The Emptiness of Family: A Guide to Engaged Parenting

When we enter into the responsibilities of parenthood we welcome another sentient being into our mind-stream and open our mandala of practice to a fledgling life. This is no small responsibility, no momentary hefting of weight to be placed down later. We shoulder the burden of teaching this emerging mind how to interact with, and be prepared for, this world – This life of Samsara – This life of fleeting joy and momentary happiness.

This life of parent and teacher is a difficult one. Unlike a classroom or lecture hall, there is no bell that rings to end the session. No rush of students out of your room and out of your life for the night. In parenting there is a set of eyes that is constantly gazing upon you and absorbing everything that you do. You don’t teach this student by PowerPoint presentation and bullet-points or through allegory and metaphor.

This one is learning directly from your example. This one is learning directly from your practice. Just as through conception your genes (for better or worse) are passed on to your child; as they grow and develop, your karma is passed right along as they absorb, imitate and evolve.

I am not presenting the following outline as rules or guidelines to successful parenting. They are only examples from my own life on what worked, what failed and what continues to occur as I struggle with my practice as a Buddhist, as a parent and as a human being. They are a reference point for my practice outside of the zendo and in my home, my head and my self. Each separate but connected, an ocean of gray waves that can support my children in compassion and equanimity or pull them off-shore with anger and stress. I relied heavily on the conceptual framework from the Engaged School of Buddhist Practice, as I hope they do not mind, especially since I can think of little that is more engaged then parenting.

Read the rest over at the Elephant Journal



4 thoughts on “The Emptiness of Family: A Guide to Engaged Parenting

  1. It’s useful to have thought about some guidelines when one is doing something as important as parenting. I like pretty much everything you said with the exception of the word “forget”. Sometimes the life experiences of a parent provides valuable and vital information in arising situations in a number of ways. Mistakes remembered are not likely to be repeated and successful actions or events act as guideposts. For some people getting a general understanding of things like developmental stages is useful, even if it comes from books, so they can realize that a child’s world and perception is not the same as an adult’s. I’ve met a few parents who think of their 2 year old as a miniature adult and expect him to respond in a mature fashion and even punish him when he doesn’t. I have one particular situation in mind when I write that and it was rather sad for the child. Someone I know did intervene and provide some information for the parents on the topic of child development which helped enormously. There are those who really have no clue. I think you meant it, and this is my interpretation, as not being rigid about things or not relying strictly on what one is told <insert> but seeing to the exigences of the moment and taking the context into account rather than simply forgetting things. A kind of a balance between the maturity that the parent brings from their life experience and the impromptu and unique demands of the moment. I hope I have deduced your intention there correctly.

  2. You mentioned in a comment on ej:”My constant disagreement with the term “Engaged Buddhist” is that all Buddhists are ,by the definition of their practice, engaged. Some socially, some on the homefront, some at work and some politically. All buddhists are engaged Buddhists to some extent. “I disagree with that to some extent as I note many are not engaged in anything at all. Buddhist practice is like “church” in that instance, where its done at a center or retreat and shelved for the rest of the time. Meditation is like a chore to be done (How many blog posts have we read about that!? “I can’t” “I don’t have time” “I’m not getting anywhere with it” “I don’t have the motivation”…) and dana is just a financial burden but useful to advertise one’s generosity. Even those simple things are too much to engage in.Or it’s simply spiritual materialism, a trend or some kind of social hook to hang with a certain group. The majority of Buddhists I run into in person or on the Internet don’t want to bother with the inconvenience of trying to incorporate anything Buddhist related into their lives (unless it’s one of those disembodied Buddha heads they got half price at a Walmart garden center, chipped on the edges, full of dirt, bird shit and half covered with leaves, stuck in the corner of their garden and purchased primarily so they can post pics of their “Zen” garden). I read this quote this morning from Albert Low, teacher at the Montreal Zen Centre:“One of the questions frequently asked is, Why does it take so long to come to awakening? The answer is very simple: we want something else more than we want awakening.”All that something else is what I’m talking about. Engagement comes first in the engagement with bodhicitta-the desire-chanda not tanha (samsaric craving) meaning desire or purpose or zeal for liberation. That naturally extends to others, to one’s family, friends etc and especially to children. Hence the reason so many Tibetan teachers use bodhicitta to mean compassion. That’s a natural engagement and only from that basis do all these other things become an actual practice. But parenting, in and of itself, just like any other activity doesn’t necessarily have that quality. It’s a sense of perception of the activity in dharmic light that makes it so but the perceptive position first has to be cultivated and to some extent attained.In summary engagement has a foundation of bodhicitta and is not just doing some activity mindfully or whatever.

  3. “I note many are not engaged in anything at all”How do you note this? I assume each of us are sitting with our own lives, whether on the mat or on the way to work. Is engaging in monetary support or meditation really the high watermark of Buddhist practice? From my perspective that is just the superficial (re: what can be seen from surface rather than denoting being of lesser quality).”The majority of Buddhists I run into in person or on the Internet don’t want to bother with the inconvenience of trying to incorporate anything Buddhist related into their lives”And oddly, the majority of the ones I run into are trying desperately to do just that. Some succeed, others fail but most just need to come to the understanding that by importing something Buddhist into our lives doesn’t do much unless we have some desire/need/zeal to practice. For me my zeal comes from my family…and it took some time to come to that understanding (and yes it took a couple of disembodied Buddha heads too). But what you are saying brings me to another thought. What right do we have to judge where another person is in their practice? I find that happening more often than not. We dismiss that person as trendy or this other person as a “fashion buddhist” rather than accepting the fact that maybe, just maybe, they are where they need to be at the moment…”That’s a natural engagement and only from that basis do all these other things become an actual practice. “Oh sweet lady, yes. Exactly. That is my point exactly. I can mindfully take care of my children, and even do a good job and be a fantastic parent. So parenting does not necessarily have that quality but in approaching the very natural act of caring for children, when we focus that natural enagement, that piece of practice that opens compassion and lets bodhichitta bloom, then we are making parenting a practice.”In summary engagement has a foundation of bodhicitta and is not just doing some activity mindfully or whatever.”I wish you just said that from the beginning! but yes, that is true. But in my article I really wanted to explain how my practice as a Buddhist and my practice as a parent coincides and I hope melds into each other. I wanted to keep it on a simple level of what I actually do then get too wrapped up in flowery language (which I fall prone to and get called on from time to time).My fear…and holy shit what a fear it is, is that if my practice is not rooted in bodhichitta and is instead just some samsaric tethering then if i ever lose my family it will drown me. But if my practice is solid then perhaps I could weather it. But like any parent, engaged or not, it is something I would rather not think about.

  4. How do I note that? By paying attention. I will take at face value that someone is Buddhist just because they say so. After a time if their actions/words etc are all about something else and they are not examining that in any way then I become skeptical. It’s not even as blatant as hypocrisy but like putting a blanket over the mirror, accepting that everything self-generated is beyond question. Buddhist practice tears you apart, if you let it. And that’s not a bad thing. It relieves one of all those splinters and embedded particles that weigh us down and cause so much pain but the area has to be looked at under a very bright light. By what you say in your last paragraph you know exactly what I’m talking about.On the question of judging other’s practice. That’s a big one. There’s a difference between judging and disagreeing about something. That’s one level. There’s a difference between judging and being a hater. That’s another level. The specific thing I’m talking about here is related to pop Buddhism mainly. I just find superficiality very annoying. OK that’s my issue. Where that intersects for me with practice (aside from me working on my issue) is the suggestion that said superficiality represents all of Buddhist practice. That suggestion goes something like “Don’t take any of it seriously”. I find that insulting on so many levels. Practice is about life and death. That’s serious. It’s not a freaking game. So yes I will judge and condemn that approach labeled as Buddhist because it does nothing but add a further layer of obfuscation to that which is outlined as a refuge and path to freedom from such obfuscation. I criticize it because silence=agreement. I don’t agree. I present an alternative point of view, point out how and why it is not so beneficial to muddle around in superficialities (unless you want to simply make a lot of money). If someone has disagreement with my viewpoint great, I’m happy to thrash it out with them for as long as it takes. Not a problem if “fashion Buddhism” is where someone is at for themselves but it presents a big problem when that becomes the substitute on a large scale for deep practice. And that is what is happening to some degree. I am totally willing to be completely wrong about everything I think, believe, etc. but one has to do the work to demonstrate how and why to me, just as I am willing to do the same for them and not just hurl insults or whatever. (there’s about 50 blog posts in all that so I won’t elaborate further)That integration you are talking about with your family is exactly the perspective I am meaning that is needed also. Not a matter of convenience or comfort or fashion. It includes the fear, the samsaric grappling, the whole enchilada. That drowning fear, that is mine as well. That is the seriousness of which I speak. One drowns when there is no means of navigation, when one is lost in the sea of samsara. Sounds like something out of a movie but a lot of times I look around and I see drowning people, numberless, as I look in the mirror and see one who is sometimes drowning as well. Some people are quite happy with that-OK they are not my concern, but they are also few and far between. And sometimes we need to drown, but not in a sea of misery. That leads to suicide-slow or fast versions. To be immersed in samsara, as we all are no matter how awakened or wise or insightful each individual may be, is wholly possible and from a perspective of being able to see it for what it is, to navigate, to fully engage yet not on the path of despair but of being crackling with the energy and exceptionalness which this human birth gifts us is possible. The point of the above ramble (maybe you should only read my final paragraphs) is that practice is serious and not a game.

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