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Barbara O'Brien

Family Buddhism

By January 23, 2010

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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.

January 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm
(1) Meredith says:

Thank you for bringing this topic up. I have been wanting to find a teacher and start a Zen practice for a while now (I got a cursory introduction to Zen through the martial arts) but I find myself balking because it feels wrong to pursue something that will take more time away from my family life. Does anyone have suggestions?

January 29, 2010 at 2:32 am
(2) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, Can you please stop using the word “convert”..This is a pure Christian terminology to change of religion. I differ to look at “Buddhism” as a religion…that was a tragedy happened. People worship “Buddha” statue…that was another tragedy in the history of Buddhism..who talked about the danger of idol worship.

January 29, 2010 at 3:49 am
(3) Ananda Kumaraseri says:

Dear Barbara,
It is sad that there is no clear understanding of Buddhist Pedagogy and Buddhist Education. The Buddha is acknowledged as the Pearless Teacher, the Unparalled Teacher, the Teacher of Gods and men etc. yet, we do not know how he taught and trained all strata of society.He admonished parents that they are duty bound to guide and teach their children as Pubba Acriyas ( First and Foremost Teachers) and to regard the home as their children’s First School. He himself taught his son Rahula. The most powful pedagogy he used was to ,”tach by example”. Furthermore, The Enlightened One had underlined the importance of practicing Ghabbaparihara (protection and development of not only the physical, but equally important, theemotional, psychological, moral, etical and spiritual reinforcement of the foetus) based on the reality that the mind of the unborn child is alive and functioning in the mothers womb. Modern medical reseach and scintific experiments have amply validated the Buddha’s understanding of what is today referred to as foetal environment.In fact i have dealt extensively on the above subject matter in my latest book titled , “Mothercare and Parenting : Key to Social Structuring” In addition , I have produced several educational materials for children and teenagers based on the Buddha’s pedagogy. Anyone is welcome to refer to my blog livingbybuddhism.blogspot.com for an insight into these subject-matters.

January 29, 2010 at 7:06 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Can you please stop using the word “convert”

No, not unless I can think of another word for “people raised in western culture in another religious tradition who choose to become Buddhists.”

January 29, 2010 at 7:31 am
(5) Zhi says:

Very hard do I try to be part of the Chinese Buddhist Community in my country, but with failure. South Africa – a country known as very racially orientated – might have had a Mandela and now a modern Constitution, but old attitudes remain.

I am prepared to intigrate with the Chinese Buddhist (mostly from Taiwan), but you find this “silent Wall of China” that you cannot penetrate. Some Chinese immigrants refer to me (in my own country of birth) as a foreigner!

But I will continue with paramita of perseverance and see whether they can accept me or not. It has only been five years that I tried. Perhaps another five years might see me through.

January 29, 2010 at 8:39 am
(6) JoeBuddha says:

Zhi, you’re probably looking for a particular Buddhist practice, so good luck with that. There IS an SGI organization in South Africa if you’d be interested in my form of Buddhism. Just google “sgi south africa”. It’s not Zen, but I like it… ;)

January 29, 2010 at 8:43 am
(7) JoeBuddha says:

Oh, and for the record: SGI has a lot of family support groups and activities all over the country. We’ve been working on including families for many years.

January 29, 2010 at 8:00 pm
(8) athene says:

The word “convert” is something I have never applied to myself. As a child the questions I needed answered could have only been answered by a Buddhist practitioner or one who understood the Buddhist teachings. When I was formally introduced to the Dharma, my impression was that finally there was a place where I can engage, hence the reason I don’t call myself a convert. If I had adopted some other system, then I’d be a convert. Buddhism was and is, in my bones it’s who I am and how I manuever through life. Anything else would be a conversion.

I think we need to acknowledge that not all of us are Westerners, ( newly introduced to the teachings) so to speak. If we understand karma and rebirth, then some of us are gravitating to what we’ve known throughout all our life-times and we may have been reborn in families that claim to be of a different leaning, but we are not converts who have made a decision to to follow dharma. It is who we are, what we have always practiced, we are just now meeting it again where we NOW exist. Rebirth happens all over the world and one can expect it to happen in the Western world also.

It would have been wonderful if my family had introduced me to dharma, but they were completely unaware. I have 4 grandchildren and I expose them to my practice along with the practices of their parents and friends. I believe it is a good and wholesome environment, it challenges their minds and helps them to honestly integrate values and ethics. It isn’t one-sided, but open, and respectful of all traditions. They have friends of many traditions and are open-minded to whatever nurtures them. Their parents are not Buddhist practitioners, but they have adopted meditation as a daily practice and really enjoy the tong-len practices. The children like that they have been exposed to the many practices of the adu;ts in their life. There is no demand to be anything or labeled . They have been on Buddhist retreats, Hindu retreats, Christian retreats and even Native American retreats. These are Black children, dealing with whatever the groups have as an issue, but they are children who want to find there “spiritual” place, wherever it is. Things may change in the future, but ensuring that they were exposed to many different traditionsI feel is the best for them. They model equanimity for me.

January 29, 2010 at 9:19 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

If we understand karma and rebirth, then some of us are gravitating to what we’ve known throughout all our life-times and we may have been reborn in families that claim to be of a different leaning, but we are not converts who have made a decision to to follow dharma.

Forget karma and rebirth; if you understood anatta, you would know that ultimately there are neither converts nor “people who have made a decision to follow dharma.”

However, here in Relative World written communication requires the use of predicates, meaning things have to be called something, and I sure as bleep am not going to keyboard “people raised in western culture in another religious tradition who choose to become Buddhists.” every time I want to refer to “people raised in western culture in another religious tradition who choose to become Buddhists.”

So, unless someone can come up with another designation that is more agreeable, I will use “converts.” I trust you can all adjust. Thank you.

February 2, 2010 at 11:59 pm
(10) Patrick says:

Thanks for bringing this up. I’m a teacher and have for some time now wondered about how I might bring the spirit of Buddhism into my teaching practice. There is a nice series of books for children called “Zen Tails” that teach some of the Dharma in ways kids might understand. I wonder if any other teachers have ideas to share.

For the record, my own center (Shambhala, Los Angeles) has seen an influx of families with children and is attempting to help them with classes geared to parents, family days (child care provided) and children’s (festival) days. It’s all fairly new, but seems to be flourishing.

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