The Parent Bodhisattva

Written By: Daniel Cukierman

In many ways, being a parent is, in part, practicing Buddhism without realizing it.


Googling the term Bodhisattva shows you the following definition: “a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings” (in Mahayana Buddhism). 


Sometimes, as I introspect, these words seem so remote. When do we just say to ourselves, “I’ll give up my own well-being for someone else; heck, I’ll even give up nirvana if I can help others who are suffering”? On the contrary, being surrounded by suffering, we feel programmed to survive, and this urge pushes us to be diligent and vigilant, and to segregate between what is mine and what is hers, between what is theirs and what is ours. We feel that, in order to establish a sustainable state of well-being, we have to look out for ourselves. If we don’t, who will?


Close your eyes and just try to search your mind and imagine: when was the last time you were really altruistic? When did you give up something that is dear to you for another being, something ‘in the dial zone’ of giving up “nirvana”?


Having a hard time? Well, it’s actually easy. You probably did it today, even before you got to the office. 


It might sound surprising, but we all exercise the spirit of Bodhisattva when it comes to our children. We would give an arm and leg for them to succeed, to excel in studies, to be good at sports, to make friends easily, to reveal a talent, and more. In reality, underneath all this is our aspiration that they be happy, that they not suffer, and that their lack of suffering and existence in happiness will be sustainable over time. 


There are many lines of thought regarding educating children and, perhaps, different parents have different goals underlying their manner of education. I am far from being a person who would preach that one way is better than the other. Truth is, I don’t even believe there is one right way. I think there are many right ways, and we all just hope that we are doing our best under the circumstances that we are given. Nevertheless, there is one thing I feel all of us would agree on — we want our children to be happy. 


Well, as mountains of books, discussions, movies, and studies try to tackle the sources of happiness, the “to-do” list to reach it, and the formula to make it happen, I will argue just one thing: teach them compassion toward others and compassion toward themselves, and you have laid and cemented the foundations for them to be happy.


And here, I mean real compassion, not pity for someone who we think has it worse than us (that is not compassion.) Compassion is the aspiration that beings will be freed of their suffering. And ‘beings’, in this context, includes not just those around us but even ourselves. That sounds like a big aspiration, right? I know. How can anyone aspire to relieve suffering in the whole world, or even our surrounding? In reality, relieving suffering is not making it disappear; it is helping ourselves and others to accept it.


You do this all the time with your children, in small things and big ones alike. 

For example, your child wants to stay longer at a friend’s place but it is time to go home. She is sad, and she yells and cries; and, as you are both there, you try to ease her anguish in different ways: you say that she can visit again some other day, that there is something tasty to eat at home, that this is ‘how it is’ at the end of the day, or that you will count to three and then she would have to leave with you. In all these cases, you offer your consolation and support, while establishing the fact that you will be going home together. 


We all know that this is small stuff; nevertheless, it is like stubbing your toe on a table leg. For a minute, you experience great pain; your head is filled with so many things in that very moment: you want your child to not suffer and be sad; you want to not suffer yourself and not have this argument; you want to look good or avoid embarrassment in front of the friend’s parents; you are angry and have to contain it; and, as time goes by and the child refuses to give in, you begin to feel helpless. Even so, when you look deep down you can see only love – and your desire that this small human next to you will be happy and will not suffer.


You are projecting true compassion. This compassion, ultimately, is a great source of happiness. In a moment of peace, we look at this being and we are grateful to experience this special bond. 


When you accept this anguish of your child, your challenge in dealing with it – and the fact that you will always be there to try and make things better – are an acknowledgment of how important it is to teach your child these same things:

  • Accept what causes anguish (accepting is acknowledging, it is not agreeing) 
  • Look with curiosity for solutions 
  • And be there in the moment; don’t practice avoidance


I am more than sure that, if you do this, these acts of compassion will turn into a wheel that echoes compassion from you to your child, from your child to others, and back to you and so forth. And from this cycle, happiness will evolve.

© 2020

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