Tonight is the last of three nights that I’m staying at my brother’s place in the Bay Area. I came back up here for the first time in two years to run a race and see family that I don’t usually get the chance to see. This weekend has also made me realize the comforts and importance of having a Buddhist family.
Not all of my family is Buddhist. Five generations ago, everyone was supposedly Buddhist or followed our indigenous religion. Many converted to Catholicism and later to Protestant Christianity when they came to the US in the years before and just after WWI. My grandmother clung steadfastly to the “old ways”, and some aunts and uncles “reverted” to Buddhism. But it was the Buddhist practices of my grandmother that left the strongest imprint on me and my siblings, who have come to embrace our Buddhist heritage.
Buddhism was never forced on me, but neither did it hang as some sort of background tapestry on the wall. It was the little symbolic things that I built my practice on later in life, even if I didn’t know what they stood for.
On New Years Day, we would wake up at midnight and eat a vegetarian meal as an auspicious opening to the New Year. This established my profound respect for vegetarianism (in addition to growing up in the Bay), even though I may not keep this diet all too strictly.
I remember receiving my first soapstone Buddha statue when I was about ten. I found some lion action figures and toy flowers. I then meticulously arranged these into altar on top of my dresser, copying the placement that I often stared at in my grandmother’s shrine room.
When I was young and tore into a fit, it was my father who would quickly and eloquently point out that the source of my anger was within. So was the power to overcome it. While I couldn’t appreciate this wisdom at the age of five, my father’s anger management tips have since grown into one of the fundamental aspects that I most appreciate about Buddhist philosophy.
Now I sit in my brother’s living room, and I realize that we are living on the fruit of Buddhism traditions that our parents and grandparents passed down to us. In the morning my brother, his wife and I take turns before the altar to supplicate and pay our respect to Lord Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. While eating dessert, we look over pieces of Buddhist art and discuss the meanings embedded in hidden symbols. And for my trip back to Los Angeles tomorrow, my brother’s wife has given me two additions to the altar in my own home.
With my family, doctrinal issues fall to the wayside. I may attend a mostly Vietnamese temple, and practice according to Theravada tradition, but my brother and his wife are steeped in Mahayana practice and attend a Japanese temple with a mostly Japanese congregation. Nevertheless, we judge each other by our actions: the respect for life, possessions, social customs, honesty and sobriety.
I feel my experiences contrast sharply with other young Buddhists who I’ve met. For one, most don’t share my ethnic and cultural heritage (although I’ve met a few who do). Many never really had much of a Buddhist upbringing either. Even for many “heritage” Buddhists, they will sidestep their Buddhist identity with a simple, “Well, my family is Buddhist…”
In the end, I am so deeply thankful for all the little bits of Buddhism that have been passed onto me and nurtured by my family. Before, I have discussed Buddhist identity, especially in the Asian American context, but with my family this label dissolves completely into practice. Each family having its own practice, this reflection on the thread of Buddhism in my family really makes me wonder how it runs through other Buddhist families in America. And maybe for a future post: what is a Buddhist family?