Children and Buddhist practice sometimes seem at odds with each other in North America. Although there is a small percentage of “Dharma Brats” (or children and young adults whose parents converted to Buddhism) who have practiced for most of their lives, it seems to be much less than you would find amongst people from other religious/spiritual backgrounds. This seems especially true amongst the Tibetan, Zen, and Vipassana convert communities made up of predominantly middle and upper class, college educated, white North Americans.

Over at Cheerio Road, Karen Maezen Miller has a post entitled “not teaching children to meditate” that demonstrates some of what I’m talking about. I actually agree with a few of her points, 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.

One of the comments in the Cheerio Road post I probably most bristle at is this:

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.

In addition, Pure Land and Nichiren communities in North America, which are still predominantly Asian-American in membership, seem to have fairly strong programs for children of all ages. Historically, these sanghas functioned as cultural hubs for incoming Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other Asian immigrants, where children were simply integrated in a way similar to Christian churches. Today, these communities are attracting more racially diverse membership, and are less of the cultural hub that they used to be, as the descendants of the sanghas’ founding members have spread across the continent, left Buddhism, and/or have found other forms of Buddhism to practice. However, overall, from what I have seen, there still seems to be less of the uber-individualism that dominates many convert Buddhism communities.

3. 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 we don’t leave other things in life up to some sort of osmosis. Children go to school. They join recreation center leagues to learn how to play sports. They are put in classes to learn arts and crafts. Parents directly teach children social skills. So, what’s so different about spiritual practice?

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. I have seen how structures like zazen, chanting, and bowing can be offered as opportunities to explore life at an early age, as well as how basic Buddhist teachings can be offered in the same way. And the children respond. It impacts their lives, and the lives of their friends and family. The children I have worked with are generally more able to handle difficult emotions than the average child, and they seem to be more attentive to the details of their lives, regardless of what they think about actual Buddhist teachings. Some of them will eventually find a different path, or will rebel against what they’ve been taught. But that seems pretty natural to me. It’s not what is taught, but how it’s approached that matters most in my opinion. And Buddhism is ready made to be worked with openly, as an exploration and experiment.

So, 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, overall, 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?

Photo by: drspam

Nathan Thompson

Nathan Thompson is the author of the blog Dangerous Harvests, and is a regular contributor to Life as a Human webzine. He's been a member of Clouds in Water Zen Center since 2002.

Website: Dangerous Harvests