The Dharma in Family

Minh Ngan Tran

Many of my practicing friends agree -- family is different and more difficult. I hadn't really understood why until last month, when the answer suddenly appeared in my mind while I was spending time with my family in Los Angeles. Family is different because we cannot break up with family! Well, technically, we can, but it is much more difficult to break up with family than it is to break up with friends or even boyfriends or girlfriends. With friends and significant others, we can run away when things turn sour, when we don't like them anymore. With family, we cannot run away.

Family is as unbreakable a unit as human social units can be unbreakable. As such, it is a test that we, as practicing folks, must face -- how do we keep a correct relationship with our family? how do we use the practice to maintain harmony and help our family? These were the Big Questions I sat with in my recent trip home. Thanks to these Big Questions, I learned one particularly important teaching, a lesson I hadn't ever observed or understood well before -- the importance of keeping my mouth closed:

1. Critiques: I saw how family gossip, especially in the form of critiques of this person or that person, is common. Once I noticed this, I was more careful about what I said, and sometimes, I realized that it was best not to say anything at all. During one car ride, I kept silent for nearly half an hour as two other family members discussed what they liked and didn't like about another family member.

2. Checking: I really care about my family, and I noticed that, because of this love, I check my family's speech and actions much more -- this is correct, that is not correct, correct, not correct... Why did he say this? Oh no, she shouldn't have done that. One morning I woke up and said to myself, "Enough! No checking today! No matter what happens, put down your opinions and just follow the situation."

3. Control: Again, because I care about my family, sometimes I want to control their situation or their actions. Then I realized that there is only so much that I can do. I can share my perspective and do my best to help, but ultimately, we are each responsible for our own karma. With this revelation, my mind relaxed. I must first practice hard and transform my own karma, and then I can better help my family and all beings transform theirs.

I've heard several Zen Masters share the same teaching: even if only one person in the family practices, that will help the entire family. So here I am renewing my vow to practice hard, see my true self, and then help all beings -- family included!