Can I improve a complicated relationship with my parents?

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We all want a loving and positive relationship with our parents but, at times, that’s an elusive idea.

Just as no two people are alike, every family is unique, as are the relationships between each family member. Tensions may arise between parents and children because of differences in values and beliefs, substance abuse, complex family histories or due to parents not accepting their children for who they are or vice versa.

The 13th-century Buddhist teacher Nichiren Daishonin shares a key point with one of his young supporters Nanjo Tokimitsu about how to fundamentally improve 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

Wait, what? This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to a parents’ bad or destructive behavior; instead Nichiren is affirming that our inner transformation is the key to bettering all our relationships.

Nichiren 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 practiced Buddhism sincerely 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 person responsible for the family business at age 16.

Nichiren repeatedly encouraged Tokimitsu, still young and inexperienced, to help him develop into a strong pillar for his family, a reliable leader for his village and a committed Buddhist dedicated to helping those around him.

A Heart of Appreciation Can Change Our Relationships

In the passage above, Nichiren encourages 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 ourselves for the better.

Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda 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 giving us life. Regardless of what our parents have done, the reason we can enjoy a beautiful day, eat a delicious meal or achieve our big dreams is because our parents brought us into this world.

Taking this 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 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 trying to understand them and the struggles they must have endured.

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and studying Buddhism enables us to take full responsibility for our lives and learn how to become initiators of change.

We can deepen our character and appreciation for our parents by trying to understand them and the struggles they must have endured.

Be the First to 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.

In reality, if we can change a difficult relationship with our parents, we can change any type of relationship. That’s why positively changing our relationships with our parents is the stepping stone to creating genuine bonds of trust, respect and care with those in our communities and beyond.

Ikeda writes:

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

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