Service to One’s Parents

How do you help abusive parents?

The suttas will occasionally talk about service to one’s parents.

“These three things have been promulgated by wise people, by people of integrity. Which three? Generosity… going-forth [from the home life]…& service to one’s mother & father. These three things have been promulgated by wise people, by people of integrity.”

AN 3:45, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation

Working in the trans community, a lot of people have a complex relationship with their parents, often strained, some people are outright disowned or abused by their parents. This makes any relationship at all a stressful one and service all that much harder. How are we to interpret this direction in light of abuse parents and strained relationships? There are a few things that are a given, not lashing out violently or harshly towards your parents, even as they do so to you. Not seeking to harm them and holding goodwill and compassion for them, remembering that no knife cuts one way. These are largely disengaged behaviors, a lack of doing. 

What’s an active service to troublesome parents? I wonder if any engagement is beneficial, given the circumstance one can predict that their parents might be at risk of holding ill-will during an engagement. In a certain light, engagement at all can be leading them into creating painful kamma. It seems weird to say that service involves non-engagement. Yet in my current job that is also the situation, some of the patients don’t respond well to engagement, they use another person to further ruminate and spin themselves into dysregulation. When left alone and monitored without engagement many learn how to regulate their emotions independently and are not inadvertently made worse by staff engagement.

I’m not a fan of the answer. I feel like there should be some magic solution to this that will resolve all tension. Maybe like a scab, it’s better to just let it heal rather than pick at it.

“Bhikkhus, there are two persons that cannot easily be repaid. What two? One’s mother and father.

“Even if one should carry about one’s mother on one shoulder and one’s father on the other, and [while doing so] should have a life span of a hundred years, live for a hundred years; and if one should attend to them by anointing them with balms, by massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they even void their urine and excrement there, one still would not have done enough for one’s parents, nor would one repaid them. Even if one were to establish one’s parents as the supreme lords and rulers over this great earth abounding in the seven treasures, one still would not have done enough for one’s parents, nor would one repaid them. For what reason? Parents are of great help to their children; they bring them up, feed them, and show them the world.

“But, bhikkhus, if, when one’s parents lack faith, one encourages, settles, and establishes them in faith; if, when one’s parents are immoral, one encourages, settles, and establishes them in virtuous behavior; when one’s parents are miserly, one encourages, settles, and establishes them in generosity; when one’s parents are unwise, one encourages, settles, and establishes them in wisdom: in such a way, one has done enough for one’s parents, repaid them, and done more than enough for them.”

AN 2:33, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation

The last paragraph here is of primary importance because it clarifies what constitutes service to one’s parents, that it’s not material giving. I wasn’t able to locate the original Pali online so I’m unsure of the root words being translated as “encourages, settles and establishes”. Yet here we can see that Buddha instructs us that if our parents are abusive or unwise, we ought to help them resolve that. Given that a person is individually capable of helping their parents in such a way that is ideal, yet I know the majority of people who experience abuse and exclusion from their parents are still scarred and healing. If such a person were to attempt to help their parents before establishing their own peace they’d be likely to cause harm or stagnate the situation.

I might suggest family therapy where it is accessible, having a trained professional who can help heal the pain created between parents and child, if successful, creates space for skillfulness to be developed. Otherwise, securing a stable refuge before attempting to resolve the issues of the parents.