In the midst of a robust discussion of not just how, but whether, to teach Buddhism to children, I found a news item on the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple's 13,200 square-foot Family Dharma Center, scheduled to open next week. The center has basketball and volleyball courts, a stage, classrooms, and a big kitchen for cooking for community events. It will be used by the temple's basketball and volleyball leagues as well as by the Central California Young Buddhist Association, a dharma school, Fresno Gumyo Taiko and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.
I take it the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple is not spinning its wheels over the question of whether to introduce Buddhism to children.
The Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple is a Jodo Shinshu temple that traces its origins to a religious gathering held in 1899 in Fresno's Japanese community. That gathering was led by the Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima of the San Francisco Bukkyo Seinenkai -- the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA). A Fresno YMBA was established in 1900, which led to the dedication of a temple in 1902. So, from the beginning this temple was dedicated not just to the spiritual needs of individuals but also of whole families and the entire community, and young people in particular.
In Asia, there are many sorts of Buddhist observances in which children participate, such as the candlelight processions of Magha Puja, "washing" the baby Buddha or even Buddha's Birthday parties. The culture supports open integration of Buddhism into family and community life in many ways.
One of the striking things about Buddhism in the West is that western converts usually do not join Buddhist communities established by and for ethnic Asians but instead have built their own dharma centers. And yes, racism plays a part in that, although I think ignorance of foreign languages and feeling intimidated by foreign cultures are also factors.
For the most part, dharma centers established by western converts have been focused on the individual spiritual path. My original Zen sangha provided no models and no community support for integrating Buddhism into family life, and I understand that has been typical of many other dharma centers. Over the years I've seen many people engaged in formal Zen training completely drop out of it when the kids come along. One of my arguments in favor of "child friendly" dharma centers is that it would help support the practice of parents.
On the other hand, a number of converts seem to retain hard feelings about their own religious upbringings, and they argue that children shouldn't be taught religion at all. But if we lock our children out of our religious lives, are we teaching them to be "free thinkers," or are we imposing a bias against religion? If Buddhism is not about adopting views, why should we be afraid that teaching our children something about Buddhism will rob a child of his ability to think for himself?
As I've said before "teaching Buddhism to children" probably is not going to involve much in the way of teaching doctrine, mostly because I can't imagine how one would teach the Four Noble Truths to a child, at least not before high school age. Buddhist education for a child would, I think, be more about cultivating values, including the value of respecting other religions, and perhaps giving children a rudimentary understanding of karma and dependent origination.
Yes, parents can teach those things to children, but kids get a very different model of reality from school and popular culture. Reinforcement doesn't hurt.
I grew up in a very small Bible Belt town in the 1950s and 1960s. The community was so dominated by conservative "born again" Christians that books discussing evolution were removed from the public library, never mind the schools. So, yes, I witnessed all sorts of craziness imposed on children in the name of religion.
Yet there is a way to raise children in a religious tradition and still encourage them to ask questions and think for themselves. Somehow I was raised that way, so I know it's possible.
Further, sanghas established by ethnic Asians, such as the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple, surely have a lot to teach us converts about community and family Buddhism. It's way past time for the gap between us to be closed.