A parent-child conversation about raising a family in a Buddhist monastery
Am I Buddhist? When people ask me about my religion, I say that I have a Buddhist background. It's a bit of a cop-out. I haven't taken refuge vows, the formal commitment that separates Buddhists from non-, and I don't meditate on a regular basis. But my parents are Buddhist, and when I was 7 and 8 my family lived at Karme Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in Barnet, Vermont. Also called "Tail of the Tiger," the center was a white farmhouse when it was founded by Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa in 1970, but by the time we lived there in 1984-85, it had developed into a sprawling complex of buildings that housed more than two dozen permanent staff, plus visitors who came for weekend or weeklong programs.
This seemed completely normal to me, and even after we'd left the center, it didn't strike me as weird that we'd lived in such an intensely spiritual place for a chunk of my childhood. "Practice" defined a way of living mindfully, in the moment, as well as different types of actual meditation. In college, I began to meet people who had made the conscious choice to study and practice Buddhism as adults. I was surprised to realize they had a far better grasp of the tradition. I may have learned how to meditate at age 7, but I've never known much about the roots of the religion. I was just kind of steeped in it.
My parents, Catherine and Dale Hinchey, met at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Karme Choling is the reason my family came to Vermont, and why we stayed here. My folks still live in Barnet, on land they bought during the year we were living at the center.
But why, and how, did they become so interested in Buddhism that they were willing to arrange our lives around it? I decided to get their side of the story.
MEGHAN DEWALD: What was spirituality like for you, growing up?
CATHERINE HINCHEY: I was raised Methodist. My family went to church every Sunday . . . About high school, I remember editing the sermons, or even the communion, in my own mind. Where they would say, "Oh, we're not worthy to come to your table," or "We're not good enough," anything where there's something the matter with us, as humans, that didn't quite set with me for some reason . . . It wasn't until college that I started exploring different kinds of Protestant religion. I didn't really go outside of that 'til I met your dad.
DALE HINCHEY: I was in the United Church of Canada. We used to go to church every Sunday as a family. It seemed to be hollow and sort of empty. People were paying lip service to the religion, but they weren't really practicing it.
MD: How did you first become aware of Buddhism?
DH: I became curious about all sorts of religions when I was in college. I began reading about Buddhism. By the time your mom and I got married, I had been studying martial arts for four years, and the lineage of kung fu that I was being taught was a Buddhist lineage . . . In 1979 I had a chance to go to Toronto and go to a weeklong seminar by Ch√∂gyam Trungpa. It was called "The Heart of Meditation." Right away, I knew that this was something really different.
MD: Mom, how did you first become aware of Buddhism?
CH: Through a psychology professor who encouraged me in a motivation course. I began researching the ways people are spiritually motivated. One book that really struck me was by Ram Dass. It had something about the Christian phrase, "If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains." He explained that doesn't mean that all you need is a tiny bit of faith and you can do anything. It's that even with a little bit of faith, you can become one with the mountain, and then, you just move. And I thought, "Wow."
MD: What did you think of KCL the first time each of you visited?
CH: I was surprised that you couldn't leave your things lying around, or they might get taken. Not that it was stealing, but it might be considered "an offering," community property, and they would go missing. But it was just an incredible experience. There were speakers coming all the time, and it was so much easier to practice. You had duties, but the space for meditating was set up all of the time.
MD: What made you decide to live there, for a summer and then a year?
MD: To study psychology there?
CH: Yeah, I was going to get another Master's degree . . . I got accepted there, and then I was going to do a weekend program at KCL. He was going to finish the packing, then come up and do a monthlong meditation intensive at KCL. I took you guys up to Canada to visit relatives, and when we got back to Vermont, he said, "I don't know. How about we live here, instead of going to Colorado?"
MD: What was it like for you to move into a monastic center with two kids ages 5 and 7?
CH: Well, the hardest part for me was that a lot of times you guys didn't want to go to child care. You wanted to hang out with me. I was torn between stuff I had to do, and you didn't want to get with the program.
MD: It was particularly hard for us because we knew you were in the same building.
CH: I guess, but there was also this whole culture that didn't accept families anyway. We had to arrange for the cooks to make an early breakfast before you went to school. We had to kind of fight for this stuff.
MD: Are there any things that you liked about being at KCL with a family?
CH: It was a chance to really expose you guys to the whole thing on a very organic level, without really having to grab you and make you do sitting practice. It was just in the atmosphere. You kind of just breathed it in.
MD: Describe the situation around Dad going to seminary at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in Colorado and us leaving Karm√™ Ch√∂ling.
CH: Well, it was the first year they'd had it at [that location], and they said that children would be difficult to accommodate . . . I didn't want to stay at KCL by myself, as a single mom without extra help, so I packed up the room and took you guys to Cape Cod for the summer. Then I got this note at the end of the summer, from one of the directors of the center. It said something like, "We welcome you as members of the neighboring community," but the message was very clear that there was no room for us there anymore . . . Eventually we found a house [nearby to rent] for the winter.
MD: Why did you decide to stay in the area?
CH: We thought it would be nifty to be nearby, but it turns out it's sort of like stepping in and out of a fairy ring. When you get in, you're there, and the whole little world takes over, and it's very seductive to want to stay and just focus on spiritual stuff, and then you have to leave.
DH: KCL is essentially a profit center for this organization, so it runs weekend programs. It's like a dharma spa. If you really wanted to go there regularly, and get a lot of the teachings, it would cost you six or seven grand a year. The teachings are genuine; the things that you learn there are the real deal. But the fact is that people who live next to KCL can't afford to be there that much.
MD: What's your current relationship with KCL, and with dharma?
CH: I don't have a very strong relationship to KCL at this point . . . partly because the programs cost so much. I also feel like I've had so many practices given to me already. It is helpful to have a community of people around you, because it's challenging to make space. But my experience of sitting practice is that all of a sudden things slow down and, miraculously enough, you find more time to get stuff done. So I fit it in, here and there.
DH: For me, basically, the worldview is still the same. I don't practice as much, but practice happens every day . . . I've made it a part of my life.
MD: When we were kids at KCL, a teacher came and offered children's refuge vows, and some of the other kids there at the time took them. We wanted to, but you wanted us to wait until we were older. Neither Dug nor I has actually taken refuge vows, and we're now in our late twenties. Do you wish I was more involved?
DH: I believe that your spiritual connection is your business, as a human being . . . You know what the path is, and you know why we're on it. Life will create the circumstances for you to practice, or it won't. I mean, that's karma.
CH: I wouldn't feel horrified if you, you know, became Lutheran or Catholic, or Jewish, or something else. The bottom line is that there needs to be kindness in this situation. You can also practice Buddhist meditation and still belong to another religion. I went through my own thing, you know, hoping that Christ wouldn't be mad at me that I was Buddhist, thinking that God would hate me, and then I realized that God was not as small as I had been taught.