Monday, November 19, 2007

Buddhism and family

There has been a bit of reaction to an article by Clark Strand that appeared in a recent issue of Tricycle magazine called "Dharma Family Values: Or, Why American Buddhism must change or die". Strand suggests that because many Westerners come to Buddhism as adults there is no regular institution in American forms of Buddhism for occasions like birth, marriage, and death. The result is that Buddhism in America is not, for the most part, a family affair. Taking that a little further, I would add Buddhism in America is more of an individual activity than a group one, more about private practice and reflection rather than public gathering and engagement.

Strand refers to this briefly in mentioning that Buddhism in America has tended to follow a self-help rather than a religious model in that it has functioned mainly as a tool to meet the needs of the individual (or, in the case of more socially conscious individuals, of society at large)." As the title of his piece suggests, the primary concern here for strand is what shape Buddhism will be in if it isn't passed down to children. But I would take another approach and simply ask what shape it is in now without the more gregarious social element.

Whether or not one is fond of the idea of raising children in America "as Buddhists", there is still the frequently unfilled need of parents who want to be involved in activities where they can bring their children. Even without kids, some people simply enjoy coffee hours (or half-hour), group picnics, and other activities and would like for their sangha to have such a familial and family-friendly atmosphere. Even disregarding the question of whether it's important to raise children to be (inclined to become) Buddhists, there is the question of who Buddhism will be able to reach out to and just what it will have to offer them.

If Buddhism has something to offer couples, families, and groups of friends as couples, families, and groups of friends, as opposed to only collections of individuals, then more children will have the opportunity to be raised "as Buddhists" or to at least have fond associations of childhood memories and the sangha, even if they do not remain Buddhists as adults. When they have their own children, they may even rekindle a relationship with their old sangha or a new one to give their children a chance to make similar memories. This is not about indoctrination or playing a numbers game of success or failure by the demographics. It is just cause and effect. More people will then want to have Buddhist ceremonies for birth, marriage, and death. Not because of a strategy to win converts or retain their offspring, but because people find something worthwhile in associating with the sangha.

In that spirit, we can ask what it is that churches and synagogues in the US have traditionally offered outside of theology to their congregations and whether it would be appropriate and beneficial is Buddhist sanghas offered the same. Not to "win" or "survive", but to fill a need in the community. Such as friendship, a sense of solidarity, a place to go and something to do when you are broke, bored or sad, a way to meet people with similar values for romantic relationships, and a proving ground for the lessons we get during the formal service. So... bake sale anyone?


  1. Hello,

    Love your blog, especially the quote by Sensei Ogui.

    I happen to be one of those who is involved in Buddhism in a family-centered way. My wife is Japanese, and I converted to Buddhism before I met her. We go to a Jodo Shinshu temple, which is a sect of Buddhism that's very community-based and family-based.

    People often ignore the immigrant communities who largely brought Buddhism to the West as social gatherings. I know, I've done it in the past. Nowadays, having been immersed in that life long enough, I see that social Buddhist communities are actually a real positive contribution to Buddhism.

    I learned a lot from such communities things I couldn't learn as well from a book or guru; you just have to be around a Buddhist immigrant community long enough. :)

    Of course, not everyone can do that. I just hope people will not disregard the existing immigrant communities who practice Buddhism not as a self-help thing (as Strand wisely pointed out), but people who lived as Buddhists their whole lives.

    Buddhism lived is much better than Buddhism practiced. ;)

    Take care!

  2. Hey Gerald, thanks for taking the time to comment. I am also a fan of schools for "everyday" people such as Shin and Nichiren Buddhism (the latter of which is not, of course, strictly limited to either the teaching or the organization of Soka Gakkai). I have met some great people online who are members of that organization, but I also appreciate the criticism it has recieved. I mention SGI because, as Strand has pointed out more than once, they have been one of the most successful groups in terms of translating that sense of family-orientation and community fellowship from a mostly immigrant-based group to a heavily "convert"-based one.

    While Shin groups, such as BCA, have been around for a while they haven't been nearly as successful at this. That isn't a knock on them, but it's true. Most of their temples are still concentrated in areas where Japanese immigrants originally settled. And after that, most other national organizations connected to particular schools of Buddhism are either too new/small to offer a greater sense of community and connectivity or they are focused on individuals and individual practice.

    In part this may be due to the kind of Westerners who are drawn to Buddhism and how it was introduced to countries like the USA, but I also suspect it has to do with the fact that because of Buddhism's prominence in many countries and its "fit" with their specific cultures, those aspects of Buddhism related to family and community are generally only preserved by the immigrant lay Buddhists.

    For a person who does not live near a sangha/temple supported by immigrants or their descendents, which describes a majority of people who live in America, this aspect of Buddhism is not really an option (for now).

    Be well.


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