Before he encountered the dharma, explains Ajahn Amaro, his mother was his main example of great kindness and generosity. As she approached her death, he contemplated the relationship between the ultimate and relative realities, and concluded that the doctrine of emptiness does not negate the unique and powerful relationship between a mother and her child.
This is probably the last Saturday night talk that I’ll be giving for quite a while. I have received news from my sister in England that our mother is extremely ill, and the signs are that she won’t live for more than a few months. So I plan to fly to England in a week to be with her.
The Buddha once said (Anguttara Nikaya 2:32) that if you were to carry your parents around with you for their whole lives—your father on one shoulder and your mother on the other—even to the point where they were losing their faculties and their excrement was running down your back, this would not repay your debt of gratitude to them. But you could repay the debt if your parents were not virtuous and you established them in virtue; if they were not wise and you established them in wisdom; if they were stingy and you established them in generosity; if they had no faith in the spiritual path and you led them to it.
One day, many years ago, I spoke of this teaching very matter-of-factly with my mother, assuming that she would be as impressed as I was with how highly the Buddha praised the role that parents play in one’s life. She responded, as she almost invariably did anytime I tried to spout some spiritual statement, by saying, “What utter balls!” She is very good at keeping me level, as I can get somewhat airy-fairy at times. Her point was that it isn’t a one-way process. She said, “Why do you talk about it in terms of being in debt? What could be more wonderful and satisfying than bringing children into the world and watching them grow? It isn’t like a job that you need to be paid for.” I was really impressed by that.
For obvious reasons, recently I’ve been reflecting a lot on my mother’s influence on my life, and it occurred to me that until I met the dhamma when I was twenty-one, she was the main—if not the only—source of my ability to see what was noble and good in the world. I didn’t grow up in a religious household (England is a very nonreligious country), but both my parents were very good people, especially my mother. She really embodies unselfishness, kindness, generosity, and a tremendous harmlessness toward all living beings—she is physically unable to hurt any creature. When I wonder where I got the inclination toward that which is good and wholesome and useful, I realize that it came almost entirely from her.
After my mother’s father died, she told me that she’d received much of her guidance and direction from him. She deeply respected her inheritance of his gentleness, self-effacement, and benevolence toward all things, and she passed those qualities on. She was my main spiritual influence before I went to Thailand; anything that kept me operating somewhere in the neighborhood of balanced human behavior was thanks to her. So I’ve developed a great sense of gladness and gratitude toward her for imparting this to me.
Another realization that has become clearer to me over the years is that people who come from broken homes, or who have had very unstable family situations, assume that life is unsteady and unpredictable; they often have a deep sense of insecurity. I remember being struck by this during my first few years of meeting and living with such people—and there are a great many of them in this world. I never would have conceived of the experiences they’d had. Even though my parents had plenty of faults and our lives were not easy, they gave our family an astonishing sense of stability and reliability, especially our mother. (My father was often kept busy, first with the farm and then traveling with his work. And besides, I think it was Robert Bly who defined the Industrial Age father as “that which sits in the living room and rustles the newspaper.”)
I’ve begun to reflect on the sense of security that arises from this intuition that life has a reliable basis. In stable families, parents impart this. If one doesn’t have this, then one has to find it later on in other ways. For a child, the parents are a kind of substitute for the dhamma, that basis upon which everything rests and around which everything revolves.
I didn’t always get on with my parents. But they never argued in front of us, and they were always there, establishing a continuity of presence and support. And thinking about that, I’ve seen that they reflected two qualities of dhamma that are crucial: dhammaniyamata—the orderliness, or regularity, or patterned-ness, of the dhamma; and dhammatthitata—the stability of the dhamma.
In a way, that’s the job or role of parents—to be stable, the rock that things rest upon. They exhibit that quality of regularity, orderliness, or predictability that we can rely on and be guided by.
When I was about twelve, some of my mother’s extraordinary qualities became apparent to me in a very powerful way. I was a growing lad who ate a cooked breakfast every morning before going off to school. In the late afternoon, I would come back and eat cream doughnuts for tea, and an hour later scarf down huge amounts of food at supper. I was turning into a burly youth. And every afternoon my mother waited in her car at the bus stop at the end of the lane, a mile away from our home. One day I got off the bus and she wasn’t there. I thought, “That’s strange.” I started walking—I thought maybe she was just a bit late—and I walked and walked, but she didn’t appear. I got all the way back to the house and she wasn’t there either. When my sisters returned from school, we found out that our mother had collapsed and had been hospitalized. She was found to be suffering from malnutrition.
For months my mother had been living only on tea and toast, trying to make our food supply go a bit further by not eating. None of us had noticed, because we’d all been so busy gobbling our meals. She’d never made a fuss, never said anything. And the next thing we knew, she was in hospital. It hit me like a ton of bricks that she would actually starve herself while feeding all of us and not complain. And when we went to visit her in the hospital, she apologized as if she were wasting our time! After all, we could have been doing our homework or out somewhere enjoying ourselves.
Now my mother is eighty-two years old and her body seems to be reaching its limit. How does one hold that? How does one use the practice to relate to the situation, to bring balance to the heart, and to be of benefit to her and to others?
The wonderful Thai forest master Luang Por Duhn teaches us that the citta, the heart, is the Buddha. “Don’t look for the Buddha anywhere else,” he says, “the aware quality of the heart is the Buddha.” This is an extraordinarily forthright, clear, and completely nondualistic teaching.
The problem that arises when we love or hate someone is that there is a polarity, a duality that the heart easily can be drawn into: there’s me here and there’s the other out there. And the more intense the emotion, the greater the feeling of duality.
Although we can be very focused on generating loving-kindness toward another being, there’s also the matter of sustaining the liberating insight that recognizes selflessness, anatta, which sees that all dhammas are not-self and that the impression of a self-existent, separate entity is merely based upon ignorance and the activity of the senses. This conundrum can be a focus of practice.
In this light, it’s interesting to reflect on the great masters and the relationships between their spiritual practices and their families. Ajahn Chah was a highly accomplished being, and when he started at Wat Pah Pong, one of his first disciples was his mother. She moved out of her village, was ordained as a nun, and went to live in the forest with him and his cluster of monks. When she died, Ajahn Chah made a great ceremony of her funeral; it was a huge affair, and he ordained eighty or ninety people during the event to make merit for her. Later, the main temple at Wat Pah Pong was built on the exact spot where his mother was cremated.
Sri Ramana Maharshi was also said to be a supremely detached being; he was famed for being so equanimous that rats sometimes nibbled on his legs when he sat in samadhi, and he allowed doctors to treat him because it made them feel better. Like Ajahn Chah, Sri Ramana’s mother became his disciple and went to live at the bottom of Arunachala Mountain, while he was in a cave at the top. After she died, he too built his ashram on the place where she was cremated.
So here are these two highly accomplished, extraordinarily detached beings who both built their temples on their mothers’ ashes. Of course this may have no significance whatsoever, but to me it indicates that they’re not saying, “All sankharas (all conditioned things) are impermanent, my mother is just a formation in nature like any other, and it’s no big deal.” There’s a mysterious twinning here of both the realization of ultimate truth and the recognition of the unique quality of that personal connection on the material plane. It’s almost as if the mother is the primordial symbol of the source of reality, just as she is the source of life on the physical plane. After all, in the West we freely use the term “Mother Nature,” and “nature” is another word for “dhamma.” So perhaps it is natural and perfectly appropriate to accord this being with whom we have a unique relationship a special position among all the dimensions of life that we experience.
These days I have found myself practicing, first of all, to establish a clear insight of the nondual, or you might say, to establish the heart in pure knowing. And then I’ve been bringing up a question, or an investigational statement, such as, Where is my mother? or, What is my mother? The purpose of this process is to let go of any habitual identification, to break down that notion of me here and the other over there, and to open the heart to the present moment.
Then, within that basic space of awareness, I consciously bring forth the intentions and emotions of metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha—loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
There needs to be a balancing within that, however, because as soon as those intentions or qualities are aroused, one can slip back into the idea of me over here sending it to you over there, which is a dualism. But there’s a way that dhamma practice can guide us toward both seeing things as completely empty (the ultimate truth of things) and also respecting the convention that there’s a being here and a being there (the relative truth of things). On one level, that convention is pertinent. But it’s only a partial truth, a half-truth, and it exists within the context of dhamma.
One of the ways that the Buddha spoke about stream-entry—the irreversible breakthrough to realization of the dhamma—was as a “change of lineage.” The phrase relates to the idea that “I am a personality; this is me, this is mine, this is what I am.” This belief is called sakkayaditthi, or “personality view.” And as long as “I am the body,” then, of course, Pat Horner and Tom Horner are my parents. But if the body is not-self, and perceptions are not-self, and feelings are not-self, and the personality is not-self, what does that say about Mr. and Mrs. Horner? What does that mean? If this body is not-self, then the lineage of the body can’t be the whole story.
This is a subtle point of dhamma and it’s easy to grasp it in the wrong way, as I most painfully did when I was a young novice in Thailand. I can’t believe I actually did this, but I recall a letter I sent to my mother from Thailand in 1978 in which I wrote, “You know, in truth, you’re not really my mother.” Something in me doesn’t want to remember having done that, but I have a sinking feeling that I did.
Anyway, we exchanged a number of rather tense letters in those days, when I was “full of the light” in Thailand, but this one certainly represented the nadir. In retrospect, it was pretty awful and very embarrassing. When my mother received this particular inspired declaration, she pointed out that she definitely was my mother since nobody else was. She wrote, “I care about you because you are my son, not because you are a Buddhist monk—compris?”
Even at that time, I realized this was a totally appropriate response. I wasn’t taking hold of the principle correctly. However, when that insight is present and we don’t pick it up wrongly, we can genuinely see this change of lineage, without getting the relative and the ultimate planes confused.
There is that relationship with our parents in this flow of karmic formations, but the lineage of our true reality is fundamentally rooted in the dhamma. That’s the source, the origin, the basis. Rather than thinking of one’s physical parents as the origin, we can have the clear realization that that’s just part of the situation. It’s the Uncreated, the Unformed, the Unborn, the Unconditioned that’s the genuine source, the genuine origin, the basis, the ground of reality.
We can fully respect the convention and we can base our practice on the insight that all sankharas arise and cease, that all dhammas are not-self. There’s nothing to get heated about, nothing to get carried away by; it’s just life doing its dance. The heart can remain serene, stable, clear, and bright. Which, of course, is what makes it possible for us to be of benefit to others, whether they be our parents, our children, our teachers, or our students.
Pat Horner passed away peacefully at home on July 16, 2003, with her three children and her son-in-law Tony, whom she loved as a second son, at her side.
This article is adapted from Ajahn Amaro’s PDF book, Who Will Feed the Mice, which is available free of charge from Abhayagiri.