Mothering Lessons from a Three-Legged Doe

Mothering Lessons from a Three-Legged Doe

by Heather Panahi

It has been said that the Dharma is everywhere. Breathing deeply and observing mindfully opens us up to the possibility that everything—a stranger, a lotus blossom, the clouds in the sky—contains the Dharmakaya within it. As a long time practitioner in the tradition of the venerable monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, I have certainly found this to be true. In my own life, I have discovered that when my heart and mind are open, the Dharma is indeed all around me and ripe for the taking. Because of this, I have had many great teachers in my life. However, perhaps the most profound lessons I have learned about myself haven’t come from a stranger, or a lotus blossom or the clouds in the sky. Much of what I have come to accept as truth about life, about unconditional love, about parenthood, and about perseverance in the face of adversity was taught to me by the most unlikely of teachers: a three-legged doe.

Anyone who has spent time at Blue Cliff Monastery has either seen, or at the very least, heard of the three-legged doe. Though completely wild, she has been a permanent resident in the woods behind Great Harmony Hall for as long as I can remember. In the summer, you will find her in early hours of dawn, breakfasting on the plum tree in front of Heavenly Music dormitory. In the winter and fall, she beds down behind the brothers’ dining hall, while in the spring, she bides her time in the woods behind the Blue Cliff garden. The three-legged doe is quite a majestic sight to behold, particularly when she runs.  One would never believe the beauty and grace that lies in such an obvious disability.

Struggling as a Mother

She imparted the first Dharma lesson to me in the summer of 2009, in the midst of an especially trying day. Looking back now, I am not sure what set me off, only that the morning’s Dharma discussion had dredged up within me a deep melancholy that I hadn’t felt before. At its core was my frustration at the choices I was making as a parent. At the time, my daughters were eight and twelve. One was on the brink of teenager-dom, while the other was prone to regular temper tantrums. To put it simply, I was at my wit’s end and at some point that late morning, I had lost my temper with either one or both of my children.  In any event, I was now teeming with guilt.  I felt hopeless, tired, and very alone, as my husband (my better, calmer half), had not joined us on this particular retreat.  And so, with a heavy heart I left my children crying in the dorm for a walk in the woods. Perhaps with a bit of breathing and alone time I could cool off and find my bearings.

I recall running towards the woods, tears of frustration pouring down my cheeks; all I wanted was to flop down somewhere and have a good cry. This is exactly what I did. As soon as I found cover in the trees, I threw myself down on the ground and sobbed like a lost child. I remember thinking, “I’m not cut out for motherhood.  I just can’t do this anymore.” The sorrow and guilt were overwhelming. At that moment, I heard the snap of a branch in the trees to my left.  Thinking it was another lay friend or perhaps one of the sisters, I scrambled to my feet and quickly wiped my eyes. And that’s when I saw her for the first time. She was lunching on a sapling of some sort, and we were so close that I could actually hear her chewing. Our eyes locked and we stood there staring at one another for what felt like a lifetime. I no longer heard the birds in the trees or the sound of the children laughing over the hill. It was just me and the doe.

The Power in Being a Good Parent

After some time, she backed away from me and headed toward a small pond in the distance. It was only as she began to hobble away that I realized she was missing her front right leg at the shoulder. “But how could this be?” I wondered. “How could an animal living in the perils of the wild survive such an injury and live to adulthood?” As I asked myself these questions, the three-legged doe sunk down into the shallows of the pond, the cattails now obscuring her from my view.  Incredulous at what I had just experienced, I jogged around to the other side of the pond to look for her among the reeds.

It took me a moment to find her, but when I did, I was astounded at what I beheld. The three-legged doe was nuzzling not one, but two, fawns. They could not have been but a few days old as they were still nursing at her underside.  It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, and caught up in the moment I again started to cry. But this time, however, they were tears of gratitude and joy. The three-legged doe looked out across the pond and our eyes once again locked.  And it was then in the depths of her big, brown eyes, that I heard the Dharma. It said,  “None of us are perfect.We all bring deficiencies to our roles as parents. But the power of being a good parent lies in the ability to recognize and embrace those deficiencies and to remember that what really matters is perseverance and love.”

And then I told myself quite simply that if a three-legged doe can beat the odds and raise two fawns in the wilds of Upstate New York, then I too can find the strength to carry on as a mother, an albeit imperfect mother. I bowed to my new teacher and took leave of her so that I might find my children and apologize. When I found them, I hugged them with all of my heart and soul and asked for their forgiveness.

Perseverance and Self Love

Since that first encounter, the three-legged doe has visited me on every occasion I have visited Blue Cliff. I think it also bears mentioning that every summer since then, she has given birth to a new set of twins, and many of them have remained with her into adulthood so she has her own little herd of sorts—a sangha, if you will. What is perhaps most astonishing, though, is that I never find her. In fact, should I go looking for her, I never come upon her as I did that first meeting. No. She finds me. And it is always when I am at my lowest point. When I am suffering deeply, or feeling guilty, this is when she appears.

Two summers ago as I sat in Dharma sharing, I was lamenting my struggles of dealing with my now teenage daughter, who was battling anorexia. Tears streaming down my face, I said,I feel like I have failed her as a mother, you know? What kind of parent doesn’t see that her child is suffering until it’s almost too late?” Believe it or not, at precisely that second, as the words left my mouth, the three-legged doe emerged from the tree line encircled by her two newest babies. “Perseverance. No mother is perfect. Love yourself,” she said to me. And my heart suddenly felt lighter.


The Dharma is in Everything

In his book, Being Peace, Thay tells us that “people who are awake, see the manifestation of the Dharma in everything. A pebble, a bamboo tree, the cry of a baby, anything can be the voice of the Dharma calling.” But for me, it is the most unlikely of mothers: a three-legged doe. She has taught me to love myself unconditionally, and to accept my weaknesses as strengths. After all, if she can do it, so can I.

This article originally appeared on the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation blog, here.


About Heather Panahi

Heather Panahi, Loving Teacher of the Heart, has been a student of Thich Nhat Hanh since the fall of 2001 and a lay friend to Blue Cliff Monastery since 2007. A teacher of African Studies and Political Science, Heather is deeply committed to infusing her curriculum with lessons on mindfulness, compassion, and meditation, in an effort to help her students to find balance in their often busy and stressful lives. Heather lives in Massachusetts with her husband Shahriar and daughters, Nora and Maya.

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