Saturday, December 24, 2011

Toddlers Welcome: Dharma for Kids of All Ages

Although in the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” class I encourage the students to explore the various kinds of Buddhist groups in the Chicago area, I tell them they are all welcome to come to our temple’s weekly services and study classes. A young woman in this month’s class said she would like to come on Sunday but she felt her two-year-old would be too disruptive.

It is the same comment our temple has been receiving in several recent e-mails through our website, “I would like to come but I have a child…” We keep assuring the inquirers that parents often attend the services with their children, from newborns to teenagers, and several people who regularly attend have toddlers. In the Intro Class one of our newer members vouched for that – he said to the mother of the two-year-old that he’s seen toddlers at the services and if they get a little noisy, the parent just steps out of the room with them.

In general, people feel religious services should be solemn gatherings with a perfectly quiet audience. Many churches have “crying rooms,” usually in the balcony, where parents with restless children can watch the service and hear it over speakers (the Toronto Buddhist Church has such a setup). And maybe people expect Buddhist temples to be even more silent and calm in order to make the atmosphere conducive to meditation. But parents of young children shouldn’t feel excluded from Buddhist services – not only will the parent benefit from hearing the teachings but the children will be influenced by what is going on around them even if they don’t comprehend the words. And if anything, we in the congregation will be reminded of the vibrancy of new, fresh life, when we are joined by those who are ten to eighty years younger than us.

Our temple has Dharma School (program for children to learn Buddhism) which now only meets on the second and fourth Sundays during the school year. (In the future if we get more volunteers, we could offer Dharma School every week.) The current group is made up of grade school age children but they have toddler siblings who join in their class activities such as drawing pictures (see sample below) and going on field trips to experience nature. But even on Sundays when Dharma School is not scheduled, the kids come with their parents and sit through the regular service.

At the meditation centers run primarily for “convert” Buddhists, it may be difficult for parents to attend with their young children. But at most of the temples with ethnic Asian based congregations, chanting is the main activity, so everyone young and old is encouraged to raise their voices together. And there’s no constant sitting perfectly still – you get to stand up to sing gathas and even leave your seat to line up in the aisle to have your turn offering incense. At our temple, more often than not the children manage to sit through the hour-long service without causing major disruption. Usually it’s the once-a-year attendee for the monthly memorial service who is unable to control their child and has to take them out of the room. Lately some people in that category don’t even bother to enter the hondo, “main hall” and they stay in the side hall playing with their kids while their elderly parents sit for the service.

It’s their loss. Life is frantic enough as our self-attachment drives us towards satisfying our myriad desires and the desires of those closely related to us. Those parents and children who don’t participate in the service miss the chance to feel a part of a larger fellowship and take a break from the treadmill of instant gratification. In the article “Boomer Buddhism” (2001) that we read in the Intro Class, Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that convert Buddhists tend to neglect the important teaching of “renunciation” (of the delusory self). You’re never too old or too young to be exposed the Dharma of challenging the ever-grasping ego.

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