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Parents: Two short Talks on Gratitude
— May 8, 2013
Focus on your breath. Settle in from the activity of the morning, and remind yourself you're doing this not only for yourself but also for the people around you.
There's a passage where the Buddha says that all good teachings are alike in that they teach gratitude to parents. It's good to think about that when the mind settles down.
I used to ask Thai people what they would identify as the most basic Buddhist virtue, and they'd always say gratitude. But as the Buddha himself pointed out, it's not just a Buddhist value. It’s universal, it's everywhere. Particularly the virtue of gratitude for your parents.
Back when you were small and weak, they were strong. They looked after you. The time's going to come when you're strong and they're weak. So, you owe it to them to help them, because after all they had the choice when you were defenseless: They didn't have to raise you. They didn't even have to give birth to you. They could have aborted you. But they chose to give birth to you, they chose to raise you, they went through all kinds of difficulties. And so regardless of whether you feel that they were skillful parents or not, at least you’re indebted to them for that much: that they enabled you to survive.
If they did teach you right and wrong, and did teach you good things about what it means to be a good person, you owe them that much more. So how do you repay them? Part of it is by actually becoming a good person yourself.
There's an old Thai verse, it's in Pali but I can't find it in the Canon anywhere. A Thai monk apparently wrote a verse in Pali, saying that the sign of a good person is gratitude. The fact that you’re grateful for the goodness done for you shows that you recognize goodness when you see it. That’s a sign that you’ll be more likely to appreciate the effort that goes into goodness, and to go through the effort of doing good things yourself. So this is one of the ways in which you show your gratitude: by training your mind so that you’re a good, reliable person — reliable to yourself, reliable to the people around you.
Then, when the time comes to repay any karmic debts you have to the people who’ve helped you, you're in a position where you can. You’ve strengthened your mind through the practice. As the Buddha said, the best way to repay your parents, if they’re are not generous, is to give them the example of being generous so that they might become inspired to be generous, too. If they're not virtuous, give them the example of being virtuous so they might be inspired to become virtuous. That’s how to repay your debt to your parents.
In cases where it's difficult to deal with your parents, use the strength of mind that comes from concentration and from developing your discernment to support you in behaving skillfully around them. That makes your dealings with them a lot easier, and puts you in a position where you can trust yourself not to harm them or yourself.
So work on these qualities. They're good for you; they're good for the people around you. A lot of the good things in the world — like status, wealth, praise, and material pleasures — are the sorts of things that, when you gain, other people have to lose. Or if they gain, you might have to lose. There's always somebody gaining, somebody losing. Those “goods” create a lot of divisions in the world. That's why we see so much divisiveness in our society right now. It's because everybody seems to be focused on the types of goods and the types of happiness that create divisiveness. So those things aren't really good. The happiness they give is not really happy.
So look instead for the kinds of happiness where the boundaries get erased. When you're generous, that erases boundaries. When you're virtuous and are careful about other people's well-being, that erases boundaries. When you develop qualities of goodwill in your heart, that erases boundaries. Those are the kinds of goods that you really want to work on because everybody benefits — which means that the goodness of those goods is genuinely good.
So keep these thoughts in mind.
December 2, 2014
There’s a daily practice we have of dedicating the merit of our meditation, of our practice, to those who have passed away, to people who have been good to us. And it should be something we do every day. Of course, our parents had some wonderful qualities, but they also had some very human foibles.
In spite of their foibles, we have to appreciate them for the good they did, because that helps us to appreciate goodness within ourselves — and then to think about what we can do we can repay them. If they’re alive, we try to repay them in our dealings with them.
If they’ve passed away, we dedicate the merit of our practice to them. That was one of the things that really struck me when I first went to see Ajaan Fuang: how much he stressed the importance of dedicating the merit of my meditation to my parents. That’s something we should think about every day.
Not all of our parents are Buddhists; not all of them are even favorably disposed towards Buddhism. But we shouldn’t let that make a difference. There’s goodness in the world — Ajaan Lee talked about this quite a lot — there’s goodness in the world that has nothing to do specifically with the Buddha. In many cases, he simply pointed out things that everybody had known before: that killing is bad, stealing is bad, illicit sex, false dealings, intoxication are bad.
We owe a lot to our parents. They let us be born. They provided us with food, clothing, shelter, medicine. They taught us how to walk and how to speak. They may not have been perfect human beings, but they did their best. Without them we wouldn’t be here. So we dedicate our goodness to them, in hopes that something gets through, something gets back to them wherever they may be.
A lot of people had already seen that. Many of us have learned these things from our parents. Even if we didn’t, we can repay our parents by setting a good example for them in avoiding these unskillful forms of behavior. Because we live in this world, we live through our dependency on other people. I think I’ve told you the story about the young boy in Thailand whose parents had scraped together money to send him in to a private Christian school in Bangkok. The boy started picking up Christian ideas at school, and one night he came home, saying that he wanted to ask grace at the table.
So the parents let him. He started his grace by thanking God for putting food on the table. The father immediately cuffed the boy up against the head and said, “What kind of ingrate are you? I’m the one who put the food on the table. If it were up to God, there’d be nothing on the table at all.”
Remember that we’re part of a long line of human beings, each generation depending on previous generations, and each setting an example for the following ones. We repay our debt to the previous ones by setting a good example for those who come after.
It’s in this way that goodness gets passed down from generation to generation and stays alive in the world. Often, the generations before us have come back and they’re going to be reborn as generations after us, so we want to make sure that we haven’t dropped anything good in the meantime as we pass it along and hand it back to them. If we can improve what gets passed along, so much the better.
See also: The Lessons of Gratitude, by Ven. Ajahn Thanissaro, The Right Angle: It’s Never Wrong, by Venerable Luang Por Liam Thitadhammo and Gratitude, by Ven. Maha Boowa Ñanasampanno, Gratitude in the Buddha's Teaching, Upasaka Mahinda Wijesinghe