A Good Buddhist and a Good Daughter


As I write this article, I am looking at a photo of my dear mother, who died early in January this year, aged 87. I had looked after her part-time from early 1998, and then full-time for the last few months of her life, with help from my friends. In November of last year, I received a letter from Sangharakshita, asking me how I was and how my mother was. He concluded the letter by writing,

No doubt you are still trying to do justice to your responsibilities at Tiratanaloka and your duty — inadequate word! — to your mother. You are obviously both a very good Buddhist and a very good daughter. The two seem to go together.

I was very touched by Bhante’s concern and support. In addition, I felt he had objectified and clarified what I had been trying to do for the preceding two and a half years, and would continue to do until my mother died.

At the beginning of 1998 I became a Public Preceptor. I had not expected to be asked to take on this weighty responsibility, but I was moved that Bhante and the other Public Preceptors had such faith in me. The implications were still sinking in when, in April (whilst I was in the middle of a Transcendental Principle retreat at Tiratanaloka) my mother was hospitalised in an emergency. I chose to leave the retreat to be with her, as she had never been in hospital before and was understandably frightened. She suffered from congestive heart failure, which, until this time, had been managed by drugs. It is extremely difficult to give a prognosis for this complaint, but I knew that things could only get worse, and — given that my mother lived alone and I was the only nearby relative — that I would need to be (and wanted to be) more available to her. At that time, of course, the future was unknown, but I was aware of two major responsibilities opening out before me — as a public preceptor and as a daughter — and that I wanted to do justice to both.

My mother responded well to treatment, and I was pleased to spend the week with her, enjoying her company and many good conversations. When I asked her if I should cancel a forthcoming visit to Spain, she said, ‘Oh no, dear. If I “pop off” while you are away, that’s all right, as we have no unfinished business.’ This was true, but it had not always been the case: our present loving relationship had been hard-won. There had been quite a lot of family difficulties when I was growing up, which absorbed my mother’s attention, with the result that we had not always felt at ease with one another. A couple of years after my father’s death, in 1978, I went abroad for a while, partly to create some distance between us. However, communication seemed even worse when I returned!

I am grateful to a friend of mine (who was disturbed by overhearing my side of a phone conversation with my mother) for encouraging me to sort out the relationship, and giving me some very simple tips on how to begin. For example, I had tended not to phone my mother often because I found her critical and needy, but then I would feel guilty for not having called her, and would put it off. My friend suggested that I simply get into the habit of telephoning her once a week, which soon had a positive effect. And I will always be grateful to my mother herself for responding positively to my attempts to ‘mend fences’. From then, our relationship continued to improve. My mother’s sister died in 1987, and I spent a lot of time helping my mother clear the house and sort out her sister’s affairs. In that intimate situation, any resentment that remained on my part evaporated. I felt that I had grown up at last, and had begun to see my mother as an individual with her own difficulties in life, rather than as someone who had not fulfilled my expectations.

In addition to feeling gratitude to the friends who helped me sort out my feelings, and to my mother for responding, I am also thankful to Bhante for encouraging all his disciples to be on good terms with their parents. I remember studying with him in 1980 (at a seminar on the chapter on benevolence and compassion in Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation). I was very inspired to read Gampopa’s statement that ’the root of Benevolence (or metta) lies in the memory of benefits received. In this life here on earth, the greatest benefactor is our mother, because she ‘(i) provides us with a body. (ii) suffers for our sake, (iii) gives us life and (iv) shows us the world.’ According to the text, reflection on this truth enables us to give rise to the bodhichitta — ‘desiring sentient beings to profit and feel happy’. Although, at the time, my relationship with my mother was not brilliant, the study helped me to think about improving it and finding ways to feel more positive towards her. I invited her to come and stay in my community with me — thus including her more in my life — and I began to express my appreciation of her more directly.

In 1983, Bhante led a seminar on the Sigalovada Suttanta. One section of the text concerns the duties of children towards their parents. Gratitude and reciprocity are seen as a natural response to our parents, but Bhante acknowledged that sometimes we need to have a break from our parents (if the communication is difficult) so that we can subsequently re-establish contact on a better basis. He thought that, because of our Buddhist practice, we would eventually be more grateful towards our parents, as we would expect less from them, forgive them, and understand that they had done their best (or, if things had been difficult, that maybe they had had their own psychological limitations). He also pointed out how important it is for us, spiritually and psychologically, to sort out any difficulties in this area. Our relationships with our parents are so important that our emotional lives are likely to be disturbed by any difficulties in them. This was certainly my experience, and I appreciated the ideas emerging from this seminar, which gave me much to reflect (and act) upon.

Also, at an FWBO day festival in 1987, Bhante gave a talk entitled Twenty Years in the Middle Way. As part of the talk, he encouraged us to develop a middle way between being (on the one hand) over-dependent on our parents and (on the other) feeling negatively towards them. I remember him encouraging us to see our parents as individuals, and to feel love and metta towards them. By this time, my relationship with my mother was much improved and I could see the benefits of the work I had put in.

When my mother’s health began to fail, I could therefore take at least some consolation from the fact that our relationship was on a good footing. My experience of my father’s illness and death, some 20 years earlier, was that although we loved each other, our relationship was complicated. He and I never managed to talk as openly as I would have liked, and consequently it took me a long time to come to terms with his death, and retrospectively sort out my feelings towards him.

The summer of 1998 proceeded well and I performed my first Public Ordinations in July of that year — a very happy and joyous occasion. I began to visit my mother more often. Fortunately, she also had a supportive network of friends and neighbours. However, the day I left England for our first long ordination retreat in Tuscany, my mother was again hospitalised in an emergency. Since she had responded so well to treatment before, I continued on my journey. Unfortunately, things took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worste whilst I was still in Florence, and I arrived on the retreat uncertain as to whether she would pull through. It seemed much more difficult in that situation to find out exactly what as going on, so I was extremely grateful to Navachitta for going to visit my mother and helping me to decide what to do. In the end, I flew home from the retreat three weeks earlier than planned. This was a wrench, but proved to be the right decision, as my mother, though out of hospital, was frail and in need of care.

This pattern — periods when she was fairly well, alternating with emergencies —continued over the next two years. The emergencies tended to occur during the autumn and winter, coinciding with the Tuscany retreats. In 1999, when I was Public Preceptor in Tuscany, I managed to stay for my planned month, and all went well, even though my mother was hospitalised on the day of the Public Ordinations. Again, my friends and the team at Tiratanaloka visited her and helped out. The winter of 1999 was extremely difficult, as my mother was hospitalised three times in rapid succession. Although I kept up as many of my responsibilities as possible, I could no longer be counted on to be on my scheduled retreats at Tiratanaloka, and other team members and helpers had to step in to substitute for me. I did not expect my mother to survive the winter, but she had a very strong life force, was fiercely independent, loved life, and was mentally extremely sharp. She pulled through.

It was no longer possible for her to look after herself, so she agreed to a day-care package, and the installation of a stair-lift. I continued to visit often. On one occasion in March, she was well enough to come out for a drive with a friend and me. It was a beautiful spring day, with the daffodils out in profusion, and we drove to some nearby hills that she knew well. She enjoyed it very much (as she did many things) and repeatedly said how beautiful it had been. It was her last trip of that kind.

Again, the spring and summer went well. I went on a two-week retreat at Tiratanaloka, supporting Maitreyi, and popped home during the middle weekend to see my mother. My plan was to attend Tuscany 2000 in the autumn, again taking the role of Public Preceptor. Unfortunately, my mother’s health declined again in August, and her doctor said she should no longer live alone. I was due to be both a private preceptor and Public Preceptor on the August retreat, and then go to Tuscany. There was no question of thinking about nursing homes. Again, my friends rallied round, and Saddhasuri, who had come to know and love my mother (as had other friends of mine), offered to look after her. I went to visit my mother in September, before leaving for Tuscany. She had just had a blood transfusion, and we hoped that this would buy us some time so that I could be on retreat for a month. It was very hard to leave. Once I arrived in Tuscany, we brought many aspects of the retreat forward. A week later, however, my mother was back in hospital again, and I left the retreat after performing my private ordinations, handing over the public ordinations to Sanghadevi.

From late September until my mother’s death, Saddhasuri and I lived with her and took care of her. If one of us needed to go away, another would come to be with her. Those months were a very important phase of my life, witnessing the fulfilment of my love and duty towards my mother. They were a difficult time, though it was actually fairly easy to look after her, and she was always appreciative. By December, I had made arrangements for her to move into a nursing home near me (something neither of us really wanted), so that I could carry out my responsibilities at Tiratanaloka more easily. In the end, however, she died at home in her own bed, as she had wanted, with me and Saddhasuri beside her.

I am so grateful that I was able to look after her and be with her when she died. My friends made this possible, together with the support of my community and my fellow College members.

Some years earlier, in a chapter meeting, I had taken part in a discussion of what would happen when we, as Order members, faced the ageing and dying of our parents. Of the five of us present, I was the only one to have a lost a parent (my father). There was a discussion as to whether we should go and look after our parents, or whether we should, as it were, put our responsibilities towards the sangha first. I had said that I would want to be there for my mother, although at that point I had no idea what that was going to mean. Some years earlier, I had seen the film Why Bodhidharma Came to the West. I remembered the scene where the monk comes down from the mountains to visit his mother in the town. He finds her poor and blind, and — without her ever realising that he has come — he leaves and returns to the monastery. I found this poignant, and knew I could not do likewise. Of course, I was not living a monastic life. Not only that, I felt that (as someone with aspirations to follow the Bodhisattva Ideal) I should be prepared to take care of my mother.

I also felt that, rather than seeing that obligation as somehow in conflict with my duty to the sangha, I would like to ‘take the sangha with me’, by involving my friends in it. I had certainly tried to be there for my friends when their parents had died, but I could not have imagined how much support and help I would receive from them. Some of their enthusiasm to help was due to my mother herself — her capacity to make friends, to take an interest in people and be open to new experiences, right up until her death. People quickly became very fond of her, and wanted to help both of us. Also, the communication between my mother and me was so positive that people were attracted by it. Over the last few years of her life, not only did I feel that she and I had no ‘unfinished business’, I even knew that I could ‘be myself’ completely with her, and that she felt the same in relation to me. There were no obstacles to open and loving communication between us. In fact, I would say there was just love between us. I do not deny that we occasionally got irritable with each other. It was sometimes a difficult and stressful situation. But we always quickly apologised, and this was always as quickly accepted.

As I write this, it is five months to the day since my mother died. I am beginning to gain a perspective on the last three years. People keep telling me how well and relaxed I look, which must mean that I looked under strain before. I certainly felt stretched — in fact very stretched — at times. My two big responsibilities — as a daughter and as a Public Preceptor — were in conflict, particularly in terms of time and space. It is a truism that nobody can be in two places at once, but the fact was often frustrating for me during my mother’s last years. I was irrevocably committed to both responsibilities. The only way I could cope with the conflict was to find deeper resources within myself, to go for Refuge more deeply, and to call on my yidam, Green Tara. In this way, my responsibilities as a Public Preceptor and my love and duty towards my mother, arose from the same ‘place’.

I don’t think I always managed to reconcile the conflict perfectly. When I couldn’t manage it, I would acknowledge the fact of my falling short, either to my friends or to myself, and soon afterwards would find some new inspiration or depth of inner resource. I think my effort bore fruit in the emergence of a deep sense of faith and inner contentment, an experience that led me to take up the practice of brahamcarya and to become an anagarika in August of last year.

I learned so much from being with my mother. I learned to respect her independence, and I began to detect (and let go of) my occasional temptations to use the power mode to persuade her to do something that (while making life easier for me) she was not ready for. I learned patience and forbearance; or rather, I realised again how impatient I can be. I learned more deeply than ever before that the sangha is a network of friendships. Although my formal meditation practice was often disrupted, I was in a situation where I had to put someone else’s needs before my own. I had the challenge of trying to be present with a human being — my own mother — through her sickness, decay and death. I tried my best, though I am not sure that even that experience has convinced me that I too am going to die one day.

I miss my mother of course, but I am grateful that we had no ‘unfinished business’, and that there was so much love between us that my grief and loss are quite simple — without any complicated ‘regrets’. I am also grateful that I am free now to return full-time to my Community and to my work as a member of the Ordination Team and College. I am pleased to have the time to write my first contribution to Madhyamavani, since I became a Public Preceptor. I am grateful that I can go on a solitary retreat this year, and attend the whole of the Tuscany ordination retreat, for the first time.

I am not sure, however, that I would recommend that everyone do as I did. In a way, I didn’t decide to do what I did. I simply responded to events. And events, as they always do, unfolded in their own way, sometimes predictably, sometimes unexpectedly, forcing me to resort to much improvisation and juggling of plans and arrangements. I had a lot of support from friends — not a blessing enjoyed by everyone faced with such a conflict. Bhante says (in his seminar on the Sigalovada Suttanta) that when someone is faced with this problem, only that individual herself (or himself) can weigh up all the factors and decide whether or not looking after aged parents should take priority over Dharmic duties. In the end, my mother only needed full-time care for 5 months. Whilst I was in the midst of it, that felt like a long time, but it is not really long if viewed in the perspective of my whole life. There were moments when I doubted whether I was making the right choices, but with hindsight I feel very happy that I was able to give such love and support to my mother, and that I was with her at the end. I am content that I tried to the best of my ability to be — in Bhante’s words — a good Buddhist and a good daughter.

While looking after my mother, I kept in touch with my friends through email and by reporting in to Shabda, the Order newsletter. I received many cards and emails throughout this time, especially after she died. I would like to conclude by quoting some words from one of them.

Having followed your reports in Shabda for quite a while, it was moving and inspiring to read your report this month (February 2001) — like reading a novel that one knows must end, but being uplifted by the poetry of the ending, and at the same time sad in its completion.

I dedicate the merits of any good act that I may do to my mother, wherever she may be, and to all sentient beings.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 5: Summer 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).