Community Highlights

Some Thoughts on Motherhood: the Path of Loving and Letting Go by Punyamala

On Tue, 23 January, 2018 - 10:00
punyamala's picture

In this article, I want to explore my experience of being a Dharmacharini and a mother. The lifestyle that we live is significant as it creates the conditions in which we shall be practicing the Dharma and not all life styles are equally supportive of spiritual practice. The conditions in which we live will unquestionably have an effect on our Dharma life. Being a Buddhist in a secular, material society is hard. Being a mother is demanding so anyone who chooses to combine these is committing themselves to a challenging life and it is important not to underestimate this. If, however, you choose to become a mother then it is possible to work creatively with the conditions of family life which can present many rich opportunities for spiritual growth and development on the Buddhist path.

When I first encountered the FWBO in 1980, I did not have children but I had strong urge to conceive and have children in my life. Having been conditioned both by familial and societal expectations within the context of Anglican Christianity, I was shocked to encounter the fact that Buddhism seemed to have no place for the family and did not especially value it. The Buddha went forth from family life into the life of homelessness. The householder life is described as ‘cramped and dusty’. The place of family life within Buddhism is in contrast to that found in other religions such as Christianity where, for example, marriage is specifically for the procreation of children. Within Catholicism there is the cult of the Virgin Mary and in various New Age spiritual groups motherhood is given an inherently spiritual status. Furthermore, my dismay was increased by some of the prevalent attitudes which were given expression in the FWBO at the time and which I heard as being anti-family. These included statements like ‘it wasn’t possible to make spiritual progress as a mother’: a feeling that consciously choosing to have children was a backward step or not acceptable. Discouraged, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma and I was unable to reconcile my desire to have children with the prevailing attitudes I encountered and I wondered if this was a community within which I could practice. I felt unable to ask to become a Mitra and I was stuck. In 1983, I was invited to go to Holland to attend a weekend retreat. On the boat, I was able to talk at length about my dilemma with 2 Dharmacharinis and as result of that conversation my dilemma was resolved. I felt it was possible to practice as a Buddhist within the FWBO and have children. From that moment, on a sunny afternoon sailing over the sparkling North sea, I have never looked back.

In 1985, my first son was born and I was ordained 2 years later in 1987. The fact that I could be ordained as a mother with a 2 year old into a Buddhist Order has left me a with a profound debt of gratitude to Sangharakshita for his radical vision of the WBO/TBO. There was nowhere else in the world I could have been ordained in my circumstances as a young mother. My second son was born a few years later in 1993. My life as a Buddhist and a Dharmacharini has taken place within the context of family life and I have lived with my husband, Advayacitta, who is also a member of the Order. I have encountered nothing but support and interest in my family from friends, fellow Order members and Sangharakshita. I have never felt criticised or de-valued by others for the fact I was a mother. At times, I did compare myself unfavourably with friends who were leading a different life- style and were much freer to give their time and energy to Buddhist centres and retreats.

Being a Dharmacharini and a mother are inextricably linked, the one informing and shaping the other. I find it hard to imagine being a parent without the framework of the Dharma to meet the challenges and demands of parenting. The Dharma has definitely made me a better parent and my aim has been to bring up my children as well as possible so they can become kind and aware human beings with an ethical framework and an awareness that actions have consequences. Living in a family has also provided me with good conditions for practicing the Dharma. Following guidance from Sangharakshita, I have always considered myself a Buddhist first and a mother second which means that the central and defining reference point of my life has been the Three Jewels, The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. This implies that all my activity/decisions are taken with reference to the Dharma. Hence, my decisions as a mother and the ways I have related to my children over the years and responded to the challenges that have arisen have been informed and influenced by the most meaningful and valuable thing in life, namely my faith in the Three Jewels. The framework of the 10 ethical precepts that I took at ordination has been invaluable in this regard.

Having children is an inherently human act. As a Buddhist choosing to have a child, it is important to be as clear as possible about our conditioning and motivation to conceive. Motherhood is part of the mundane and is rooted in our biological conditioning. There is nothing inherently spiritual about it. Family life is time consuming and tiring and takes much of our energy. It also has implications, which can be overlooked or unforeseen. For example, I did not appreciate the economic demands of raising children and the fact I would need an income that provided for the needs of the family, so working became another demand on my time and energy. Family life does limit your ability to be involved in activities for and with others. There are inherent tensions between family life and the demands of individual and collective Buddhist practice. So whilst being a mother does not prevent you being an effective Dharma practitioner, it can restrict your ability to engage with the Sangha and to go on retreat.

Being a mother can bring psychological benefits and can be integrating. It is a maturing and grounding process which develops a sense of responsibility. Parenting is a worthwhile and lifelong commitment which you have to follow through, whatever challenges may arise. It helps you to develop a flexible and adaptable attitude as children are constantly changing. As time for your own pursuits is limited it can help you focus on your priorities; it integrates the biological and it gives rise to an intensity of emotion from great joy to intense frustration.

Bringing up children provides many opportunities for spiritual growth and development if you can be creative and use them. Indeed, being with children can be a supportive context for spiritual growth. The Tibetans talk of family life as a 20 year retreat. I think there is some truth in this if, - and it is a big if, - you do not have to work full time in a worldly job as well as bringing up children. I have found it very useful to reflect on impermanence and the corresponding vimoksha mukkha*, the ‘signless’, as situations have arisen where I have needed to let go of being in control. The signless gateway, points me in the direction of letting go of thinking that I know everything and instead encourages a more open and fluid approach, becoming present in the moment and avoiding fixing either my experience or that of my son. The Buddha gives a succinct and rather mysterious teaching to Bahiya of the bark garment which gives expression to this:

‘In the seen there will be just the seen, in the heard just the heard, in the imagined just the imagined in the cognised just the cognised. Thus you will have no thereby.’**

Being a mother is one long practice of letting go and encourages a fluid, flexible approach to life. I have found C Day Lewis’s moving poem “Walking Away’ helpful. It captures the poignancy and tenderness in the act of letting our children go.

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Living in a family has provided a rich context for my ethical practice, both in my own behaviour towards my children and husband, and also in guiding my sons with their own dilemmas as well as giving them a sense that actions have consequences. It can give you opportunities to deepen and expand maternal love into genuine metta by extending outwards from your feelings for your children to include others. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Buddha says,

‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, So with boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world:’

Metta has many similarities with maternal love. Both are intense, nurturing and selfless and so as a mother you can work to extend your love so it is no longer self-referential and it becomes unbound and unlimited. This beautiful analogy, in the direct words of the Buddha, can help us to develop the boundless heart rooted in our experience of loving our children.

It has been imperative for my Dharma practice to be the whole of my life so I have needed to find ways to bring the Dharma into ordinary domestic activity like cooking, ironing, being with the children etc. Mindfulness and metta have been very important in this regard, as has reflection on the Dharma. I have also found it a crucial condition of my practice to have a regular time when I could engage fully with the sacred. For many years, this took the form of keeping one morning a week for longer meditation and reflection so I could really enter into the sacred realms.

I have also found it crucial to develop strong friendships both with women who have children and those who have chosen a different lifestyle. And to maintain a strong, loving relationship with my husband. My Order Chapter has been a weekly touchstone through all the ups and downs of life connecting me with my purpose in life to Go For Refuge to the Three Jewels.

It is helpful to have some responsibility outside the family in the sangha. I have led Mitra study for many years which has been a vital part of my practice allowing me to share the Dharma and my practice as well as giving a focus for my personal explorations of the Dharma.

The world is more present when you bring up children and you will need confidence, self-reliance and a strong sense of the Dharma to guard the gates of the senses. One condition which was important in shaping my family context was the fact I have never had a TV. This was accepted by my sons and was not a problem for them. (the world is now a very different place in this regard from what it was 30 years ago). I mention this to make that point that children accept decisions made by their parents which may be very different to those encountered by their peers, so long as we, as parents, are confident in our decisions.

I want to return to two important points about family life. Firstly, the amount of time and energy that being a mother takes. I think this is the main point to consider when thinking about having children. Understandably, when founding the F/WBO Sangharakshita wanted Order Members who could commit themselves as fully and wholeheartedly as possible to developing the Order and Movement. In the early days, he therefore did not encourage those without children to start a family. 50 years on, we are still a young movement. These days I know Order Members who are parents who are Chairs of Centres, Mitra convenors or live and work at retreat centres. In many centres there are regular activities for children and families as well as well-established, regular retreats for families. However, if you are a parent, life is a constant juggling act between competing demands. In life, we are always making choices and in saying “Yes” to one course of action, we inevitably say “No” to another. In choosing to have children, your ability to be involved with the sangha will be affected. You will need to be willing to embrace the tension between the demands of family life and your urge to engage individually and collectively with the Sangha. This is an on-going tension which never goes away and so you have to be willing to work with it as a crucial part of your practice and experience. The tension may attenuate when children leave home but in my experience it remains, even when children are launched in their adult life.

Secondly, we cannot gloss over the fact the Buddha went forth into the homeless life. As a mother living in the world, I have needed to fully and deeply understand the Buddha’s renunciation of the world and avoid the temptation to see it as a result of the social conditioning of his time. Early on in my life as a buddhist I found this difficult as I don’t easily resonate with the language of renunciation. My main approach was therefore to deepen my sense of the Beyond, cultivate beauty and metta, and extend myself beyond my sense of self e.g. one way I approached this was to reflect on Mamaki, who is described as the mine maker and is an embodiment of the Wisdom of Equality. She makes everything in the universe her own and feels for all living beings as though they were her own children, her own self. Reflecting on this figure and the possibility of seeing everything in the world as ‘mine’, has helped to weaken my narrow ego-based identification with things and grasping for them. I trusted that renunciation would take care of itself and this has proved to be the case. I now believe that when yathabhuta-jnanadarshana*** arises, i.e. the experience of seeing directly the way things are, there arises a turning away from the conditioned , from samsara. This is because you have seen through samsara and experienced the fact that the conditioned is dukkha, is unsatisfactory. Going Forth now has the taste of freedom for me.

As parents, whilst having our feet firmly planted in the world, we can be cultivating the conditions to Go Forth internally. We can Go Forth from identification with particular roles e.g. in my own case as a mother, psychologist, daughter etc. or particular views. We can also ensure that we are Going For Refuge to the true refuges that give ultimate satisfaction, namely, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and thereby avoid having unrealistic expectations of those things that are ultimately unsatisfactory. Going Forth can be a letting go of unrealistic expectations either of our children or of ourselves as parents. We can be aspiring to be in the world but not of it, knowing where true value lies, which gives us the freedom to respond skilfully and wisely to our children.

Sangharakshita’s vision of the Order is radical. He founded an Order that was neither lay nor monastic. This presents Order Members with the challenge of working out what this means. How do we lead a fully committed and authentic Dharma life whilst being in the midst of the world, as for example, with children. This is work in progress and I suggest that we are only at the beginning of the process of articulating and developing this within our Triratna community. Sangharakshita has given us a great gift but it is one that we have to accept and it is up to us to live out his vision.

In summary, as Buddhists we are going against the gravitational pull of the conditioned. The forces of greed, hatred and delusion are strong and never more so than in the present times. It is therefore crucial to live in a context that supports Buddhist practice. In choosing to have children, it is important to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of living in a family as far as possible and to be as clear as possible when taking that step. Living with children is a joyful and positive context in which to practice and can be a rich and fertile situation for spiritual growth. It can provide many valuable opportunities for reflection on the Dharma and practice. It is a path of loving and letting go. However, it takes a lot of time and energy and hence limits the energy you have available for other things like engaging with the sangha, going on retreat or taking on another big project. Within Triratna, we are still in the early stages of understanding the vision of the Order which Sangharakshita has given us. Those who are parents have an important part to play in deepening our collective understanding of what it means to lead a full and committed Dharma life within the world. My hope is that over the next 50 years in Triratna, we shall arrive at a much fuller and deeper understanding of what the Triratna Buddhist Order is and how it manifests in the world both individually and collectively as a vehicle for the Bodhicitta.

Punyamala December 2017


*Vimoksha mukka - the gateway to liberation. Each of the the three laksanas has a corresponding vimoksha mukka e.g. for dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, the corresponding gateway is the unbiased. There is an excellent description of these in “What is the Dharma’ by Sangharakshita p65-68

**See the Udana for the story of Bahiya. This translation is by Woodward. A modern rendering is,‘Bahiya, when you see something, just see it, when you hear something, just hear it, when you think of something, just think of it. Don’t worry about whether you like it or dislike it. Don’t praise or blame: just notice. That is the important thing. That is the way to happiness.’

***yathabhuta-jnanadarshana translates as knowledge and vision of things as they really are. It is the eighth stage of the spiral path and corresponds to stream entry. I am using the phrase here to denote the experience of profound and irreversible Insight into Reality, a profound experience of seeing through the conditioned. 


+ follow the Adhisthana Kula space all week to see more from this series

+ follow Triratna Buddhist Families

Watch Punyamala in conversation about family practice  |  See more posts on practice in a family context