Celebrating Mother’s Day

To celebrate all kind mothers everywhere on Mother’s Day (USA), including you, since a bunch of flowers is a bit hard to pull off, Kadampa Life offers you instead a double billing. Two fabulous guest articles, one on the Buddhist meditation of seeing everyone as our mother and the other a story of a mother’s love.  

Happy Mother’s Day
by Sona Kadampa

mother's love 2If you’re a mother, I hope your family is spoiling you today. As kids, we used to give our mum the works – a lie-in, breakfast in bed, fresh flowers, home-made cards, gifts, and Sunday lunch out.

It felt good to appreciate what she did for us, year after year. And now my own friends and family are having kids, I can see the quantities of love and hard work that go into mothering.

Buddha’s teachings, Dharma, teach us to use that feeling of gratitude as a powerful seed that can, over time, blossom into a vast, unconditional mind of love that encompasses everyone.

It’s a big seed to swallow if you’re new to Buddhism because it builds on an understanding of past and future lives. However, it’s worth the effort, and even if you’re still on the reincarnation fence this beautiful practice can be of great benefit.

In Joyful Path of Good Fortune Geshe Kelsang invites us to consider how our consciousness existed in the moment before mum and dad ‘made’ a brand new body for us to live in. He says:

Where did that mind come from? It came from the mind that existed before conception, the mind of the previous life. This mind itself came from the previous life, and so on without beginning.

In that earlier life we could have been an animal, an insect, or a different kind of being entirely, living in a realm unknown to us. Or, we might have been the next-door neighbour. Whatever kind of existence we had, we definitely had a mum. Maybe we had a butterfly-mum, maybe we had an elephant-mum. Maybe we had a mum very similar to the one we have now. Whoever she was, where is she now? Where are all those mothers now?

Buddha’s answer:

I have not seen a single living being who has not been the mother of all the rest.

Whether you believe in rebirth or not, I think this meditation can change your life. Even attempting to view everyone in the way you see your mother at her best, with an attitude of gratitude, appreciation, and unfettered love – opens up a new, loving pathway in the mind.

Every living being – the swimming ones, the flying ones, the many-legged ones, the irritating ones, the peaceful ones, the famous ones and the notorious ones – were once, in a different time and a different form, our mother, and we’ve had a close, loving relationship with them all. How cool is that?

My own mother died when I was a child. I missed her fiercely as a teenager, and feel her absence to this day. This meditation brought a special ‘mum’ feeling back for me, 20 years after her death. Rather than focusing on my personal loss, it taught me to contemplate what Mum gave me – a deep, unshakeable feeling of being cherished and protected. By using my memory to access that feeling, I can turn anyone into my mother. I can ‘remember’ what they did for me – even when, just as my mum sometimes did, they’re having a bad day. Then, I naturally feel close to them, appreciate them and want to do something kind for them. Just like we used to do on Mother’s Day.

mother's day in BuddhismNext, Geshe-la gets us to go into those kindnesses in some detail. It’s very extensive and well worth a read.* From her pregnancy to this day, our mother has loved, worried about, and watched over us. We wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or even think straight without what she gave us. She dedicated her whole life to striving, with no time off, to turn us from a helpless, frog-like creature into a fully functional human being.

You can add your own personal memories to the list. As a single mother, my mum worked harder than anyone I know, giving up so much, just so we could have the things we wanted.

I thought I appreciated this at the time, but I realised years later that my appreciation was still pretty self-centred! One year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, a Bulgarian friend told me their custom would be to eat her favourite meal on that day. I decided I would do this – but then I realised I had no idea what my mother’s favourite meal was.

Of course, I knew what mine was. Mum cooked a mean macaroni cheese, and her fish fingers and parsley sauce were mouthwatering. But I had to ask a family friend what Mum loved – and got a surprise. She loved steak, with grilled banana on top. I’d have remembered such an unusual meal if she’d ever cooked it – but we kids were not steak fans, so we never ate my mum’s favourite meal at home, in all those years of macaroni cheese and fish fingers.

Still, it’s never too late to show some appreciation, even if your mum of this life is gone. Six months after I met my partner, also a Kadampa Buddhist, his mother died of a long-term illness. In her last days, as the family gathered, I had the chance to promise her I’d look after her son, and to tell her that he was using his life in an amazing way. It meant the world to be able to tell her this.

It’s hard to say these things to a loved one when they’re in the full flush of health, but you can show appreciation in quiet ways, too – for example, by engaging in a gentle, regular process of reducing your delusions. I discovered, a little late in life, that a relationship without the delusion of attachment is well worth having.

As an adult, I acquired a stepmother, and with her I seem to have a quieter, more accepting relationship than many of my friends have with their own mothers.

It took me a long time to work out why our relationship was so easy-going, but I have a theory on it now. We do not ask each other to make us happy. For example, she isn’t particularly invested in or critical of what I do with my life, and my expectations of her unquestioning support, forgiveness, and a share in her resources are – compared to the expectations I had of my mum – moderate.

mother's kindness

In Buddhist terms, our relationship benefits from less attachment. That’s a delusion that is often mixed with love and features a lot in families. When we’re demanding, disappointed, or unsatisfied with our loved ones, usually attachment is at work, and it can be squarely blamed for many family arguments and schisms.

I’m nowhere near controlling my attachment, but the natural situation with my stepmother has shown me how peaceful and fulfilling a loving, attachment-free relationship can be. So, to help mothers everywhere, including my own – all of them – I’ll be working to replace attachment with appreciation this Mother’s Day.

We can’t give breakfast in bed to every mum in the world this Mother’s Day, nice as that would be. But we can appreciate the contribution every single living being has made to our wellbeing, now or in the past, and meditate on that warm, gentle feeling of ‘thank you’.

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*Editor’s postscript: If, as sometimes happens, your mother suffered from strong delusions and/or bad habits and was not there for you, it can help to recall that she did give you your body, and apply these contemplations instead to your principal caregivers as you grew up.

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A Mother’s Love
by Eileen Stead

It is said in Buddhist teachings that a Mother’s love is the closest we can get to pure love in samsara, where most experiences of love are contaminated by the deluded mind of attachment.

I once asked for a definition of love, and the answer came, “Love is wishing for the happiness of others without expecting anything in return.” A totally selfless love without a thought of one’s own happiness or comfort. This is why a Mother’s love is said to be the paradigm of love, for what kind Mother would not leap into freezing water to save her child from drowning?

This is the story of one such Mother, but it was not the freezing water of a fast flowing river but the “dark satanic mills” of Huddersfield from which she rescued her two children. When she was a girl, she had a dream, or should I say a passionate wish, to be a singer. She did have a lovely pure voice, and was sometimes called upon to sing the Soprano solos in the “Messiah” at the local church. But alas, her destiny was to work in the clattering environment of the Mill, which she hated.

Reggie and Vera SteadAt the age of twenty six, Carrie Brogden (a good Yorkshire name!!) married, and soon became pregnant. Now in those days — 1908 — there was a paucity of prenatal care, and when she went into labour early on a Whit Monday morning nobody had suspected that the young couple would be blessed with twins. But that was it–first a big healthy boy followed by a diminutive but equally lively girl; and from that moment, Carrie Brogden made a vow that her children would have the opportunity she never had. They would become musicians. How she would achieve this, she had no idea, but she had planted the seed in her heart.

When the children were six and a half, the First World War broke out and life changed dramatically for everyone. The young men were hastily conscripted and shipped off to the battle fields of France and Belgium. The horrors of that war — the fighting in the trenches, the loss of limbs, having to survive in the waterlogged ground with your dead buddies lying beside you – provided endless agonies.

Carrie’s husband did come home eventually, but he was a saddened man. He was suffering from angina, and, worse than that, he had been gassed and found breathing difficult. You may be thinking “What has all this got to do with Carrie’s ambition for her children?” But wait! There was to be a small War Pension. Not a lot, but, she thought, just enough to pay for music lessons. Bravely, she announced her plan to the family. The Pension would pay for the Music Lessons, and not be used for anything else. She herself would become the breadwinner.

Having found an excellent violin teacher for the boy and piano teacher for the girl, she started her life of selfless dedication to earn the money she needed to fulfil her promise. Being an excellent cook, she would rise at some unearthly hour to start cooking; and then would sell her homemade “pies and peas” from the kitchen window. She became well known in the neighbourhood and did good business. Later, her husband, who had recovered a little from the war, began to make ice cream, which was also very popular.

This they did for a number of years. The young teenagers were by now progressing well in their studies, particularly the boy who, according to his teacher, was the best violin pupil he had ever taught. At only sixteen, he was asked to lead a small orchestra in the one and only silent cinema boasted by the local town.

Reginal Stead MBE lead violinist BBC Northern OrchestraAs was the custom in the North of England in those days, anyone in work brought home his or her pay packet on Friday and placed it unopened on the kitchen table. The mother then took charge, opening the envelopes and handing out a meagre amount of pocket money to each member of the family, keeping the rest for household necessities. At least that’s what the young man thought, but all the money he earned at the cinema was put secretly away in a box while she continued to slave away in the kitchen.

When the young man was eighteen, fully grown and winning first prize in violin competitions amid glowing reports, his teacher said, “To continue to be a success, he must have a good Italian violin. I’m taking a trip to Cremona and will bring back a couple of instruments for him to try. They will be expensive, I’m afraid, about two thousand pounds.” The young man was aghast and looked at his Mother in consternation, but she coolly replied, “Yes, we can afford that.” I‘m sure you must have guessed, dear reader.  She had saved every penny he had earned in the Cinema, and in that box was exactly the right amount of money to buy the Italian instrument. I remember its name. A Joseph Gagliano. A fine violin.

From there on his career blossomed, and after the Father died of a heart attack at the age of sixty Carrie Brogden attended every concert of her now famous son. She felt great pride and knew in her heart that she and she alone had made this possible. Of course, without his dedication and natural ability it could not have happened, but she understood that, without her, he would most likely be working in the dreadful clattering atmosphere of the mill.

This is a story of a Mother’s love, but being in samsara, as we are, did attachment creep in? A little pride perhaps? Who would begrudge her a little of that? I think the holy beings would understand, and forgive her.

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Editor’s postscript: Reginald Stead MBE become a member of the Hallé Orchestra in the 1930s and went onto become the leader of the BBC Northern Orchestra from 1945 to 1971. The BBC conductor, Edward Downes, later stated that Stead was “one of the finest leaders in the country and could play all the solos beautifully.” Eileen first heard him when she was six and he was eighteen; she was bewitched by his violin playing while on holiday with her father. Years later they met again and married.

 

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.

Can ageing be worthwhile?

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend 🙂 Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?

Facing ageing with strength

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were. ~ Neil Young

Continuing from this article, how can we remain positive when we’re getting old and our body starts to go wrong? I have a few people in my life who have grown old so well that I intend to copy them as I age. One of them is Eileen.

A widow’s story

One of my dearest friends, Eileen, is now a 91-year old widow, physically frailer but still 39 inside. Eileen first met Geshe Kelsang in the late 1970s. In 1996, when she was a spry 70-something, Eileen came to Florida and ran around (pretty much literally) for years helping set up Buddhist centers, before returning to England to live in her cottage in the grounds of Madhyamaka Centre. Eileen Stead Madhyamaka Centre

I first met Eileen years earlier, when her husband was dying, and she has been no stranger to sickness, ageing, loss, and death. So I asked Eileen recently to tell me how she copes so well with it all, and this is what she wrote:

How does one deal with the sufferings of old age? I remember with a wry smile Geshe Kelsang’s description of an old person. He said they were bent over and walked like bird catchers. I thought at the time (20 years ago), “How amusing,” but wait – if you live long enough, you too will walk like a bird catcher. I am aware that recently I am walking with small unsteady careful steps. I make an effort to be sure I’m standing upright and attempt to stride out. I stumble a little, and my lovely Grandson grabs my arm, and says, “Careful Granny.”

Where did the girl go, the one who ran up and down the Lake District hills, and swam in freezing Scottish seas or the warm waters of Florida? I must not fall into the danger of nostalgia, longing for the things that are gone forever. I can remember them, though, with love and gratitude, and maybe when the sufferings of old age become more apparent they will help me. I know for sure that I have deep gratitude for all the wonderful experiences of this life, my husband, my friends, the music and flowers in the garden, and so much more. How could I not be grateful?!  

thank you for kindness

Widows – what do widows do? What do they feel? How do they react? Some, I know, have become very angry – “Why did you leave me?!” Some sink into depression, and some actually take their own lives. I’m sorry to say that these reactions are not helpful, and can only cause more bitterness in the mind. A far better way, I believe, is to acknowledge that all life in samsara has to adhere to the cycle of unending birth, death and rebirth, and nothing anyone can do will change that, so why give way to anger when the inevitable happens?  

We lose our friends too, particularly if we have a long life and they do not. To attend their funerals, and know that yet another good companion has disappeared from your life – that is hard too. These losses have to be met with patient acceptance. It is the only way. As long as we are in samsara we shall have to experience the conditions of samsara and have to deal with our ripening karma, unless we can purify the negativities in our mind. Just as anger can destroy our positive imprints, so compassion and love can purify the negative ones. That is a good thought, and we can work at it with great diligence. 

If through the teachings of Buddha we can become less self-centered, free from our self-grasping mind, and learn to trust in the spiritual path, a new contentment will pervade our lives and we can ride the waves of our suffering and will not drown. We can become a pure being, a Bodhisattva.