaf toward its flower. I spoke to my son, conversations that were long and companionable, wordless and profound.
I felt it rumbling and turning inside me, opening into the future where, moment by moment, I would demonstrate my practice through more than a thousand days of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, and the demands of single-mothering.
“How do you manifest Oneness with baby?” Sasaki Roshi asked. His round face glowed with happiness and maternal pride; the tiny room was warm and womblike, within the larger body of the snowy mountain. The koan was intimate; I felt it rumbling and turning inside me, opening into the future where, moment by moment, I would demonstrate my practice through more than a thousand days of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, and the demands of single-mothering. Sasaki Roshi’s enthusiasm was unwavering; he demonstrated with simplicity and clarity the quintessential Zen ability to seize my situation as the perfect situation in which to practice, as I believe he would have if I had come to him saying that I had cancer, AIDS, no money, a great deal of money, or whatever. The ability to accept and love one’s difficulties—that was the key.
Joshua is now almost eleven years old. We have lived in Oakland, California with Chris, my husband and Josh’s adoptive father, since Josh was two years old. In 1993, when we were married in a beautiful Buddhist ceremony, Chris held Josh in his arms at the altar, and all three of us vowed to honor one another as a “family within the Dharma.” To me, this vow meant learning how to support each other’s spiritual growth and happiness for the rest of our lives, through good times and bad. Our choosing to become a family meant a commitment to listen to one another with our entire beings, and to try to speak to one another with honesty, courage and respect.
Josh and I talk to each other every single day, sometimes briefly, sometimes at great length. We touch base several times a day in order to joke around, tell stories, problem-solve and strategize, exchange insights, and offer encouragement. “You must educate baby!” Sasaki Roshi had admonished me. I took his words greatly to heart, and since that time I can truly say that my entire practice has been oriented toward providing a spiritual education for my son, an environment in which I hope to communicate clarity, love, and inner strength. But like every parent, sometimes I fail miserably.
It was during one of the hard times that I learned Josh had developed spiritual resources of his own. He was around five, his world already shadowed by my mother’s recent diagnosis of large cell lymphoma. He had been crabby and demanding all day, and I was exhausted and irritable. Finally, my patience crumbled all at once, like a sandbank caving in, and the terror of my mother’s cancer overwhelmed me. I turned on my son, yelling something so unexpected and hurtful that he reeled backward as though I had struck him in the face, and ran from the room. Although I had been angry with him many times before, this time I had completely lost control. I expected to hear sobbing, but instead there was complete silence.
When other things, including me, had failed, he had already developed his own sense of how to return to wholeness. He was growing up.
What have I done? I thought. As a baby, Josh had breastfed for the first three years of his life, and he often slept with Chris and me, nestled in the crook of my arm. Throughout his life he had always turned to me in times of distress; I was his first refuge from pain, fatigue, anxiety. Remorseful and ashamed, I went to Josh’s room and found him sitting upright on his bed, his legs crossed, and his hands placed in Zen mudra position. His small body was trembling all over, but he was trying to calm himself by sitting in the meditation posture. When other things, including me, had failed, he had already developed his own sense of how to return to wholeness. He was growing up.
Riding in his car seat to preschool one morning, Josh was quiet, thinking. “Mom,” he said, “I don’t want you to become an old woman and die.”
“Are you worried about that?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I understand how you feel,” I told him. “Sometimes I feel that way too. But try not to worry so much. Mom will take care of you for a long time.”
Because of my mother’s illness, our conversations during this period often touched upon change and death. After graduating from preschool, Josh became anxious about kindergarten, and complained vehemently that he was unhappy about the upcoming transition. For some weeks I reassured and reasoned, then said, “Just forget about kindergarten! You’ve got the whole summer ahead of you.”
“I can’t forget about it,” Josh said stubbornly. “My mind sticks to it.”
“That’s called attachment,” I said. “You know, like Velcro, or a burr when it sticks to you and won’t come off.”
After another week of his worrying, I suggested that a calming herbal tea might help. But Josh refused the tea. “My brain tells me I don’t want to do that,” he explained. “My brain is sticking to my idea of worrying, and my idea is like a plant on a stand.”
Chris, who loves to garden, matter-of-factly suggested that some plants were weeds, and needed to be killed. I shot him a stern glance, then said to Josh, “We don’t want to kill your idea, but we want to move it. Some plants need to be moved so that they can grow better in a new place.”
“My plant doesn’t want to be moved,” Josh said. That seemed clear, and although it was difficult, we let him continue to express his feelings. The summer passed, and soon after school started he was happy and comfortable.
Sometimes we discussed other things that had disturbed us. One morning that summer, on our way to Josh’s summer art class, we passed a particularly bright, beautiful orange flower growing between the sidewalk and the street curb in Berkeley. Josh didn’t usually pay much attention to flowers, but this one immediately attracted him, and he ran to it with a cry of joy. After the class was over, I picked him up and we saw a group of teenagers, shouting and jostling one another, coming towards us. Passing the flower, we discovered it had been snapped off and thrown on the sidewalk.
“Why did someone do this, Mom?” Josh asked on the way home.
“Sometimes people are destructive or careless,” I said.
“But Mom,” Josh said accusingly, “I thought you said that everyone has a buddha inside!”
“Well, according to Buddhist teachings, that is true, but everyone’s buddha is not awake,” I said. “Their buddha could be asleep.”
Josh thought for a long time in silence. Then he said, “I think those people were not aware of the feelings of the buddha inside themselves.”
Of all our conversations, the ones in which Josh and I discussed my parents’ deaths were probably the most important. Recovering from a major loss is a slow, organic process, and a bereavement counselor at a nearby hospice told me that children are sometimes called “the forgotten mourners,” because many adults feel so uncomfortable with grief that they do not allow children to grieve.
‘Grandpa may have been brain-sick,’ Josh once commented, ‘but at least he had the compassion to love me.’
It took an entire year before Josh was ready to have a long conversation about my father’s death, though it was clear during that time that some of the frustration and stress he expressed about other things was grief-related. It wasn’t an easy subject for me, either. For years, my father had driven everyone in the family crazy with his fixation on collecting “free” things, like gas station paper towels and coffee creamer packets. My parents’ garage and basement resembled a landfill, and Dad had taken to wearing an Army surplus camouflage jacket so that he could stuff his treasures into the inner pockets more easily. He was paranoid and sometimes abusive.
I had always told my seven-year-old son that Grandpa’s strange behaviors were the result of “brain sickness,” my way of describing senile dementia. “Grandpa may have been brain-sick,” Josh once commented, “but at least he had the compassion to love me.” Josh and I were visiting him in Virginia when he died, peacefully and unexpectedly, in his sleep one night in the spring of 1996.
It was in February 1997, when Josh and I were sitting and eating sorbet together, that he finally brought up the topic of Grandpa’s death.
“Seeing his body wasn’t something I would have most preferred to do, but it wasn’t so bad, either,” Josh said. He mashed the sorbet with his spoon and stared at it. “Anyway, I knew he wasn’t in that body,” he continued.
“You mean his spirit had gone?” I asked.
“Yes. And he died peacefully. Before he died, he became very, very clear. He understood everything.”
I had never heard such a tender note in my son’s voice. It was a very private moment between us, as we remembered the surprising grace that my dad had manifested in the last few days of his life. He had spent long hours sitting quietly on the living room couch, or chatting in a sweet way with Josh and with me. Two days before he died, he told me that he was drafted into the U.S. Army near the end of World War II, separated from the other men, and sworn in separately, in a back room, because he was Japanese American. I had a deep sense that my father, who had been angry all his life, was letting go of his bitterness with an ease I would never have predicted.
“Yes,” I said to Josh, “you’re right. I believe that Grandpa did understand everything at the end.”
We talked more about what we remembered from that time. Josh was angry that the funeral home men hadn’t wanted Josh to see them removing my father’s body from his house. We sat together at the kitchen table in silence. I could feel that my son, who had grieved in his own way for many months, was completing his journey of healing as we sat there. It was an extraordinary and intimate sensation, like watching an insect complete metamorphosis. And this conversation changed something in me, also. I remembered suddenly how much my father had loved me.
Josh sighed. “The world brings us many things,” he said gently.
I think my most important job as a mother is simply this: that I be available to listen and talk to my son on a daily basis.
I love having conversations with Josh and his friends, and I talk to kids whenever I get the chance. Kids are working hard even while they are playing, learning the skills that will take them into adulthood. They need private time with their peers, but they also need to talk to adults who care about them and who are interested in their ideas and feelings.
Often I think my most important job as a mother is simply this: that I be available to listen and talk to my son on a daily basis. I’m talking about the kind of conversation where you set everything else aside, sit down, and look each other in the eye. Over the years, like the Walrus and the Carpenter, Josh and I have spoken of many things: video games, sex, slime molds, Gandhi, multiplication tables, violence, and genetically engineered vegetables. We argue, we joke, and sometimes we fight. In many ways, I think of the last eleven years as one long conversation with Joshua, starting from the first moment I learned I was pregnant. We begin our day with conversation, and end with “I love you” at bedtime.
What I’ve learned most in talking to Joshua has been that if I risk speaking from my heart, then often it frees him to respond in kind. The morning after my mother finally died of cancer, Josh and I sat in bed together, while Chris rustled around the kitchen, making breakfast.
“I’m relieved Grandma was able to die,” I said. “And, you know, Josh, all I can think of are those words on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gravestone. Remember? Free at last! Free at last!”
Josh rolled over in the bedding and said, firmly, “We don’t have to be free at last. We are free already. And we don’t want to be freed from freedom.” He hugged me, and we got up to eat our breakfast.
Portions of this piece were adapted from “Talking to Joshua” published in Dharma Family Treasures, North Atlantic Books, 1994. © 2000 Mushim Patricia Ikeda.