Sometimes I’m asked if I’m raising my son as a Buddhist, which I find to be a very interesting question. It of course starts with the assumption that I think of myself as a Buddhist, which in fact I do, but it’s not self evident in America that someone who practices Zen is necessarily a Buddhist in the sense of feeling that they’ve converted to the Buddhist religion. That is one way we can understand what it means to take the precepts, a kind of ritual of conversion, but for many people in the West, practicing Zen goes along side of whatever other religious or cultural heritage they’ve grown up in and doesn’t necessarily replace it. Many teachers say we can practice meditation and be a good Christian or a good Jew or a good Muslim while you do that, so the distinction between a practice and a religion in the West is ambiguous and slippery.
The tendency in the West in many ways has been towards a secularized instrumentalized version of meditation, one that cuts it off from Asian cultural roots and turns it into a form of mindfulness which can be extended into all sorts of contexts, many of them overtly therapeutic, without having any religious connotation at all. Now personally, as you know, I try to emphasize a religious side to this practice, but I do so primarily in the service of not going down this path of instrumentalization. I maintain it in the spirit of no gain. And yet we maintain this as a lay center and I’m not a priest, so it’s a further muddle about to what extent I am a religious teacher or a meditation teacher or if this is a religious center or a center for practice.
In regard to the original question about my son, I never attempted to raise him as a Buddhist. I realize instinctively I react to that as if I was asked if I am raising him as a Wittgensteinian or a psychoanalyst. I generally think of this as a practice that one must choose and come to on their own in adulthood and it’s not separable from making a study and a commitment to the practice, to doing something. I don’t particularly think of it as maintaining a Buddhist household the way someone would maintain a kosher household. His mother did want to have him raised Jewish, and that meant going through various versions of Hebrew school and being bar mitzvahed.
I think he exemplified the story in the old joke about the congregation that complained to the rabbi that there were mice in the synagogue and nothing they could do seemed to get rid of the mice whatever they tried. And the rabbi said don’t worry, I have a foolproof way of making the mice go away and never coming back. I will bar mitzvah them. That seemed to work pretty well for my son, who went through all that training and didn’t really want to have anything else to do with it. In a sense I did not want to repeat that with Zen and impose something on him that was not of his choice. It will be there if he wants to find it, I hope.
But part of the discussion in a lot of communities as a corollary to the question of lay versus religious practice, is whether you have a priest in a center who creates a sense of a community center that reaches out to families. A priest can do that in terms of performing ceremonies, weddings and funerals, but also very typically when they can run schools, they can run kindergartens and daycare centers, and they can do things that create family programs. And I think that in some larger centers there is an effort to make the Zen center a community center the way a synagogue or church would be in a traditional western context. I’ve never lived in a place that had a big enough or flourishing Buddhist community to see that happen. I suppose the people in San Francisco or Portland and a few other places might have that opportunity. I’m not sure I can imagine it or would even want it. It seems strange to me. Again, because even though I think of this as a religious practice, I think it would be more akin to having a community organized around the Analytic Institute, and have all the families get together and send their kids to the same school and vacation together in Wellfleet in the summer. There are people who do that sort of thing, but I don’t really want to be part of a homogenous group like that.
I do think it’s an unanswered question about the course of Buddhist practice in America, how it’s going to go down these different bifurcating paths. I think there are great pitfalls if it goes down the path of purely secularized mindfulness. I don’t know if it’s really viable to go down the path of a priest-centered religious community, making Zen centers like churches and synagogues. I don’t know if it can persist as a monastic tradition. The model is not clear. And I don’t have any answer. I think the questions are real and it’s the next generation that will see how it turns out.