The thought “mother” cannot be separated from that of “love”. Love is sweet, tender, and delicious. Without love, a child cannot flower, an adult cannot mature. Without love, we weaken, wither.
The day my mother died, I made this entry in my journal: “the greatest misfortune of my life has come !”. Even an old person, when he loses his mother, doesn’t feel ready. He too has the impression that he is not yet ripe, that he is suddenly alone. He feels as abandoned and unhappy as a young orphan.
All songs and poems praising motherhood are beautiful, effortlessly beautiful. Even songwriters and poets without much talent seem to pour their hearts into these works, and when they are recited or sung, the performers also seem deeply moved, unless they have lost their mothers too early even to know what love for mother is. Writings extolling the virtues of motherhood have existed since the beginning of time throughout the world.
When I was a child I heard a simple poem about losing your mother, and it is still very important for me. If your mother is still alive, you may feel tenderness for her each time you read this, fearing this distant yet inevitable event.
That year, although I was still very young
my mother left me,
and I realised that I was an orphan,
everyone around me was crying,
I suffered in silence…
Allowing the tears to flows,
I felt my pain soften.
the pagoda bell rang sweetly.
I realised that to lose your mother
is to lose the whole universe.
We swim in a world of tender love for many years, and, without even knowing it, we are quite happy there. Only after it is too late do we become aware of it.
People in the countryside do not understand the complicated language of city people. When people from the city say that mother is “a treasure of love”, that is already too complex for them. Country people in Vietnam compare their mothers to the finest varieties of bananas or to honey, sweet rice, or sugar cane. They express their love in these simple and direct ways. For me, a mother is like a “ba hu+o+ng” banana of the highest quality, like the best “ne^’p mo^.t” sweet rice, the most delicious “mi’a lau” sugar cane!
There are moments after a fever when you have a bitter, flat taste in your mouth, and nothing tastes good. Only when your mother comes and tucks you in, gently pulls the covers over your chin, puts her hand on your burning forehead (Is it really a hand, or is it the silk of heaven?), and gently whispers, “My poor darling!” do you feel restored, surrounded with the sweetness of maternal love. Her love is so fragrant, like a banana, like sweet rice, like sugar cane.
Father’s work is enormous, as huge as a mountain. Mother’s devotion is overflowing, like water from a mountain spring . Maternal love is our first taste of love, the origin of all feelings of love. Our mother is the teacher who first teaches us love, the most important subject in life. Without my mother I could never have known how to love. Thanks to her I can love my neighbours. Thanks to her I can love all living beings. Through her I acquired my first notions of understanding and compassion.
Mother is the foundation of all love, and many religious traditions recognise this and pay deep honour to a maternal figure, the Virgin Mary, the goddess Kwan Yin. Hardly an infant has opened her mouth to cry without her mother already running to the cradle. Mother is a gentle and sweet spirit who makes unhappiness and worries disappear. When the word “mother” is uttered, already we feel our hearts overflowing with love. From love, the distance to belief and action is very short.
In the West, we celebrate Mother’s Day in May. I am from the countryside of Vietnam, and I had never heard of this tradition. One day, I was visiting the Ginza district of Tokyo with the monk Thien An, and we were met outside a bookstore by several Japanese students who were friends of his. One discretely asked him a question, and then took a white carnation from her bag and pinned it on my robe. I was surprised and a little embarrassed. I had no idea what this gesture meant, and I didn’t dare ask. I tried to act natural, thinking this must be some local custom.
When they were finished talking (I don’t speak Japanese), Thien An and I went into the bookstore, and he told me that today was what is called Mother’s Day. In Japan, if your mother is still alive, you wear a red flower on your pocket or your lapel, proud that you still have your mother. If she is no longer alive, you wear a white flower. I looked at the white flower on my robe and suddenly I felt so unhappy.
I was as much an orphan as any other unhappy orphan; we could no longer proudly wear red flowers in our buttonholes. Those who wear white flowers suffer, and their thoughts cannot avoid returning to their mothers. They cannot forget that she is no longer there. Those who wear red flowers are so happy, knowing their mothers are still alive. They can try to please her before she is gone and it is too late. I find this a beautiful custom. I propose that we do the same thing in Vietnam, and in the West as well.
Mother is a boundless source of love, an inexhaustible treasure. But unfortunately, we sometimes forget. A mother is the most beautiful gift life offers us. Those of you who still have your mother near, please don’t wait for her death to say, “My God, I have lived beside my mother all these years without ever looking closely at her.”
Just brief glances, a few words exchanged-asking for a little pocket money or one thing or another. You cuddle up to her to get warm, you sulk, you get angry with her. You only complicate her life, causing her to worry, undermining her health, making her go to sleep late and get up early. Many mothers die young because of their children. Throughout her life we expect her to cook, wash, and clean up after us, while we think only about our grades and our careers. Our mothers no longer have time to look deeply at us, and we are too busy to look closely at her. Only when she is no longer there do we realise that we have never been conscious of having a mother.
This evening, when you return from school or work or, if you live far away, the next time you visit your mother, you may wish to go into her room and, with a calm and silent smile, sit down beside her. Without saying anything, make her stop working. Then, look at her for a long time, look at her deeply. Do this in order to see her, to realise that she is there, she is alive, beside you. Take her hand and ask her one short question to capture her attention, “Mother, do you know something?” She will be a little surprised and will probably smile when she asks you, “What, dear?” Keep looking into her eyes, smiling serenely, and say, “Do you know that I love you?” Ask this question without waiting for an answer. Even if you are thirty or forty years old, or older, ask her as the child of your mother. Your mother and you will be happy, conscious of living in eternal love. Then tomorrow, when she leaves you, you will have no regrets.
In Vietnam, on the holiday of Ullambana, we listen to stories and legends about the bodhisattva Maudgalyayana, and about filial love, the work of the father, the devotion of the mother, and the duty of the child. Everyone prays for the longevity of his or her parents, or if they are dead, for their rebirth in the heavenly Pure Land. We believe that a child without filial devotion is just artificial. But filial devotion also arises from love itself. Without love, filial devotion is just artificial. When love is present, that is enough, and there is no need to talk of obligation. To love your mother is enough. It is not a duty, it is completely natural, like drinking when you are thirsty. Every child must have a mother and it is totally natural to love her. The mother loves her child, and the child loves his mother. The child needs his mother, and the mother needs her child. If the mother doesn’t need her child, nor the child his mother, then this is not a mother, and this is not a child. It is a misuse of the words “mother” and “child”.
When I was young, one of my teachers asked me, “What do you have to do when you love your mother?” I told him, “I must obey her, help her, take care of her when she is old, and pray for her, keeping the ancestral altar when she has disappeared forever behind the mountain.” Now I know that the word “What” in his question was superfluous. If you love your mother, you don’t have to do anything. You love her; that is enough. To love your mother is not a question of morality or virtue.
Please do not think I have written this to give a lesson in morality. Loving your mother is a question of profit. A mother is like a spring of pure water, like the very finest sugar cane or honey, the best quality sweet rice. If you do not know how to profit from this, it is unfortunate for you. I simply want to bring this to your attention, to help you avoid one day complaining that there is nothing left in life for you. If a gift such as the presence of your own mother doesn’t satisfy you, even if you are president of a large corporation or king of the universe, you probably will not be satisfied. I know that the Creator is not happy, for the Creator arises spontaneously and does not have the good fortune to have a mother.
I would like to tell a story. Please don’t think that I am thoughtless. It could have been that my sister didn’t marry, and I didn’t become a monk. In any case, we both left our mother — one to lead a new life beside the man she loved, and the other to follow an ideal of life that he adored. The night my sister married, my mother worried about a thousand and one things, and didn’t even seem sad. But when we sat down at the table for some light refreshments, while waiting for our in-laws to come for my sister, I saw that my mother hadn’t eaten a bite. She said, “For eighteen years she has eaten with us and today is her last meal here before going to another family’s home to take her meals.” My sister cried, her head bowing barely above her plate, and she said, “Mama, I won’t get married.” But she married nonetheless. As for me, I left my mother to become a monk. To congratulate those who are firmly resolved to leave their families to become monks, one says that they are following the way of understanding, but I am not proud of it. I love my mother, but I also have an ideal, and to serve it I had to leave her — so much the worse for me.
In life, it is often necessary to make difficult choices. We cannot catch two fish at the same time: one in each hand. It is difficult, because if we accept growing up, we must accept suffering. I don’t regret leaving my mother to become a monk, but I am sorry I had to make such a choice. I didn’t have the chance to profit fully from this precious treasure. Each night I pray for my mother, but it is no longer possible for me to savour the excellent “ba hu+o+ng” banana, the best quality “ne^’p mo^.t” sweet rice, and the delicious “mi’a lau” sugar cane. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that you not follow your career and remain home at your mother’s side. I have already said I do not want to give advice or lessons in continuing to look into her eyes with a serene smile, tell her, “Do you know that I love you?” Ask her this question without waiting for an answer. Even if you are thirty, forty years old, or older, ask her simply, because you are the child of your mother. Your mother and you will both be happy, conscious of living in eternal love. And tomorrow when she leaves you, you will not have any regrets.
This is the refrain I give you to sing today. Brothers and sisters, please chant it, please sing it, so that you won’t live in indifference or forgetfulness. This red rose, I have already placed it on your lapel. Please be happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1962)