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.