Years ago, as a newcomer to Buddhism and meditation practice, I subscribed to what I have come to believe is somewhat of a misconception about the original teachings of the Buddha. I thought that the Buddha’s primary concern was Nirvana – the ultimate release from endless lifetimes of suffering.
I also assumed that the Buddha’s message was directed primarily to monastics — monks and nuns who choose a life of renunciation, study, and meditation practice over immersion in the everyday world. Although quite certain that both monastic life and Nirvana would be out of my reach in this lifetime, Buddhist teachings and mindfulness practices nevertheless resonated deeply within me. I became a dedicated practitioner of insight meditation and a student of the Buddha’s teachings.
I was a graduate student when I began practicing meditation in earnest, and I was soon working as a Nurse Practitioner in a busy inner city health center. I was a community activist in a solidarity organization with Nicaragua. I was a daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, and later a wife and mother.
I was certain that my life, not unlike the lives of most of my friends, family, and colleagues, met the criteria for what Zorba the Greek called “The Full Catastrophe.” This is the term that Jon Kabat-Zinn aptly chose to describe the kind of life so many of us live, a life that mindfulness meditation might help to bring into greater balance.
As a layperson and householder, the silent meditation retreats that I managed to squeeze into my over-scheduled life once or twice a year were wonderful and precious to me, although they were never easy. Among the many benefits of these retreats was the potent reminder to re-align my life in the world with my inner being and my deepest values. In addition to reminding me of the need for this periodic re-aligning, the meditation retreats offered me tools with which to attempt such a vital and formidable task.
I encountered, studied, and took to heart many wonderful teachings of the Buddha, teachings that were clearly relevant to my householder life. The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, The Brahma Viharas, The Five Precepts, The Law of Karma—these are the teachings that have most informed and transformed my life over the years. These beautiful teachings are clearly intended not just for monastics, but also for householders like myself, people navigating busy and complex lives. These profound teachings have grown with me over the years, and I continue to discover new ways to integrate them into my life. This is a significant undertaking, and yet I am also aware of how it sometimes feels like second-best, as if the deepest meaning or embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings will be forever out of my reach as a layperson.
As I prepared to become a mother I felt this disparity more acutely. I knew that the Buddha left his wife and young son in order to dedicate himself to awakening, and later to share the fruits of his awakening with a suffering world. Although he renounced family life in favor of practice and teaching, I believed that the Buddha also valued the family as a social unit. He often used the quality of love that a mother offers her child as an example, reminding us to what we can aspire.
In the Metta Sutta the Buddha invokes the supreme love of a mother for her child as the model of the pure and altruistic emotion described as lovingkindness. “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh also consider the mother-child bond unique among all human relationships, and explain that a mother’s love and the infant’s response to it provide ample evidence that love, gentleness, kindness, and interdependent relationship are the natural inclination of every human heart.
I thought often of this teaching in 1996 as my husband and I were preparing to leave for South America to adopt our son Emilio. Emilio was almost 4 years old at the time, living in an orphanage in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a very Catholic country. My husband and I were both raised in the reform Jewish tradition, and although not affiliated with a synagogue, we observed the major Jewish holidays, and celebrated the Sabbath every Friday night with a simple ceremony in our home. Although I identified myself culturally and ethnically as a Jew, my spiritual needs were increasingly met by my meditation practice and my growing engagement with Buddhism.
Our Sabbath ceremony began with the traditional prayers in Hebrew for lighting the Sabbath candles and for blessing the bread and the wine, although my English translations of these blessings omitted reference to any God. My Sabbath prayer ended with these words adapted from a teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh: “May I know the joys of simplicity and integrity, and may I always feel my connection to all beings of the planet. May all beings live in peace. May all beings know themselves. May all beings be happy.”
Anticipating the arrival of our son, this Sabbath ceremony felt incomplete. I wanted an additional ritual to bless the child who we had not yet met, the child who would soon make us a mother and a father. Since I was unaware of any Buddhist teachings that specifically addressed how parents were to honor their children, I turned to the Jewish tradition for ideas and inspiration. Although it had not been part of my upbringing, I discovered that it is a traditional Jewish custom for parents to bless their children as part of the Sabbath prayers recited at home each Friday evening. The parents place their hands on their child’s head as they say the traditional blessing. For a son they say “Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim ve’chiMenashe. May God make you as Ephraim and Menasseh.” For a daughter they say “Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah. May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” For sons and daughters, the blessing continues, “May the Lord bless you and protect you; May the Lord make His countenance to shine upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord favor you and bestow peace upon you.”
I read these blessings many times, considered their meaning, and imagined saying them to my child. I could appreciate the rich history and tradition embedded in the words, yet they didn’t seem right for our family. I am very uncertain about the existence of a God, as well as acutely uncomfortable with assigning male gender to such a God. In addition, I couldn’t imagine myself looking into the face of my Bolivian son, descendent of Quechua or Aymara Indians, and invoking the memory of Ephraim and Menasseh. I also wanted our ritual to recognize that our family was formed through adoption. And because I planned to continue speaking Spanish to Emilio, I wanted our blessing to be in Spanish as well as English. I realized that the only solution was to create our own blessing.
Beginning in Cochabamba in 1996, and almost every Friday night since, our family has observed the Sabbath in a tri-lingual Jewish-Buddhist ceremony. Since the adoption of our daughter Claudia in Cochabamba in 1999, my husband and I offer our parental blessings to both our children. Our ritual begins as the four of us gather in the dining room before our evening meal. Standing together, we light the Sabbath candles and break bread, reciting the traditional blessings in Hebrew and our slightly altered English translations.
I then place one hand on my son’s head and one hand on my daughter’s head and say my blessing in Spanish. “Que la Guardiana del Universo les bendiga, Emilio y Claudia, nuestros queridos hijos. Que tengan salud y felicidad, y que estï¿½n libres de peligro y libres de sufrimiento. Les agradecemos el habernos convertido en madre y padre. Estamos agradecidos a sus padres biolï¿½gicos por haberles dado la vida, y el confiarles a nuestro cuidado amoroso. Shabbat Shalom.” As I finish speaking, I hug and kiss each child.
My husband then places his hands on our children’s heads and recites the English translation. “May the Guardian of the Universe bless you, our beloved children, Emilio and Claudia. May you know health and happiness, and be safe from harm and free from suffering. We thank you for making us a mother and a father. We are grateful to your birthparents for giving you life and entrusting you to our loving care. Shabbat Shalom.” After a hug and kiss for each child, his blessing is complete.
Occasionally we add a few words at the end of our blessing to acknowledge something special in our children’s lives. We might say congratulations, good luck, great job, or some other recognition of a special event. When friends or relatives are with us, we invite them to offer a personal message for our children.
After blessing our children, we lift the cup of wine, sing the blessing for the wine in Hebrew and English, and sip wine. We then proceed to the living room where our dog excitedly joins us for our final Sabbath ritual. Holding hands, we dance around in a circle a few times singing Shabbat Shalom, accompanied by the musical barking of our Border Collie. We finish our dance by collapsing together on the living room floor, and then return to the dining room for dinner.
At times I have questioned the wisdom of blending Jewish and Buddhist traditions, of including Hebrew, English and Spanish languages. Yet it is these personalized adaptations that enable me to feel that this ritual is truly ours, authentic and meaningful to the members of our family. When doubt arises as to whether this atypical ceremony has perhaps diluted or defamed two traditions or confused three languages, I remind myself that this is simply doubt.
More recently, I have been reassured that the Buddha’s original teaching placed much greater emphasis on family and social life than I had imagined. According to Buddhist scholar and translator Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Buddha’s teaching is intended to promote three types of benefits, listed here in ascending order of importance. First is the welfare and happiness available in this present life, which results from ethical conduct and social responsibility. Second is the welfare and happiness in the next life, which is achieved by performing meritorious deeds in this lifetime. And third, the ultimate goal of Nirvana, or the final release from cycles of rebirth and suffering, which is attained by living in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains, the Buddha considered the family to be the primary social unit, and recognized that it is close and loving relationships between parents and children that promote the ethical behavior and sense of compassionate responsibility necessary for the happiness and welfare of the larger society. Of course, the Buddha is not alone in his assessment of the importance of the family as a building block of society. Yet now that I have read parts of a text known as “The Layperson’s Code of Discipline,” and selections from suttas on “The Family,” I somehow feel a greater sense of belonging, as a layperson and as a mother, within the Buddha’s teachings.*
Welcoming the Sabbath each week is an enjoyable family ritual. Our simple ceremony reminds us of the value of rest and reflection. It is a special time that many friends and relatives have shared with us over the years. The blessing of our children is a tender part of this ceremony. The first time I placed my hand on my son’s head to recite this blessing, I had to reach my hand down to the level of my hip. I now reach above my own head to touch the top of his. And the hand that first rested on my daughter’s head at the level of my thigh is now at the height of my own chest.
If parenting required an additional reminder of change and impermanence, placing my hands on my children’s heads to recite this blessing each week would definitely provide it. Over and over my husband and I wish our children safety, health, and happiness. We thank our children for making us parents. In expressing our gratitude to our children’s birthparents, we celebrate adoption and reconnect with the beautiful truth of how our family came to be. And like every meaningful ritual, our Sabbath ceremony allows us to pause long enough to feel the sacred nature of everyday life.
*See In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon edited and translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.