New Wave of Parents in the Western Buddhist Order

Karmabandhu, a new parent, takes a thoughtful look at Buddhist parenting

The FWBO’s London Buddhist Centre (LBC), with its long-established businesses and communities, is the largest and most developed urban Buddhist centre outside India. Where it leads the rest of the FWBO in the West tends to follow. The last year has seen a minor baby boom there - the birth of six babies to Order members and their partners around the LBC. Starting families never used to be a popular activity for members of the Western Buddhist Order and even the great LBC baby boom of the mid-1980’s only saw a few pairs of tiny feet enter the world, so what has changed?


Why not?

Before hearing in depth from two of the new parents and in brief from a couple of others, let’s first look at some of the reasons why people heavily involved in the FWBO have tended not to have children. One obvious factor is going to be the higher than average number of gay people. Also, until recently very many Order members lived in single sex communities, so even if they had outside partners would not have the secure home generally needed for starting a family. Then of course is the fact that few of us have tended to have very much money and bringing up families does cost a lot. However, underpinning all of this is the Buddhist tradition, which clearly enough starts with Siddhartha’s going forth. And what was he going forth from? The dusty sphere of the household life – the settled, habitual, pleasant enough, but limited conditions that he considered unconducive to liberation. He left his wife and son behind in the palace to walk the roads of northern India in search of the end of suffering, the deathless state, nirvana.

Unlike some other faiths that see marriage as a sacrament and family as fundamental, Buddhism puts overriding emphasis on treading the path to the end of suffering, to existential and spiritual freedom, to the attainment of wisdom and compassion and its use for the benefit of all beings in this contingent, rickety, flawed world. Although the various traditions allow for lay practitioners, most importance is given to the monks, forest renunciants, mountain hermits etc., who, at least in theory, are engaged in full-time spiritual practice. If going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the defining Buddhist act, then going forth from the false (in that they are impermanent, insubstantial, and ultimately unsatisfactory) ones is its essential precursor. There may in practice be infinite shades of subtlety and ‘wriggle room’, but at least the principle of leaving worldly concerns behind is clear enough. None of this of course is to deny that there has also been a tradition of highly developed and realised lay practitioners - for instance, many of Padmasambhava’s main disciples were laymen, who, indeed, started lineages of lay yogis that continue to this day. And Atisa’s main disciple was a layman. It is just that the main thrust of the tradition encourages the very literal going forth from all worldly responsibilities and not their accrual.

This does not mean that the Buddhist tradition in general or the FWBO in particular has (at least officially) ever regarded children and families as bad, naughty or evil – indeed, Sangharakshita gave a talk entitled ‘15 Points for Buddhist Parents’ back in the early 1990’s, which is available on Free Buddhist Audio – but more that if you really want to concentrate on the spiritual life, which is no easy thing, it is probably best not to take on such demanding worldly responsibilities if you don’t already have them. Starting a family for most of us means having to work full-time, spending much of our free time with the children, with little space for retreats, meditation, reflection, study, or indeed for very much of anything else. Obviously, we can and indeed have to practise in any situation, but it would be obtuse to argue that it is going to be as easy to meditate with two children crawling around watching telly tubbies on the TV as it is with a couple of friends who are also meditating. Conditions can either help or hinder us. If they didn’t, what would be the point of ever going on retreat? We might just as well go down the pub.


Becoming a parent

So how come there has been this mini baby boom? Why do committed Buddhists have children when the tradition does not exactly encourage it? As with everything, it seems that people are complex. We may make a commitment to do something in line with our highest aspirations, but we can either fall away from it or other aspects of us come to the fore. Also some people at times will also reassess their former views, now seeing their former beliefs limited and to some degree lacking. Talking to the new parents, as well as being one myself, it strikes me that the issue is generally clearer amongst the women. In most cases they have had children because they have felt a deep, undeniable and even desperate urge to do so as their biological clocks ticked on towards 40. Not all women experience this, but those who do will in some cases do almost anything to have a child, especially if their instinct and emotions tell them they have met the “right” man.

I have talked to a few new Buddhist parents about their experiences, some in depth and a few more in passing. I first talked to Prasannavira who has been involved in the FWBO for 17 years and was ordained in 1996 He used to manage the LBC and after more recently earning his living as a Tai Chi teacher and Shiatsu practitioner has recently joined the Bodywise Natural Health Centre management team. He is father to fifteen-month-old Rhea and lives with S---, his wife.

I spoke to him on last summer’s WBO convention and was fascinated to hear how his views on parenthood have changed. He described a visit to Ladakh two years ago when he was struck by how healthy and happy the people were. One aspect of this seemed to be the family relations, which gave them emotional stability and solidity. Reflecting on his own life he felt that he had not managed to create such strong and durable connections while living in men’s communities. While in India he continued reflecting on this and on the issue of marriage. He consulted an oracle who advised him to marry and this helped him make up his mind.

On returning to England he proposed to S--- who was floored and happy. Neither of them though were entirely without their doubts, not about each other, but about marriage per se. This is hardly surprising given the FWBO’s traditional ideas of Buddhist practice and status, which if we were to translate them into football terms would put homeless wanderers and genuine monastics at the top of the Premiership, with marrieds seen as firmly stuck in the lower divisions, with no realistic hope of promotion. Not many of us want to be languishing there whether for real or just in the eyes of others, so just from that angle alone it is not a light decision to take.

Anyhow, having decided to marry and start a family, Prasannavira says that he realised that his ideas of the spiritual life had to change. Speaking to me, he was clear that, “you can practise as effectively with a baby as without one”. He said that the first thing for him was to keep up some sort of meditation practice along with Tai Chi. It has also become much more apparent that “spiritual life is the whole of life”. “In a way it is more intense. It is a potent situation if I can engage with it.” He described how his options have narrowed and that some preferences and ideas, such as travelling, have had to be shelved.

Has it been worthwhile so far? “It has been a blessing; beautiful, enjoyable, tiring. There is hardly any space and I am a wage slave. Retreats are difficult to get. Yet at the same time I experience it as a real blessing.”

How do you go forth while living the family life? Prasannavira was adamant here, stating that, “Times have changed [since the Buddha]. There is great individualism, which is maybe what we really have to go forth from. In some ways family can do that. Maybe Bhante [Sangharakshita] is missing a trick here.” He then talked about his Sufi shiatsu teacher, a man who has been practising in that tradition for 30 years, who advocates excelling in all areas. On reflection, Prasannavira thinks that his previous position was to some degree one of naïve idealism and is happy to stand on the ground he now occupies.

Vajradakini is 41 years old, 5 years ordained and practising for 22 years. She is the mother of Thomas, aged 16 months, who is also my son. Her urge for a child first emerged when her own mother died in 1991 and then reasserted itself with a vengeance as she neared her forties. So how is she finding motherhood?

Her first point is that it is too general a question as motherhood is not a constant thing, but rather it changes all the time as the demands change. She then went onto say that, “I have never known such love for another human being as I have experienced for Thomas. It’s as if it has opened a whole other aspect of my humanity. I know what it is to love another so much that I’d lay down my life without any hesitation.” However, it has been very demanding: “I have never worked so hard, never engaged with anything that is so totally demanding and constantly full-time…a 24 hour job…. I didn’t realise it would be that hard. But then I think he is quite an active baby as well.”

She added that it has also been a steep learning curve: “I have had forty years to do exactly what I want when I want, to be utterly self-regarding. I have realised how much more I could have used that freedom now that I don’t have it.”

What do you think about having a child so late? “I would still have had him even though it is hard and would in some ways preferred to have had him at 24. I can see the sense of having a child when young, but I was very idealistic and riven. It would have logically been better to have gone for the family thing then and be freer now in my 40’s. However, the advantage of having a child late is that although I may not have the same energy and am probably tied up until I’m 60, I do have a lot more self-knowledge, spiritual practice, friendship, patience, and am happier in myself. I have a lot more to give my son by having him late. I see definite pros and cons.”

What about your spiritual practice? “Well, parenthood is a practice in that I have had to very strongly give up my old identity – who I am and my priorities in life – because there is this overriding necessity to be available and to be ever loving and present to another human being. That is quite a practice actually. I could choose not to do it as well as I am. I am making it both my mundane job and my spiritual practice to do it as well as I can within my limitations. It is also a great delight to see Thomas develop thus far into a secure, happy, humorous, hugely energetic, little person.”

What about meditation? “Meditation has been more or less impossible since I was pregnant and hormonally effected. It was also quite an upheaval moving back to the UK from Italy when seven months pregnant. Now that I am out of the habit of meditation I find it hard to get back into. I appreciated the mixed convention [of the WBO] and the meditation workshops and felt like coming home to a long lost, dear beloved when doing my visualisation practice. Mostly over the last year I have just chanted the Padmasambhava mantra in the morning with Thomas bouncing up and down excitedly on my lap looking at pictures of Guru Rimpoche. It seems to do us both good. I have brought Padmasambhava to mind at some point every day. I have also been trying to see the Dharma in everything I do as advised by my friend Kamalashila. That has been very useful up to a point but you do need some more direct practice to sustain it. Now that Thomas is over one year old I am hoping to get back into the habit and create the conditions with the help of my boyfriend to support my meditation practice, which will feed into being a happier better mother too. It is hard to get on retreats but there are child friendly ones that I will make use of from now on.”

Have you found support from the local sangha? “My friends have been kind and supportive, but mostly obviously enough they have had their own lives to deal with. Prajnadevi though has been particularly present as my friend and as an auntie to Thomas. One delightful aspect of coming back to live in the East End while Thomas has been very young has been a growing friendship with fellow mother Jyotishmati. We were kind of ‘around’ one another in the LBC sangha for years without making a particularly strong connection but I have got to know her somewhat now and have hugely appreciated her company taking the babies out together to playgroups, the park, the café and each other’s houses. We have boys only three weeks different in age so there is a lot of shared experience and understanding between us and I have found her to be a wise, very kind and generous spirited person – also good fun. The parents group at the London Buddhist Centre on Wednesday mornings has also been something of a lifeline.”

Any regrets? “Generally speaking I feel I’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to do a variety of more independent things in terms of my practice. However, I have accepted that I really want Thomas, this child, and am not going to resent the time that I spend with him. It is precious. I am going to engage with it with as much positivity as I have built up over previous years of freedom –of course with the help of Karmabandhu.”

Does motherhood bring wisdom? “I don’t think motherhood makes you wise in itself, but engaging in the life and death process of giving birth I think strips away a lot of the fripperies and pretensions. You see worldly and spiritual pomposity and self-importance more clearly.”

Chintamani has been ordained for 30 years and is one of the WBO’s most prominent painters and sculptors. He is father to fifteen month-old Gowan. Talking to him on the WBO conventions where we both spent the mornings looking after our respective babies, he expressed a more complex and ambiguous position. On the one hand he said how much he was into being a dad. His face lit up in innocent delight as he said how much he adored Gowan. However, in his mid-fifties his own path to fatherhood had been a long one and clearly enough it was not where he had expected to arrive at. He said that having been in a really good relationship with his partner, J---, for ten years, he felt that he could have either said no to children and probably seen the relationship end, or that he could let this heterosexual relationship go on to its natural next stage. He decided on the latter and does not regret it. However, like many men, childcare does not seem to come naturally. He anticipates that changing when his son can talk and reason and there can be a more ‘intellectual’ sort of communication. He is happy to do some child care and as Gowan grows and develops, increasingly enjoys his company, but needs to spend plenty of time in his studio, both for his emotional health and of course because it is a major source of his income. As to whether it is the “right” thing for him spiritually, his teacher and old friend Sangharakshita advised him to treat it as the best thing that could have possibly happened. While it is doubtful that Bhante meant that this really is the best thing to have possibly happened, it is certainly a very healthy and helpful attitude to take.

Then, a few weeks later, I spoke with J--- Gowan’s mother in London’s Victoria Park as Gowan and Thomas played around on the grass. The main point she wanted to make was how very intense and demanding parenthood is. She has so much less time now and it is has become very precious to her. She said that she wondered what she used to do with all her free time. She described being the mother of a small baby as a mixture of heaven and hell.

Any conclusions?

Personally speaking I don’t think the Buddhist tradition is wrong in its encouragement of the homeless and therefore family-less life. However, I could never say I regret becoming a father. Firstly, this is because it would be monstrous to ever regret the existence of another person, let alone my own son. However, more broadly, the spiritual life can be a rather abstract business. We learn to meditate, we go on retreats, we may even live in communities and work together, but often we end up going through the motions, living slightly disconnected lives, with nothing really substantial to ground us. Personally speaking, having failed in my quest to be a Buddhist ‘missionary’ in Italy, I needed another big project to engage with. Being a dad certainly is one. As with all responsibilities it is maturing. Deep and passionate care for the welfare of another person is not to be sniffed at either humanly or spiritually.


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