When my daughter, Olivia, was not much more than a fetal fantasy, my sister Reid gave me a piece of advice: "Adam," she said, probably thinking of her own two kids,
Naturally, she was right.
Nothing beats experience, and one of the most compelling experiences in life is kids. No one can tell you. Hints and pointers abound. Nouns, verbs and adjectives swirl. Bookshops make money and aunts give advice. But who can find the words for a goodnight hug? What words can solve the parental longing for a few minutes of uninterrupted peace? No one can get under parents' skin like a kid. And no one can engage the parental heart in just that way. The world of a parent is, in many ways, a secret world, one of laughter and tears and surprise. Quite a lot like spiritual practice, I think: Even when you have learned something, still the depth and meaning of what you have learned cannot be plumbed or circumscribed. Any conclusion you reach about either children or spiritual endeavor is premature . . . including this one.
Many Zen Buddhists I have had contact with wonder how they can apply their spiritual interests and the disciplines such interests imply to family life. Shall they instill their ethical and moral leanings in their children? Shall they teach the meditation practices with which Zen in particular is involved? Shall they abstain from meat and alcohol and teach their children to do likewise? What about schoolyard violence, friends, sex, lying, loving . . . the whole gamut of upbringing?
My answer is this: Which would you rather raise - a good person or a good Buddhist?
I think parents make very good Buddhists. Why? Because the central discipline of Buddhism, like the central discipline of parenthood, is attention. Anyone who has been to a sesshin, as Zen retreats are called, knows the difficulty of focusing on what cannot be escaped - this moment. The same is true of parents who love and are willing to take responsibility for their kids. How we sometimes long for relief, for something more exciting, something different - anything but this. Or perhaps there is a joyful moment, one of warmth and love and understanding. How we long to have it go on forever. But it doesn't. Day in and day out, year in and year out, lifetime in and lifetime out: attention. Bright spots arise, tears fall, longings come and longings go and still there is a demand for attention.
When my youngest son, Ives, was in perhaps the first grade, he sent me a birthday card. Together with a drawing of a monster or a submarine or an airplane (it's a little hard to tell at that age), he had written: "Happy birthday Papa. We luv echuther." We love each other - how can such an understanding be improved. Simple, direct, without any extras whatsoever. The card made me cry, but it didn't make Ives cry. This was just obvious, plain. Important, yes, but, to employ a kid word, "doh!"
That card did not end the need for attention. It did not end the hissy fits. It did not end the laughter or yelling in other moments. But it made me think: Can I improve such an understanding with even the best of Buddhist teachings - the Four Noble Truths, perhaps, or the Eightfold Path or the various precepts? Sure, there was the time, after watching a Civil War movie when Ives asked, "Papa, why do white people hate black people?" There was room in the question for a little history and the suggestion that skin color, sex, height, weight, religion, country of origin or any other description make little or no difference: What matters is whether someone is a decent human being. There are wonderful people and there are jerks. Putting this in a "Buddhist" context would have simply added another layer, another complication, another solemnity. Decent people are decent people; jerks are jerks.
Ives is the only one of my three children to ever come outside to the small zendo or meditation hall I built in order to sit with me. He was eight at the time. The two others, Olivia and Angus, have both issued the opinion that sitting still and silent and aware is "boorrrring." Ives, on the other hand, asked to come. I gave him a little instruction about how to sit on a cushion and told him that after the three bells he was to be quiet. After the second of three bells introducing the sitting (zazen) period, he piped up: "The bells sound like birds in my ears." And then we sat for a short period of 15 or 20 minutes, did kinhin (walking meditation), and sat another 15 or 20. He sat very well, but said after the ending bell sounded, "Good - I was about to get out of here." He has never asked to come back again and I don't push it. But I remember with wonder the fact that during the whole time we were together in the zendo, he never asked the one question almost all students ask. That question is, "why?" Whether Ives' omission was simply because I was an adult and a parent, I don't know. But I recall my own "why's" and marvel at my kid.
When it comes to children, I have often thought that our government should provide every child born with a $500 savings account that would accrue interest. When needed, the money accumulated could be used to begin paying off a psychologist or psychiatrist employed to listen to everything the child's parents did that was wrong. Parents are invariably wrong, no matter how right they are. This is a great parental koan. Perhaps the only solace to be found is in the observation that at least we didn't kill them or them, us.
When you are a parent, there are no weekends off. Weekends are for single people. Parents who love their kids are like cattle farmers who must care for their cows every day, 365 days a year. Sick or well, depressed or happy, cranky or at ease, at work or at home, parents give what kids demand: attention. The situation could be called quite Buddhist in the sense that the disciplines of Buddhism all require their students to pay attention. But for the parent on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, labeling the situation "Buddhist" is probably extra, an unnecessary add-on. The situation is what the situation is. Who needs names? Who has the energy to expend on names when the macaroni and cheese need cooking, when the fight has to be broken up, when the homework needs doing, when the diapers need changing?
Zen Buddhism is laced with some very good precepts that are organic to the practice: don't kill, don't take what is not given and so forth. But "organic" means that these precepts are alive, that things simply work better when they are acted upon. And here we come to the question of how a Buddhist might teach children in a "Buddhist" way.
Others may disagree, but my best guess is this: a parent who follows a Buddhist (or any other) path, is simply a Buddhist. Buddhism is the parent's problem, the parent's choice, the parent's decision, but it is not the child's. To teach a child not to lie or cheat or steal is a good idea. To teach a child that this is somehow improved by coming out of Buddhism is unnecessary. Whenever I run into a moment when I think of a Buddhist teaching that might apply, I take three deep breaths and ask myself, "What is more important? To raise good people or to raise good Buddhists?" And then, if the Buddhist teaching seems to apply, I do my best to get the "Buddhism" out of it. Luckily, since real Buddhism is woven with 'real' life, since it is alive and well right this minute, there is no need to sell it to anyone. Anyway, that's my take.
As I say, I haven't got a clue. Maybe tomorrow I will change my mind. But a changing mind is what Buddhism is all about, don't you think? We raise our children as best we may, in the sure and certain knowledge that we will make mistakes and have regrets. Luckily, the kids are smart enough to know the important stuff: We luv echuther.