Friday, November 7, 2008

Zen Mother Knows Best

The author, one-day old, in mother's arms

At the opening of Tiger Woods Learning Center in 2006, Bill Clinton commented that in the background of every great man is a boy who was terrified of his mother.

Well, may be "terrified" is too terrifying a word to describe the special and complex relationship between a great man and his mom, but I guess we all understand what the former president wanted to convey. Behind every great man, there is a mother who is very strict in disciplining her child. When they grow up and become successful, however, those men give all the credit to no one else but their disciplining mother. His Majesty the King and Gandhi are two such examples.

Today's article is an attempt to celebrate such mothers who have risked terrifying their children to make sure that their lot would grow up to become a hard-working person with integrity who dedicates one's life to serve others.

Admittedly, at first the author would like to keep this article for next year's Mother's Day. But life is so full of uncertainty, as the Law of Impermanence would remind us. There is nothing that guarantees that we would still be here tomorrow, let alone next Mother's Day. Therefore, let us pay tribute to our mothers as soon and as often as we can. Having said that, mom, this week's article is for you!

The woman behind Ikkyu's Enlightenment

Anybody who has been around since 1975 must have been more or less familiar with the cartoon series, Ikkyu-San. The series, based on a true story, enjoyed a tremendous success. A lot has been discussed about Ikkyu the young novice who went on to achieve Enlightenment, but very little has been said about his mother except how much the little Ikkyu was attached to her and how much influence she had on him.

Ikkyu was born in 1394 to Emperor Go-Komatsu and Iyono Tsubone, a court noble who was a descendant of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. However, both mother and child were forced to leave the court to the countryside where Ikkyu went to stay at a local Zen temple at the tender age of five to begin his study. His mother also took up Zen practice seriously.

We would have no idea how dedicated and successful Lady Tsubone was in her Zen training if we had not found the following piece of writing. It was her last testament to Ikkyu in the form of a letter. To the uninitiated, the letter may sound like what is popular known today as "tough love." In fact, those people are right. Zen "love" is almost always tough love, as exemplified in an apparently stern relationship between the Zen master and his/her disciples. The letter reads:

"... To Ikkyu:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell or whether I am always with you or not.

If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for 49 years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,

Not born, not dead

First day of the 9th month

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament..."


Understanding Ikkyu's mother's last words

Even with absolutely no prior Zen training at all, one is already moved by the way a mother took the trouble to leave her caring, final words to her young son in order to make sure he grows up to be a decent man, achieve Enlightenment and serve others.

If, like the author, the readers also identify with Ikkyu as someone who was first introduced to Buddhist mindfulness practice by one's own mother since childhood, this letter would certainly take on a much deeper meaning.

Recognized for its profound Zen message, the letter was included in a Zen Koan collection. A Koan is a question, dialogue, or statement generally containing aspects that seems to be beyond rationality yet could be understood via intuition derived from Buddhist mental development.

Let us attempt to understand the meaning behind Lady Tsubone's last words together in a Zen-style question and answer.

What does "returning to Eternity" means?

It is the return to "nothingness," that is, to return to nature, to be one with nature. Being one with nature means there is no "self" which indicates the state of Enlightenment.

Why comparing Lord Buddha to servants?

The sentence likely refers to the stage when one practices Zen/mindfulness enough to realize that all human beings are but the same continuing process of nama and rupa interaction, with nama being the psychological elements and rupa being the physical elements. Lord Buddha once said that the level of metta, loving-kindness, he had towards his son Rahul and his arch enemy Devadatta are the same, meaning Lord Buddha saw both as beings that equally strive to be free from suffering.

Why saying Lord Buddha found it not necessary to speak one word?

Zen teaching believes that a dhamma transmission does not have to be verbal. Zen usually refers to the story of Lord Buddha lifting up one flower without saying a word (as a way to teach dhamma). Phra Maha Kassapa, considered the first Zen Patriarch, was the only one who understood as he smiled to that gesture. With that, the first Zen transmission was complete.

Why one should avoid "thinking fruitlessly"?

Thinking is one of the five enemies that prevent one to attain the continuous concentration required to develop the highest level of wisdom in Buddhism, Bhavanamayapanna.

What is "not born, not dead"?

According to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who went to China and made Zen popular, this indicates the state of Nirvana.

What does "dependent on its methods" mean?

Zen strips all practice methods as prescribed in the scripture to its core, zeroing in only on the state of being totally aware in the present moment.

Historical records did not indicate whether Ikkyu was actually "terrified" by his mother's last words, but history did record how successful Ikkyu later became in life. By not wanting to disappoint his strict mother (who, in her dying breath, sounded absolutely Zen-like in her wish for her son's spiritual development), Ikkyu went on to impose an even stricter discipline on his own Zen practice.

While some people considered Ikkyu to be an eccentric monk towards the later part of his life, nobody disputed his satori, Enlightenment. He left quite a legacy, both in a written form and otherwise.

The ever-impermanent world calls for immediate action. Consequently, do not make your mother wait until her last moments before she could be assured that you will be doing fine because you have finally become spiritually mature. There is nothing a mother wants more than knowing that her child will be taken care of properly after she was gone. Get immediate mindfulness training in a retreat now before it is too late. Think of it as the most valuable gift you can give to your mother. It is special because only you can give it to her. No one else could.

P.S. I love you, mom!


Rosanne said...

no comments? high time someone filled this gap...
thank you Nash for putting in this all too rare kind of recognition of mothers' role in offspring's enlightened life-paths.
modernity has rendered this role even more obscure, even in societies where mothers are still respected for the gift and nurturance of creature life - and few if any religions make it sufficiently clear that this is not only not to be taken for granted, but also is inseparable from nurturance of the child's soul virtues in a sense deeper than just proper moral behaviour. is it 'only natural' (as most societies seem to mindlessly and tacitly believe) that mothers should be the self-effacing boddhisatva-like servants of their wards' spiritual growth?
the only place where this role is albeit residually still celebrated is India with its many 'goddess' variations... and where life as a mother is especially tough!
anyway, thanks again for raising a point of awareness, and hoping people pay attention.

nash said...

Dear Rosanne,

Thank you very, very much for taking time and trouble to leave not only one but two thoroughly thoughtful comments.

Your comments give me the impression that you are a very learned person in the Buddhist sense of the word. Therefore, it gives me such honor to welcome you to my little humble page.

I like to point out to my friends that the words I wrote are not mine. The Dhamma is already there by itself all the time and everyone also has it. From my little practice, I came to realize that it takes one to see one. Therefore, your kind comments simply reflect the Dhamma you already have in your heart. And for that, I give you my admiration.

Regarding "no comments," well, I have a feeling that most Thais are not avid readers of an English language publications. And even if they do read English, few would be interested in topics such as mindfulness. Yes, sad, but true.

Among those who are interested, or those who have practiced themselves, even if they have read it, they are not likely to leave comments. Such is a Thai culture as I came to realize it! Perhaps we were schooled to be on the passive end of a communication process rather than an interactive one?

But it is ok, my goal is very modest. If there is just one person, yes, one, that found my articles useful and decided to try a meditation retreat, I would be happy already.

I am happy that at least that goal is achieved now. Therefore, I consider whatever comes after this as a bonus. While mindfulness would certainly benefit everyone, not everyone is fortunate enough to realize it in this life time. Karma is a very complicated matter and that is why Lord Buddha warned us of the danger of this endless cycle of our samsara!

Thanks again for sharing your views with me, Rosanne. Again, I feel very humbled by a thoughtful consideration from a reader that arrives on New Year's Day.

May you be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering,