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Debt to Parents

October 5, 2013

Q: Another question from the same reader: “If one were to go from home to homelessness to learn and realize Dhamma, as stated in the Suttas, how would one repay their debt to one’s parents, who cared and raised the loved one? Would this incur unfavorable kamma?”

The Arahant: This is a very good question. The Buddha placed a very high value on service to one’s parents:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Living with Brahma are those families where, in the home, mother & father are revered by the children. Living with the first devas are those families where, in the home, mother & father are revered by the children. Living with the first teachers are those families where, in the home, mother & father are revered by the children. Living with those worthy of gifts are those families where, in the home, mother & father are revered by the children. ‘Brahma’ is a designation for mother & father. ‘The first devas‘ is a designation for mother & father. ‘The first teachers’ is a designation for mother & father. ‘Those worthy of gifts’ is a designation for mother & father. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, nourish them, introduce them to this world.

“Mother & father, compassionate to their family, are called Brahma: first teachers, those worthy of gifts from their children. So the wise should pay them homage, honor with food & drink, clothing & bedding, anointing & bathing & washing their feet. Performing these services to their parents, the wise are praised right here, and after death rejoice in heaven.” — Itivutaka, 106

The Buddha taught that we owe a great debt to our parents:

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.” — Kataññu Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 2.32)

Certainly if one were to leave one’s parents to become a monk without repaying them in some way, that would become an obstacle to further progress. However, having stated the problem the Buddha also gives the solution:

“But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one’s mother & father.” — Kataññu Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 2.32)

So the Buddha recommends that one become a monk, but not abandon his parents. Indeed, he advises us to establish them on the Noble Eightfold Path. That is not always easy, especially in these days of skepticism and sectarian religion. In fact, in our experience, it is rare for a western student to come to the teaching of the Buddha with his parents’ blessing. In most cases there is some tension in the family; it is better to resolve this before becoming a monk, or it can certainly become an obstacle.

If at all possible, one should come to the Dhamma with one’s parents’ blessing. Approaching the Buddha’s teaching should not be done out of adolescent rebellion, but out of desire to really find the truth and also deliver it to others. The first to benefit from one’s realization of the Dhamma should be one’s parents and family. Buddhist monks give special honor to their parents and are encouraged to visit and help them spiritually. They offer many gifts in their parents’ honor. A monk’s first duty, after saving himself, is to save his parents.

From → Q&A

2 Comments
  1. peaceandwisdom2013 permalink

    Thank you.
    The first thought that occurs to me if I were to leave home to walk the spiritual life is, “Who will now care for my parents.” My heart will only be at peace if I have received the permission and blessings of my parents, otherwise, regretful thoughts may constantly occur. Yes, I was thinking the same thing about establishing one’s parents in Dhamma and Noble Eightfold Path so they may see the path is pure. However, most parents have a general path that they would like to see their children, but becoming a monk is usually not on the list. Thank you again and I appreciate the Sutta references.

    • Your parents, like everyone else, will receive the result of their kamma. If their kamma includes supporting and encouraging their child to attain self-realization, then everything will work out as well as possible, considering whatever other kamma they may have already created. The important thing is that they recognize the validity and rightness of what you choose to do with your life. That may take some time and educational effort on your part; but it’s certainly better than seeking the Dhamma over their objections.

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