the secret of a good mother

July 6th, 2016

broken We say, “A good father is not a good father.” Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father. — Suzuki Roshi

The quote above is often misunderstood. How do you understand it? I’ll answer for you from my own experience. One who thinks she is a good mother is not a good mother.

Zen can sound like doublespeak, but it’s always as plain as plain can be. When you think “good,” that is not good. The moment you step back from total involvement in living life as it is and go up into your judging mind to evaluate it, you are completely mistaken. Do you know that place? Have you ever judged yourself to be comfortably ahead of the game? Or woefully behind? With an edge, an advantage, a method, or for that matter, a reason, excuse or handicap? Maybe you think all those things in a single day! When you indulge in either self-congratulation or self-criticism you are no longer present. You might even say you are no longer alive. Dead fathers are not good fathers.

One who thinks he is one of the worst may be a good one if he is always trying with a single-minded effort.

I have a teenager now, as if it isn’t obvious. And in the course of writing, however vaguely, about what I am experiencing, I hear from kind-hearted people of a venerable cast, folks who have a longer view of the road we tread. They tell me about inexplicable disappointments and deep sorrows, happy turnabouts, miraculous resolutions, and ultimate acceptance of what they didn’t know then and couldn’t have guessed would happen in a million years. Life is a tricky business, and no one knows how it will go. We all know this, and yet we don’t.  Not until the illusion shatters.

From where I stand now it seems a parent’s learning curve goes like this: it starts out hard then it gets easier, and then hard, then harder, then quite a bit harder, then much harder. Humility is the face of love.

The people I take comfort from are the humble ones. They are quiet but outnumber the prideful ones a billion to one.

So how do we conduct ourselves without attaching to good or bad? I like this story about the 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah who was giving a talk on impermanence. He could be talking about anything.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Read a transcript of the original talk by Suzuki Roshi.

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  1. Haha! My husband breaks or chips crockery on a fairly regular basis. When we were picking out plates I said: “Lets buy 20, that way there is room for breakage (and we have enough for a dinnerparty).”
    “When the illusion shatters” I always think that is an interesting place for people to be in. Time to look beyond the literal and material aspects of life into what really matters.
    Kind regards.

    Comment by Simone — June 5, 2015 @ 12:10 am

  2. The hardest thing for me, is the fear. It seems I did not really know what that was until I had a child. He is almost 26, and still, trying to quell it is my daily lesson.

    Comment by Clare — June 5, 2015 @ 5:32 am

  3. Yes, fear is what makes things hard.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — June 5, 2015 @ 5:38 am

  4. Copied this quote a bunch of times to post everywhere I find myself:

    “When you indulge in either self-congratulation or self-criticism you are no longer present.”

    What my child needs, what I need, what the world needs, is each of us to be present. That is hard enough. Maybe this is what my child continues to teach me, to simply be present, even as I silently and sufferingly watch the falling. Maybe each fall witnessed is reminding me of my own falling and failing, and that I am not so good after all. And, maybe not so bad either. Hmmmm

    As always, appreciative of your sharing.

    Comment by MJ — June 5, 2015 @ 6:18 am

  5. One time when my mother was visiting and my young son was giving me a particularly hard time, causing angst and fear and anger and despair all rolled together she looked at me with eyes that told me she knew exactly how I felt and simply said “It never ends”. At the time, truthfully, it was another brick added to the load I perceived myself to be carrying. Now, looking back, I wish she was here so I could tell her I now know exactly what she meant. Our children enroll us in a mandatory course of highly advanced studies and the curriculum is beyond difficult. The only way to proceed, and this we all learn in time, is hand in hand with Mercy and Grace.

    Comment by Connie Assadi — June 5, 2015 @ 6:26 am

  6. This role of parenting is so juicy! I find myself smiling, even now with my sons out of the house; and it feels like they need me more than ever. There’s constant opportunity to stay
    unattached and provide unconditional love. I’m still on call 24/7, I think it remains thus until my last breath. The main difference is that, although I’m “on call”, the chord slowly is getting cut. Some days it all works and I’m able to let them live their lives and have their own experiences and other days, I’m back to square one, holding on for dear life. The work is embracing all of it. And this line, “…But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
    Oh my…a life long koan!
    in deep gassho,

    Comment by Mary — June 5, 2015 @ 7:03 am

  7. Zen most certainly is always as plain as plain can be. Plain sometimes feels like pain… even though it’s the only way out of pain.
    Thank you for yet another wake-up call dear Maezen!

    Comment by Roos — June 5, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  8. the day after I read this my 7 yr. old son was decorating for his “Triple Crown Party” and, because of my meddling, his string of lights knocked a piece of pottery onto the brick fireplace hearth. It had been a gift. It was hand made. It had mattered. . . until it didn’t. After my first roar of anguish and his tears I remembered THIS and I was able to stop and say, “it’s okay. things break.” And most of the time I have a hand in breaking them.

    Comment by Laura — June 10, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

  9. Last saturday someone asked me what I weighed, I don’t know I said, as long as my clothes fit I am OK. Weight and feeling that my body should be perceived as pleasing/ acceptible, is for me also one of those ways where I loose touch with being aware and in the moment. My body and I are one, without my body I am not.

    Comment by Simone — July 11, 2016 @ 2:53 am

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