Family lay Buddhism: What the Teachers Say about keeping motivated in your Buddhist Practice as parents — and coping with every-day family life in a modern stressful world
A single-father reader wrote in with a question (abbreviated here, as much of it was personal). He was struggling with raising his beloved daughter, yet finding his Buddhist practice was suffering due to stress and distraction.
Two teachers answered this parent directly — H.E. Zasep Rinpoche and teacher Theodore Tsaousidis — and we’ve pulled various teachings from the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa and other prominent teachers to help cover this important topic. Our reader asked:
“I am an ardent lay Vajrayanist… also a single parent… I often find myself with doubts about the possibility of there being any affinity between the Bodhisattva ideal and the busy-ness and distractions of parenting in a modern world full of samsaric demands… On one hand I find my great attachment to my daughter severely handicaps my practice; on the other hand I find that without her as a challenge, I wouldn’t be provoked or motivated by constant dissatisfaction and suffering to practice Dharma and compassion… I would love to hear what the experts, teachers and masters have to say on this subject.”
[There were several paragraphs more, but this is sufficient gist to inspire this feature.] Although there are sutras on lay living and some scattered teachers, the reader is correct that there aren’t a lot of teachings in this area, particularly that of a single parent — a little more for family life generally. We asked several teachers to chime in — bearing in mind they have not met or been able to ask questions. This feature is more a “general” discussion on Family lay Buddhism rather than a direct response to the question that inspired this feature. [For a feature article on the Sigalovada Sutta (the Layman’s guidance from Buddha), see here>> ]
Zasep Tulku Rinpoche — “You are practicing the six paramitas…”
His Emminence Zasep Rinpoche, spiritual head of Gaden for the West worldwide, was in Mongolia on another teaching trip but kindly replied to the question within a day. Again, the answer here is abreviated to remove any personal detail:
“Please understand that being at single father or mother is difficult, but you have great opportunity to practise real Dharma in life. Do not think you are not able to practise holy Dharma. You are practising the six Paramita’s all together simply by being a single parent: Dana or giving, Sila or morality, Kanti or patience, Virya or perseverance, even Samatha concentration and Prajana wisdom. This is a precious opportunity for you.”
[For a full 3-part interview with this Venerable teacher, see our earlier features “Zasep Tulku Rinpoche discusses decades of teaching, advice for beginner students and funny stories of his teachers”>>
Teacher Theodore Tsaousidis
Teacher Theodore Tsaousidis, of Medicine Buddha Toronto — who guides meditation retreats, Medicine Buddha practices, and teaches mindfulness and Vajrayana Lamrim (Foundation practices) — also had some advice. As always, this thoughtful teacher put a lot of compassion and care into his reply, so we’ve included his full reply to our reader:
“When one has a propensity and desire for Dharma teaching and to live the life of a monastic, it can well seem that having a family and being a lay practitioner can be an obstacle to equanimity deeper insight, and awakening. However, I would argue that this is really not the case at all. It may be easier to meditate in monastery, to go deeper into the “ultimate” but without the balance of mundane struggle, the Dharma cannot really be validated. One may be equanimous in a temple setting and yet the real test comes “off the cushion”.
In any case, following the Buddhist way either in a monastic or secular manner really does not matter because without exception, the Dharma is always present, alive and vibrant— and one can fully engage if one chooses to do so. Whatever the experience or situation, that itself is the “Dharma object” with which to engage.
Whether it is visualizing a deity, making offerings, chanting mantras, doing the dishes, going to work, dealing with a toothache, feeling frustrated, feeling stuck and seeing no way through, or dealing with all the parenting and life issues that come with having a children, that is the object/crucible of one’s practice — the practice of feeling stuck, the practice of feeling anger, the practice of trying to unfold equanimity.
Thinking that “this or that” has to be different or be changed for it to be more conducive for Dharma practice (and awakening) is a grave misunderstanding. Acceptance is paramount to be able to own and embrace one’s circumstances. When one truly does this, then those difficult places in one’s life begin to lose power over us because one no longer feeds them through fear or resistance.
One definition of the Middle Way is “the balance between the mundane and the ultimate, no matter where or what is.” This moves us to equanimity. Equanimity is one of the most misunderstood aspects in Buddhism. Equanimity does not mean that you sit on the sideline watching things, appear, change and disappear. It is not indifference. Trying to reach or manifest equanimity is a distortion of equanimity. Equanimity is the result of deep insight of the nature of what it means to be a human being. To be able to experience states of equanimity means that one has come to a deeper understanding and insight of one’s body/mind, and through concentration has been able to suspend judgement of the six senses no matter in what circumstance we find ourselves. Equanimity is not possible if one’s six sense consciousness runs uncontrolled and independent of one’s true mind.
Living in this world is to experience pain at various times, emotionally or physically, even existentially, and it is always very uncomfortable, just no way around it. One cannot make it pleasant or turn it into joy. It just is. However, one most often increases the depth of one’s suffering by adding fuel to the fire. Memories of the past, worries, judgments, desires, ruminations with relentless thoughts of the possible good or bad future pull one off centre where equanimity cannot abide and pain is prolonged.
Experiencing this pain, having a family, going to work, dealing with everyday relationships and daily struggle are the fertile ground for Dharma growth. The key is being the practice as one moves in and out life’s situations and narratives.
It is important to note here as well that part of Dharma practice is to recognize that we are corporeal beings that need food, rest and support. We do not survive or live independent of the world. It’s important to include ourselves in that understanding and provide self-care — even as we feel obligated or privileged to be of service to our families and to others. Knowing when to reach out for help and give ourselves the support we need is vital and a way to demonstrate the living Buddhadharma.
May all beings have everything they need to discover, practice and unfold the Dharma.”
[To see a previous feature interview with Theodore Tsaousidis, refer to this story “BW Interview: Theodore Tsaousidis, a Teacher Who Focuses on Healing Practices in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Meditation and Shamanism”>>]
Momfulness and Dadfulnes
When the teachers recommend seeing the daily life stressful experience of parenting as “practice” — as a precious opportunity — the first thing that is usually mentioned is “mindful parenting. There are many references and books on this topic. Mindfulness as a parent is a superior, advanced practice. As Venerable Zasep Rinpoche said, “You are practising the six Paramita’s all together simply by being a single parent: Dana or giving, Sila or morality, Kanti or patience, Virya or perseverance, even Samatha concentration and Prajana wisdom. This is a precious opportunity for you.” Mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, patience, morality — these are all Buddhist practices in general. They are also important parenting techniques.
“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Or, you could say Dadfulness. From MOMfulness: Mothering with Mindfulness, Compassion and Grace by Denise Roy:
“Momfulness is the word I use for this spiritual practice of conscious mothering. When we mother with mindfulness and compassion and a willingness to let this vocation awaken our hearts and transform our lives, we walk a spiritual path. We discover that care for our children and family is not a distraction from sacred practice but is the very essence of it.”
From Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn:
“Mindful parenting is a continual process of deepening and refining our awareness and our ability to be present and act wisely. It is not an attempt to attain a fixed goal or outcome, however worthy. An important part of this process is seeing ourselves with some degree of kindness and compassion. This includes seeing and accepting our limitation, our blindnesses, our humanness and fallibility, and working with them mindfully as best we can.”
The Dalai Lama on Parenting
The Dalai Lama has spoken often on parenting in general, speaking on themes such as “take responsibility”, practice Metta (loving kindness) with your children, and trying not to pass on our own fears and insecurities to our children.
“A child cannot survive without the care of others; love is its most important nourishment. The allaying of the child’s many fears and the healthy development of its self-confidence depend directly upon love,” the Dalai Lama said.
In an often cited quote, the Dalai Lama is also attributed with saying: “Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back to, and reasons to stay.”
- “An open heart is an open mind.”
- “Practice kindness whenever possible. It is always possible.”
- “Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something and sometimes one creates a significant impression by remaining silent.”
- “Let us try to remember the precious nature of each day.”
- “With the realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.” Which starts with our children.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche
This advice was for a student who asked a similar question in the Lama Yeshe Advice archives. A mother had indicated she was stressed out because now that she had a child she had no time to practice Dharma. Although Lama Zopa’s response was longer than we cite here [full response here>>] here are some wise nuggets:
“That includes your child. So all your past, present and future happiness, everything comes from this child. Therefore the child, your baby, is the most precious, most kind, most wish-fulfilling one to you, and as well as that, every single other sentient being —every insect in the house and outside in the forests, on the ground, in the water, and flying in the sky. Therefore, the best Dharma is to cherish the sentient beings and to serve them, to free them from suffering and bring them to happiness….
“…So take care of this child, this baby, not by thinking, “This is my baby,” not with attachment, but as a sentient being, then in this way, with this mind, with a compassionate mind, taking care of him. Day and night, every single action that you do with this mind becomes virtue, good karma, it becomes Dharma. Benefiting somebody just one time, then you experience the result, happiness, for 500 or 1,000 lifetimes, so long as the karma is not only done to experience the result, happiness, but it depends on a second thing—that karma is expandable….”
“…With bodhicitta, with compassion for your child, taking care of the child, then dedicating the life—if every action of body, speech and mind you do for the child is done with this mind, then, wow, then everything is Dharma, it becomes the cause of enlightenment, so that is incredible, incredible, incredible…”
It’s all to do with motivation. Here your motivation becomes like gold. Before it was like kaka, but now it is like gold. Before it was like iron, now it is like gold. So Dharma practice doesn’t mean only reciting mantras and prayers, sitting and reading texts, it doesn’t mean only that…”
“…Please think, “How fortunate I am. I am the most fortunate one, because I can be of most benefit for someone, particularly this child, who is one of the sentient beings from the numberless.” This should bring joy and happiness inside; inner happiness and joy. Your life will be full of joy, happiness, fulfillment. It brings the most, most, most, unbelievable happiness when you offer a little service to any other sentient being, after knowing that they are most kind, most dear, the most wish-fulfilling ones, so the same as your child…”
For a feature article by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche on “Planned Parenting: Making Your Children’s Lives Meaningful” see here>>
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.