Parents, Leave Your Home—Literally

renunciation-1By Audarya-lila dasa

“Parents leave your home” is probably not the lesson Crosby Stills Nash and Young had in mind when they concluded their popular 1970’s classic with the words “Teach your parents well,” but we are all painfully aware that parents have much to learn. And the need for parents to learn to leave home is perhaps the hardest lesson of them all, much harder than the same lesson is for children to learn while growing up. As growing children we leave home often with noble thoughts only to make our own home and lose sight of them. There is no more noble thought than attaining spiritual enlightenment, and it no doubt involves leaving behind the notion of “my” family and embracing the world family that lies beyond the egoistic conceptions of “my” and the “I” derived from one’s sense of “mine.”

Parents, Leave Your Home” is the title of Karen Maezen Miller’s article published in the March 2009 online issue of the Shambala Sun. Karen is a married Zen Buddhist mother. In her article she seeks to point out how the Buddhist tradition speaks to both monastics and householders and that the essential teachings for both are the same: leave your “ego-home” behind.  Two things in particular struck me about the article when I read it.  The first is that authentic ego effacing spiritual traditions have much in common and that to really experience that which any such tradition speaks about requires a great deal of dedication, determined practice, and association with adepts within one’s tradition. The second is that while Karen used the title figuratively to speak about leaving the home we have made of our own egos behind, there are many circumstances in the lives of spiritual practitioners that warrant literally leaving home—thus the word “literally” added to the present article’s title.

Karen draws from Dogen Zengi’s (founder of the remote Eiheiji (Eternal Peace) monastery in the thirteenth century) “Guidelines for Officers of the Monastery” as well as  from his essays entitled “Continuous Practice” in her attempt to show Zengi’s instructions that appear to be imparted to monastics or constitute a call to literal monasticism apply equally to householders remaining at home. She does an artful job of juggling some of Zengi’s strong words:

“If you have a home, leave your home.  If you have beloved ones, leave them.”

Karen explains, “I encourage you to open your eyes to the wondrous truth and immediacy of Buddha’s teachings in your family life. To hear your child’s whine, your dog’s bark, and your partner’s snore as the temple bell hastening you to a life of selfless service both on and off the cushion.  To no longer separate the life of a householder from the life of a home leaver or separate yourself from the life before you.  But I’ll warn you: it takes practice, you may well have Buddhism in your home, and a lot of it.  But there will never be a Buddha in your world until you leave your egocentric home for good.  For the home we must leave behind, so we can care for our family and all others, is the home we have made of ego.  The ancient rules of monastic life are designed to help us do precisely this, and their principles can be incorporated into family life too.”

“You should quietly engage in the sustained practice of ‘not leaving the monastery’.”

Karen has a way of hearing good advice for herself even when it overtly appears to be directed to others, “But the question remains: where in a monastic tradition can the modern parent find specific teaching and practical insight for managing home life?  The answer is given to us: by never leaving the monastery.  Wherever we are, when we quiet our egocentric mind and return to a state of undistracted awareness, we have entered the monastery.  There is no reason this awareness cannot be cultivated in our own home with diligent, daily practice.  There is no reason we can’t carry this awakened state with us, into the seamless and fluid movement of household activity.”

“It is popular to think of parenthood itself as a practice, and because our children relentlessly challenge our dominating authority, ramming headfirst into our dictates, parenthood certainly is a practice.  But too often we use parenthood to rationalize the absence of any other practice.  This is a mistake.  Without the steadying foundation of a meditation routine, ideally supported by regular participation with a sangha and teacher, the practice of parenthood quickly degenerates into the mere practice of an egomaniac.”

These are important points for all spiritual seekers.  Although our aim and practices may differ, the overall emphasis of a steady practice and keeping good company and closeness to a qualified teacher are core tenets of all genuine spiritual traditions.  Without these in place to keep us moving steadily forward it is all too easy to trick ourselves into believing we are making progress when often we are either stuck in neutral or being carried backward by the currents of our conditioning.

Karen also remarks that, “Monastic training positions consist of the very same things we might reluctantly do at home every day – cooking, cleaning, gardening, and household administration.  Yet in fact they are positions requiring great depth and maturity.  That’s because these activities are anchored in the continuous practice of zazen, the mind of no-separation realized in Zen meditation.”

“Do not depend on personal power or authority, nor belittle.  Do not act willfully or make others insecure. Make understanding and fairness priorities, as well as flexibility and harmony.”

Reflecting on this teaching, Karen says, ” Dogen warns us to discern the difference between imparting and imposing.  Our task is not only to point out the insanity of the world to our children, but also to spare them from our own.  We mind our children best by minding ourselves first.  When we do that, we will always know when to step forward and when to step back.  A clue: it’s almost always time to step back, to observe our own reactions and slow down before we respond to our children from the flashpoint of anger or the impulse of fear.”

I found this teaching particularly fitting for leadership and well worth thinking deeply about.  This particular teaching speaks about acting with true love and compassion.  When we are in a position of authority whether it be as a parent, a spiritual teacher, or any other position of authority, it is exceedingly important to remember that we are called to nourish others and that is why I find this teaching so important.  We do not nourish others by belittling them, by being unfair or too rigid and it is so very important to keep the focus of leadership on authentic love and compassion and to truly have the best interest of those who are placed under our care when we find ourselves in leadership positions.

“Have great compassion and great empathy toward the assembly.”

Here Karen immerses herself in parental sentiments: “Parenthood is without question one of the hardest jobs in the world, made harder because we judge ourselves on the anticipated outcome of our efforts.  We might believe our task is to create a better child, or a more successful child.  This focus on the unknowable and unpredictable future blinds us to the marvel that already appears before us.  Like all of us, children are creation itself: spontaneous, dynamic, and miraculous.  When we liberate ourselves from the idea of success, we liberate our children from failure.  This is true empathy, and where the fun begins.”

Karen concludes by relating a personal story from her recent experience with her daughter: “We give our children life.  Now, if we can only really give it to them.  When we cherish our family enough to leave home, then they can leave home too, and we find ourselves never apart.”  Here, she equates real freedom and giving with dying to self – the false sense of self – and that by leaving that egocentric self behind those who are under our care have the chance to do so as well.  This is a very good point – we can only give what we have to those who are dependent upon us in whatever capacity.

Karen’s optimism is inspiring, but it can also be misleading. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism, on the strength of the holy name of Krishna, one can invite adversity—such is the power of the divine name. There is something more posited in our tradition—grace—that is not part of Buddhism. With this more one would expect that the points Karen raises would not hold that much weight in a theistic tradition where grace descends and empowers practitioners to accomplish things that they otherwise could not—to turn negatives into positives and so on. However, in our tradition there are more examples of great souls leaving adverse circumstances than not—literally leaving home.

Karen’s article is very applicable to parents who are trying to balance their life with family with their life of spiritual practice: As long as we have two separate identities we are far from our goal.  The life of a practitioner should be saturated with practice and wedded to good company that fosters genuine commitment, introspection, and progress.  To that end a serious practitioner will have to judge if they are really leaving the egocentric life behind and making tangible progress.  If they are not, and their living situation is such that it is unlikely that they will, then a more radical approach may be necessary—that is of course assuming that one wants to realize the goals of the spiritual tradition rather than merely have the trappings of it within their home.

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