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(Originally posted in the London Buddhist Centre newsletter, July 2017)
Ten years ago – my son Gowan then just three months old – I started meeting with other new mothers in the LBC library on a Wednesday morning. We would meditate and talk whilst our babies slept or rolled around on the floor together. Whether we were exploring metta, impermanence, the preciousness of human life or the simple need for more sleep it was a blessing and a relief to be with like-minded people in a positive environment.
Elsewhere in the centre, the Wednesday morning Dharma class, established by Sraddhapuspa and Mallika in 2004, was happening. This class is still thriving, offering a crèche for parents and carers of young children alongside a programme of meditation and dharma talks for adults.
Eventually our ‘mothers’ meetings’ evolved into a study group and when that ended I began attending the Wednesday class, later joining the team. With Gowan happy in the crèche with Ellen and her team of volunteers I was able to reap the benefits of practising with others – a much needed opportunity to recharge depleted energy supplies. As my good friend Sarah said, “It is an oasis in my week”, a feeling I know is shared by many other women and men.
Suzanna, mother to India (3 yrs), said: “I soon felt at home in the class. Both the Dharma and the Sangha filled me with joy and a sense of purpose. It also helped me maintain a regular meditation practice. I felt my daughter benefitted too, not only because I was happier but also because she enjoyed being part of a kind and supportive community.”
Sometime later Gowan and I started attending the newly established Sunday School led by Lilavati. Before long I was helping to run it, sometimes even leading the Otter meditation. Lying down comfortably, you imagine yourself as an otter floating in the calm, clean sea on a beautiful summer’s day. Wrapped in a seaweed anchor and watching the blue sky and clouds come and go, you breath in and then out to the gentle rhythm of the waves and gradually relax and settle.
Sunday School was an immediate success and I’m grateful to Lilavati for having the enthusiasm to initiate it. Initially a weekly class we realised after three years we couldn’t sustain meeting weekly, bringing up our children, working full time and fulfilling other obligations. Nowadays we meet once a month.
However, the Sunday School continues to thrive and grow. We have a dedicated and creative team, some of them parents, some not. Attendance averages about 50 people: a vibrant community of parents, grandparents, friends and children. While we might not always be quiet and meditative, the atmosphere is always heartfelt and positive. We meditate and chant the Refuges and Precepts together; the under twos love listening to the sound of the bell, which is the first meditation that we teach. Through it many children have been introduced to Buddhism, meditation and ethics.
It is also lots of fun. Whether creating junk Buddhas, portable shrines, or children’s plays about the life of the Buddha, the emphasis is on learning through creativity and play. We are a rich Sangha family with many friendships developing between children and adults.
Sanghajit, who used to live in one of the LBC communities and is father to two young boys, initially viewed the Sunday School as a way of maintaining connection with the Sangha. Several years on he is a committed member of the team.
His boys loved it from the beginning: “They enjoy the big room, the shrine, the candles and the general atmosphere. They also see that it makes their dad feel happy and this influences them directly.” Similarly, Aryajit, another dad, said: “I love the Sunday School activities because without them my Buddhist life would be shrouded in mystery for my kids. They have a great time.”
Sanghajit’s boys are enthusiastic about both the activities and the refreshments. Eden (3 yrs) said “We have biscuits and milk and all types of drinks” while his older brother, Robin (5 yrs) said, “It gives you biscuits and cakes sometimes, but before that you get to do craft with lots of things.” Ava (10 yrs), when asked what she liked about Sunday School, talked about the sense of community and the warm welcome.
The Sunday School also runs family sessions at festival days, recently celebrating a year of festivals with a family-friendly session, something Rebecca, mother to Alfie (6 yrs), feels “the whole Sangha can be proud of” as they provide a wonderful opportunity for families to be fully involved in wider Sangha activities.
[Buddha-Alba] For Rebecca, the Sunday School team lies at the heart of her practice. She notes that the children’s “thirst for understanding and creativity is what inspires me at the centre and on family retreats.” Alfie says: “I am a Buddhist because I believe in the Buddha. He was kind and loving and he taught meditation. The thing I like best about Sunday school is meditating. I also love the biscuits.”
When Gowan was six he asked me, “when are we going on retreat again mum? It’s the best thing in my whole life!” And yes, I agree; families retreats, organised by the Sunday School, are unlike any retreat you are ever likely to go on. With singing, chanting, storytelling, crafting, playing and acting, making ritual implements, flags and Buddhas, (even being Buddhas!), they’re an integral part of our Sangha family, and a regular opportunity to have a break from our busy schedules and spend time with friends and family focusing on what really matters.
Mary, back from the retreat at Vajrasana, expressed her gratitude for all it had to offer: “A caring and nourishing environment for kids and adults. A place to learn, think, build friendships and communicate meaningfully.” Mary returned feeling rested and inspired but also aware of the positive effects it had on her children: Thea (5 yrs) “has been more aware of how her behaviour affects others.” While Jason stated: “I see retreats as an extension of Sunday school, not only allowing parents and children to explore aspects of Buddhism further within a community, but creating a rare window of opportunity to explore one’s personal development and practice.”
For many parents the Sunday School, and its various activities, has been an essential part of their path to both becoming a Buddhist and sustaining their practice. Janine, mother to Ava and Fraser: “My family are what brought me to the Three Jewels. Without the experience of becoming a parent I would not now be a mitra on the Buddhist path. Family events give me a way of including my children in my spiritual life. My children have grown up in and around the Buddhist centre. They see it as a place where they feel secure, safe and happy, not to mention the unlimited supply of biscuits!”
Breathing Space in Schools
Two years ago an opportunity arose for me to teach meditation in Gowan’s school. Aware of the positive effects it had on the Sunday School kids, I jumped at the chance. It’s now a regular feature on the timetable throughout the school. This in turn led me to do the teaching training course with Breathing Space in Schools.
This course, established and run by Srivati, is designed to take meditation into schools to help children and teachers cultivate mental and emotional resilience, calm and creativity. As Srivati comments: “Mindfulness is both ordinary and extraordinary. I love introducing it to young people and helping them (and their adults) integrate it into their lives. By collaborating with individual schools, I like to think that Breathing Space in Schools is helping positive change in the world, breath by breath and starting young.”
Iloved the course – gained valuable new skills for my teaching, was affirmed in the work I was already doing and most significantly met other men and women passionate about helping children to sustain and develop calm and equanimity in a playful and creative way. Teaching children is a lot of fun – even the simplest of props like the glitter jar often fascinates children and adults alike – shaking up the contents, watching it spin and sparkle and then gently settle.
As for Gowan, he is a thriving, energetic ten-year-old bundle of contradictions whose thirst for understanding and need for peace is no less present than anyone else’s. He’s not always sure if he’s a Buddhist, but he’s getting plenty of positive input from family and friends who are and in his own time he’ll decide for himself. That he has had the opportunity at a very young age to explore mindfulness, loving kindness and the Buddha’s teachings will I hope serve him well as he grows. I have certainly grown in the process of being a mother to him.
So what does this all mean for the LBC Sangha? Well we are all sowing seeds, trying to create positive habits whether within ourselves or our children and whilst ultimately, we’re aiming for no habits at all, we all do what we can with our limited resources.
So yes, there is definitely a need for more family-focused activity and I’m glad to see that is starting to happen with some of our Sunday School team now planning study for parents for example. I’m appreciative of ongoing support from the Centre administration as well as those without children offering help and inspiration where they can. Of course, more energy, more input and more resources are always a bonus; an ever-widening circle the Sangha grows.
In the meantime I will leave you with some words from Bhante Sangharakshita, words that come to mind when I reflect on the importance of what we offer to parents and children at the LBC:
“All sorts of other agencies are very busy indeed indoctrinating your child… Your child is being indoctrinated at school, indoctrinated by peer groups, indoctrinated by TV, indoctrinated by film, indoctrinated by the general atmosphere of our society and culture all the time. So, don’t think that if you just refrain from teaching your child Buddhism, from indoctrinating your child with Buddhism, that the child will remain completely unaffected and in a completely free and independent way be able to make up his or her own mind about such things when they reach the age of discretion whenever that happens to be. So we have to be realistic. And therefore, I say, don’t be afraid to teach your children Buddhism.”
The Buddhist Centre
That place you feel part of
Those friends you trust
The ones your secrets are safe with
You live your smile.
~ Ava (10 yrs)
Interviews conducted and edited by Mahamani