Service to Difficult Parents

I’m in the process of reading Ven Thanissaro’s The Wings to Awakening and have hit a section where the suttas discuss service to one’s parents. While I am blessed to have a good relationship with my family (not without having been through a lot of hardship), in the transgender community in which I work this is often no the case. Many people are abused or disowned by their parents or otherwise have a strained relationship.

In light of people whose parents are difficult, to say the least, do the suttas offer any advice on helping them?

AN 2:33 says

“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.”

This is a lot more difficult when parents refuse to speak to you or are outright hostile during any discussion. I get the sense Buddha encountered at least one person whose parents were cruel and maybe gave some sort of guidance.



For some reason, the following verse came to mind…

SN46.54:13.6: The apex of the heart’s release by compassion is the dimension of infinite space, I say, for a mendicant who has not penetrated to a higher freedom.

Compassion gives without expectation of return. When rain comes to the desert, flowers bloom, but not for the rain, which has long since gone.


Ven Thanissaro addressed this point skillfully in his essay on The Lessons of Gratitude. (The Lessons of Gratitude | Head & Heart Together) He affirms the indebtedness even to terrible parents since they gave you life and chose not to actually kill you; and later points out that some parents can be so cruel that he advises using the sense of indebtedness towards them for developing spiritual urgency (lest you fall into the hands of such cruel benefactors again).

(Minor edits)


There are other discourses regarding parents which I also found helpful.

  1. Parents as the “first deities” (AN)
  2. Sigalaka Sutta
  3. Sakka’s vows to support his parents

Some general information on this wiki page could be helpful: Filial piety in Buddhism - Wikipedia

I find it helpful to think of parents in a more impersonal way, seeing “mother” and “father” as positions which the two beings who happen to be my parents in this lifetime happen to hold.

This acknowledges that they may not be my parents in future lives (annica).
It also reduces the emotional loadedness and tenseness common in many “personal relationships.”
Though it may appear particularly self-interested to many, it also helps keep me incentivized to provide service to “the beings who happen to be my mother and father in this lifetime” by thinking of the potential rewards of fulfilling my responsibilities towards them - key: regardless of whether they fulfill theirs towards me or not. “Those two beings shall reap what they sow, I shall reap what I sow” - or so the thought process goes.

It just so happens that I am relatively happy “with the two beings who happen to be my parents in this life,” but in my mind, that makes it even more important for me to recognize the impersonality and potential peril of this situation: if I neglect my responsibilities to serve, help, etc. (for example, by trying to suitably establish them in faith, ethics, generosity, and wisdom, as mentioned in OP) the two beings who happen to occupy the position of the mother and father in relation to me in this lifetime, it could jeopardize or decrease the chances of being fortunate enough to be born to “relatively good parents/mothers and fathers” in future lives.

I agree that developing all four Brahma Viharas as suitably as possible seems helpful - all beings includes both oneself and one’s parents too.

These are some ways in which I find it helpful to relate to, regard, serve, and view my parents in an impersonal and hopefully suitable way, such that “that quarter/side is secured” (as mentioned in the Sigalovada Sutta: The Buddha's Advice to Sigalaka). By keeping in mind that all six sides must be secured could also diffuse tension from just parents and spreading the concern towards all six sides and appropriately addressing all 6 sides as suitably as possible, as opposed to fixating narrowly on one’s issues with one’s parents even when such a problem seems all-encompassing. In the similar vein, keeping in mind that problems with one’s parents in simply one of various manifestations or forms of dukkha could also help keep a proper perspective - the “miracle” cure to dukkha (even those associated with one’s parents) being the development of the eightfold path.


@SeriousFun136, very well stated, thank you.

Edited to add:
My relationship with my parents improved dramatically after I started to study Buddhism and began to view them as fellow suffering beings in Samsara who have done more for me than anyone else can in this life, and who are deeply attached to me hence vulnerable to me. Taking this more dispassionate view made me respectful (for the 1st time) and compassionate towards them.


:pray: Also, very well said! :pray:


This is aligned with the message of MN21 on the importance of patience and love even when faced with abuse and criticism.

The AN5.162 is another noteworthy sutta our venerable friend @Brahmali usually reads in his retreats on the topic of how to deal and subdue any resentment, hatred or ill-will that may exist towards others who may have abused or mistreated us.


I don’t have a direct answer to the OP, but it reminded me of a personal experience i had few months ago.

I live in a conservative country where people are expected to respect and love their parents regardless how good/bad they are. I have a colleague who is a fresh graduate and whose father passed away few months ago. Where i live, people visit the deceased relatives and offer condolences for three days after the burial.

When we went to visit, i found one of my cousins who knew the deceased (he was his wife’s uncle). He came and sat next to me, and told me that the deceased was sick for nine years, and that his ex-wife (the mother of my colleague) brain washed her kids against their father, so he was neglected and no one visited him while he was sick. I listened and chose not to comment because my colleague is nice to me, and how he felt towards his father is not my business, but i admit that i felt a bit uneasy after listening to my cousin. Right after the three days of condolences, my colleague traveled to India for a holiday which is a bit unusual in our cultural.

When i went back to the office, we had an intern from Stamford university, a well educated and intelligent woman. She told me that she noticed that my colleague spoke fondly about his mother, but never spoke about his father. She also told me that she has issues with her parents, and she visits them once a year. She said that being biologically/genetically related to someone does not mean that you have to love them.

In Camus’s “The Stranger” the main character in the novel did not show any signs of sadness when his mother passed away, and in his trail, he was judged based on that.

The complexity of our relationships with our families in general and our parents in particular has to do with the fact that we did not choose them, and yet, we are expected to love and respect them regardless of their personal flaws. We tend to associate gratitude with that which we are able to choose and have control over.

I think we have something to learn from both conservationism (which emphasizes traditional roles) and liberalism (which emphasizes individual freedom and liberty). From the former, we learn how to live with and appreciate things that we have little choice or control over, and from the later, we can learn to see the human aspect of our parents and not to reduce them to the role they play in our life.


It’s a 2-year old thread that I’m reviving, so my apologies, but here’s a recent Op-Ed by a psychoanalist that seems relevant: 1 in 4 Adults is Estranged From Family and Paying a Psychological Price

(The author points out that if those who pulled away without severing ties were included, the # would be a lot higher.)


The catch is that after estrangement, adult children are not suddenly less dependent. In fact, they feel abandoned and betrayed, because in the unconscious, it doesn’t matter who is doing the leaving; the feeling that lingers is one of “being left.” They carry the ghosts of their childhood, confronting the emotional reality that those who raised us can never truly be left behind, no matter how hard we try. They live inside us, even without our permission. This is something that can never be canceled.

This doesn’t seem right? I think it is a teaching that goes against the teachings of the Buddha. I think that all of the ghosts of our childhood can be let go of, and that it is often the case that being away from the source of the original trauma is helpful to facilitate that. The Buddha has given us the tools to let go of the past, offer unconditional love and to unbind us from suffering.