My Mother’s Life: A Story of Love & Hope – 11/19/2018
I would like to begin this evening talk with a deep bow of gratitude to you for your kindness, and generosity. You continue to keep me in your thoughts, and prayers even though I have not been able to attend the Monday evening sit during the last three years.
I was touched earlier this year when our beloved teacher, Ginger, and her husband, Dr. Mark Ryan, took turns with former Board Members (John M. Howard, Jr., and Gabriel Clark) and current Board Members, and their spouses (Pam Lewis & Chris Collins, Josh & Kanako Jones, Travis & Elba Hicks) to visit, or to telephone me. The outpouring of support was healing and much appreciated, as I had experienced a series of great losses during the latter part of last year. The greatest of them all was my mother, who died peacefully after a long illness. She was 94.
My conversation with Ginger, and Mark during their visit gravitated to my mother. I shared with them her life story based on a brief tribute to my mother which I wrote during the three-day funeral services. As usual, I got teary when I talked about my mother. Ginger and Mark listened compassionately. At the end of this story, Ginger requested that I share it with the Sangha. I sincerely hope that my mother’s tale resonates with you, in full or in part, and that it will embolden you in your own endeavors. The talk has evolved from an opportunity for me to honor my mother with you to a ceremony for each sangha member to honor their own mothers and all mothers everywhere. Thank you, Ginger, for this privilege.
I’m grateful to Ginger, Mark, and Pam for their thorough review, and diligent editing of the draft of the talk which significantly improved the quality of the final product.
It’s my honor to share my mother’s life story with you this evening. I regret that I’m unable to be with you in person, but I am following the talk from home. I would like to thank….for reading my words to you.
This evening program has two parts. The first part is a Rose Offering Ceremony during which participants will each receive a rose to pin onto their clothing. The rose symbolizes our love, respect, and gratitude for our own mothers. The red roses are for those whose mothers are still alive. The white roses are for those whose mothers are deceased. This Rose Offering is a Japanese Mother’s Day tradition, which Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh adopted for Vietnamese Buddhists Mother’s Day (1).
When the rose carrier bows to you, she’s bowing to the Buddha Nature in you. Please bow back mindfully to her Buddha Nature. After you receive the rose, bow again to her. She will bow to you in return before moving on to the next person. Bowing is a good mindfulness practice.
Buddha nature broadly means that all of us have the potential of becoming an enlightened Buddha by developing mental states to the highest level through training and practice. The ceremony incorporates the language of flowers – the beauty of the roses, the meaning of their colors, and the sweetness of their fragrance. It also includes bows—the Buddhist gesture for awakening our Buddha Nature. My Dharma talk is the second part of the program. I hope you enjoy the roses!
PAUSE FOR THE ROSE CEREMONY
My talk is about a mother’s tender love and hope for her children, and the sacrifices she made for their future. That’s what mothers do. I invite you to join me in offering this talk in gratitude to all mothers everywhere, including biological mothers, step mothers, adopted mothers, foster mothers, and those who have served as mothers, past and present. Please remain seated, and bow following the sound of the bell.
I would like to make some brief observations on the relationship between science, Buddha nature, and motherhood. Scientific studies with babies watching puppet shows from their cribs have led to the conclusion that there exits innate goodness in us. The babies were inclined to follow wholesome acts with their eyes, and to reject unwholesome acts. This innate goodness can develop further if nurtured. Otherwise, it can revert to aggression and business as usual. Other studies with toddlers showed that they voluntarily performed socially beneficial acts without being prompted. These findings are consistent with the Buddha’s teaching on Buddha nature. This reinforces my belief that, generally speaking, a mother’s instinct is to love, provide for, and protect her child unconditionally, even at her own risk, as illustrated in the story which I am going to share with you; this is the innate goodness of motherhood. It enables a step mother, an adopted mother, or a foster mother to love someone’s else child as their own. A picture is better than a thousand words. This is a picture of an Israeli nurse breastfeeding a Palestinian baby. No mother in her right mental state would wish harm on her child. I hope that this intention, and this intention alone will inspire you.
The context for my mother’s life story is as follows.
My mother was born in 1923 – almost a century ago – in a village in the Red River Delta, in North Vietnam. At that time, Vietnamese society was greatly influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. The villagers practiced both. A minority of the population were Christians, but many of the practices were embedded in their daily life through Vietnamese culture. The social conduct in the family could be framed by three words: Integrity, Duty, and Family. Integrity here referred not only to one’s honor, but also the honor of the family, which was considered sacred. Any member of the family who stained it risked being disowned. Family was the foundation of the society. One’s duty was to keep it in harmony by showing reverence to the elders, and kindness and humility to those who are junior in family ranks. Loyalty was an integral part of duty (at home, loyalty to the spouse, and family. In the society, loyalty to the king).
Her father was a Confucian scholar, and village teacher. Teachers were highly regarded for their integrity as well as their wisdom. Teaching was considered the most esteemed profession in the society. Students regarded their teachers as their parents – there was a built-in family relationship between students and teacher. A teacher’s words invoked fairness, and trust, and carried moral power. My mother would tell me how her father was able to help fellow villagers doing business with each other, because his words were as binding as a modern day contractual agreement (2). The tradition preferred boys over girls because the boys would carry on the family’s name, and heritage. Although all of my mother’s brothers were encouraged to attend school, she and her sisters were not. My mother worked around the system by requesting one of her cousins to secretly teach her how to read and write. She wanted him to teach her more, but he was scared because both of them would have been in serious trouble had they been found out.
My mother began to practice Buddhism seriously after I left Vietnam in 1964. She became a devout Buddhist.
And now, my tribute to my mother. It’s a translation of what I wrote in Vietnamese during the funeral services with highlights of the escapes to South Vietnam, and our lives there added for this talk.
In the practice of the Way,
You were a devout Buddhist, and
A strong supporter of the Three Jewels in the Ten directions
To the family traditions, you were fully devoted.
You looked after the parents, honored the ancestors, and
Maintained the tombs.
To the relatives, you were a whole leaf that protected the torn ones.
To strangers, you readily shared whatever you had.
To our beloved father, a fallen soldier,
You were a faithful wife,
a courageous 28 -year- old widow,
who readily stepped into his place to raise four young children whose ages ranged between 2 and 9. This was a tall task for a farmer without a formal education. Soon after Father’s death, the Communists took control of North Vietnam. We were forced to leave our land to “Go South” empty handed. This was the beginning of a long and arduous journey that tested your determination, faith, and resilience.
Grandpa, my eldest sister Dee, and I were the first in our family to leave for the port of city of Haiphong which was still under the control of the Nationalist government. From there we could board American ships for Saigon. The Communist police at a border outpost gave us trouble because they found Grandpa’s pension document. After delaying for the whole afternoon, they
decided to take our money, and let us go. We managed to get to Haiphong late that night – two and half days after we left home. Mother, you, and Grandma, and my two younger sisters, Vi and Thinh, left home a month later. Grandma, and you carried all of the family’s gold savings. The Communist police found the hidden gold when they did a body search. They kept the gold for themselves.
Grandpa was devastated upon hearing the news. He changed his mind and wanted to go home to live on his land. After all, he was getting old, and South Vietnam was as distant as a foreign land to us, where we knew nobody. We had no money. What would we do for a living? Mother, you were always obedient to him, but since you had already made up your mind that you would not live under Communism, you took a firm stand. You told him, “Grandpa, here are your four grandchildren. Please pick whomever you want, and I’ll go South with the rest”. He was speechless. Grandma chimed in, “If one goes, we all go.” The matter was settled, and all of us continued on. We learned after 1974 that if Grandpa had gone home, the Communists would have certainly killed him during the Land Reform movement because he was a targeted land owner. Mother, your determination saved his life.
After a brief stay in refugee camps, we settled in a ghetto in a suburb of Saigon. I was not ashamed to be poor, and to live in the ghetto. It was just that it had too little to offer to young people who wanted to live to their fullest capability. Mother, you became a vegetable retailer at a local market to support us.
To my three sisters and myself,
You were our life,
You loved us.
Your love continues endlessly like the streams originating from the Himalayas, which constantly feed the Lower Mekong River and all forms of life in the area – including the rice we ate, and the vegetables you sold. No mountain was too high, no river was too deep and wide, and no road was too long and treacherous for you when pursuing happiness for your children.
For more than a decade, you went to the central market after dinner to buy vegetables from wholesale dealers, carried them to a local market, went home to catch a few hours of sleep, and left early in the morning to prepare the vegetables for retail customers. Your vegetable stand was located in the open market section. It had no weather protection, yet you were there day in and day out (3), rain or shine.
You protected us, kept us together, emphasized the value of education, kept the faith, and embraced hardship with dignity. You put us through school, which ultimately lifted us out of the ghetto.
When Grandpa died, I was 12 years old.
Mother, you took me aside, and calmly taught me that
“There are families who favored boys over girls,
But, l love you and your sisters the same.”
You loved your daughter-in-law and sons-in-law as your own children,
Regardless of differences in race, and religion (4).
Similarly, you loved your grandchildren and great grandchildren the same.
All were equal in your heart and mind.
You often reminded us,
“Tell the truth, don’t ever lie.
“In dealing with others, take the loss yourself rather than harm anyone else.”
You fulfilled your duty,
And you enriched the family heritage.
You continue to be the beacon which guides us,
And generations to come.
To you we bow in gratitude.
Your loving son.
It was my mother’s wish that her body be cremated. Her ashes were spread in the ocean off the limits of Galveston Bay.
That’s my mother’s life story.
Her life story offers hope. After the Communists killed her husband, and illegally seized her gold, she wasted no time feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she brought us to South Vietnam empty-handed. We were reduced to live in a ghetto, but we succeeded in moving out of there thanks to the education she provided. Eventually, my entire family was reunited in the US.
May her life story resonate with you in full, or in part. If you are experiencing challenges in your life, may it rekindle your aspirations, help you transform challenges into triumphs, and become all you can be.
I’m grateful that I have had this chance to honor my own mother, and all mothers with you, as well as to initiate a reflection on motherhood in general. I look forward to hearing your shared thoughts and experiences. Thank you for your presence.
1. Thich Nhat Hanh, “A Rose for Your Pocket, Parallax Press.”
2. My mother recounted to me stories which her father would vouch for the borrowers’ integrity, and that he would be the guarantor for the loans at no cost to them. The lenders would agree. All of the loans were paid in full.
3. Except the first three days of the Lunar New Year, my mother’s parents’ anniversaries, and the last months of Grandpa’s life when she stayed home to care for him.
4. My ex-wife was an American Catholic. The husband of one of my nieces is also American.