Zen Parenting

Rev. Douglas Taylor


So my daughter says to me this week, “You’re preaching about parenting this Sunday?  Are you going to read up on that?”  It wasn’t that she was worried about my competency on the subject matter, rather she was worried that I would neglect her favorite book on this topic: “Always Wear Clean Underwear!” And other ways parents say, “I love you.” (which we used for the reading.)   Later during the week when she saw the title on the church sign out front she said, “Zen?  As in ‘Zen’ gardens?”  “Yeah,” I explained, “Zen is a branch of Buddhist thought that is grounded in the practice of meditation.”  She raised her eyebrows as only a teenager can do and said, “Meditation parenting?” with that tone of voice that I can only imagine is taught during secret teenager meetings because they all know how to do it.  “Yes, meditation and parenting.  I’ll talk a lot about patience!”

Child rearing tends to be one of those topics sometimes lumped with religion and politics: you don’t talk about it in polite company for fear of upsetting deeply held convictions.  Luckily we have a parent’s group here at the church where people can share with others the experience of raising children.  I solicited thoughts and comments over e-mail from the parents, and received several thoughtful replies that helped in preparing my sermon.  Not all of you here today are actively parenting children right now.  For many of you your parenting years are finished or never existed or are still yet to come.  ‘Though certainly all of us have had parents of one sort or another.  This topic touches you because it takes a village to raise a child and to the extent that you participate in this community or in society at large, you participate in the raising of our children.

Unitarian Universalism is a wide path and includes multiple sources of inspiration in the search of truth and meaning.  In a Christian church the minister would probably preach about Christian parenting; in a Jewish congregation, the rabbi would likely speak on Jewish parenting.  Why then, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, do I speak of Zen parenting?  Why not Unitarian Universalist parenting?  Unitarian Universalism is a wide path including multiple sources of inspiration in the search for truth and meaning.  In the same way that we look to the Bible and the Upanishads and the Humanist Manifesto for insight in Unitarian Universalist living, we look to many sources for Unitarian Universalist parenting.  So, today, I want to dig a little into the eastern religion of Zen Buddhism for insights that prove helpful to Unitarian Universalist parents in raising children.  You may find, however, these insights prove helpful for all relationships.

Zen Buddhism is a stricter and more ascetic strain of Buddhism than, say, Mahayana Buddhism.  Zen is very popular in America.  Those little desktop Zen gardens of sand and rocks are all over the place.  I’ve got one in my office.  In Unitarian Universalist congregations, the Zen Buddhist practice of sitting meditation is common.  Using the word “Zen” in a title has become very trendy.  The appreciation of Zen in America was certainly fueled by popular books like Zen and the art of Archery and Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

A quick browse through the Internet turns up lots of copycat titles for websites and books.  Some of them really do tug at the idea of a How-To manual that runs counter to step-by step logic and draws on concepts of mindfulness and awareness, while others are just cheesy rip-offs of the clever title.  I can’t differentiate for you, but here is a sample of what I found:  Zen and the Art of Teaching, Zen and the Art of Writing, Zen and the Art of Eating, and Zen and the Art of Falling in Love.

Zen and the art of small claims, of Post-Operative Maintenance, and of Ferrets.  (Yes, Zen and the art of ferrets!)  Zen and the Art of slam dancing.  Zen and the Art of retirement planning. Zen and the Art of breastfeeding. Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement. Zen and the Art of counterinsurgency. Zen and the Art of the coffee break. Zen and the Art of tying shoes. (Which, by the way, is the only website of this long list that I looked at; and glad I did because I found an interesting essay on mindfulness.) Zen and the Art of Procrastination, (Which is probably why this list appears in this sermon in the first place.)  And, of course: Zen and the Art of Anything.

Usually when “Zen” appears in the title, the author is trying to find a new perspective on an old issue, typically through greater awareness and attentiveness, or what Buddhists call “mindfulness.”  Now, while mindfulness is a real and rather basic concept in Buddhism, it is also (as a stand alone concept) the over-simplified version of Zen Buddhism that pop-culture has gotten a hold of and tamed for American consumption.

Mindfulness is a significant part of what one might consider “Zen” parenting, but a deeper concept I want poke at first is non-attachment. Many people misunderstand the concept of non-attachment.  For a long time, I misunderstood the concept of non-attachment.  Non-attachment is not about being unkind or uncaring.  It is not about being a rugged individual without being tied down.  Non-attachment is not about non-relationships.  Instead it is about healthy relationships that are not driven by ego.  It is about not clinging.  It is integral to the third noble truth.

A basic Buddhism 101 class would start with the four noble truths.  Buddhism begins with the statement that all life is suffering.  This is not to deny that there is joy and happiness in life, but you can’t cling to it because it is transient.  The second great truth is that the root of all suffering is attachment.  The reason we experience suffering is we are trying to cling to something: desires, love, or happiness.  The third noble truth is that there is a way out of the suffering, a way to “extinguish the thirst,” to not get caught by all the attachments.  The fourth noble truth explains that the way out is the eightfold path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  It takes many, many pages of holy text to unpack that eight-fold path mentioned in the fourth great truth.  It is the third truth, about non-attachment, that I find so applicable to parenting.

A line from one of William Blake’s poems reads, “Kiss the joy as it flies, and you will live in eternity’s sunrise.”  That little bit of poetry is about non-attachment.  Don’t try to cling to it, just love it as it goes by.  And that is exactly the way non-attachment is a tool for healthy parenting.

A Theravadan meditation master named Achaan Chah Subato offered this wisdom:  “One day some people came to the master and asked, ‘How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?’ The master held up a glass and said, ‘Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass.  It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight.  I touch it and it rings!  One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table.  I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’” (From Sitting Zen by James Ishmael Ford; p85 of Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander, ed.)

The glass is already broken.  Don’t cling to it.  The day you will be most proud of your child and the moment you will be most disappointed with your child are transient and impermanent, and are as if they have already happened.  Don’t cling to it.

The prelude this morning, “Everything Possible,” was written by folk-singer and activist Fred Small, (who has recently become a Unitarian Universalist minister.)  The song was originally written as a lullaby.  It is one of the songs that over the years my wife and I have sung while putting our children to bed.  The sentiment that “you can be anybody that you want to be” and “you can love whom ever you will,” echo the idea of non-attachment.  You are my child, but your life is your own and who you choose to be is yours to figure out.  I can give you guidance but cannot determine your path.  I can give you opportunities to grow, but I cannot define how you will grow or even what opportunities you will take advantage of.

The meditation this morning came from a book called The Parent’s Tao Te Ching.  Taoism and Buddhism are similar enough that common lessons are found is each.  The eleventh chapter of the Parent’s Tao says, “A wheel spins in a circle.  The still point at the center gives it direction.  Be still and your children will see the way ahead.  A pot has beautiful sides.  The emptiness inside makes it useful.  Empty yourself of agenda and you will be available for your children.  A good house has strong walls.  The space within the walls makes it a home.  Create space within your heart and your children will always rest secure.”

This is a powerful idea, that we must be the walls of the house to insure there is a home inside.  Zen meditation emphasizes the emptying of your mind, the still point of being.  The image in Taoism of the house made with strong walls and the empty space within that is the home resonates to the heart of what Zen parenting must be all about.  With clear strong boundaries, children have both security and freedom to thrive.  What children need most from parents is love in the form of attention and security.

When we were living down in the Washington D.C. area, our older two children became involved with a martial art called Aikido.  Outside of a few lessons in Tai Chi Chuan, I have not taken any martial arts, but we found the Aikido lessons of such value for the kids, we did not mind in the least the 45 minute drive each way to get to the dojo, a trek we took at least three times a week.  Aikido is a martial art based on non-violence.  It emphasizes rolls and how to fall without getting hurt rather than punches and how to throw other people.  Aikido is about balance and in this way it is very similar to Tai Chi Chuan (only faster).  The principle difference from other martial arts such as Karate and Judo is that in Aikido you do not try to meet your opponent’s force and overwhelm it, you try to move out of the way of your opponent’s force and control it.  Instead of blocking a punch and hitting back, you step to the side, allow the punch to follow through by grasping the other person’s wrist and pulling them off balance.  When a person is off balance they are not a threat.  Certainly other martial arts teach balance and control, and so any martial art, well applied, can be of great benefit.

Practical techniques for dealing with violence are critical for youth today, unfortunately.  Aikido taught my children balance and how to deflect and control another person’s energy with balance.  I have seen that it also gave them an inner balance to control their own energy.  In the Dharmmapada it says, “If a man practices himself what he admonishes others to do, he himself, being well-controlled, will have control over others.  It is difficult, indeed, to control oneself.”(#159)

The 69th chapter of The Parent’s Tao Te Ching says, “The martial master understands how to yield and triumph.  When his opponent’s blow arrives, he is not there.  He moves, yet maintains position, bends, but stays balanced.  As a parent you must do the same.  When your children oppose you, do not meet their opposition with force.  Bend and they will topple.  You will win your point without harming them.  Thus in yielding, you will truly triumph.”

Now, I like this analogy except for the way it sets the parent/child relationship as an adversarial one.  I suppose the point could be made that on occasion it can turn that way, and in such a situation, it is best for the wise parent to triumph over the growing child.

When my nearly three-year-old toddler decides to do exactly what you ask him not to do, it is important to give him boundaries.  They can be wide boundaries.  “If you want to control your sheep or cow, give them a spacious fenced in meadow.”  I can’t match Piran’s energy.  I can pick him up and carry him kicking and screaming into another room, but not for too much longer!  But I don’t have to overwhelm his energy with greater force.  Sometimes it is just a matter of picking your battles.  Sometimes it is just fine for him to jump on the bed or run around the house naked.  It’s not that big a deal.  Other things are a big deal, like not squishing your brother’s clay figures or not banging the bottom keys while your sister is trying to practice piano.  In these cases it is best not to try to meet and overwhelm the child’s energy.  Instead I try to step to the side of the conflict and control his energy by showing him how to touch his brother’s clay figures gently and to admire them.

I’ve said to Brin and Keenan, when they get frustrated with Piran getting into their stuff or bothering them when they are trying to do something, “Think of it like Aikido.  You can use his energy to get him to do what you want.”  For that to work they have to notice not just what is going on from their point of view, “He keeps pounding on the piano when I’m trying to practice,” but to also notice what is going on from his point of view, “Do you want to play the piano just like your big sister?”  Then they can suggest things like, “how about you play the piano for a minute and then it will be my turn again.”  Most toddlers don’t linger too long with pounding on the piano unless they get people screaming at them when they do it.

This tactic works for all ages.  Rather than getting angry with my teenage daughter for yelling at her little brother when he pounds on the piano, I can step past her conflict and suggest a new solution.  To do that, I need to be paying attention to what is going on.  I need to be mindful for the situation.  I also need to not let my ego get into it.  I need to let go of the thought that everything going on is somehow about me.  I can’t just sit in the den and shout “Brin, stop yelling at your brother, I’m trying to write my sermon about parenting and your being to loud!”

Zen parenting recognizes that by emptying my ego from the relationship I can be involved and remain non-attached.  Zen parenting relies on mindfulness and patience.  Zen parenting fits with the philosophy of many Unitarian Universalist parents because it emphasizes self-control:  The best way to control your children is to control yourself, that they may see your example and learn.  “Parents who reveal themselves in all their humanness become heroes.  For children look to these parents and learn to love themselves.”  (Parent’s Tao Te Ching, Chapter 22)

In the end, the Zen of parenting is the same as the Zen of teaching and the Zen of tying shoes, and the Zen of slam dancing, and the Zen of falling in love.  In the end we all need balance and attention and love, and to get the ego out of the mix as much as humanly possible!

In a world without end,

May it be so.