Elizabeth Clemants is one of those amazing women who manage to successfully answer the multiple demands of a very full life. The devoted mother of Juliet, age 5, Pearl, 3 and Isaac, 1, she runs DRAFT: Mediation and Coaching Services, a consultancy business, while also finding time for husband, John, and for opening the Zendo to noon practice twice a week.
An active member of the Village Zendo, she is raising her children in the Zen tradition, and her fondest wish for the VZ community is to see it grow as a spiritual "home" for an increasing number of families and children.
I met with Elizabeth on a brilliant October morning at a Tribeca café across the street from her children's school. We talked about her kids over breakfast, before her busy day began.
SMT: How do you teach your young children about Buddhism?
EC: They live with our practice—it's their environment, it's in the water. I've arranged a special place in my bedroom beneath the window that holds statues of Buddha and Manjushri. There's a cushion and bell on the floor in front of it and they see me sitting, bowing … so that is just naturally how things are.
I don't push a lot of teaching on them, but just wait for a situation when something simple I can say is appropriate. I wait and answer questions as they come up. It's like what we do at the Zendo—you figure things out for yourself as you go. People have to look around and notice things and ask questions when they want to know more.
We read to them from a number of children's books about Buddha, and they love to hear stories about Buddha's life. It really appeals to them that when Buddha was born, he stood up and walked five steps, and then went back to being a normal baby. They're also very impressed with how he left home and the palace and didn't take any of his things with him. Juliet likes to think of the Buddha as a female—born as a princess in a castle.
SMT: How do you see them incorporating what they learn?
The kids are very concrete minded. Bell, bow, breath—that's what it is for them. They'll come and sit for a few seconds on the cushion, counting breaths oooooone — twoooo — threeee — foooour and then they are off again. Pearl, at two years old, was already bowing when she heard the bell, just by having seen me do that. The sound of the bell has an amazing calming effect, and I can actually see the kids shift gears into quiet when they hear it. Isaac, my one-year-old, loves to go to the bell and ring it: surprisingly he doesn't bang on it, but stops and listens attentively to each chime.
Juliet and Pearl love the Buddha. They played with my statue so much that I bought each of them their own Buddha which they keep by their beds. Once, when Juliet couldn't sleep, she took her statue to bed with her to hug. Pearl has hers looking down at her from her night stand "to keep her safe".
Buddhism is normal life for them—to them, it's "why doesn't everyone know about Buddha and why don't they have a cushion?" Juliet took her statue to Show And Tell at her kindergarten. Her young audience didn't ask too many philosophical questions (laughs) although she was prepared to answer all kinds of questions—they just wanted to know where Juliet bought the statue. Chinatown was the answer...the kids seemed impressed enough.
SMT: In the Spring, Village Zendo held a program for small children at the Zendo. Do they remember that and how does it fit into their lives?
EC: Oh yes, they loved coming to the Zendo. They remember how Roshi told them the story of Buddha. They love her—her smiling face, her robes. We talk about Roshi and they know who that is. When we go out, and they ask where we're going, and we tell them "the Zendo," they know what that means. It's part of family life. It's understood.
SMT: Has being with your kids expanded your understanding of what Buddhist practice is beyond study and meditation?
EC: I was raised in the Christian faith and John in the Jewish and we agreed as a team that we wanted to raise our children Buddhist. I realized that I needed the support and grounding of sangha, and actively pursue study and practice for myself—but motivated, at least initially, by the fact that I wanted to raise my children in a religious faith that my husband and I could agree on but weren't active participants in. So, many years ago now, I sat Tangaryo—and that's how it began.
The lessons I learn from meditation and from dharma talks are a day-to-day guide for my life as a parent. With the kids, I get to practice actively. For instance, I was especially struck by "Is That So," a koan Roshi used in one of her talks. The story is about Hakuin: A young, unmarried girl falsely accused Hakuin of having fathered her new baby. Her angry parents insisted he would have to raise the child. All he said in answer was, "Is that so?" and then took the child in and raised it with love. Five years later, the girl admitted that Hakuin wasn't the father after all. So, the family came and took the child away. And again, Hakuin just said, "Is that so?"
This is good to remember when my kids falsely accuse me of never having anything good to eat, never letting them watch tv or have any fun, never buying them any good toys, or just throwing a tantrum in the middle of the street. Just be there—"Is that so." Children are "moment to moment" and that's where moment to moment meditation practice is so important for a parent. A lot of parenting is repetition—and if you can make each moment fresh …
I see the teachings more clearly when I need to use them with the kids: for instance, when they're anxious, we talk about Buddha, how he says not to worry about what happened or what is going to happen, past and future are not here right now. Or when they make comparisons or are envious, I can make the point about 'comparative mind' (words I actually use with them), "let's notice what we do have, instead of what she has that we don't."
SMT: What do you find most challenging?
EC: Raising your kids Buddhist is hard in our mostly Judeo-Christian culture. Bringing them into the common culture is not easy with no holidays that are geared for them to join in or ways to include them so they feel a part of the wider community. Buddhism is still pretty new in this country and there does not seem to be a real context for family practice or for couples the way there is in Jewish and Christian congregations. I've noticed that most people who seek out Buddhism are on a solo path, and so it's hard to pull a family into the sangha.
Buddhism is part of normal life for my kids, and yet it is strange to their wider world. The challenge for me is to find a way for them to be brought into a larger Buddhist "family." I think there are other families like mine who would be glad to find a Buddhist community that is inviting and welcoming, that offers ways to include them. My wish is to see Village Zendo grow more inclusive, attracting a whole range of members, ages, families. That would be of great benefit to us all.Roshi's photos are of a Buddha's Birthday party, organized partly by Elizabeth Clemants at the Village Zendo. If you are interested in ways to grow children's programs with the Zendo, please send an email to: infovillagezendo.org