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In Praise of Life

Visiting my mother near the end of her life, I reveal the mother I want to be for my children.

Gratitude—Elaine Armstrong in Snoqualmie, Wash., April 2023. Photo by Mahin Rony.

by Elaine Armstrong
Snoqualmie, Wash.

Recently, my daughter and I have been having these very active, very pointed conversations about her childhood—what I did and didn’t do and how it’s affecting her now. She recalls how, in her teens, I’d pester her and how painful that was. And she recalls how one day, I stopped. 

“I think because you laid off the judgment back then, we have a relationship today,” she told me. What had happened was I’d sought guidance from a senior in faith. She asked me the very simple question, “How do you want to be remembered by your children?”

I’d thought of my own mother then, and a heaviness came over me. Did I want my daughter to feel heavy when she thought of me?

My mother’s life, I could tell you, was a kind of impossible quest, a search for someone who could give her the love she hadn’t gotten from her mother. The burden of fulfilling that quest was put on her family. As I grew older, I grew tired, aware that I was partnered in a dance of give-and-take. Whatever I offered, she wanted double. And when I doubled, so did her wants. It was a dance that left me exhausted, closed-fisted, reluctant to engage. 

But she’s your mother, I’d think.

I’d go, but pushing hard—rigid, panicked, obligated. It wasn’t just with her, either. I was operating as all three of these things in all my relationships, all of the time. 

My husband knew as much. We were a young couple in 1976, living in Eugene, Oregon, when a young woman he was interviewing for the local paper started talking to him about Buddhism. “Something about a meeting in Seattle,” he said, handing me the phone. “I can’t make it, but you should go; she seems like a happy person.” That was enough for me. The bus fare to the meeting was $19—I remember that, scraping by as we were. 

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for the first time, surrounded by joyful people, I felt this tremendous relief. I just felt like, I’m OK, I’m fine! I’m enough, I’m enough!

Chanting morning and evening was one of very few things I found myself doing not out of obligation; hope welled up within me when I chanted, and with it, a sense of promise that I didn’t have to slog through life. When the May Commemorative Contribution activity came around, I based myself on a winning prayer that I’ve held dear since the start of my practice: to become a billionaire in treasures of the heart. To remove misery and impart joy—this, I came to understand, was the work of the Buddha, the work of a bodhisattva and the life’s work of Ikeda Sensei. In 1981, at 28, I got to see this in action.

I was among the youth training course participants who had the opportunity to have dinner with Sensei on a trip in Japan. I remember looking around at my bright, smiling peers. Am I better or worse than this person, more or less than that person? My sinking heart told me what it thought. And then Sensei walked in and all those thoughts flew out the window, and my heart danced. Sensei was radiant; he treated each person like they were the greatest person, for whom he held the greatest expectations. I’m seated at the best table on earth, I remember thinking, with the best people. 

Elaine and her daughter, Joanna, in Snoqualmie, Wash., April 2023. Photo by Mahin Rony.

Sensei approached each of us as a Buddha, seeming to draw the Buddha out from each of us. I decided that night that I wanted to move through life like that, with joy and freedom and vigor! But of course, revealing our Buddhahood is not a one-and-done “poof-you’re-a-Buddha” kind of deal. No, it’s more like brushing your teeth. You do it in the morning and then you do it in the evening, and you’re not bewildered when you wake up with bad breath. You just go and brush your teeth. Often, I’d wake with a negative voice in my head, telling me I was falling short of something. But I knew the answer: a fighting morning gongyo based on a prayer to limitlessly expand my life. 

In 2012, my mother called. Sick and nearing the end of her life, she wanted to see me. I panicked. I didn’t want to go out of obligation, but in that moment, that was all I felt. I had to ask myself, How much do I want to extend? Fear took hold: If I extend a hand, she’ll take my arm. I sat down to chant; this was a decision I had to base on the world of Buddhahood, not obligation or shame. And as I chanted, hope and courage welled forth from my life. My life is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I thought. I am a billionaire in treasures of the heart! 

From this elevated life state, I realized something: I couldn’t make my mother feel loved, but I could love her without reservation, knowing that this was enough. As I continued chanting, my appreciation for my mother continued to grow and grow. I kept up the strong daimoku when I went to visit and, while there, something mysterious happened.

I went to her unworried whether I could fulfill her expectations; I just went to her expecting to find a Buddha. And approaching her this way, for the first time in my life, she seemed to relax, to let go and just enjoy my company. I was enough, she was enough; in fact, the two of us were wonderful, the greatest people on earth.

In April the same year, she passed away, and that May, I contributed to the SGI with deep appreciation—for my life, for hers, for my mentor and for our Buddhist community. Again I gave, in the way that I wanted, in the way that my mentor would have, in praise of life, as a billionaire in treasures of the heart.

Basing my prayer on a spirit of unconditional appreciation has been the key to achieving a stunning reversal in self talk. Living with this spirit, I don’t panic, berate or pester myself, but praise, praise, praise. I can feel and hear the difference. My daughter will tell you the same. 

The heart is our unsurpassed treasure in life. It is endowed with tremendous potential and supreme nobility. Its depth and breadth can be expanded infinitely, and its strength can be developed without bounds.

from Ikeda Sensei (The Teachings for Victory, vol. 1, p. 191)

May 3, 2023, World Tribune, p. 5

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