This morning I quizzed my eight-year-old daughter on her knowledge of Buddhism. This isn’t catechism class, just question and answer. I’m curious about how much she knows. We don’t belong as a family to any formal Buddhist organization, but since birth she has seen various bhikkhus, rinpoches, and Zen masters pass through our house—friends from my monk days or because of my writing. She asks lots of questions and remembers the answers she gets.
This morning it’s my turn. The questions are historical and not esoteric at all.
“What name did the Buddha give his son?” It sounds like a game show question, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she answered, “What is Rahula, or ‘Hindrance.’” But she doesn’t.
“Wasn’t it ‘Get-in-the-Way’?” she ventures. Which the judges deem a correct answer, since it tells it as it is.
The bald fact of the matter is that children do get in the way of monastic practice. How could it be otherwise? Monastic practice must be done with single-minded devotion. Parenting is the same. Those people who think you can have both, it seems to me, must either not be very good parents or not very good monks—or possibly either. That is why the Buddha abandoned his son. It just doesn’t work.
Naturally this is a perennial problem for those of us in the West, myself included, who expect the benefits of a monastic-style meditation practice while at the same time attempting to raise a family and hold down a full-time job. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese Zen master who came to America in the late 1950s, understood the dilemma. To the students who first came to meditate with him, he said:
Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not priests and yet not completely laymen. I understand it this way: that you are not priests [he meant monks] is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult. I think you are a special people and want some special practice that is not exactly priest’s practice and not exactly laymen’s practice.
Nevertheless, the practice he taught them was zazen, a monk’s practice, because he was a priest and a monk and that was what he knew.
Granted, it was also what we asked for. At the time it seemed like a good idea, and for some people doubtless it still is. But for me, and for many other parents of young children, it simply isn’t workable anymore.
When I was a Zen monk we sat zazen for about three hours a day, not to mention time spent chanting and doing mindful (i.e., not-for-profit) work. Even that wasn’t deemed sufficient to become enlightened, however. And so six or seven times a year we dropped all other concerns and sat for a week solid. No talking. No working. And certainly no kids. Even then, you didn’t hear of anyone getting enlightened. Every now and then someone would become a Zen teacher. That was about as enlightened as it got. Years later, I am no longer a monk, and the last time I sat a weeklong sesshin was in 1989. And I ask myself, how am I going to manage a zazen practice like that now—even on a greatly reduced scale?
The answer is simple: Never gonna happen.
But then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps I shouldn’t be forever longing for the jungle solitude of India in the fifth century B.C.E., giving my kids the implicit message that were it not for the fact that they are so demanding of my time and love and attention—in short, so much in the way—I might finally get enlightened. Perhaps that is not the way I was meant to go.
Insofar as Buddhism is a spiritual tradition invented by a monk and for most of its history perpetuated by monks and nuns, it will doubtless continue to function like that—even in America. But that is not my Buddhism. I can support a monk or nun through monetary donations. And I can respect a monastic for the choices that he or she has made. But I cannot be one. Nor would I ever want to again.
This morning’s Buddha-quiz ends peremptorily with Sophie’s response to that first question. I expected her to say “Rahula—hindrance,” but her answer, which was far more honest, cuts me to the quick. She, however, is enjoying our early morning time together and wants the game to go on.
“What did the Buddha know under the big tree when he became the Buddha?” she asks me. I shake off the thirty years of struggle and disappointment that have all come rushing back upon me the moment before and answer as well as I can: “He understood that all beings without exception have Buddha-nature.”
I have said that many times. I have written it in articles and books. But I never really heard it until now. ▼
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