Children learn to meditate in Buddhist method at center

by GREG GARRISON, Birmingham News, February 9, 2007

Birmingham, Alabama (USA) -- On Sunday afternoon at the Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center in Avondale, children sitting on red cushions took turns talking about Buddha and discussed learning how to meditate.

"I'm kind of crazy these days and my mom says I should come here," said Ashlin Duncan, 6.

"I came here so I can be relaxed," said Karen Hunt, 7.

"I want to be calm, to help other people be calm," said Josephine Cleverdon, 7.

Several of them said they know a little about Buddha.

"He sits still and meditates and he's all calm," said Josephine.

"Buddha means enlightened one and to be enlightened you have to be aware of yourself," said Ian English, 9.

"My grandmother teaches meditation," said Ben Walton, 7. "I don't know that much about Buddhism."

But they were all ready to give it a try, as part of the Shambhala Center's first effort to teach children about Buddhism and meditation, with classes for children ages 3 to 6 and 7 to 11.

"Sit down, cross your legs, take a breath, hum it out, open your hands," said Phyllis Mark, the teacher.

The children assumed the lotus position, took a deep breath, exhaled and hummed.

They listened to a children's story version of the life of Buddha, then the instructor brought out an empty metal pot and a rubber-coated wooden mallet to tap it with. "This is a gong," Mark said. She tapped it to make a long, echoing sound.

She urged the children to listen and hold a hand in the air until the sound dissipated. "You're keeping your mind focused on the gentle sound of the gong," she said. "Doesn't that help us relax?"

They tried some yoga positions, such as the tree - hands up like branches, standing on one leg like a tree trunk.

Later the children went outside and walked around with their eyes closed until a guide stopped them and held the child's face close to a plant, a crack in the concrete or some other detail in the world around them. Then they opened their eyes and looked closely.

"We don't get a chance when we're really busy to see things clearly," Mark said.

The children drew pictures on paper of people who they were concerned about.

When they ate their snacks, Mark told them to choose one item, an orange or banana slice or a cookie, chew it slowly, and focus on the flavor and texture.

"In Buddhism, there is a belief that if food is prepared with loving kindness, it nourishes more than your body, it nourishes your soul, too," Mark said.

All these exercises, Mark said, helped underline principles of Buddhism.

Buddhism is based on the teachings, or Dharma, of the Indian philosopher Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 483 B.C. and is known as the Buddha.

"Buddhism is not a theistic philosophy," Mark said. "Buddha was not a god."

The Buddha's essential teaching is that suffering persists from life to life and one can only escape into nirvana by achieving perfection through mental and moral self-purification. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, with the soul moving sometimes from one species to another.

As interest in Buddhism has grown, seekers have journeyed to the Shambhala Center, which was started in 1997 and since 2002 has occupied a small storefront in an Avondale office building. The center has a mailing list of about 200.

"It's a growing group," Mark said. "There's a lot of interest in Buddhist philosophy."

People interested in Buddhism also find answers from Lama Tenzin Deshek, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who moved to Birmingham four years ago to serve as spiritual leader of a 50-member congregation at the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center in Vestavia Hills.

The Shambhala stream of Buddhism, brought to the west by Tibetan monk Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (who lived from 1939 to 1987), is especially friendly to American culture, focusing on the practice of meditation, Mark said.

"The emphasis in Shambhala is meditation on the cushion," she said.

"Meditation is part of so many faith traditions," said Kathy English, a regular at the meditation center. She said the children's program developed because they sensed a need to instill calm and focus in children.

"We are inventing this as we go, talking about ways of using Buddhism in parenting," she said.

"We can help kids be a little more thoughtful, slower to act impulsively," Mark said.

The center welcomes people of other faiths who want to study meditation.

"At least three times a week, they're open to anybody from any tradition to come spend time in meditation," said ordained United Methodist deacon Becky Wadley, who was at the center on Sunday. "They've made it a very open atmosphere and inclusive place."

People from various Christian traditions often take part and have brought their children to the program as an educational experience, said Mary Whetsell, who co-founded the Shambhala Center in Birmingham in 1997 with her husband, Chuck Whetsell, and director Janet Bronstein.

Whetsell said the center is more about sharing knowledge and techniques rather than spreading a faith.

"I call us the nonproselytizers," Whetsell said.

The Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center is located at 714 37th St. South. The center is open for meditation from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. For more information, see the Web site,