The Buddhist Child and the Sangha

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 24, 2013

Traditionally Monastics have played a great and pervasive role in the way Buddhist kids are exposed to Buddhism. Of the three Gems the Sangha is the only that is a living breathing presence. The Sangha exemplifies and teaches and at the same time becomes an object of veneration, generosity and affection for the little Buddhist.

Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. They are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in the village! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole community.

The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (dana), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist community, producing an economy of gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the laity.

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the community and in upholding the sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, produces the adapts and thereby serves the community.  The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments and is conveyed as wisdom or knowledge and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond  the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has authority over the Sangha that carries more coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition, monasteries are very happy places in which kids can learn this fundamental Buddhist value, along with selfless veneration. It encourages community involvement, requires no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provides a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. It also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise  perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter, out of control.

Lest my promotion of the Sangha be seen as impure horn-tooting mention that it comes not from representing that Gem but the other way around. In fact I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years because my practice leaned me in that way. My name, “Cintita,” which means “good thinker,” was given to me because I thought about this very matter for so long. However, clinging to worldly ways I suffered from many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life or for representing the Sangha well. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the monastic sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynchpin of the Sasana. This meant that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West. It never has anywhere else. And so I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it,” and finally ordained.

Now, we have a dilemma: How do we teach a child to venerate and befriend the Sangha, to learn from its way of life and from its teachings, when there is no Sangha at hand? I have a few suggestions:

1. The Sangha is in America, for one, hardly anywhere very far away. However it is mostly in culturally Asian temples. Visit some! Both language and culture may be challenges, but will make it a great experience for kids, like traveling the world with them in tow. Do not be alarmed if what passes for Buddhism does not look familiar; this is folk Buddhism, and will differ from Western folk Buddhism (seem my writings about folk Buddhism). The nuns or monks will almost certainly know a more sophisticated Buddhism, …  but might not speak English. Make contacts, see how it goes. You will learn a lot yourself.

2. Just as kids learn from the life of the Buddha, they can learn from the lives of monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama is a monk and movies have even been made about him. I played Kundun for a group of Burmese-American kids; there were fascinated by it. Zen about Dogen Zenji, or Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter about a fictional monk might also work.

3. Try to find Western monasteries and develop a long-distance relationship with one. Arrange so that your child can make a regular financial contribution; the amount is no issue. Make a project out of it, explain to your child what the money might be used for. Then make an occasional trip to the monastery, offer a meal or find an occasion where people make robe offerings to the monks. Do not be afraid to ask someone about etiquette. Generally there will be times when you can “pay respects” to a nun or monk and meet privately. Ask your child to formulate a question.

Most Western monasteries are not as generously supported as Asian monasteries since support of monks and nuns is not yet integral to our culture. However their needs are very modest; they don’t own boats, nor are they running a bar tab, nor are they trying to put a child through college. I would particularly recommend (all other things being equal) finding a nuns’ monastery to support at a distance. Generally nuns have a harder time of it than monks, not so much in the Far Eastern traditions as in the Tibetan and Theravadin. The unfortunate reason is that in some Asian lands monks are more readily supported than nuns and the Asian monasteries in the West on average more readily absorb Western monks than Western nuns. Certainly if you hear of a monk or nun without monastery affiliation, sometimes living in an apartment or house trailer someone has provided, seek them out and offer to help, even if just a little. The success of the monastic Sangha in the West will depend as much on lay support of monastics as it will depend monastic aspirations taking root in laity.

4. If you happen to live near Austin, Texas, you are in luck. There are two Western monks and many culturally Asian monasteries, including the two we live at. Come visit. Otherwise if you have trouble googling up a monastery near you let me know and I’ll give it a try.

5. Look at the comments below for other people’s ideas and experiences!

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