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Educating Buddhist Children in America

At the end of the day, education is brainwashing. Brainwashing is inevitable. We human beings love doing that. We are already brainwashed—we don’t know otherwise. So since we are going to brainwash anyway, it’s good to brainwash with good motivation.” – Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche*

The notion of the awakened mind of Buddhism is relatively new in the West. In America, it really only began gaining a cultural foothold in the 1970s. The first generation that received it did so in a haze of mind-opening expansion, sometimes drug-induced, which crashed through the cultural barriers of Judeo-Christian history that had hitherto defined America, like Jason Stratham tearing through a line of police cars in Crank. It was the very beginning of a new cultural strain in America, and one that is still finding its voice.

Those pioneers were not raised as Buddhist but discovered the soothing words of Shakyamuni by happenstance, through whispered rumors of a calming wisdom that required no drugs to attain, a mysterious tradition that was upheld in the East by monks, mystics, and yogis. They eagerly ate the teachings from the hands of their teachers and gained a toehold of realization from which they would start a cultural revolution, hidden deep in the heart of America and continuing to grow to this day. Their children were influenced by Buddhist ideas, through myth, stories, and meetings with remarkable men and women. This second generation would grow up with greater affinity to the Dharma, not as foreign discoverers of profundity but as people with faith and belief in its all-positive nature—not as a discovered overlay, but as something they were familiar with right from the beginning.

We are now at a time when this second generation is having children of its own and seeking to raise them Buddhist, not just by association, but at the very core of their being. The result is that America is now seeing the inception of Dharma schools and education styles unfurling like prayer flags in the Himalayan winds. Now, it is as if those flags have been brought to the West by the iron eagle, and they flutter in the winds of the mighty Rocky Mountains as Dharma education slowly spreads to the East and West coasts. In a few locations, children are able to receive an education based on the ideals of the Buddha from preschool environments right through college.

This movement is evident in the summer programs springing up as summer camps dedicated to teaching the ideals of Buddhism according to different traditions. Some camps have now run continuously for decades, showing the strength of certain schools of Dharma in the West. The Dharma Rain Summer Camp, for example, which teaches Soto Zen to children in Portland, Oregon, has been running since 1994. The Shambhala organization runs the Shambhala Sun Summer Camp, which has raised fearless warriors in Colorado and Nova Scotia since 1984. Those who follow the lineage of

Chögyam Trungpa in a more traditional vein can send their children to Family Camp at Karmê Chöling in Vermont. There is also the Georgia Buddhist Summer Camp offered in Rutledge, Georgia. This list is by no means exhaustive, but gives some indication of how Dharma centers seek to include children in their schedules of summer activities.

To look at what these camps teach is to learn a lot about Buddhism in America today. More than just “Buddhism,” they emphasize all things to do with mindfulness, awareness of nature, and being present, not just as human beings, but as parts of a living ecosystem.

However, camps are but brief interludes in life. Western parents, most of whom are converts to Buddhism, still struggle with the question of how to raise their children as Buddhist. Many American Buddhists are coming from a place of having left another faith, or have parents who were exposed to multi-disciplinary explorations of faith in a liberal arts college. Many are reluctant to lay Buddhism on their children, preferring to let them find the Dharma for themselves. Overall, American Buddhists appear unwilling to own their beliefs within the American cultural system—at least, not yet.

The reasons are many. There are qualities to the way the Dharma is being transmitted in the West that give students the feeling that they are unworthy to teach it, not to speak of having attained any degree of realization. The message is that realization and embodying the qualities of Buddhism are exalted things exemplified by just a few lamas or Roshis, and the rest of us have nothing to offer but further dana (giving) in the hope to one day understand the profundity of the teachings. This undermines a Buddhist parent’s confidence and trust that they know how to speak about Buddhism to their children. To tackle this issue, in 2013 an organization called Bodhi Kids was started by Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD). Bodhi Kids seeks to give story-telling and simple teaching tools to parents who wish to raise their children with Buddhist ideals, and last year was the recipient of a Khyentse Foundation grant.

The final commitment to raising children as Buddhist is placing them in an actual school based on the principles of Buddhism. There are a few starting to form in the United States. In Hawaii, we find preschool through 8th grade taught at Hongwanji Mission School, while last year Saraha Children’s School (SCS) opened in Oregon, likewise with an aspiration to teach children through 8th grade. A Buddhist school is one which is “integrating child-oriented Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness and compassionate virtue within a full and rigorous academic curriculum,” according to the website of SCS.

Founded in 1981 by the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB)—probably one of the most influential Buddhist centers in America—the Developing Virtue High School near San Francisco claims to be the first Buddhist high school in the United States. The students here are often graduates of CTTB’s Instilling Virtue and Goodness primary school, which runs kindergarten through 8th grade. The Pacific Buddhist Academy, run by the Shin school of Buddhism, is in Hawaii. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is the Tinicum Arts and Science Academy, associated with both Garrison Institute and Zen Mountain Society. Students who wish to receive a college degree at a Buddhist university can go on to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. While we can assume that all of these schools emphasize the core principles of compassion and mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha, like the 84,000 different methods of practice, the ways these principles are taught would seem as diverse as the rays of the sun.

The challenge, though, for most American Buddhists with children, is that these schools are all far apart, with little in between. Currently, there are simply not enough schools influenced by Buddhism available in the West. For the Dharma to be actually engrained into the minds of more than a handful of children, Buddhist education must continue to develop. It may well have been in this recognition that Dzongsar Khyentse spent his birthday last week discussing with the Khyentse Foundation the future of Buddhist education.

Garab at Vajrakilaya. From Dorje Kirsten
The author with his daughter and Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. From Dorje Kirsten
Shambhala Buddhist kids. From

This is the first article in Dorje’s new monthly column on “Buddhism in America” for Buddhistdoor. Read about his own spiritual journey here

*Modern Education and the Future of Buddhism: An Interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

See more

DharmaCamp: Mandala on the Mountain
Shambhala Sun Summer Camp
Karmê Chöling Family Camp
bodhi kids
Saraha Children’s School
Tinicum Art and Science
City of Ten Thousand Buddha

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