We happen to practice Buddhism in our family. We’re members of a local Zen center and my son even attends the kids’ dharma programming there. However, we don’t really go around advertising it. For much of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with American (White) Buddhists who parade their Buddhism like some enlightened badge of honor. I’ve met too many creepy men who use Buddhism to fabricate an aura of spiritual sophistication around themselves. And so, we’re a fairly quiet Buddhist family. Many people don’t know about my family’s leanings, and that’s the way I like it. We “just do it” as they’d say in Zen.
Our approach leads our son to be quiet as well. Unfortunately, this causes Buddhism to feel somewhat compartmentalized or disjointed from the rest of his life. Plus, there are no real examples for him in his wider community or within media to understand his practice. Instead, we as parents have to point out any scraps of Buddhism that have been incorporated into wider American culture. We’ve convinced him that all Jedi are Zen monks, and that Sensei Wu from Ninjago is a Buddhist.
When our son began attending school, there were a few religious exchanges that confused him. Especially in Kindergarten when two girls were berating this little boy about Jesus. Then, in 1st grade the little evangelist sitting next to him whispered that God is mean to people who don’t believe in him. Of course, not all Christian children are as in-your-face as these kids. I use these examples because in both cases our son had no retort or response, perhaps due to how separate Buddhism is from the rest of his life. In fact, for a while there in Kindergarten our son asserted that he believed in Jesus, not Buddha. My wife and I responded that he could believe whatever he liked so long as he was good to other people. Jesus was in his heart for a few weeks, and then he dropped it. I’m convinced he thought those two girls would beat him up if he hadn’t converted.
The winter holidays have been interesting this year, because his public school is doing more to acknowledge Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. In our line of Buddhism, there are three major celebrations of the year, with Buddha’s Enlightenment Day falling in early December. So this year when my son has come home from school talking about the three winter holidays, my wife always adds, “And don’t forget about Buddha’s Enlightenment!” It sort of started as a joke, but it gave us the opportunity to talk about lots of hidden holidays that aren’t typically acknowledged in America because few people in this country celebrate them. It was a nice way of talking about difference and dominant culture without getting too lofty with a 6-year-old.
Then Christmas day was upon us. We also celebrate Christmas in our house, and so there’s a tree and lots of presents from parents, family, and of course, Santa Claus. Our son eagerly handed us a present that he’d made in school especially for us. It was a thin four by four-inch square wrapped in tissue. My wife opened it to reveal a ceramic tile decorated in marker. A coaster perhaps? It had an interesting design in the middle, from which radiated four multicolored lines, each connected to a separate corner of the tile. One corner had a decorated tree, another a burning menorah, the third a mat with a cup and corn, and the fourth a tiny golden statue. My wife was a little confused at first, but I understood right away: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Buddha’s Enlightenment.
I was so proud of him. Not that he’s making a political statement by adding Buddhism to the winter trinity or that he’s educating the kids and teachers of his school, but that he’s speaking up. So many times he’ll shy away from asserting things in school because he wants to be a “good kid”. He wants to fit in. In this case he was asserting something important to him during the holidays, which was wonderful to see. I’ve realized that my own hang-ups about American Buddhism might only get in the way of his own spiritual understanding and development. I should make sure that my son has a voice for his beliefs, no matter what form they take.