Sitting front row center, through childhood and into adulthood, we watch our parents’ lives unfold. At once familiar and shrouded in iconic mystery, our parents are variously idolized or blamed by us. Usually with time—if we’re lucky enough to get to know them in adulthood—our parents shrink to the size of everyday human beings whose challenges and peccadilloes assume an ordinariness we’d expect in anyone else. Gratitude may come easily at this point, although for many, doubts and resentments linger well into middle (or even old) age. And yet the Buddha’s view on the proper attitude to cultivate toward our parents is pretty clear. We must pay them a debt of gratitude even if it means inspiring in them virtues they lack:
Yet, bhikkhus, whoever encourages their faithless parents, and settles and establishes them in faith; or whoever encourages their immoral parents and settles and establishes them in morality, or whoever encourages their stingy parents, and settles and establishes them in generosity, or whoever encourages their foolish parents, and settles and establishes them in wisdom—such a person, in this way repays, more than repays, what is due to their parents.
The Buddha’s words are certainly a challenge to the notion that, in some cases, gratitude toward one’s parents is conditional. As for the good parent, we learn that the debt of gratitude can never be repaid. The gift of life itself—and, by extension, the opportunity to walk the path—incurs a debt we spend our lives repaying, if not for the sake of our parents, then for ourselves: “A life without gratitude is a joyless life,” Thai monk Ajahn Sumedho writes in “The Gift of Gratitude” (page 34). If we focus simply on the “injustices and unfairness we have received,” he goes on to conclude, we fall into what seems to be the malaise of the age: depression.
American life may not be conducive to honoring one’s elders, what with all the psychological insights tying suffering to one’s parents. But we cannot mistake the Buddha’s injunction for an anachronistic holdover from another culture. The virtue of gratitude is not only available to all, but also essential on the path.
In spite of years of sitting meditation, many on the path sense they’re getting nowhere. In “Touching Enlightenment” (page 38), Shambhala teacher Reggie Ray writes, “Meditation doesn’t necessarily yield results.” What’s missing, he says, is a connection to the body. In the disembodied state—in which we subordinate the body to the heady conceits of the ego—”we actually don’t relate to anything in a direct way.” In a world ever more reliant on abstract thinking, “unwilling to fully live the life that is arriving in our bodies moment by moment, we find ourselves left with no real life at all.” Indeed, the style of practice most often taught—noting our breath at the nostrils—may in some cases be ill-suited to overcoming a disconnection from the body because it keeps us so close to the home of our mental life. Using ancient Tibetan yogic exercises, Ray teaches us to explore the body from within, grounding us in a practice that fosters a direct connection to our lives. Buddhism is not an intellectual exercise, he reminds us by paraphrasing from the Pali canon: “There is no other way to touch enlightenment except in and through out bodies.”
Both Reggie Ray and Ajahn Sumedho are addressing areas in modern life where the ego has not just gained ground but has become entrenched. An investigation of the conditioning of out early years is reasonable enough, and the development of the human intellect has its many rewards. But over time, the ever-adaptable ego has managed to turn these developments to its own advantage. The particulars may change, but the cause of suffering remains the same. And though the dharma appears in different forms, both these teachers make it perfectly clear that its relevance and efficacy remains unchanged.
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