Over the past little while I have been reading more Confucianism, and becoming more sympathetic to it for a variety of reasons. I’ve hardly converted to Confucianism, which is probably just as well; I sometimes think I’d be the world’s worst Confucian – not having children, living far from my parents, and having grown up regularly challenging their authority. To be fair, my parents – a Marxist and a child of the sixties – effectively encouraged me to challenge their authority. Still, in recent years and months I have come to sympathize with Confucianism a lot more. And it feels like the very least I can do is honour my parents in this forum.
I chose this week to do so because my mother, Dorothy Lele, just celebrated her birthday, and I will start by speaking of her. I have long admired my mother’s determination for self-improvement. She and I came to Buddhism at a similar time, in the mid-to-late ’90s, but it was more or less independent of each other. A friend introduced her to Goenka vipassanā meditation, and it made a dramatic difference.
I remember my mother from my childhood as a creature of stress and painful worry, never able to relax. No doubt a great deal of this derived from what a little hellion I was, but I don’t recall it improving significantly when I left for undergrad. Rather, it was once she had had a taste of Goenka’s practice that she had a marked change and became calm and peaceful.
Goenka’s practice is demanding. I took a Goenka course once; I had (and still don’t have) little other experience with meditation. Just before I began that course, I was speaking about it with a group of newagers highly experienced with meditation, and they expressed shock: “You’re starting with vipassanā?” The course involves an ascetic regimen that is closer to a traditional monastic life than are most meditation courses, so in many ways this constituted jumping in at the deep end. As it turned out, for me that asceticism, along with the closing meditation on one’s enemies, made a bigger difference for me than the meditation technique that the course was supposed to be primarily about. Dorothy’s experience was very different.
After the course, Goenka expects students to meditate for two hours a day. He claims this is less demanding than it seems because one will need an hour less of sleep as a result. I never tried to test this claim because even a net hour a day devoted to meditation seemed impossibly demanding. Not for my mother, though. Her time management has always impressed me. She both persevered through multiple courses and found the time to meditate daily afterwards. And what a difference it has made.
Dorothy has long said she sought peace, and by now I think she has found it. Even in difficult times, there is a calm about her. She still gets stressed out and unhappy, but it is both much less frequent and much less intense. Those who meet her now, like my wife, would be startled to hear her described as a stressful and worried person.
Most importantly, all of this came about through her own effort. Of course she needed the structure of the courses to get started, but she made the effort to attend those grueling and strenuous courses regularly amid a busy schedule, and follow it up with the practice of meditation. She has come to strike me as an exemplar of self-improvement – something very dear to my heart for most of my adult life.
I don’t recall her ever describing herself as a Buddhist. But not long after she had begun meditating, I was struck by the way she thought as a Buddhist, more than I ever have – always talking about impermanence, about craving and how to reduce it, and taking action accordingly. The Goenka-vipassanā Buddhism she has followed is very much Yavanayāna, but it is no less powerful for that; perhaps it is more.
I came to Buddhism through an entirely different path, being surrounded by it in Thailand in my youth. I read its teachings enough that they helped me make a breakthrough in my own life, in a way that had nothing to do with meditation. But as we have both grown in our adult lives, I have repeatedly seen my mother as exemplifying a good lay Buddhist life.
The gratitude I feel to my mother for the tremendous effort and generosity she showed in raising me is important, and something I probably don’t express to her enough. But in this public forum I want to express my gratitude to her for being such an example to me, of how one can transform oneself and become a better person. That is something I admire deeply and hope I might emulate in my own way.