Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The kindness of our . . . fathers

Today would have been my father’s 81st birthday had he not passed away during his 79th year. I mention this as a result of the confession prostrations we do early each morning, with our parents and others visualized as being with us in the gompa, along with friends, strangers, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, etc. There he’s been, each day front-and-center in my mind amidst quite a grand crowd.

While this retreat, which concludes tomorrow, is not about resolving deeply planted personal issues but rather cultivating the mind of wisdom in which bodhicitta arise, you've got to deal with what comes. And, no surprise, after being in the works for a few days, a once tightly-sealed lid blew sky-high today.

As many of you know, intense appreciation of the special kindness of our parents, and particularly our mothers, has a very special role in the Tibetan traditions of Buddhist practice. This is difficult for many Westerners, who have had a rocky relationship with one or both parents, so much so that I’ve heard when the Tibetan lamas returned to India after having first visited the West, particularly America, they sadly reported being caught most off-guard by how so many Westerners see their parents as the source of their deepest problems.


There have been three “father figures” in my life, one natural, the other two from marriage. All three were significant in vastly different ways, all three are now dead.

My own father and I had a spotty relationship. He was a simple man, a hard-working factory worker, the son of immigrants who grew up in the Bronx with a mind full of issues.

In the American get-what-you-can game, he was eclipsed by his younger brother, who became a successful executive, building and managing strip-malls and apartment complexes throughout the United States. My father smoked incessantly and defiantly, even though he knew it was not healthy, and there was also an alcohol problem, especially when surrounded by family members. I don't know why this was so, what he was running from, I suspect it was partly perpetuated by the fact that he was married to a woman who did not respect him. Perhaps she loved him at one point, but never in my memory.

I remember when I was 18 years old, my father called me into his room, asked me to sit down and told me that his and my mother’s marriage was over. This happened at night, with the lights off, in complete darkness, both of us sitting on a bed. He couldn’t look me in the eye, couldn’t bring himself to connect with me intimately, even in that moment of scorching pain. After 10 minutes, not knowing what to say, I was dismissed.

Through the years we had many fallings-out, some quite serious, many of them caused by my reactions to what and why he was doing what he did, and by the end of his life I had put him into my past. Although just a few hours drive away, I was not there with him when he died. Having already slammed the lid tightly, when his funeral was held in New York, I did not attend.


My first father-in-law was an Italian-American, also the son of immigrants. He was a mechanical genius, a gritty, feisty, fiercely opinionated, passionate railroader, the proud engineer of the first high-speed Amtrak (it was Conrail then) Metroliner between New York City and Washington, D.C. He loved the railroad, having served in the rail corps in Europe during World War II, and took great pride talking about his friend and regular train rider Senator Joe, who would take him into the Senate cafeteria where they’d have Yankee Bean Soup together. This was almost 30 years ago, Senator Joe is now the vice president of the United States.

He was a great guy, zany and unpredictable, who would, laughing loudly, break into a silly little Italian jig when he was happy. He was also a loving father-in-law to this long-haired kid who, with his liberal ideas and outlooks was so vastly different from him. I believe when his daughter and I divorced, which was my doing, it broke his heart. In the years after, we never contacted one another and I was not around to witness his health decline, which was quite severe and drawn-out. I consider this a blessing, preserving his healthy image in my mind’s eye. When he passed, his funeral church was packed with people. I had loved him, but knowing I had so painfully disappointed him and preferring to keep the memory of that away from the family, I was not one of the attendees.


Father-in-law number two I never met, but he had a significant impact as well.

He was a mid-western ob/gyn who was much loved in his community. Apparently he was not only a fine doctor, but was a bit of a ladies-man; there was much talk and a posthumous lawsuit involving allegations of illegal prescriptions for a patient he was sleeping with (he was found innocent).

What was clear was that my second wife, his youngest of three daughters, was enamored with him. When he committed suicide one night, without leaving even a note to explain why, express love or say goodbye, the abandonment left a hole in her heart that I believe affected her both short- and long-term in several significant and difficult ways. I, almost completely self-absorbed in my own difficulties, a preta in our relationship, was of no help at all. The seeds of divorce had been planted, years later they blossomed.


In our Mahayana tradition -- understanding that we have had countless rebirths, through which all beings have (many times) been our mother -- we generate the mind of equanimity toward all, and from that emerges the “special attitude” toward sentient beings by remembering the love of our parents, and in particular our dear precious mothers.

We remember with immeasurable appreciation how in this life our mother suffered the discomfort of pregnancy, carried us and through great pain birthed us and suckled us and nurtured us and protected us and lost endless nights of sleep for us. We do not forget how they put us first and foremost in those days of our infancy, when, if not for their unending love and kindness, we would have perished. And there's so much more.

Wonderful to realize, fantastic to contemplate, heart-opening to meditate upon, and again, mindful that all sentient beings have been our mothers, so precious to infuse with gratitude into the intentions and actions of our everyday lives.

But we can talk more about our precious mothers another day, this one is, I suggest, for our fathers.

I am sure my father never heard of Bodhgaya, and probably thought of Buddhism (if he thought of it at all) as something weird and foreign, probably other-worldly. But here sits his son, a student of Buddhism, using dharma practice -- the best tool I know -- to work through some of the issues I put between us.

I’m sharing this writing because we all have fathers, or have had fathers, or are fathers, or were fathers, or will one day be fathers. And our father’s love and caring has been a fundamental aspect of the mechanics of our lives. Yes, they may have had flaws, there may be some things they did or do we don’t understand, they may not meet or have met our expectations, they may have even caused some damage. We may even feel anger and hatred toward them.

But with understanding, compassion and forgiveness for them will arise. And this is not an understanding primarily through your mental filters, but theirs. Understanding their frailties, their pressures, their kleshas, their karma, their suffering.

This may not be easy, but try your best to empty and then reflect. Do so, and some wonderful benefits may be realized, including forgiveness for yourself. So often we get stubborn because we feel guilt over a situation we feel too uncomfortable to change. Engage in this practice; regrets may remain, but through forgiveness the weight of guilt will begin to disappear.

And then, use the forgiveness to bring you to a mind of acceptance. Try to consider the extraordinary presence the father(s) has played in your life, and remember that all sentient beings were, in previous lifetimes, your fathers too. This is an extraordinarily powerful practice.

If you’re a father, or will be one day, please try to see and be mindful, from your children's side, of that most crucial role you play in their lives.

Really think about this, try to fully understand it without the contaminants of your own self-centered viewpoints and afflictions.

Whether directed at your father(s), your children or both, honor them by honoring the special presence of "father." Then take the essence of that honor, the appreciation and gratitude, and turn it inside-out, doing your best to manifest it in a meaningful way for every being you encounter.

This is the Mahayana Buddhist path. The uniquely precious kindness of our parents is recognized, appreciated, and repaid without discrimination to sentient beings everywhere.

As for my father, maybe now, for the first time, I don’t see him, or us, exclusively from my own deluded self-cherishing side. The lid, I believe, is off for good.

I smile with a small tear in my eye as I realize I needed to travel half-way around the world to get this view, to be able to say, sincerely for the first time in many years, maybe forever, with hands folded and head bowed, Happy birthday, Dad.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.