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Faith column: Western Buddhism and kids

January 16, 2010

New column about Western Buddhists and the role/inclusion of children in their practice. Talked to some great folks, including David Zuniga who will be giving a talk on end of life issues Monday (Jan. 18) at 7 p.m. at the Shambhala Center. He’s a terrific speaker. My journalism students loved him. Check out his talk if you can.

And of course the full text:

Buddhist parents struggle with how to pass on traditions to children

A few years ago, I was struck by a frank assessment made by Zen monk Clark Strand in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. “Buddhism,” Strand wrote, “must change or die.”

Americans began embracing the Eastern religion in a major way in the 1960s, he said, but they focused on the practice of meditation and spiritual retreats for themselves and failed to develop rituals and traditions to pass to their children.

More-established religions in the U.S. such as Christianity and Judaism provide structured religious formation for children through baptisms, bar and bat mitzvahs, Bible and Hebrew schools. But, Strand argued, Western Buddhist centers are not always as family friendly.

Since reading that piece, I’ve wondered how Western converts introduce their children to Buddhism. Most had never seen Buddhist concepts through a child’s eyes and perhaps had never encountered children in the meditation sessions they attended.

I recently reconnected with one of my Buddhist sources, David Zuniga, who happened to be tackling this question with his own family.

I had interviewed Zuniga a few years ago about his ordination as a priest in the Taego order, a lineage of Korean Zen Buddhism. Back then, Zuniga shared his South Austin home with his wife Sunni and their pets. He set up a shrine in a quiet spare room where he could chant and meditate undisturbed.

When I returned to the Zunigas’ last month, I found a more joyful though certainly less serene environment after the arrival of 2-year-old Erin and 7-month-old Rory.

Quiet meditation doesn’t come easily anymore for the Buddhist priest, and in his role as father, Zuniga not only has to work harder to find time for his practice but also to model the spiritual values he upholds and teach them to his daughters.

“You’re their first introduction to all these things,” said Zuniga, who was raised Catholic. “They will experience all these ideas through you.”

As Westerners practicing a minority religion in the United States, the Zunigas come up with their own ways to teach their daughters about Buddhism and to create meaningful rituals and traditions. The Zunigas invited friends to share in a Buddhist baby blessing they created for Rory, a ceremony similar to the one they designed for Erin when she was an infant.

David Zuniga led his friends in a chant that invoked taking refuge in the Buddha, or teacher, in the dharma, or spiritual teachings, and in the sangha, or community. For Zuniga, his family can represent all three, and the same will be true for his girls in the years to come, he said.

Still Buddhism’s concepts might be especially challenging, especially for Westerners, Zuniga said.

There’s a comfort in knowing — or at least believing — in a religious narrative that provides answers such as the promise of heaven or the threat of hell. And those explanations might be easier for children to grasp.

But Zuniga said his Buddhist tradition embraces not knowing.

“There’s this idea of great doubt equals great enlightenment,” he told me. “It’s the idea that questions and not knowing is kind of the highest state. In the West we want to know everything. We want to understand. . . . The truth is we don’t know why stuff happens. And the truth is we don’t know what the afterlife is … No one knows.”

On the other hand, he said, the hallmark of Zen is the idea that everything changes. His children can grasp that concept, he said, just by observing nature.

Children also can begin to understand Buddhism at a very simple level by talking about the importance of compassion and mindfulness, said Carlene South, an ordained layperson and member of the Austin community of Plum Blossom Sangha , part of the lineage of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. South participated in the blessing ceremony for Rory.

“We have a nun in our lineage who put together amazing activities on loving kindness and working with our emotions and loving ourselves, all people, animals and plants,” she said.

Plum Blossom Sangha (plumblossomsangha.org), which meets Sunday evenings at The Austin Yoga School on South Lamar Boulevard, holds an annual retreat at which members welcome “new flowers” in a ceremony akin to a baptism. The sangha also has periodic children’s events — the next one is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 31 — that include meditation, song and learning activities.

South said that ultimately members would like to obtain their own practice center so they can offer more children’s programs.

The Austin Shambhala Meditation Center in South Austin provides a monthly children’s program as well as child care during meditation once a month in an effort to promote family involvement at the center.

The Austin Zen Center, also a draw for Western practitioners, recently began offering child care during some meditation sessions.

South said Western Buddhists are constantly talking about ways to make their practice more welcoming to children and families.

In the meantime, many Buddhist families are seeking ways to practice Buddhism at home.

On that winter evening at the Zunigas’, baby Rory played with her father’s meditation bell, giggled and cooed as family and friends welcomed her into a tradition that is both ancient and ever-changing.

The goal is not indoctrination, David Zuniga said, but rather a spiritual template his daughters can use in life.

“Hopefully (we’re) offering spiritual underpinnings that can be relevant regardless of what path they’re on,” he said. “My position is I want them to choose the path they will follow. I want them to find their own way.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. f. kwan permalink
    January 24, 2010 3:54 pm

    Ms. Flynn,
    I’ve enjoyed your columns for years. Enjoyed this one exceedingly because I’m hoping to meet David Zuniga someday — he sounds like an intelligent, caring, inspiring human being and there’s not a lot of “Buddhist” role models to go around. The really great thing about Buddhism is that it’s universal. It essentially says that every mind and heart can heal the pain in every other mind and heart through the understanding that such pain and suffering are impermanent. At the same time it says that all beings are capable of infinite compassion and caring. Children already know some of this because they have short memories and attention spans, and they haven’t had as much time to develop lasting prejudice and hatred as adults.

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