Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Buddhist Children? - Thoughts on Children in Buddhist Families and Communities



Over at Cheerio Road, Karen Maezen Miller has a post entitled "not teaching children to meditate" that kind of gets under my nerves. I actually agree with some of what she's saying, and appreciate the experience she has had leading a children's program at a Zen Center, and also as a parent. I'm not a parent, so I sometimes feel like stepping in on issues like this aren't my territory.

At the same time, I have had multiple jobs working with children, spent three years as a teacher in our zen center's children's program, and am currently in the middle of a lot of discussions about the place and role of children and youth within our sangha. All of this gives me a small window of perspective. I'm not expert, but I'm also not someone who has no experience with kids, and just wants to pontificate. So, whatever I will say is coming from a somewhat outsider position, and I'd encourage parents who are Buddhist practitioners to chime in on this issue.

Of the comments in the Cheerio Road post, these are the one's I probably most bristle at:

About the spiritual training of young, my view is a bit of the same. How you behave in your home is their spiritual upbringing. I think we have to be careful with all forms of ideological indoctrination, and that is what spiritual training is in children: the imposition of a set of abstract beliefs and ideals. Children will take these from of us, but I don’t think dogma serves anyone for long. After all, I was a very good Sunday School student, the star of my confirmation class, and yet I had my own spiritual crisis to resolve later in life. We all do.

I always remind myself that I’m not trying to raise a Buddhist child. I’m trying to raise a Buddhist mother, and it’s taking all my time! Not only my family, but also everyone everywhere will be served by my devoted discipline in my own training. Not because I’m self-important, but in recognition of the one true reality: no self. We are all interdependent, which means we are all one.


Before I speak about my disagreements, I will say that above all, the behavior of adult mentor figures, whether parents, extended family, teachers, or others, IS of most importance. So, we agree there.

Now to the areas of contention.

1. The Sunday School example - it's no secret that many convert Buddhists grew up and/or had significant contact with Christian or Jewish communities. They have parents and/or grandparents who are, or were, devout Christians or Jews, and who forced them to attend regular religious instruction as a child, instruction that was often about feeding children a worldview that had to be accepted as true. So, there's an understandable desire to not repeat those experiences with their kids. However, how much of this concern over indoctrination valid, and how much is a reaction to what they experienced in Judeo-Christian settings?

2. Uber-Individualism - Buddhists in the "West," especially convert Buddhists, struggle with building long lasting, sustainable communities. Children and teens aren't always welcome, let alone considered vital members of the sangha. But beyond Buddhism, community in general is quite challenged in places like the U.S. Whereas in the past, friends, neighbors, and community elders were all to some degree or another considered part of the extended parenting family, today for most children, these people are often viewed with suspicion. Teachers, spiritual leaders, and other community leaders are also viewed as much with suspicion as being potentially good influences on children. Now, certainly there are valid reasons for some of this suspicion, and I think it's quite important for parents to be careful and minimize risks, but how much of the breakdown in community in general is due to obsession with the nuclear family, and an excessive focus on individuality?

When I think of the Karen, Korean, and Vietnamese Buddhist students I have had, all first generation immigrants, the picture is different. The children are cared for by extended family and neighborhood elders, they regularly attend Buddhist services with their families, and they are considered to be an important part of the sangha. This doesn't mean that these children have perfect lives - sometimes far from it - but whereas native born Americans struggle with community, immigrants and refugees tend to have thriving communities, religious and otherwise.

3. What does a healthy lay practice look like? One of my favorite questions these days. Adam over at Fly Like a Crow also has children, and his commitment to practice looks quite different than Ms. Miller's. I don't think one is right, and the other wrong. What I'm more interested in is about the different ways people can manifest deep practice while having a family and/or living in the world. It's wonderful that Karen Maezen Miller is a devoted Zen priest who not only helps lead a center, but also shares writing regularly about her practice with the world at large. But I think devotion will take different forms, just as how people raise children takes different forms. Even if more people examine the issues I spoke of in points 1 and 2, how they decide act on those examinations will look different in each case.

In other parts of Ms. Miller's post, she argues that children have a natural ability to be present. That they already "practice single-minded attention." And about Buddhist practice in general, she states:

The aim of all Buddhist practice is to return to our natural state of wide-eyed wonder and unselfconsciousness that we can observe in our children many times a day.


I don't agree. Childhood openness is wonderful and beautiful, but is it what "the aim" of Buddhist practice is? First of all, when I think of my own childhood, that wonderful openness she is speaking about was there, but sure as hell not always. And sometimes, rarely. Some of the time, at least, I was completely trapped in fear or anger, which stunted any curiosity or openness. I often acted out of convoluted views about both my own life and the world around me because I was - a kid. I didn't know any better. That's what kids do. And when I was in that more open, perhaps "pure or "natural state" - well, I was there, but I had no idea how to bring those experiences to bear on the rest of my life. Perhaps if I had been in a class where things like meditation and basic Buddhist teachings were taught, things would have been different. Or maybe not. But from what I have seen with the children and teens in my own sangha, they're ability to handle life's difficulties, to transfer that natural openness into the areas where they get closed down, is more advanced than what I displayed as a kid without a sangha.

This gets to my final point. In our sangha, we have a children's and youth program that not only teaches meditation, but also some of the basic Buddhist messages, such as the Four Noble truths and Eight Fold Path. The kids learn variations on the Buddha's life story, and have opportunities to explore it all through arts, crafts, discussion, meditation, yoga, and sometimes service projects. Some might say this is indoctrination, but my own experience as a teacher in the program was that it was about exploration, providing some structures and support for exploration.

And that is probably the main reason why I felt compelled to write all of this. Structures like zazen, chanting, and bowing can be offered as opportunities to explore ones life at an early age. Basic Buddhist teachings can be offered in the same way. If you are a Buddhist parent who is more in line with what Ms. Miller says, I'd like offer the following question: What is motivating your views? I don't ask this because I think you are necessarily right or wrong. It's more a question I think is worth exploring.

A few weeks ago, I spoke of our center as developing a "lifespan" practice field. We have always attempted to program not just for adults, but also for children. And in recent years, we have been starting to think more deliberately about what this means, and how we might better support people in all stages of life. So, I'm interested in what parents think out there. How do you work with children? How should sanghas work with children? How does your sangha in particular work with children?


*The image is of the banner of photos for our center's children's program. I thought about finding something else after I saw the distortion, but actually think it fits well as a visual with the discussion at hand.

20 comments:

NellaLou said...

Ted Biringer had an interesting post called

The Sole Purpose of Zen Buddhism


In it he quoted from the Shobogenzo:
"What was given to him was given solely for the purpose that he might master the wise perception of a Buddha. It was solely the wise perception of a Buddha which he was to master—and without being averse to contemplative meditation and diligence in practice."

Children are developing and live wholly in their developing egos reacting from that vantage point. They do not have the conscious framework to explore that vantage point. It is utterly real to them-as are dragons, unicorns etc.

The romanticization of children's viewpoints including the notion of "wise children" is one of the most overblown myths in Western culture. Now children do take note of things and often blurt out the obvious but to mistake that for "wisdom" in the Buddhist sense does a disservice both to children, who become put upon to be "seers" into things that are far beyond their years, as well as the Buddhist perspective. (It's not only in the West, I should add, there's the issue of child Tulkus or child goddesses-in India-that is similar)

Children's viewpoints are mediated with different filters than adults but they are nonetheless mediated and conditioned and as likely to miss the mark as adults who are also not self-aware or introspective or what have you.

Sorry to go on so long but sometimes this issue feels like a thorn in the side.

Let children be children without placing some kind of metaphysical or idealized burden of "wisdom" upon them.

Dean Crabb said...

"The aim of all Buddhist practice is to return to our natural state of wide-eyed wonder and unselfconsciousness that we can observe in our children many times a day."

Yes, I don't agree with this statement either. Not-self and mindfulness as an experience is very different to what we witness in children. There may be distinguishable qualities that appear similar but that doesn't mean they are the same. Just because we can look at an apple and from the surface think it is ripe, this doesn't mean it is. The same applies here.

I agree in raising children if you just focus on your own mindfulness you'll set a good example for them. They'll naturally see you meditating and ask questions when they are ready to understand.

I once was at a meditation class with Ajahn Brahmavamso. Someone asked him a question about raising children. He said regardless of religion it is most important to raise a child to be honest, kind and to question what they are told. In this their natural inquiry will lead them to develop their own wisdom as the mature.

I was raised Christian and later turned Buddhist. To me, regardless of religious choice the religious upbringing provided me with a meaningful structure for the my ego to develop until I was at a point that I could manage the structure on my own and make my own choices. But you can get that structure without the religion. And this is what parenting is really all about, managing the all the things for a child until they learn to manage them on their own as they grow. It starts out you are managing everything, what they eat, changing them when they poo themselves, teaching then cause and effect and responsibility through discipline and then bit by bit they grow. As they learn to self manage you let go. If we get caught up on the content of "this religion" or "that religion" or "no religion" we are missing the greater context of what parenting is about.

Metta
Dean

Mumon said...

This will, unfortunately, I thin require a blog post rather than a comment for response, as there are issues in a) parenting and b) one's own mind here.

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, Someone else had sent me a link to the Cheerio Road post so I had read it, and actually I agree with a lot of it. Although, like Nella Lou, I take issue with her rather romanticized view of childhood, I do think the strongest lessons for our children come from our actions that they see us doing every single day.

While your point about community may be valid, I think Miller's point about everyone having their own spiritual crisis also is valid. I wasn't raised in a particularly religious household but I did go to Sunday school in a haphazard way. I don't have any demons to banish in that area yet I still reached a point, first as an adolescent and then again as an adult, where I had to come to grips with emptiness. Or find a way that would help me come to grips with emptiness. The stuff I (barely) learned in Sunday school seemed inadequate and possibly irrelevant. It took me nearly 40 years to figure out that path, so it is possible that my example will spare my children a whole lot of years of aimless wandering, but it is still up to them to take up the practice or not. Attending a kids program or teens program may or may not lead to anything.

As a homeschooler, I am a firsthand witness to so much of what and how my children learn about the world, and how they turn it around in their heads and make it real. I don't force them to do worksheets of computation or memorize historical dates out of context, likewise I don't sit them down and read from a sutra. On the other hand, if I am reading a sutra and come across something particularly poignant or profound, I will share it with them. So it is that they understand some pretty complex math concepts and are quite well-versed in history. And they have a pretty good idea about what Zen is about. How did that happen?

It all leads me to believe that doing things by example is the only thing I can do. They know I sit every morning, that I chant and bow. They know I go off for sesshin and "come back happy" as my daughter once said. They also know that they will get different reactions from me and my husband, who isn't a practicioner. These things speak volumes.

What other way could there be?

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, did this already go through??

Someone else had sent me a link to the Cheerio Road post so I had read it, and actually I agree with a lot of it. Although, like Nella Lou, I take issue with her rather romanticized view of childhood, I do think the strongest lessons for our children come from our actions that they see us doing every single day.

While your point about community may be valid, I think Miller's point about everyone having their own spiritual crisis also is valid. I wasn't raised in a particularly religious household but I did go to Sunday school in a haphazard way. I don't have any demons to banish in that area yet I still reached a point, first as an adolescent and then again as an adult, where I had to come to grips with emptiness. Or find a way that would help me come to grips with emptiness. The stuff I (barely) learned in Sunday school seemed inadequate and possibly irrelevant. It took me nearly 40 years to figure out that path, so it is possible that my example will spare my children a whole lot of years of aimless wandering, but it is still up to them to take up the practice or not. Attending a kids program or teens program may or may not lead to anything.

As a homeschooler, I am a firsthand witness to so much of what and how my children learn about the world, and how they turn it around in their heads and make it real. I don't force them to do worksheets of computation or memorize historical dates out of context, likewise I don't sit them down and read from a sutra. On the other hand, if I am reading a sutra and come across something particularly poignant or profound, I will share it with them. So it is that they understand some pretty complex math concepts and are quite well-versed in history. And they have a pretty good idea about what Zen is about. How did that happen?

It all leads me to believe that doing things by example is the only thing I can do. They know I sit every morning, that I chant and bow. They know I go off for sesshin and "come back happy" as my daughter once said. They also know that they will get different reactions from me and my husband, who isn't a practicioner. These things speak volumes.

What other way could there be?

Carol Horton said...

Can't speak to Buddhism in particular, but in terms of general spiritual education, as a parent my view is that the most important thing is to be in tune with where your kids are as they grow and change. Bringing them to the sangha, church, temple, or whatever may be great at one age, but counter-productive at another.

As a general rule, I think that exposure to spiritual teachings in a collective setting is a good thing, but can be tricky. The in-home example, on the other hand, is consistently reliable.

Love and discernment in relationship with our children is I guess what it all boils down to for me.

gniz said...

I'm not a parent so my view on this probably would change if I had a child.

But I see this as something that you might hope would be child dependent. It's so strange how parents and adults just say "children" should be raised such and such ways, as if each child isn't their own unique individual with unique needs. Some children might WANT to explore meditation and sangha with their parents, some may not...

Do you think it would make sense to say either:

"I think all children should learn soccer"

or

"I don't think children should learn how to play soccer, they should just play whatever little games they invent along the way"

Obviously it depends on the kid and their interests and natural inclinations. But as usual, we're so into putting our ideas and needs and view onto children that we rarely stop to think of them as individuals.

Nathan said...

It's interesting how little the community aspect is touched upon in the comments, as well as in Mumon's post, which I took a look at. I find it quite curious how sangha - and actually functioning within in a sangha - seems to be mostly about being with adults. Perhaps I'm mis-reading things.

I'm also interesting in how much people seem to really trust the nuclear family experience in terms of raising children. That the "in home example" - as Carol puts it - seems to be highly trusted in comments here, in Karen Miller's post, and in other writings I have read. Whereas there's at least some skepticism towards collective experience.

My own experiences are certainly coloring all this, but when it comes to the "in home experience," I have worked with many children who were quite screwed by that. Abused, neglected, ignored, religiously indoctrinated - I've seen all of this. And while most of the parents involved were not Buddhists, a few were, at least in name.

And for these children, sometimes a connection with a spiritual community - Christian, Buddhist, whatever - was a source of support, even if they don't go on to follow the same tradition later in life.

So, just as collective experiences are tricky, so are nuclear family experiences. We all can think of examples of communities gone bad, but when you're own immediate family is functioning well, it's easy to forget that many others out there aren't.

Nathan said...

I want to be clear that I'm not advocating for a one way is the right way answer here. Mumon wrote about not bringing his child to zazenkai retreats. Makes sense.

This post isn't about assimilating children into everything a Buddhist sangha does - it's more about wondering why there is - or seems to be - a lot of resistance to integrating children into sangha life, why the response is so much different from parents who are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and even some Buddhists - who are part of communities that integrate children in some fashion, and who bring their children to at least some of their spiritual community's functions.

I honestly don't know how I would approach all of this if I had my own children, but I do know that a complete separation from the spiritual community(s) I attend makes no sense to me. And I also think the example of my own life, and the life of my partner, would be a primary influence, but not sufficient.

And all of this leads me back to what I see as lack of trust in collective experience that seems to run through Western Buddhist sanghas and practitioners.

The past four years of involvement in my own sangha has taught me the value of trusting in a larger group, even when I'm at odds with some of the decisions made, or when things are messy. This doesn't mean that I won't go solo at some point, or that, for example, the nuclear family structure isn't value. It is. And I can imagine some of you out there are doing a quite fine job in raising your kids without having them be part of a larger Buddhist community. In addition, I agree with Carol that there might be times in kid's life when being a part of a Buddhist class in a sangha may not be appropriate.

But I write this as a member of a community that has a thriving children's and teen program - and what I see in it is that there are things that happen in larger groups that rarely, if ever, happen alone or in the small nuclear family setting. And at the same time, this program is causing tension with others in the sangha who feel it's disruptive or taking us away from the sangha's mission. So, I'm quite curious about this dynamic, as well as what's happening in the comments here.

Dean Crabb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dean Crabb said...

"This post isn't about assimilating children into everything a Buddhist sangha does - it's more about wondering why there is - or seems to be - a lot of resistance to integrating children into sangha life, why the response is so much different from parents who [trimmed] bring their children to at least some of their spiritual community's functions."

I wasn't reading your post that way. Personally I think if kids are a natural part of your life then over time they'll get exposed to these communities. When I was at the monastery last week 3 Sri Lankan families turned up to provide dana, and they had a couple of kids with them. It was great and the kids seemed to really have a good time. They were running around and playing. Even one of the lay people commented "It's nice to have the sound of children around". It was so true. Through this they get exposed to the people and learn from it. It's all just exposure that becomes part of a child's (person's) life experience as they grow. It's all good.

"... what I see in it is that there are things that happen in larger groups that rarely, if ever, happen alone or in the small nuclear family setting."

I see what you are saying but my natural response is, of course, they are different community contexts so there will be differences. A family in itself is a community for the child but I don't think they differ that much. I think what you are experiencing is the parent's natural concern for their own child. This may be creating a sense of resistance but it's just about caring and protectiveness, not resistance.

"And at the same time, this program is causing tension with others in the sangha who feel it's disruptive or taking us away from the sangha's mission."

I think that is weird. Why the tension? Do they feel (selfishly?) that it should just be about them and their practice? Personally I think children are a part of life and it's important to raise them properly and to provide good structures and environments for their ego's to mature and grow. Exposure to ANY healthy community is an important part of the human experience. I don't think this is rocket science.

Metta
Dean

Barbara O'Brien said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

My children are grown now, but I began my Zen practice when my younger child was still in diapers. And my Zen sangha (I was a lay non-resident student of Zen Mountain Monastery in those days) gave me no hints, clues, or models for sharing my practice with my children.

And by "share" I certainly don't mean "indoctrinate" or "force the to be Buddhists." Just raising them to be comfortable around "Buddhist stuff" would have been nice. Then it would be there for them as adults if they chose to practice.

I point out also that Buddhist temples in ethnic Asian communities are not at all shy about including children in practice and providing programs for them. It's just us "converts" who seem to get hung up about providing religious education for children.

I was raised Christian also, and I had something like an eight-year perfect attendance record in Sunday School, but I actually enjoyed Sunday School. I didn't feel oppressed by it at all. I didn't leave Christianity because I felt ill-treated by it personally, but because I realized I didn't believe it any more. But after all these years some of those Sunday School lessons stay with me, and in a good way.

Religious education for children is not intrinsically evil. It depends on the child, I guess, and how it's done.

What is most important here is that there are no "shoulds." What's appropriate in one family, or for one child, is not necessarily the best thing for another family or another child. My argument is that it would be helpful to many parents if dharma centers provided programs for families and children. Families could chose to participate, or not; no pressure. But it would have been very helpful to me.

Barbara O'Brien said...

"I agree in raising children if you just focus on your own mindfulness you'll set a good example for them. They'll naturally see you meditating and ask questions when they are ready to understand."

The problem with that argument is that it's unlikely many parents meditate in view of children, especially small ones. Meditation time is after the kids are in bed or otherwise occupied.

My experience as a parent is that there was a firewall between the visible parts of my practice, such as meditation or chanting, and my parenting. I was a single mother with two children and no support or models from a sangha for teaching or showing my children anything about Buddhism, so they didn't see it.

Karen Maezen Miller said...

Interesting. I know of no parents who have a romanticized view of childhood. I know more Buddhists who have a romanticized view of Buddhism. If we view either with an eye to "outcome management," we err. If you read my actual post, you'll see that I suggest the time to teach children meditation is when they ask, not when we ourselves have a notion that it will help them turn out better.

Parents may recognize that the thought, "how will my child turn out" is the source of all parental anxiety.

All of this is intellectual. In practice, nothing and no one is excluded. We just respond appropriately to what is asked of us. Where's the debate?

Dean Crabb said...

"I was a single mother with two children and no support or models from a sangha for teaching or showing my children anything about Buddhism, so they didn't see it."

Barbara, yes, I agree with that and I did think of that but didn't write it. I think naturally Buddhism has an affect on us (as parents) and through time kids come to know and see that there is something uniquely different and beautiful about my parent. "Why are they so content, happy, at peace and calm?" and through this inquiry they discover and come to understand the difference. I know I did this with my parents.

Kids are a sponge and I think we tend to over think this topic. They pick up on our mannerisms, our way of speaking, our way of thinking, and even our way of viewing the world and way of being. This in itself leads them to the same natural conclusions that lead us down a certain path in our lives. We just have to trust in the natural process of this. And but that I'm not saying not to expose them to these good things, I just think that "If you live in a house made of ice eventually you are going to get wet". I think you get my drift with that metaphor. :-)

Metta
Dean

Nathan said...

Dean "I see what you are saying but my natural response is, of course, they are different community contexts so there will be differences. A family in itself is a community for the child but I don't think they differ that much. I think what you are experiencing is the parent's natural concern for their own child. This may be creating a sense of resistance but it's just about caring and protectiveness, not resistance."

This is a very fair observation. I agree that families are also communities, very important ones. I guess what I'm doing is challenging some of that protectiveness, because there's a lot of hand wringing - at least here in the U.S. - about lack of healthy communities, but when you go a little deeper, there's also a lot of resistance and rejection. I suppose this is how humans are - I'm certainly no different when it comes to places that scare me.

Barbara: "What is most important here is that there are no "shoulds." What's appropriate in one family, or for one child, is not necessarily the best thing for another family or another child. My argument is that it would be helpful to many parents if dharma centers provided programs for families and children. Families could chose to participate, or not; no pressure."

I'd like to think that our center is trying to model this. We have had a children's program since almost the beginning of the organization's existence, and at the same time, there is no sense that this is a "should" for members.

From what I have seen, there are some people coming to our weekly services just for the meditation and talk. They're either secular folks or members of other religious groups. And then there are those who have mixed families, where the partners aren't both Buddhist. So, at the very least, it's important for communities to make sure whatever messages they have about children don't alienate these members of the community.

Nathan said...

Karen:

"All of this is intellectual. In practice, nothing and no one is excluded. We just respond appropriately to what is asked of us. Where's the debate?"

If you survey North American convert sanghas, my guess is that you'll find working with children very low on the priorities. I may be wrong, but I don't think so.

You can dismiss this as intellectual debate, but it's quite a real discussion going on in my sangha right now, and I know we are not alone.

Barbara O'Brien said...

"I think naturally Buddhism has an affect on us (as parents) and through time kids come to know and see that there is something uniquely different and beautiful about my parent. and through this inquiry they discover and come to understand the difference. I know I did this with my parents."

Well, to be honest, through most of my parenting years I was battling massive depression and multiple job/financial crises, and I was hanging on to sanity by my fingernails. Zen practice helped, and without it I'm not sure I would have gotten through those years at all. But the calm, peaceful and happy stuff was not my life.

My life was willing myself to put one foot in front of the other, day after day, because my children needed something approximating a mother, and I was it. I did the best I could.

My children turned out to be lovely people anyway, in spite of having me for a mother. But being part of a religious community that made room for families and children would have been huge for me; it would have helped support my practice, if nothing else.

Jomon said...

Our Sangha, which has heretofore been unable to provide much for children due to space limitations, nevertheless highly prioritizes offering a children's program (we have a new building now). While there are many intentions flowing form this, as a non-parent, I see this less in terms of the potential benefit to the children being exposed to Dharma, but more about removing any barriers to parents' ability to practice.

Dean Crabb said...

Barbara wrote:

"Well, to be honest, through most of my parenting years I was battling massive depression and multiple job/financial crises, and I was hanging on to sanity by my fingernails. Zen practice helped, and without it I'm not sure I would have gotten through those years at all. But the calm, peaceful and happy stuff was not my life. [snip]My children turned out to be lovely people anyway, in spite of having me for a mother."

Barbara, I've been meaning to get back to this comment and reply so sorry for the delay.

While you've written this as if you disagree with me, I in fact feel your comments affirm what I've written. If I can speak openly I think you are being over critical of yourself as a mother. While I agree we may not always projected calm, happiness and peace it is our intention to do better and to strive for improvement that our kids pick up on. This instills something within them the inclination to do the same. Even you yourself admit that your kids turned out alright in the end. You have to give yourself credit, the proof is in the pudding. Even if you don't completely understand why or how, your efforts had a positive effect. They picked up on this positive intent.

Metta
Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com