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Buddhadharma : Summer 2013
SUMMER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 25 little on the calendar—no soccer prac- tice, birthday parties, or violin recitals. Meeting weekly, rather than monthly or bimonthly, provides the regularity needed to more deeply instill learning and develop meaningful relationships. Since families are not always able to attend weekly, less frequent meetings often meant they could go for a month or more without participating. Because chil- dren go to different schools during the week, frequent meetings have helped them develop friendships that keep them coming back. The meetings begin with an informal social period and snacks for the kids. (At one point, we attempted to ax the snacks, but the kids objected loudly and said they come in part for the food.) We then gather in the sanctuary for a child-led, ten-minute open- ing ceremony and singing. After this, the kids break up into three classes—preschool, elementary, and middle—for what we call Sati (Mind- fulness) School. During that hour, parents meditate together, followed by a short dharma talk from me and discussion in small groups. We practice vipassana meditation and draw from teachings in the Theravada tradition, with additional readings from other lineages, particularly from Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. The community is built on three organizational guidelines. First, the program pays equal attention to the parents and children. Parents may not drop their children off for Sunday school and speed over to a coffee shop to catch up on email. It is problematic to teach children how to be more mind- ful, connected, and emotionally intelli- gent while parents continue on with old dysfunctional habits. A meditative pro- gram for the adults helps them not only become more mindful, peaceful parents but also trains them to become models and teachers for their children at home. Additionally, parents need a forum to explore the relationship between parent- ing and spiritual practice and to connect with other parents for spiritual friend- ship, learning, and problem solving. The second guideline is that the adult curriculum runs parallel to the children’s so that everyone learns the same teach- ings around the same time. For example, last winter the adults studied and put into practice each of the five precepts/ mindfulness trainings one week before the children’s classes. Tandem learning allows parents to extend their children’s learning at home throughout the week and to integrate new habits into the family as a whole. We also found that parents had less apprehension about what their children were learning with regard to Buddhist teachings when they had absorbed and understood the mate- rial themselves. The third guideline that helped our community coalesce and flourish was the hiring of outside (nonmember) teachers for the children’s program. In our first year, we experimented with parents teaching the children’s class. Parents complained that during their six-week teaching commitment, they felt “exiled” and disconnected from the parent group. Many of us also lacked classroom-man- agement skills and finished our lessons feeling exhausted and stressed. In the end, the parents were so desperate for a little quiet time to meditate that they were willing to pay good money for someone else to teach. We found that paid teachers, as opposed to volunteers, resulted in consistent teacher attendance (few last-minute cancella- tions), clearer classroom expectations, and continuity of lesson planning. We hired only those with prior class- room teaching experience. As a result of the calmer, more stable classroom environ- ment, children are learning more. The children’s program offers much more than child care, providing high-quality and enjoyable lesson plans. Families donate $40 per month; our three teachers receive $50 each Sunday and annual bonuses. Though still evolving, this is one model for creating a program that works for par- ents and children equally. Buddhism in the West will be strengthened consider- ably if more family-centered Buddhist communities spring up across the country and if existing centers put more resources into working with fami- lies. Such groups and programs would in no way be meant to supplant adult meditation groups but rather to diver- sify communities to better meet people where they are in life. Over time, teens and empty-nester parents aging out of family programs will surely continue on their path at retreat centers and adult sitting groups. If Western Buddhist converts begin to focus more on families, we will engage not just one but two generations: as we support young-adult parents, we will also lay the foundation for a succeeding generation. This is Western Buddhism’s next big step, if we have the energy and vision to take it. ALLPHOTOSBYSUNSHINESCOVILLEEXCEPTBOTTOMLEFTBYSUMIKIMLOUNDON Preschool children practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s pebble meditation during Sati School; (bottom left) Sumi Loundon Kim’s son, Sonjaie, meditates on the drive home