Mangala Sutta 11

The support of mother and father,
The welfare of spouse and children,
Engaging in unconflicting livelihood;
This is the greatest blessing.

Selfless giving, and living by the Dhamma,
Looking after relatives and friends,
And blameless actions;
This is the greatest blessing.

Bhikkhu Bodhi calls these two verses instructions in leading a virtuous life in the world. They direct our attention to our closest relationships; the first verse is about family life, and the second about life in the community.

Supporting parents is named as a first duty. I am aware of the full range of possibilities and some of the questions pertaining to this instruction. In a perfect world, our parents are healthy and kind until they die, they don’t have needs that might require us to upend our lives; they are not mentally ill, alcoholic, or otherwise incapable of caring for themselves. They are not cantankerous, mean or overly difficult; if they need help, they accept it gracefully. (Ummm) May we all provide our children with such an ideal experience.

Of course, there are such ideal parents, perhaps more than we might think. What is asked of us as children is to support our parents in whatever way they need, to the best of our abilities. Some parents need to be left alone, some want or need attention in specific forms: physical presence, telephone, skype, letters and cards. Most parents want to be able to set the terms of communication, so it is sometimes a delicate dance to discover the best way to support them, and let’s be clear, there is no one best way. Our parents’ needs for support, like our own, change. They sometimes change in unexpected ways, and a particular sort of kindness is needed to allow the changes to come and be accepted or welcomed.

This question of support can be obscured by our assumptions about what our parents want from us. Do they want us just to be happy or successful? Or do they demand types of support that we are not comfortable providing? Do they need for us to get along with our siblings or other relatives? Or to convert to a particular religion? It may be necessary to sort out exactly what the phrase “support of mother and father” means for you.

One wise friend has cared for both her mother and her aunt who suffered from many years of progressive Alzheimer’s Disease. My friend wisely (but sadly) described the moment when she had to give up treating her mom as a parent, and start treating her as a helpless puppy. From that time, she had to stop trying to make her mom happy and focus on keeping her safe, and shielding her from as much suffering as possible.

What about your parents or other elders for whom you may be responsible? Are they getting the appropriate level of respect and support from you?

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