Buddhism has been in the West long enough that there are now significant numbers of second and third generation Western Buddhist progeny. The challenge of passing on Buddhism to the next generation is similar to other religious traditions. We find some of our children carry on the practices and forms we so passionately exposed them to. Some are indifferent to being Buddhist or to practicing meditation. Some are rebellious and embarrassed by our Buddhist ways. The same thing happens with generational change in other spiritual groups.
My four children were born into Buddhism while I was a student of Chogyam Trungpa. He gave them Tibetan names. They were blessed by Rinpoche and many other teachers including the 16th Karmapa. Can you blame me for assuming their Buddhist destiny was marvelously sealed?
As it turns out, not one of my four children is a Buddhist, and none of them practice meditation! One may even have Christian leanings (I had a wondrous experience of devotion as a young Christian boy, and I didn’t leave “the faith” because I rejected Christ, but because, as a young man, I found the most Christ-like beings seemed to be Buddhist teachers). In spite of their not being official Buddhists, my children are great-hearted kind people, so I can’t complain – they got the spirit of the teachings if not the letter.
Some Buddhist parents get very distressed about the rejecting attitudes of their non-Buddhist offspring. So far I’ve avoided this by remembering some of the teachings I received from Suzuki Roshi, my first Buddhist teacher, and later on, from Trungpa Rinpoche.
The heart of Suzuki Roshi’s Buddhist teaching was expressed in the concept of “Beginner’s Mind.” In order to have Beginner’s Mind you had to constantly let go of clinging to fixed ideas of how things are or “should” be. This attitude was especially important while raising four children. Of course, I still had to teach them such essentials as “don’t bite your neighbor.” But for those times when they were doing something that challenged my own social conditioning – like dying their hair red or wearing their pants around their knees — Beginner’s Mind came in very handy.
Roshi put a lot of energy into teaching that we should respect and trust the Buddha nature of our children. He said we should take great care not to spoil their nature by relating to them as if they lacked something or needed improvement – like indoctrinating them about how to be “good” Buddhists. Our parenting needed to be based in perceiving, respecting, and fostering our children’s natural, spontaneous intelligence and curiosity about the world, not on getting them to behave in ways that would make us more comfortable. Roshi taught we must let go of our hopes and fears for our kids – at times a tall order for me. He taught us to make a great effort not to spoil their natural, flexible, open Beginner’s Mind.
Roshi also repeatedly reminded us that there was a difference between being a Buddhist and calling yourself a Buddhist. He really didn’t care about establishing Buddhism as an institution. He wanted to create a tradition of practitioners who lived and cultivated Beginner’s Mind regardless of their religion or lack thereof. He constantly reminded us that many of the best Buddhists were not Buddhists at all. Real Buddhism, he taught, is contained and expressed in every moment of loving kindness, generosity, patience, and joy that arises in every, and any, human heart/action.
Just like our parents before us, we must set our children free. Being Buddhist doesn’t give us special permission to indoctrinate them because Buddhism is the “best” spiritual tradition! Trungpa Rinpoche commented once to a group of young new parents that we should relax and not be so concerned about creating “good” children. He said they bring 80% of their karma with them. Our interactions with them are only 20% of the equation.
It helps to remember the vastness of being and time that flows through “our precious little ones” – it helps to ease any anxieties we have about our parenting. We can release our tendency to regard our kids as inadequate simply because we perceive them in a temporary state of diminished capacity prior to the blooming of the 80% package they brought with them. Anxious concern for our children also causes us to more tightly contract into the identity of being “good” or “bad” parents, forgetting the vastness of being and time that we ourselves carry within us.
What is the most important issue for a western Buddhist with regard to family relationships? My advice is built on that of my teachers: don’t insist that your children accept Buddhism unquestioningly, and try to let go of any “us vs. them” ideas about the world as you can.
Be genuine, be kind, share your knowledge and mistakes, model Beginner’s Mind, and show them the best that Buddhism has to offer – an open, joyful heart and an open, inquisitive mind!