How to Create a Dharma Culture at Home
About This Resource
How to Create a Dharma Culture at Home
by Sumi Loundon Kim
When adults teach meditation and Buddhism to children, we tend to reach for direct instruction, exercises, and activities. Certainly, this modality has a significant impact: when I was seven, my father began instructing me on abdominal breathing, pranayama, and breathing meditation. These lessons have stayed with me ever since. But equally impactful are indirect ways of teaching that allow for passive absorption.
Let me suggest three low-effort modalities you can implement at home, drawn from my childhood experience of Buddhism, my learning curve as a mother of two (now 12 and 14), and my work as program director and teacher with the Mindful Families of Durham in North Carolina.
I grew up in a Zen center in rural New Hampshire until I was just shy of nine. In the main meditation hall there was a bronze Buddha statue on the altar, whose eyes were lowered in meditation. However, as I was only a few feet tall, I thought that the Buddha was gazing at me personally whenever I stood under him, and I felt comforted by his warm smile. You’ve seen kids personify and mentally animate rocks? Well, that’s how my mind perceived this Buddha statue, as indeed alive and as someone who I could talk to. Around the center were dozens of other sacred objects, spaces, and reminders of our shared values: meditation cushions, the giant gong (which was in fact the hub of a truck wheel), collages made into art, vases of flowers, colored glass stones, shelves of books. Though the center had very little money, each room was kept clean, simple, and spacious—the outward expression of the mind we aspired to cultivate.
Yet, sacred spaces don’t need to be located solely in Buddhist temples or meditation centers: families can create sacred space right at home. One statue of the Buddha, Kuan Yin, or even a beautiful figure is a starting point. A bookshelf, floating shelf, or table dedicated to the sacred serves as a powerful symbolic and energetic anchor for the household. Designating a sunny corner or nook that is comfortable and restful, with cushions for meditation, is another option. We can add peaceful paintings and objects of nature around the house. I have a small Buddha statue above my kitchen sink. You don’t have to spend money: make a Buddha statue from air-dry clay; ask your kid to paint something sacred; create a pagoda out of smooth rocks from the outdoors. Throughout college, my altar was a cardboard moving box with a thrift store cloth draped over. And, the home need not get cluttered with too much! Just placing a few items throughout the house will generate a reverent ambience and reminders of our aspirations.
Through my experience with my own son and daughter, I’ve learned that children access spirituality—awe, wonder, connectedness, a feeling of sacredness—through their senses, more so than through their intellect.
The Five Senses
What also stayed with me from that childhood in the Zen community was the smell of incense, the glow of candlelight during early morning meditation, the sound of community chanting enveloping me and filling my mind, the feeling of my forehead touching the cool, wooden floor upon bowing, the wonder of my first peanut meditation. What these memories share is that they’re all grounded in the senses: what I smelled, saw, heard, touched, and tasted.
Through my experience with my own son and daughter, I’ve learned that children access spirituality—awe, wonder, connectedness, a feeling of sacredness—through their senses, more so than through their intellect. Drawing on a child’s finely attuned perceptions of sight, sound, etc., we can easily integrate passive learning through storybooks, songs, dance, and more. And, apropo the sacred-home concept above, we can include incense, candlelight, and a bell on the family altar or sacred spot.
Storybooks: Many of us already spend time reading to our young children. Fortunately, there are now dozens of excellent mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist books with high quality illustrations and compelling storylines. Many local libraries carry these. For a list of titles, visit: https://mindfulfamilies.net/storybooks-and-reading-on-mindfulness/
Songs: Again, many of us are already playing children’s songs, whether through a CD, Spotify, iTunes, or YouTube. While there aren’t as many children’s songs with mindfulness/Buddhist themes as there are books, there are some, particularly through Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage. It’s easy to play a list while driving somewhere. I’d catch my kids singing the songs to themselves, not quite aware that they were doing it. These songs imprint values and principles right into the mind. For a good selection of songs, visit: https://mindfulfamilies.net/music-sitting-together-songbook/
With older children, a simple way of quietly teaching basic principles is to integrate them into their everyday activities. With my son, for example, we’ll talk about how the breath relates to practicing the piano and bringing expression into the music. Recently, he was talking about how he overthinks things during baseball games, and those hesitations were causing him to miss plays. I shared how in meditation we practice diligently so that certain responses are embodied, and when it’s game time—i.e., fast-moving, real-time situations—we can “trust the practice” to support us in having appropriate, timely responses. He now puts more effort into his catching, throwing, and batting practice, and then intentionally relaxes during games to trust that his intuition and body will make the right plays.
Not long ago, I lived year-round on the main campus of Duke University. At graduation, I would see, sometimes meet, the families of the seniors I had gotten to know individually. I was consistently surprised and amused to discover that the adult student clearly belonged to this particular family, and not the ones roaming nearby. From clothing style to speech patterns to how each carried their body when they walked or sat, it was remarkable how much the graduate was more or less a younger version of their elders, and an older version of the youngsters. Surely the parents had not told the young adult what to wear or how to walk in a certain motion—that was all absorbed and carried forward without conscious effort.
We can use the power of passive inculturation to our advantage when it comes to mindfulness, communication, relationships, and Buddhist practice.
By now you’ve had that special, or sometimes horrifying, moment in which you hear or see your child act a certain way, only to realize you’ve said the exact same words in the same tone yourself. One time my daughter created a pen and paper spreadsheet of what she needed and how much it would cost to upgrade her bedroom. While I’m an avid Google spreadsheet user myself, I had never actually taught her this. Of course, her slightly perfectionist tendencies (which did not come from dad, we’ll say that much) can cause undue stress for her.
We can use the power of passive inculturation to our advantage when it comes to mindfulness, communication, relationships, and Buddhist practice. Whatever we’re doing will make an impression on our kids. Whenever we take a breath in a difficult moment, slow down, get down to the level of the child, and ask what’s going on, we are modeling for that child and other children nearby. The same holds true when we’re less than perfect models, because acknowledging and recovering from our mistakes is equally important. “Oops, I lost my cool and I didn’t mean to yell. I’m very sorry I scared you. Can we do that over again?”
Working from this dynamic, that our children come to embody family patterns and values over time, it stands to reason that they’ll likewise absorb however we practice mindfulness. The other day I noticed my son’s posture and way of walking was very similar to his father’s, which is itself the result of his father’s training in posture as a monastic. If our kids stumble across us meditating, great! Just them seeing us meditate plants seeds—they don’t necessarily have to meditate themselves. As such, I believe that of the very few precious minutes a parent might have available, if it comes down to choosing between doing meditation for oneself and teaching the kids to meditate, the time goes to the parent. When a parent meditates, they also meditate for the child.
During the present COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have children at home for much longer than when schools and childcare centers were in full swing. For some families, everyone is at home 24-7. For others, kids have reduced hours at school with many activities cancelled. This extended time at home can be an opportunity to create a sacred space that holds us during this difficult period. Introducing dharma music and storybooks into this space brings some lightness and learning. And intentionally shifting gears in ourselves to bring awareness to what we’re modelling can serve as a teacher for both our own selves and our children. My guess is that most of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, have become better parents over the months because we’re practicing being parents many more hours of the day. Certainly, I have seen this for myself: I’m more attuned, skillful, and fluid than I was back in March (2020). And I have seen this skillfulness become amplified by bringing just a little more intentionality to parenting, shifting slightly by letting go of old ways and being open to new routines, expectations, and uses of time. As many will say, it hasn’t been easy and I am indeed tired, but it has also been good—for all of us.
These childhood seeds are so valuable, and become more so as they blossom, bear fruit, and ripen in later years.
How do these efforts play out in the long term? In the beautiful documentary about the hermit monastics of China titled Amongst White Clouds, an elderly monk is asked why he chose this path. He said that when he was a little child, he enjoyed going to the temple with his grandmother. His beloved grandmother and father died when he was young, which was very hard on him. One day, as a teenager, he visited a temple. He said,
I went in and saw those Buddha statues. Because of the posture of those buddhas, their energy was so dignified and so quiet and calm. It was like those Buddhas were great resting beings, with no troubles. I thought, “If there is a way to become a Buddha…I will become a monk.”
The interview resonated with me. The images, feelings, and warmth I felt from sacred space in early childhood carried forward into adulthood. The image of the Buddha has been a continuous guide from youth to the present day. These childhood seeds are so valuable, and become more so as they blossom, bear fruit, and ripen in later years. We don’t have to go Full Monastery on our kids, but we can certainly integrate some of these elements with very little effort, and they have an enduring impact on our children’s spiritual formation.