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LETTER TO FAREWELL TO MY MOTHER

by Dongshan Liangjie (807 - 869, Tang Dynasty)
English translation: John Balcom

It is heard that all Buddhas who appear in the world receive their bodies from their parents. All phenomena arise in dependence on heaven and earth. Therefore, if there were no parents, no one could be born, and without heaven and earth no one would grow up. We all rely upon and have gratitude for those who nurture and teach us; and we all sheltered and supported by their virtue. All sentient beings and all phenomena are impermanent, they are not apart from birth and death. Being nursed, given profound care, and raised with kindness are difficult to repay, Even if one were to give all manner of worldly offerings, one would still be unable to repay such kindness. Even if a person nourished his parents with his own blood, would that keep them well forever? The Classic of Filial Piety says, “Though a child provides beef, mutton, and pork to nourish his parents, still he is not filial.” Strong ties lead to perpetual birth.

There is no more efficacious way to repay love and kindness as the merit and virtue of leaving the home life. To ferry them across birth and death’s river of affection and beyond affliction’s bitter sea can repay the parents of one thousand lifetimes─it can repay one’s parents’ kindness for ten thousand kalpas. All those throughout the three realms who pay us the four kindnesses will not have been unrepaid. The sutras say, “When one child leaves the home life, nine sets of relatives will enter heaven.”

I, Liangjie, forsake my place in life and vow not to return home. I dedicate endless kalpas of my senses and experiences to instantly understanding prajna. I wish that you, my parents, can understand and be happy to let me go and not become entangled in our connection. I hope you can learn from King Suddhodana and Queen Maya who, at another time and day, went to meet the Buddha. Today, now, we part. It is not that I turn my back on providing for you, but time waits for no one. That is why it is said, “If one is not to be liberated today, then when?” I hope you do not think of me.

MY MOTHER’S RESPONSE

You and I are connected by past causes and conditions to share the love of mother and child. When I became pregnant, I prayed to the gods and the Buddha, “Give me a son.” Having borne you full term, my life hung by a thread. When my wishes came true I treasured you like a precious gem. You soiled yourself, but I did not mind the foul smell. I diligently nursed you and did not tire. As you grew you began to study. Sometimes you would come home late and I would wait for you in the doorway. Your letter came, insisting that you wanted to become a monk. Your father was dead, I had grown old, and you were without brothers. Who was I to rely on? My son was intent on abandoning me, but I did not have the mind to abandon you. Once you left, I wept day and night. Such suffering, such suffering. Now, since you have vowed not to return home, I immediately accorded with your will. I do not wish you to be Wan Xiang who slept on ice, or Ding Lan who carved wood*. But, like Maudgalyayana**, I wish you to save me from the cycle of birth and death and to attain Buddhahood. If this is not the case, then I am still displeased. Understand my mind.

── from Dongshan Wuben Chanshi Yulu (Records of Chan Master Dongshan Wuben)

* Additional references of classical paragons of filial piety.

** Great disciple of the Buddha known for his supernatural powers. The Ullambana Sutra describes him discovering his mother suffering in hell, and asking the Buddha for a way to save her. The Buddha tells Maudgalyayana to make an offering to the sangha at the end of the summer retreat period, by which he relieves his mother’s suffering.