A few weeks ago Nate at Precious Metal had the lovely idea of a blog swap where our names are put into a hat and then drawn to decide who would guest post on who’s blog. And so it was my great fortune that I’ve been invited to post here and in turn John from Zen Dust Zen Dirt is guesting on my blog which is called 21awake.
As a relatively new parent and knowing that my Sri Lankan heritage meant I grew up with Buddhist parents, Adam asked that I write a little about this experience and even offer some advice as to him as a father as how to incorporate some Buddhist principcles into life with his children. Reflecting on this challenge I soon realised that as not being a father myself I was in no real position to give advice in parenthood. But I did realise that I might have something of interest to share. And I’ll do so with two quite different stories.
One Nation Under Dharma. It was the initiation ceremony for what is the UK equivalent of the Cub Scouts and I was one of a group of about six of us seven-year olds waiting to get our official scarves and woggles. And just as I was getting ready to drone out the words with my friends, I got a tap on the shoulder from the group leader. Rohan…you’ll be doing your initiation first. Because you’re a Buddhist your parents have asked for you to do a special pledge.
You can imagine the embarrassment. While my friends watched (and giggled) I was asked to repeat the following words: I promise to do my best / To be kind and helpful / And to love the Triple Gem. And of course I had no idea what I was saying. Looking back it was really quite touching and beautiful but at the time it was awfully embarassing because it made me feel different. I had been outed as this thing called Buddhist for the first time.
My parents came to London from Sri Lanka in the late 60s and having left their extended families back home, found replacements in the form of the small but tight immigrant community – all sharing the common languages that are Sinhalese and very hot curries. And of course Theravadan Buddhism was another of those languages holding the community together since the Sinhalese proportion of Sri Lanka are Theravadan Buddhist and very proudly so.
But I do think it would be fair to say that the Buddhism I grew up with would be very alien to that which the majority of Western dharma practitioners recognise. For while Westerners are mostly attracted to Buddhism for its transformative practices and emphasis on meditation, these are very much absent from popular Sri Lankan Buddhism. Instead you will see a fair amount of ritual. This means a bit of incense and a LOT of chanting. And the social occasions that was the Sunday meal offerings for monks to mark birthdays and the like. It can be quite the feast.
And while many people look at this sort of practice as not especially Dharmic, I will stand up for it since it plays a really important role in a community that is displaced from its cultural setting. 1970’s London was a pretty intimidating place at times for these relatively green young people from Sri Lanka so a place where some of their identity was understood meant – and indeed continues to mean – a great deal.
So my relationship to Buddhism while growing up as a second-generation Sri Lankan in London was very much social. I went to Sunday school classes but there we studied Jataka stories which have an emphasis on basic morality rather than anything more transformative. However one particular story did move me very deeply and that was the story of the Buddha. Here is the book that I was given as a ten year old which I still have to this day. Its simple archetypal story with which you are probably all very familiar struck me greatly and placed the young Siddhartha Gotama as the ultimate cultural hero of my childhood. In retrospect that was probably very important for my later life and development.
“You’re wasting your time meditating”. These were the words uttered to me by my mother and form the basis of my second story.
As you can infer from the above, what we in the West as dharma or meditation practice does not feature much in the Sri Lankan cultural expression of Buddhism. For all sorts of socio-cultural reasons which I wont bore you with now, authentic and transformative Dharma practice in 2oth century was very much the confines of the monastics and even then, only a very small proportion of them.
So when about 10 years ago a number of normal lay teachers emerged in Sri Lanka who claimed a certain level of classical awakening, they gathered a significant following – my mother included. And while I doubt the credibility of some of them, some of them seemed genuinely realized to some extent and they began sharing that understanding. And because popular Buddhism in Sri Lanka wasn’t necessarily the same as core Dharma teachings, these new teachers were seen as a renaissance and in particular – they were seen in opposition to the monks – who were now perceived to have withheld the teachings or at worst, not knowing them at all.
This is a complex issue about which I could say a lot but the main thing for the sake of this story was that these new teachers did not recognize meditation as a particularly valuable tool in realizing the Dharma. And the reason for this was probably that these teachers although they may have had authentic realizations, they probably did not know how they occurred and so had no understanding of practice.
And with my mother very much following their teaching, my own burgeoning meditation practice was seen as being a waste of time. Good for relieving stress perhaps but no more than that.
So that was my odd situation. I had myself learnt meditation through its Western forms such as insight meditation or the Western vipassana scene but as a second-generation Buddhist I had all this baggage which initially was lovely since it gave me a great love for the tradition. But now due to these new teachers with their there-is-no-practice messages I had all my parents’ generation not recognizing any value in what I was spending an increasing amount of time doing. Oh dear.
As you can imagine it was fairly painful – especially as I was fairly new in the practice and wanting to share my new love with those around me, only to have it denigrated. But fear not, this story has a happy ending.
For as I persisted with my practice, the simple result of it helping improve my relationships with my parents showed them its value in real-terms and in real-time. And at the same time, my parents began to see the limitations in the there-is-no-practice approach and while they are not meditators, they accept what I do. And while they would love me to have the big house & big car model as my life’s ambition instead of this thing called Awakening, they understand it’s value and that’s as much as I can ask for.
Sorry Adam…you’ll have to advise me! So back to Adam’s original question about Buddhist parenting tips I’m afraid I have none. But if I were to offer something it would be to include your fatherhood into your practice as fully as possibly. Thereby the example you will set to your son and to the world is one of wholeness. Or as I like to say wholiness. You Zen guys have this phrase Nothing left out – I love that very much and it inspires me constantly on many levels of practice, from the most ordinary to the most extraordinary and back again.
And if I ever have a child I will drop you an email and you can let me know how it’s done. How’s that?
Sounds good Rohan, and thank you for the wonderful post. A great thing to come out of this blog-swap was the chance for me to find some new and interesting blogs. My post is over at Enlightenment Ward, which is a very well written blog, to which I’m sure I have disgraced. And here’s a link to all of the other blog-swap posts. Cheers. – Adam