My friends are just returned home from the hospital with their newborn daughter. Sarah is still hidden from sight, deep in a baby sling carried by her father. Her mother dozes in an armchair by the fire, recovering from an arduous delivery. I sip tea at their kitchen table, wondering what relation I bear to Sarah—godfather, Buddha-father or extended uncle. “So. . . what does the dharma have to say about raising children?” Basil asks out of the blue. I hardly seem the person to ask, being neither parent nor dharma teacher, but the question is earnest and urgent. Basil and Lily are as well prepared as the birth books and prenatal classes can make them, but, like most new parents I know, they’re overwhelmed by the real thing—this potent being so recent from her harrowing passage into the world, so ready for each moment’s impress, so dependent on the wisdom and care of us all.
A wail from the sling buys me time to respond. As Basil shifts Sarah, seeking a more comfortable position, and Lily worries about her breathing, I wonder, what dharma can I offer? What do I know . . . perhaps something about learning? As an elementary school teacher, perhaps something about learning from children?
Meanwhile Sarah’s wail has escalated into a full-blown siren of dissatisfaction. All her parents’ worried efforts to comfort her are of no avail. Finally they settle on the obvious: meal time! Sarah’s unhappiness instantly disappears on being returned to her mother’s arms. We watch as she gropes for the source of all comfort. She’s set, it seems, on the goal, if not exactly sure of the direction. What compass guides her in this vast soft world? At last, with a little help from her mother, she finds the nipple—loses it—finds it again—and latches on with a satisfied murmur.
Absorbed in this drama, I’ve quite forgotten Peter’s question. What, again, does the dharma have to pass on about raising Sarah? What indeed!—this tiny Buddha clearly knows how to raise herself, and instructs us in what we need to know to help her do so. Calling into the void, navigating her way through it, reaching the goal, and then applying herself wholeheartedly to it—Sarah is the dharma, vigorously in motion. For us to understand her, understand the dharma, would be a simple matter of being present to her, and responding from the heart.
In the months since meeting Sarah, I’ve spent time with a number of friends talking about how we practice the dharma with children, and with parents. From these conversations emerged the following stories, each of which seems to illuminate a point in the passage of this family dharma.
A mother and daughter articulate in modern terms the Second Noble Truth, of clinging to desire as the root of suffering. A father and son conduct a solstice ritual bringing together West and East, while a teacher and her preschoolers celebrate Hanukkah in the spirit of Buddha’s Birthday. A mother is brought home to the moment by her children. Another mother sees Shakyamuni Buddha’s leaving home as a parable of nonattachment in the midst of the greatest attachment. A son takes his mother to a Zen monastery. With no idea of dharma, my mother and I share silence out of time.
What is this dharma passing around? To pin it down is to miss it, but perhaps we can at least track its movement, from parents to children and back:
a circle of our making
that makes us
—from Judith Stronach
[Note: The stories in this collection are based on what was told to me in conversation, but I’ve taken a storyteller’s liberty with “the facts” for the sake of what I perceived to be their main dharmic points. I’ve therefore changed the names of the characters, and acknowledge my debt to the following: Andy Cooper, Mike and Abe Roache, Laurie Senauke, Fran and Jessica Tribe, Ellen Richter, Judyth Gong, Sandy Delissovoy and Susan Moon, Peter and Laura and Hannah Gradjansky.]
When Jennifer was twelve, she was committed to finding the ultimate swim suit. That summer she and her mother Francine shopped every mall in their suburb. Each new expedition seemed to promise confirmation of Jennifer’s emerging womanhood, acceptance into the world of preteen fashion, and at the very least, happy afternoons at the beach. The suit was worn once or twice, however; disappointment inevitably followed and a new search began.
In support of Jennifer’s quest Francine endured stuffy dressing rooms, fluorescent lights, and muzak. Commenting, advising, listening, she disciplined herself to take interest in what to her was of little interest. Her vows as a Zen priest specifically discouraged her from calling attention to her own physical appearance. Upon her ordination years back she’d shaved her head, and though she’d grown her hair back, she’d eschewed jewelry and makeup ever since. “What,” she asked herself, as Jennifer, in a tiger-stripe two-piece, eyed herself appraisingly in the mirror, “. . .what is a good priest like me doing in a place like this?”
Jennifer, her fine-boned face screwed up in dissatisfaction, turned away from the mirror: “You know, Mom, this just isn’t going to cut it.”
“Why not, Sweetheart? It’s your color, and the lines are perfect for your body.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got a whole drawerful of perfect suits. I always enjoy getting them, but then I always seem to get tired of them. Maybe it’s not even so much that I like getting them. Maybe it’s just that I like wanting them. Somehow even that doesn’t seem so much fun anymore.”
Francine hesitated; she’d held back so long from preaching, and now what was there to say? Jennifer had in her own language articulated the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Yes, she thought to herself, desires are inexhaustible; chasing them leads only to disappointment. All Jennifer needed on this early step on the Path of Liberation was a nod of recognition, such as Francine’s own Buddhist teachers had numerous times given her along the way.
“Well . . . I think you’ve got something there, Jennifer. Now, is there anything else you’d like to look at?”
“Nah . . . let’s get home.” The suit returned, they walked out of the store, passing the aisles of perfumes and jewelry and stockings, to the parking lot baking in the sun.
Josie had to cancel plans yet again for a meditation retreat. At the last moment her husband was called out of town on business and wouldn’t be able to take care of their two boys. Once again she’d have to find her practice at home.
That evening, as she moved about the kitchen preparing dinner, she thought of her dharma brothers and sisters facing the wall in the Zen woods, as the cooks prepared supper. Against the backdrop of birdsong and wind in the pines, they would be hearing pots clatter, knives chop, oil sizzle. She listened to the sounds of her activity with perked ears, wiped her hands on her apron, and sat down to the dinner table to write a poem.
there are times when
the moments flimmer and shimmer,
a sharp swiftness standing still, each moment
discrete, precise, and correct—the click
of the refrigerator door, the pop
of the milk carton lid, the dark green
of cooked broccoli—I move like fluid,
slanting sunlight casts barely warm shadows,
children in the backyard play in the dirt,
happy bubbles of laughter—
click pop green.
“And don’t forget to bring Tara!” My neighbor Merrill is inviting me to a solstice celebration. Merrill, of Vajrayana background, is holding his annual East-West meeting of Green Tara with the pagan tradition of “bringing in the Green.” His ten-year-old son, Jay, has set up an outdoor altar to Ho-Tei, the “Happy Buddha.” Nestled back in the ferns, Ho-Tei sits comfortably, scores of porcelain children climbing about on his abundant form. We place Merrill’s and my Taras, one on either side, each on a pumpkin pedestal. A fir tree leans to one side. Against the garden wall, mandalas of Green Tara and Mahakala flicker in the candlelight.
We light incense as Merrill intones, “We pray to Green Tara to bring back life in the midst of winter. At the same time we honor the darkness of Mahakala.” There are dim movements in the background as Jay performs his own rites. “. . . And we light firecrackers to scare off all the piddly evils!” On cue Jay sets off a string of firecrackers, rocking the neighborhood. On that note we carry tree and Taras into the house. We decorate with cranberry strings and electric lights, and place the Taras at the base of the tree. As we drink mulled wine, the brass Taras shimmer in blues and reds and greens. Odd combinations? Who knows—in a few hundred years there may be Green Taras at the base of every Christmas tree.
On Hanukkah this year there were nine children in Elaine’s preschool class, a perfect match for the activity of the day. Out of felt she’d cut out nine blue and white candles and a Menorah, and attached the Menorah to a flannelboard. As each child came forward to place a candle on the Menorah, the rest sang the Hanukkah song: “O Hanukkah, O Hanukkah, come light the Menorah. . . .” As the children followed one behind another, the full swell of the other eight voices supporting them, each face glowed, each hand was sure. What was there, beyond the familiar words and symbols, that struck such a chord in Elaine?
Only later did she trace the feelings to Buddha’s Birthday, celebrated over the years with her sangha. While everyone in the zendo chanted the Han Ya Shin Gyo sutra, each person offered incense to the figure of the infant Shakyamuni and poured tea over its head. The chanting went on until everyone had come forward. Elaine recalled the moment before the altar, candles flickering, incense spiraling up, and her own simple actions—bowing, touching incense to her forehead, emptying the ladle—amplified by the voices behind her.
The glow in the faces of her Jewish students, she reflected, must surely come from the same communal flame.
Flora is having a nightmare of trying to get out of the house to make it to the meditation hall on time. Finally out the door, she finds herself still in her bathrobe. Returning for her black robes, she looks in once more on Cheri. By the nightlight she can make out in its place above the crib the familiar print of Shakyamuni Buddha saying farewell to his wife and infant son, but, as she bends to her daughter, finds her gone. She rushes out of the house, long black sleeves flapping, chasing the sound of Cheri’s voice, but finding only wind.
She wakes up in a sweat to Cheri’s crying. The clock on the night table says 2:00. She slips out of the warm bed, trying not to disturb her husband. The floor is ice to her bare feet. In the dim room Buddha’s face glows like a moon above the crib. Her heart warms with relief as she scoops Cheri into her arms. Instinctively she registers a slight increase of body heat and an odor that indicates fever. Cheri’s fussing has an edge to it, beyond the usual nighttime terrors.
Flora lays Cheri down on her back and undoes the diaper with one hand as she gropes for the thermometer with the other. Gently she slips it in. Cheri squirms, whimpers, then quiets under her mother’s hand. As Flora waits, her gaze falls on the picture above the crib. The painfulness of that moment of farewell enters her unprotected, depths-of-the-night heart. As Shakyamuni is about to leave his kingdom and family in search of enlightenment, his face is resolute but tender. His wife meets his look with a tranquility strangely at odds with her apparent abandonment. Their child sleeps in blissful ignorance of the mystery.
This archetypal family scene seems to picture for Flora something about her own family. The moment of “homeleaving” reflects the painful challenges of her practice as a Buddhist parent. If the Buddha Way is one of nonattachment, and the strongest attachment that of parents for children, then we’re all caught in a hard place, she reflects. So many questions to be explored in this place: how honor the dictates of parental instincts without becoming bound to the child, binding the child? How let one’s child grow up and away? How sever the connection between the need to be loved or need to hate, from the needs of the child and its own loves and hates?
Flora feels through her hand the slow, steady breathing of her sleeping daughter. She removes the thermometer and holds it to the light: 101 degrees—so she is a little warm. Not enough to worry about—she can return to bed for her own much needed rest. Before leaving she looks once more to the image of Buddha and his family. Yes, it’s a wonderful mystery, she thinks, to leave home without leaving home, to say farewell in order to truly stay, to separate in order to love with a whole heart. The faces here are luminous, as though a great burden is lightening.
The road reminded Shawn of those of the old Ch’an monks on their pilgrimages from monastery to monastery in search of enlightenment. This one into Tassajara had to be every bit as perilous, with its steep drops to either side, boulders in the middle and snowed-over mountain passes. The difference was that those monks had been on foot in straw sandals, whereas he was riding in a four-wheel International. More importantly, he was not in search of enlightenment, but merely keeping company with one who was. As the vehicle lumbered forward, he jostled knees and elbows with a dozen modern monks and monks-to-be, his mother among them. How her long blond hair shown in the midst of their shaved heads and crewcuts!
He’d offered to accompany Sharon for the ride in. This would be her first training period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, and she clearly needed his support. Her apprehension reminded him of his own on his first trip to summer camp. Sharon had taken him by the hand then, and it seemed only fitting to take hers now. He’d go with her as far as possible into these mountains, and then turn about to the expanding horizons of his own twenty-year-old life.
Approaching Tassajara they seemed to enter a zone of silence, familiar from childhood summer visits but deeper in this winter season. Bare sycamores lined the road, and clouds closed in the narrowing canyon. Sharon’s bags packed off to the cabin she’d be calling home for the next three months, they walked down to the creek for the minutes remaining until he had to leave. It was a spot they’d often come to, marked by a wide stone ledge and an overhanging maple. Many picnics they’d taken there; many hours they’d spent, watching crayfish scuttling out from the protection of stones into the refracting light and back to shadow. Now the crayfish were hibernating, and the play of light was finished: just the flow of clear water remained, and stones glistening in the paleness of a failing winter afternoon.
They kept the silence. There wasn’t much more to say. They’d talked it all out, the compelling draw of this place, in Sharon’s fiftieth year, with fifteen years of Zen practice. He understood her path in the way a parent might understand his child’s—with a dose of faith. Not that he was totally unacquainted with meditation. Sharon kept a meditation pillow in her room, on which from time to time he’d tried zazen, enough to know the long hours of motionless sitting were not for him. Music was his practice, as clearly as Sharon’s was Zen. Thinking these thoughts, Sharon’s warm hand in his, the voice of the stream seemed to advance, like a clarinet in a concerto. He smelled the sulfur springs, felt the cold stone mass beneath, saw the stream bed through the water. Clearly, there wasn’t anything outside this. Their shared past, their diverging future, vanished in the moment.
From a distance he heard the horn sounding the departure of the International. “This is it!” they said simultaneously, hugging. What was all this shaking about?—laughter, tears or shivering cold?
As they drove out he could hear the wooden block being struck announcing evening meditation. This, he reflected, would be the sound Sharon would be hearing, morning, noon and night, signaling her to her circumscribed path. What a contrast to the sounds of his own life, opening out at this point to a career as a concert clarinetist! Contrast or complement? In this moment of divergence he looked back over the past, and appreciated how the more whole-heartedly his mother had given herself to her way, the more skillfully she’d permitted him to discover his.
Glancing back in the twilight he could just make out black-robed figures filing toward the meditation hall. Among them was one with an un-monkish lion’s mane tumbling down her back.
I’m hiking with my mother. She’s always been a walker, and now in her seniors’ hiking club she’s one of the more energetic members. This afternoon, however, she is noticeably slowed. Whereas she usually races ahead of me, nearly a foot shorter but with equal stride, today she apologetically asks for pauses and we stop often, especially on the uphill climbs.
Toward the end of the trail we stop for rest by a stream. As is our habit, I read aloud while she listens. I finish a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. We continue sitting on our log, not saying a thing. The stream flows, the late sun falls behind the hill. Time passes. At length, still without speaking, we head on. As we walk the last stretch I reflect on our time by the stream. I recall dawn hours in my paperboy days, when she’d meet me midway through my route, bringing the other half of the papers. We’d sit in the park, eating graham crackers and raisins, saying little. Silent sitting suffuses our times together as far back as I can remember. From these times, I reflect, spring my love of sangha silence—the shared hours in the meditation hall, the unspoken camaraderie on mountain trails, the mindful sharing of food, the single-minded application to group work.
Hikes with my mother are numbered. How many more streams will we keep silence by? I think of Liang-chieh, a ninth-century Ch’an monk, who on parting from his old teacher, Yun-yen, asked, “After you have passed away, how can I answer someone who asks me what you were like?” Yun-yen replied, “Say to him, ‘Just this!'” When Richard Baker asked the same question of his dying teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi drew a circle in the air. Between my mother’s teaching and the teaching of Yun-yen and Suzuki Roshi, a circle takes shape, embracing worlds. The dharma circles as it passes around.