Thursday, June 21, 2012

Little Buddha - Raising a Child in an Interfaith Family

This is what happens when you leave your 6 month old
at home for the day with his uncle and a new camera.
I have written before about the challenges and gifts of raising our son in both the Mennonite and Presbyterian traditions. It was around the same time that my future husband and I were mapping out what it would mean for us to live in an ecumenical marriage that my older brother was taking the first steps toward ordination in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

While this might give the impression that we are an incredibly spiritual and exotic family, we are really not as interesting as this diversity might suggest. At the end of the day we are just a family trying to live with and appreciate each other’s quirks and particularities. We don’t have grand theological debates around the dinner table (the one question that most people ask). What we do around the table is eat and laugh…basically what my brother and I have been doing since we were children.
I thought I might be able to come up with a bulleted list of pointers for being a successful interfaith family. I expected that this list would include:
·         informing yourself about each other’s differences
·         talking together about your expectations of one another
·          respecting the other person’s choices, and
·         doing what you can to support them in their choices.
This is a lovely list. It really is. But it is not really a list about being an interfaith family, specifically. It is a list that describes the best way to be any family.
What has been the key, I believe, to how we have held this interesting family together is that in the end our relationships are more important than our differences - different lifestyles, different choices, and different faiths. At this point there is no difference between us that trumps being family together.
All that being said, we have chosen to take intentional steps to help our son understand what it means that his uncle is a Buddhist monk. Interestingly, this means that there are actually two tracks of steps that we have to take - one that helps him understand what it means to be a monk, and one that helps him understand what it means to be a Buddhist (something I am admittedly still trying to work out for myself - see links below).
First, from the beginning we knew that he would not call my brother by his given name (even though my parents, my husband and I do). He calls him Uncle Bhante, which in a Christian context would be the equivalent of calling him Uncle Reverend. Some day our son will understand this honorific title better (hopefully he will understand my title better as well), but it really was a logistical decision, since we all address him as Bhante in public and it would be virtually impossible to teach a 2 year old that his uncle had one name in private and one name in public.
Second, we have never hesitated to take the two of them out in public together. (There is nothing quite as fun as taking a fully-robed and shaven-headed monk into a Midwestern mall.) We never give him the impression that being seen with him was something to be anxious or embarrassed about. We will see how he feels once he is a teenager, but for now we try to treat it as normal as possible.
When my brother was coming for his second visit since our son’s birth, I tried to help our four year old to be prepared for his uncle to be wearing strange clothing. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t remember this from the first visit, when he was so young. I kept reminding him, “Your uncle will be wearing different clothes.”
When my brother walked through the door my son turned and exclaimed to me, “you were right these robes are a different color than his other ones!” Unbeknownst to me, my brother’s move to a different monastery that year meant that he was wearing slightly yellower saffron robes.
Third, we include my son in the family obligations that are required when you have a monk in your family. My brother is not allowed to prepare his own food, so we do a lot of serving to him (some days being a monk seems like my brother’s perfect revenge on me). So we teach our son how to offer him food - including, as a young child, pouring Cheerios into his alms bowl. (Typically when at our house he eats just from a plate, but nothing beats cereal in a giant iron bowl.)
I am sure as our son gets older and realizes that it is a little out of the ordinary to have a Buddhist monk for an uncle, we will encounter more issues and have even more interesting conversations. For now, his uncle is just his uncle - and a pretty cool and interesting one at that.
As I mentioned, though, we also try to help our son understand what it means that his uncle is a Buddhist and not a Christian. This is a little trickier, as I come to understand the ways that Buddhist teachings are watered down in most western contexts. I can’t even count the number of times I have passed on to my brother what I thought was a helpful Buddhist resource, only to have him tell me that it was not all that Buddhist. One might compare it to him passing on to me many of the books one finds on the Christian Spirituality table at the Barnes and Noble.
While my brother and I do have very complicated discussions about Christian and Buddhist teachings and practices, for my son we stick to the basics, for now:
We do not gloss over the fact that his uncle grew up in the same Presbyterian Church where I was raised but chose instead to practice Buddhism. Neither do we skip over the reality that his uncle does not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. He knows his uncle does not celebrate Christmas or Easter. He has seen his uncle abstain from singing grace with us at meals (he used to poke him to encourage him to sing when he was a preschooler).
For now those are the main things we focus on…and trying to teach him the stories of the Buddha. If you too want to be able to share some of these things with your child I would recommend the PBS documentary The Buddha, which originally aired in 2010. You can watch it from the PBS website in its entirety; it is also available on Netflix instant view.

Two things about this documentary: first, my brother would want you to know that he does not consider all of the folks giving commentary on the traditions and practices of Buddhism to be authorities on the subject. Take that for what it’s worth. Second, I personally appreciate the way they use animation and art to retell the story of Siddhartha. It is very stimulating and visually engaging. The documentary is almost two hours long - something that my son was willing to sit through to learn more about his uncle - but not all children may be as enthusiastic.
For those of you who might be interested in learning for yourself more about the basics of Buddhism, I want to include a resource that my brother does suggest (though somewhat provisionally). This website gives basic answers to basic questions.
I am looking forward to growing with my son in understanding and appreciation as we both continue to learn about his uncle’s faith. I am looking forward to him making connections between the pacifism of Buddhism and the pacifism of his father’s Mennonite tradition, as well as making connections between the moral teachings of Christ and the Buddha.
I am mostly looking forward to one day hearing him turn to a teenage friend and say something like, “Yeah, that’s my uncle with the shaved eyebrows and orange skirt. What’s it to you?"
What experiences have you had as an interfaith family and how have you taught your children to appreciate the diversity of faith in your family?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. My husband is Buddhist (although he practices a "lay" form of American Zen, and so stands out a bit less than your brother). We've agreed to raise our son in my church, but I still struggle with finding ways to develop our home and family spirituality in ways that honors where all three of us are coming from. So many resources about religion in the home assume that all the adults are on the same page! Your situation is, of course, a bit different, but it is still so good to see how other folks approach religious differences within their family.