Dharma Points: Mother's Day and Mother Earth

By Nelle Oosterom

In Buddhism, there is a feminine deity known as Quan Yin. She is a female form of Avalokitesvara, the boddhisattva of wise compassion. It is said her tears for the suffering of sentient beings fill the world’s oceans. It is also said she hears the cries of the world and responds with help if she is called upon. She is a powerful symbol of caring, love, and protection. In Tibet she is known as Tara, while Christianity has a comparable figure in Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Quan Yin and her counterparts also seem to symbolize the archetypal Great Mother — which Britannica describes as “an eternally fruitful source of everything…She is simply the mother; there is nothing separate from her. All things come from her, return to her, and are her.”

At the same time, all of us have or have had actual mothers. And you may be a mother yourself.

The Buddhist teachings urge us to be grateful to our mothers, as well as our fathers, because they made it possible for us to come into being, to exist.

The Filial Sutta states that there are a number of kindnesses bestowed by the mother on the child. It urges us to reflect on all the ways our mothers were kind to us, including:

  • That our mother provided protection and care and bore all kinds of discomfort while we were in the womb.

  • She bore physical pain and suffering during our birth, but quickly forgot about the pain once we were born.

  • She nourished us with milk when we were infants, often by breastfeeding, which can be difficult and uncomfortable.

  • She cleaned up after us when we were infants — six to ten diaper changes every day!

  • She frequently sacrificed her own comfort for the sake of our wellbeing.

And if it was not our mother who raised us, we are urged to reflect on the kindness of whoever did and consider that we owe them a great deal for this opportunity to be alive in this body.

It is natural for some of us — because we are human — to sometimes harbour resentment towards our mothers. Maybe we were raised by a mom with a difficult personality or even a mental illness. Maybe we find them impossible to deal with — some may experience tension and conflict whenever they are around their mothers. They may feel judged and criticized or neglected and get into petty arguments. Mother’s Day can be very stressful when there is this underlying tension.

If that is your situation, it may be necessary to provide a little extra care for yourself on Mother’s Day; to be your own good mother.

The author Katherine Mayfield describes herself as the daughter of a narcissistic mom who probably had borderline personality disorder. She wrote a book called The Box of Daughter: Healing the Authentic Self in which she advises anyone in a similar situation to remember that in the real world, your needs are just as important as your mother’s. So you might want to do something nice for yourself on Mother’s Day if you can — especially if you’re a parent yourself.

She also advises to respect your own point of view, even if your mother does not. If you know that being around your mother triggers you and causes your self-esteem to drop, try to make an extra effort to hold your ground — in Buddhism we would call that holding your seat — without becoming defensive or confrontational.

And I think it helps when, even if they are in your presence, to hold them a little at a psychological distance, to create a healthy boundary between yourself and your mother. Maybe, during a visit, it is necessary to take a little physical space by going for a walk or fixing a cup of tea in another room.

Mayfield says offering a distraction, such as photos of your kids or your dog, to look at, can defuse tension by turning your attention and hers from each other to a device. She also advises to leave everything behind when the visit ends by moving your thoughts to something you’re happy about. Don’t continuously rerun old conversations in your head, as this will just tie you up in knots.

Some of us are fortunate in not having these kinds of issues with our mothers. My own relationship with my mother, when she was alive, was relatively good. She was very patient, kind, loving, wise, and good humoured. And she was quite spiritual. So I have had good fortune that way. And even though she is long gone, I often feel her presence within me in a positive, joyful way.

The Buddhist teachings offer us the practice of regarding everyone we meet as having been our mother in a past life. This is actually a teaching about karma and, in a broader sense, we are encouraged to take the view that we know everyone in our current life from a former life — that we are related to everyone karmically. 

Whether you accept that belief or not, it might be worth exploring as a practice. If we view everyone, even the people we find difficult, as having nourished us in a past life, it changes our perspective. We might be inclined to be kinder towards them.

Another, even broader view is to regard the earth itself as our mother. I address this as the latest alarming report comes from the United Nations that about one million plant and animal species worldwide are on the brink of extinction. And, not surprisingly, we human beings are not only responsible for this situation, but are also threatened by it in terms of our own survival.

As a species, it seems most of us have forgotten where we came from. We have forgotten that we are beings born of and nourished by this planet. Nourished by earth, water, air, and sunlight. These are the four basic elements of which our bodies are composed. No matter how technologically adept we become, all of our technologies rely on earth, water, air, and sunlight (in the form of energy). 

So the planet is in this sense an aspect of our primal mother, our Great Mother. And this is something we might want to reflect upon and align our actions with as we move through life. What are we doing to respect and pay back Mother Earth for all that she has given us? 

I close now with a song from a Navajo origin legend. It’s called Song of the Earth Spirit. (Earth Spirit is also known as Changing Woman in Navajo tradition)

It is lovely indeed, it is lovely indeed.

I, I am the spirit within the earth

The feet of the earth are my feet

The legs of the earth are my legs

The bodily strength of the earth is my bodily strength

The thoughts of the earth are my thoughts

The feather of the earth is my feather

All that belongs to the earth belongs to me

All that surrounds the earth surrounds me

I, I am the sacred work of the earth

It is lovely indeed, it is lovely indeed.