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Gosho Study

What can I do to improve my complicated relationship with my parents?

Answer: It may take time to change the dynamics with your parents, but a good starting point may be to find small ways to appreciate them and express that appreciation.

Illustration by Benjamin Lourenço / Getty Images.

This study series focuses on Nichiren Daishonin’s disciples, who faced challenges we can relate to today, and his enduring encouragement to them that we can apply to dynamically transform our lives.

Everyone wants a loving and positive relationship with their parents, but for many, that’s an elusive idea. 

Just as no two people are alike, every family is unique, as are the relationships between each family member. Some causes of tense relations between parents and children might include differences in values and beliefs, whether parents accept their children for who they are or vice versa, substance abuse or complex family histories.

Negative experiences with one’s parents can often have a lasting impact. 

Encouraging his disciple Nanjo Tokimitsu, Nichiren Daishonin shares a key point for fundamentally improving one’s relationship with one’s parents: 

Being filial toward one’s father and mother means that though a parent may act unreasonably or speak in a tone of ill will, one never shows the slightest anger or looks displeased. One … is always mindful of providing a parent with all manner of good things, and if this happens to be impossible, in the course of a day one at least smiles twice or thrice in their direction. (“The Four Virtues and the Four Debts of Gratitude,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 636)

Although everyone’s situation is different, the Daishonin affirms that our compassionate action and inner transformation are the keys to bettering relationships.

Offering a Young Disciple Repeated Encouragement

The Daishonin wrote these words in 1275 to a 17-year-old Nanjo Tokimitsu, whose father, Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro, died in 1265 after struggling with illness. Until the end of his life, Hyoe Shichiro had striven in faith thanks to Nichiren’s encouragement. 

After his father’s death, Tokimitsu’s older brother, Shichiro Taro, took the helm of the family estate but died in an accident, leaving Tokimitsu as the head of the household at age 16. 

Nichiren repeatedly encouraged Tokimitsu, still young and inexperienced, to help him develop into a strong pillar for his family, a reliable steward for his village and a steadfast successor for kosen-rufu. 

Appreciating Our Parents Draws Out Our Inner Goodness

In the passage above, Nichiren encourages the young Tokimitsu that one should refrain from expressing anger or frustration even if one’s parent is unreasonable. 

We can take this to mean that creating an ideal relationship with our parents, or with anyone, involves first working to transform our inner condition for the better. 

Ikeda Sensei explains:

For both better and worse, life tendencies at the deepest level are often passed from parent to child. The important thing is to transform negative, harmful tendencies into positive, constructive ones that can draw out our inherent goodness without limit. Nichiren Buddhism teaches that we all have within us the power to make that transformation. (The Teachings for Victory, vol. 4, p. 23)

Nichiren teaches us to appreciate our parents for simply bringing us into the world. Taking this point to heart can be a vital cause that opens many paths for improving ourselves and our relationships. It can be the starting point for overcoming resentment or indifference toward our parents; changing deep-seated negative tendencies that cause us to suffer; and even treating all people with more compassion.

Parents generally want their children to become dependable, fulfilled and happy adults. We can deepen our character and appreciation for our parents by striving to understand them and the struggles they must have endured. 

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and fully engaging in Nichiren Buddhist practice enables us to take full responsibility for our lives and learn how to become initiators of change.

In this letter, the Daishonin offers concrete ways to express gratitude to those who gave us life. He advises Tokimitsu that, even if we cannot offer our parents anything else, we can at least offer them a smile two or three times a day. 

Yet some may find smiling at a parent who is causing them grief a near-impossible feat. In such cases, it is still good to chant and work toward developing an authentic feeling of appreciation. 

Positively changing our relationships with our parents is the steppingstone to creating genuine bonds of trust, respect and care with those in our communities and beyond.

Sensei states:

When you smile at your parents, brightening the depths of their hearts, you make the cause for the start of fundamental change. A sincere smile is a kind of “switch” that puts you, your family and your community on the track to developing a higher state of life. (The Teachings for Victory, vol. 4, p. 24)

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

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