The Gift of Gratitude

Ajahn Sumedho recounts the joyful unfolding of a deep appreciation for his teacher and parents.

Ajahn Sumedho

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First Time, Kimberly Austin, 2003

Even if one should carry about one’s mother on one shoulder and one’s father on the other, and so doing should live a hundred years . . . moreover, if one should set them up as supreme rulers, having absolute rule over the wide earth abounding in the seven treasures—not even by this could one repay one’s parents. And why! Bhikkhus, parents do a lot for their children: they bring them up, provide them with food, introduce them to the world.

Yet, bhikkhus, whoever encourages their faithless parents, and settles and establishes them in faith; or whoever encourages their immoral parents and settles and establishes them in morality, or whoever encourages their stingy parents, and settles and establishes them in generosity, or whoever encourages their foolish parents, and settles and establishes them in wisdom—such a person, in this way repays, more than repays, what is due to their parents.

—the Buddha, Anguttara-nikaya 2.32

My father died about six years ago. He was then ninety years old, and he had never shown love or positive feelings toward me. So from early childhood I had this feeling that he did not like me. I carried this feeling through most of my life. I never had any kind of love, any kind of warm relationship with my father. It was always a perfunctory “Hello son, good to see you.” And he seemed to feel threatened by me. I remember whenever I came home as a Buddhist monk he would say, “Remember, this is my house, you’ve got to do as I say.” This was his greeting—and I was almost fifty years old at the time! I don’t know what he thought I was going to do.

My father was an aspiring artist before the Depression. Then in ’29 the crash came and he and my mother lost everything, so he had to take a job selling shoes to support us. Then the Second World War started, but my father was too old to enlist in the military. He wanted to support the war effort, so he became a ship fitter in Seattle. He didn’t like that job, but it was the best way he could help in the war. After the war he went back to his shoe business and became a manager of a retail store. He never really liked that work either, but he felt he was too old to find another profession. He had sacrificed his own preferences to support my mother, my sister, and me.

When I was at university in the 1950s, it was fashionable to study psychology. At that time the trend was to blame your mother for everything that went wrong in your life. The focus was on mothers and what they had done to cause us to suffer now. I didn’t realize then that suffering was natural. Of course my mother was not perfect, so naturally there were things she could have done better. But generally speaking, the dedication, commitment, love, and care were all there—and directed mainly to making the lives of my father, my sister, and me as good and as happy as could be. She asked very little for herself, and when I think back like this, katannu, Pali for gratitude, arises in my mind for my mother and father.

The Buddha encouraged us to think of the good things done for us by our parents, by our teachers, friends, whomever; and to do this intentionally, to cultivate it, rather than just letting it happen accidentally.

My students who have a lot of anger toward their parents ask me how they can develop gratitude toward them. Teaching lovingkindness, or metta, on too sentimental a basis can actually increase anger. I remember a woman on one of our retreats who, whenever it came to spreading metta to her parents, would go into a rage. Then she felt very guilty about it. Every time she thought about her mother, she felt only rage. This was because she used only her intellect; she wanted to do this practice of metta, but emotionally felt anything but lovingkindness.

It’s important to see this conflict between the intellectual and the emotional life. We know in our mind that we should be able to forgive our enemies and love our parents, but in the heart we feel “I can never forgive them for what they’ve done.” So then we either feel anger and resentment, or we begin to rationalize: “Because my parents were so bad, so unloving, so unkind, they made me suffer so much that I can’t forgive or forget.” Or: “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a terrible person because I can’t forgive.” When this happens, I’ve found it helpful to have metta for my own feelings. If we feel that our parents were unkind and unloving, we can have metta toward the feeling we have in our hearts; without judgment, we can see that this is how it feels, and to accept that feeling with patience.

Once I began to accept my negativity about my father rather than suppress it, I could resolve it. When we resolve something with mindfulness, we can let it go and free ourselves from its power. The resolution of such a conflict leads us to contemplate what life is about.

A life without gratitude is a joyless life. If life is just a continuous complaint about the injustices and unfairness we have received and we don’t remember anything good ever done to us, we fall into depression—not an uncommon problem these days. It is impossible to imagine ever being happy again: we think this misery is forever.

When I became a Buddhist monk in Thailand, I was very fortunate to meet a teacher, Luang Por Chah, known widely as Ajahn Chah, who became the catalyst for the gratitude in my life. At that time I was thirty-three or thirty-four years old, and I must say gratitude was not yet a part of my life’s experience. I was still very much obsessed with myself, what I wanted, what I thought. However, after training as a Buddhist monk for some years, in about the sixth year of monastic life, I had a heart-opening experience that was very much the experience of katannu katavedita, or gratitude to one’s parents.

I had been a Buddhist for many years before I met Ajahn Chah. I had tremendous interest and faith in Buddhism, as well as an eagerness to study and practice it. But it was still coming from the sense of my doing it, my studying it, my trying to practice it. When I became a monk, there was still this tendency: “I want to get rid of suffering. I want to be enlightened.” I was not much concerned about other people, about my parents, or even about Ajahn Chah, with whom I was living at the time. I thought that it was very nice that he was helpful to me, but I did not feel a deep gratitude.

I had the idea that life owed all this to me—an unpleasant kind of conceit. When we are brought up in middle-class comfort as I had been, we take so much for granted. My parents worked hard to make my life comfortable, but I thought that they should have worked harder, and that I deserved more than what they gave me. Even though this was not a conscious thought, there was the underlying attitude that I deserved all I had: people should give me these things; my parents should make my life as good as possible, as I wanted it to be. So from that viewpoint, it was Ajahn Chah’s duty to teach and guide me!

In Thailand, I practiced with diligence and was determined in my monastic life. After participation in five rainy season retreats (vassas), a monk is no longer considered a novice and is free to leave the monastery. I felt that being with a teacher was fine, but I wanted to go away on my own. I left for central Thailand from the northeast. After the vassa I went on a pilgrimage to India. This was in about 1974, and I decided to go as a tudong-bhikkhu, wandering from place to place as part of an austere form of monastic practice. Somebody provided me with a ticket from Bangkok to Calcutta, and I found myself in Calcutta with my alms bowl, my robe, and, abiding by the rules of monkhood, no money. In Thailand it had been easy, but in India the prospect of wandering around with nothing more than an alms bowl seemed quite frightening at first. As it happened, the five months I spent in India were quite an adventure, and I have very pleasant memories of that time. The life of a mendicant worked in India. Of all countries, it should work there, where the Buddha lived and taught.

I began to think of Ajahn Chah and to recognize the kindness he had extended to me. He had accepted me as his disciple, looked after me, given me the teachings, and helped me in almost every way. And there was his own example. If you wanted to be a monk, you wanted to be like him. He was a full human being, a man who inspired me, someone I wanted to emulate—and I must say there weren’t so many men that I had had that feeling toward. In the States, the role models for men were not very attractive to me—John Wayne or President Eisenhower or Richard Nixon were not my role models. Film stars and athletes were given great importance, but none of them inspired me.

But then in Thailand, I’d found this monk. He was very small; I towered above him. When we were together sometimes that surprised me, because he had such an enormous presence. There was this feeling about him that attracted people. So I found myself going over to see him in his hut in the evenings, or whenever it was possible; I wanted to take every opportunity I had to hang around. I asked him once what it was in him that drew people to him, and he said, “I call it my magnet.” He used his magnet to attract people so that he could teach them the dhamma. This is how he used the charismatic quality he had: not in the service of his ego, but to help people.

The Lord Buddha, after his enlightenment, at first thought that the dhamma was too subtle, that no one would understand it, so there was no point in teaching it. Then, according to the legend, one of the gods came forth and said, “Please Lord, for the welfare of those who have little dust in their eyes, teach the dhamma.” The Buddha then contemplated with his powerful mind who might understand the dhamma teaching. He remembered his early teachers but through his powers realized that both of them had died. Then he remembered his five friends who had been practicing with him before, and who had deserted him. Out of compassion he went off to find these five friends, and expounded his brilliant teaching on the Four Noble Truths. This makes me feel katannu katavedita to the Lord Buddha. It’s marvelous: here I am—this guy, here, in this century—having an opportunity to listen to the dhamma, and to have this pure teaching still available.

Just having a living teacher like Ajahn Chah was not like worshiping a prophet who lived twenty-five hundred years ago, it was actually inheriting the lineage of the Lord Buddha himself. Perhaps because of visiting the Buddhist holy places, my gratitude began to become very strong. Then, thinking of Ajahn Chah in Thailand, I remembered how I had thought: “I’ve done my five years, now I’m going to leave. I’m going to have a few adventures, do what I want to do, be out from under the eye of the old man.” I realized then that I had actually run away.

When I felt this gratitude, all I wanted to do was get back to Thailand and offer myself to Ajahn Chah. How can you repay a teacher like that? I did not have any money, and that was not what he was interested in anyway. Then I thought that the only way I could make him happy was to be a good Buddhist monk and to go back and help him out. Whatever he wanted me to do, I would do it. With that intention, I went back after five months in India and gave myself to the teacher. It was a joyful offering, not a begrudging one, because it came out of this katannu, this gratitude for the good things I had received.

From that time on, I found that my meditation practice began to improve. That hard selfishness cracked in me: my trying to get something, my desire for harmony, my desire to practice and have a peaceful life, free of responsibility. When I gave up all that, things seemed to fall into place. What used to be difficult, like concentrating the mind, became easier, and I found that life had become joyful to me.

The last time I went to see my father, I decided that I would try to get some kind of warmth going between us before he died. In the last decade of my father’s life he was quite miserable and became very resentful. He had terrible arthritis and was in constant pain, and he had Parkinson’s disease. Eventually he had to be put in a nursing home. He was completely paralyzed. He could move his eyes and talk, but the rest of his body was rigid. He was resentful of what had happened to him because before he had been a strong, independent man.

When I saw him, his body needed to be stimulated, so I said, “Let me massage your leg.” “No, no, you don’t need to do that,” he said. “You’ll get bedsores, because you really have to have your skin massaged. I would really like to do it.” He still refused, but I could tell he was considering it. “I think it’ll be a good thing,” I told him. “So you’d really like to do it?” he asked me. “Yes.”

I started massaging his feet, his legs, his neck, shoulders, hands, and face; he really enjoyed the physical contact. It was the first time he had been touched like that. Physical contact is quite meaningful, it’s an expression of feeling. And I began to realize that my father really loved me, but didn’t know how to say it. I had this great sense of relief and immense gratitude.

Ajahn Sumedho is the Abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Centre in England and the most senior Western disciple of the late Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah.

Ajahn Chah on Parents:


Sometimes when teachings are given on birth, aging, illness, and death, people aren’t pleased. Especially in the West, when you talk about this, people get up and walk away. They don’t want to get old. So when people become old, they are abandoned.

In the Western countries this seems to be the custom, to discard the old folks so the youngsters can get on with their lives. Of course the youngsters will get old too, and then they will be discarded in their turn. When we are young, we should look at and reflect on old people. This is karma, isn’t it? I tried to explain this to the Westerners, that if you discard people, you will also be discarded. When we are old, we should think about young people. When we see old people, we should think about young people. They are connected, like links of a chain.

—Translated from the Thai by Paul Breiter

Image 1: First Time, Kimberly Austin, 2003, Van Dyke prints on watercolor paper and vellum mounted on wood, 2 panels, 11 x 8 inches each. 
Image 2: Courtesy Paul Breiter.

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oliverhow's picture

Thank you for this article...I still have a very long way to go on this issue...but this one helps.

jacquic37's picture

I am one of ten children born of alcoholic parents. After raising four of my own I have realized that very few people go into parenting with the express purpose of trying to damage their offspring as much as possible. Most of us are ill prepared or downright unconscious, and lack the resources necessary to navigate the challenges of parenting successfully. I know of nothing else…no other endeavor..that calls forth everything we are or are not and our children are the mirrors that reflect the sum total of our effort and commitment. It is a humbling experience.

mralexander99's picture

I had a closer relationship to my Mother than my Father and he seemed to treat me in a "perfunctory" manner and I felt that he felt threatened by me...after reading Ajahn Sumedho's story about his relationship with his, All I can do is cry.....

Sometimes people ask me about my Father and after listening to me talk about him they always seem to ask the same question; "Was your a Father good man, did he love you or was your Father a bad man who never took joy in your life?"...I can't put those questions in a 'good or bad' context, because I learned so much from him --- but it was by "Osmosis"....so.....I always give the same answer..."He was my Father!"

mneif@aol.com's picture

As an adult child of aging parents in their 90's, I feel this teaching was meant for me.
I' ve felt anger and resentment at them for their actions both recently and in my past. But I know these must be resolved with loving kindness before they die, or I will regret the missed opportunity.
I've learned a great deal from Ajahn.
Only by facing and accepting my feelings, and then cultivating empathy for my parents, faults and all, can I allow myself to forgive and to nurture, as Ajahn so lovingly did for his own father in the beautiful culmination of the story with his healing massage.
I realize that my parents are and have been far from perfect; they may not show love the way I would like them to; they have done hurtful things to me; yet I cannot deny that they have also done loving things to me and for me. In these last months or years of their lives, this is what I must see to proceed to nurture them as I would like to be nurtured.
People are always in awe when I tell them my parent's ages, as if they deserve medals for making it this far. It is more complicated that that. It is difficult to age... And yet, magical as well.
I want to believe in the magic.
Thank you for this teaching.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A lovely meditation on Dads as Father's Day nears. Appreciation of one's parents, who gave us life, is not always a given. And it needs to be cultivated throughout life, especially when we ourselves become parents. Children learn by example. From parents they first learn how it is to be human.

celticpassage's picture

I would highlight that what is present, but unspoken in this article is the process of forgiveness. I think this is the other side of the gratitude coin. Without forgiveness there can be no gratitude. Although forgiveness may take many years or even a lifetime we must be committed to its realization.

Psychologically speaking, if you don’t forgive those that have wronged you (and we have all been ‘wronged’), then you cannot ever really be free. The more hatred and resulting unforgiveness one feels toward a person (or group, or organization) the more that person (or group, or organization) owns and runs your life.

And spiritually speaking, as the article seems to show in this person’s experience, without forgiveness one’s whole spiritual life and practice is stunted and hampered: A teaching also taught by all spiritual traditions.

melcher's picture

The best piece of wisdom I've read from you on his site. I know people who have devoted their lives to denigrating teachers or parents whom they perceive wronged or abused them in some way. A pointless exercise that keeps one firmly tied to the abuser. We are all teachers for one another. Whatever the lesson we only benefit when we take it into ourselves and make it our own.

Dot Luce's picture

I want to give an acknowledgment to all single mothers, who strive to give their children the love and support the fathers do not; fathers may be alcoholic, diseased, addicted, cruel by nature, whatever. It is a difficult role, too often unappreciated by the children of single mothers.
Happy Fathers Day to all single moms.

celticpassage's picture

Demonizing men and Angelicizing women seems to be pretty much a hobby in the West, perhaps particularly North America. Maybe this is because the media needs short stereotypical ‘sound bites’ with which to characterize their stories and to assign blame for the state of things. And given the ubiquitous presence of TV in people’s lives repeating these stories endlessly shapes people’s views to a large extent.

myers_lloyd's picture

As I reread the commentary to which this is your response, celticpassage, I see that the writer depicts those absent fathers as diseased, addicted, or cruel by nature. Neither disease nor addiction is an assignment of blame; I agree that those fathers being described as "cruel by nature" can be construed as blame. Generally, though,I see neither demonization nor angelicization depicted here. At the same time, I know from study also corroborated by my own experience that North American abandonment of children by their fathers is much more common than abandonment by their mothers. And it may well be that great stigma and not virtue prevents more women from bailing out of that staggering task. Women, like men, are only human.
My own daughter was abandoned with a two week old baby.I protected her and the child for some years, providing care for my grandchild while she worked to keep them both from a deep plunge into poverty. My support helped enable her to find financial security and later a good life with a fine partner. Neither her wealthy father nor her older brother did anything of note to protect or encourage her in those lonely and frightening years.
Children need both men and women to raise and inspire them.
And personally, those humans who have most profoundly affected and inspired me have been... men!

marginal person's picture

The overwhelming majority of single parent homes are headed by females, due in some part, to the reasons Dot mentions.
Why not honor these women on Father's Day and their counterpart single dad's on Mother's Day?

Stephen's picture

This is an unfortunate reaction to such a beautiful teaching. As a supportive and unconditionally loving single father I have long endured this stereotype of men - alcoholic, diseased, abusive etc. Please re-read the doctor's comments before your comments Dot and see if you can find compassion and inclusiveness for all the good men out there on Father's Day.

khickey's picture

We ALL suffer and the call is to offer loving kindness to all beings. Recently in my work as a (female) pediatrician I realized that fathers are marginalized during the childbearing and parenting process, leaving them alienated with no vehicle to express their deepest fears. We have begun to screen Dad's for postpartum depression at our hospital and the results are staggering. Men have been suffering in silence, revealing their fears with anger instead of tears. The challenge for all of us is to offer compassion, not judgment, kindness not hatred because ALL living creatures deepest desire is to be safe, happy, healthy and at ease

sallyotter's picture

Oh, thank you for this insight. Talk about an Aha! moment. This brought me to tears, to see the depression hiding under the anger, bewilderment. Not understanding what they're feeling, afraid to show "weakness", Thank you so much, a real emotional shift.

mralexander99's picture

Yes.....Yes.....Yes.......if the only prayer that I ever learn is "Thank You" to my Dad and my Mom...then that is enough....for me to begin again with a wide and open heart!

jackelope65's picture

This is a beautiful teaching, to be taken seriously. As a physician, I have worked with the deserted elderly which constantly reminded me of impermanence, that they were not the same people who raised their children. Forgiveness for parental mistakes often becomes forgiveness for one's own mistakes, as they too suffered the effects of similar causes, passed from generation to generation. My brother and I became adult children of alcoholics who passed emotional traits of alcoholism to our own children though not abusing alcohol ourselves. I have looked in the mirror and seen both of the good and bad traits of my parents and grandparents. I would be a hypocrite to condemn my parents, as they became different people with aging, as I am now, which only has caused my love to grow for them despite their passing. The most wonderful memory of my life is the caring of my parents at home, while constantly recalling the effects of aging and illness upon their behavior. As both the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard pointed out in their responses in 'The Sunflower', no one, not even a Nazi murderer who directly caused the deaths of innocent Jews, is beyond forgiveness giving the rationale provided above. Love your parents and you will love yourself, despite your failings. Hate them and your self-hatred will become apparent.

joetheplumber's picture

This story reminds me of something i wrote a while back, "Old Fathers never die,they just fade away."