A Snapshot of Special Insight: The Parent
According to the teachings of the Prasangika Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, our most persistent and fundamental mistake is grasping at an inherently, independently existent essence within persons and things, when they are utterly empty of such fantasized ways of existing. It is good to get a sense of why this is problematic, right at the beginning. When we falsely project and misperceive an intrinsic essence within an object, say a car, we are instinctively holding to the notion that it is a car through and through; it has car-ness within and should always function as a car, until it breaks down.
Similarly, when we apply this to a person, say our parent, we also instinctively hold to him/her as intrinsically our parent; there is an inherent essence of parenthood in him/her. We do so to the extent that we may ignore other non-parental roles or aspects of our parents. We consign ourselves to always view our parents in fixed, unchanging ways: inherently good or bad parents, and react to them in habitual ways, after a lifetime of practice.
Then, we grow up, maybe become a parent ourselves, or find ourselves becoming a carer to our elderly parents. The role-change or reversal brought into our awareness the dependent nature of parenthood–how it depends on the evolving relationship between two individuals, the ideas and ideals in our heads, and the expectations of other people in the family and society. Hopefully, we learn to see our parents with different eyes, with loving eyes. Weakening our habitual grasping at them as parents, we see them as how others may see them: nice or not-so-nice human beings with a mixture of wonderful qualities and harmful habits, taking on and relinquishing different roles in life.
No one is ever intrinsically a parent; no one ever possesses an unchanging essence of parenthood within. Rather, we are correctly known as parents in dependence on our relationship with our children, but we are infinitely more than that. Lacking that inborn essence, we would have to learn how to be a good parent, make mistakes and correct them, put on other hats from time to time, and allow for the changes in our relationships as our children grow up.
All these are good news. Empty of any inherent parent-essence, we can be parents and much more than that. Because it is dependent on multiple changing factors, we grow and learn how to be loving, caring parents to our children. We can also look back on our relationship with our parents and view them, relate to them differently. The emptiness of intrinsic essence is a call to value the dependently-originated relationships of our life.
Published on June 8, 2011.
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