The Appeal of Buddhism in Interfaith Families

We are raising our children with Judaism and Christianity, the two religions in our family. Yet various friends and teachers have also exposed them to Buddhism, and at 14, my son currently identifies his religious identity on Facebook as “Jew/Christian swirl interested in Buddhism.”

Buddhism, like Unitarianism-Universalism (UU), has long provided a home for interfaith families and adult interfaith children, especially in places where there is no community specifically for interfaith families.

One of the friends who has brought Buddhism into my family is Sharron Mendel Swain, who was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent, found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and now runs a UU religious education program. Her Buddhist practice is based on the teachings of peace activist and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr., and created the Plum Village community in France. Recently, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as an interfaith child.

Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some intermarried or interfaith people?

The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose.  For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”?  Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US:  “are you Vietnamese or are you American?”  Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both!  It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”?  Of course you are the child of both. . .

One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.”  Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos.  Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.

For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience.  Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.

Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?

Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia.  The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction.  Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature.  It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.”  This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith.  Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.

And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised.  This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.

Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to combine the practice of Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity, than it is to combine Judaism and Christianity?

The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that.  Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith.  Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution.  The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.

Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism.  People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that.  There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that.  It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering.  We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too.  This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”

This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.

Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?

The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:

1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

Has Buddhism been helpful to you in your interfaith family? Post your comments…

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7 Comments on “The Appeal of Buddhism in Interfaith Families”

  1. Carl Gregg Says:

    If you haven’t already, definitely check out Paul Knitter’s incredible book “Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian” (http://amzn.to/oGG02L). His work on dual religious identity and religious hybridity is groundbreaking.


  2. Carl–Yes! I linked my question in this post on why it is easier to combine Buddhism with Christianity etc., to my post on Knitter’s book:

    http://onbeingboth.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/without-jesus-i-could-not-be-a-jew/

  3. Ive Says:

    Thanks for such a beautiful interview! Yes, for me Buddhism has helped my interfaith family immensely, although not necessarily intentionally. After Buddhism became my primary spiritual path for some years, I couldn’t help but begin to see my birth religion of Judaism (as the late Rabbi Alan Lew called it) “through the lens of Buddhadharma.” I found that I didn’t need to be so tight about what was “true” in Judaism and what wasn’t — I could see the way Judaism holds multiple perspectives on many issues, some of which resonate and some of which don’t, and I could see the things that didn’t resonate as “koans,” or paradoxical and irrational questions for me to contemplate. Importantly, I was able to see freshly the psychological and spiritual depth of Judaism that had been missing from the Judaism I was raised with — and reconnected to rituals and prayers from my youth as expressions of Buddhadharma just as much as they are expressions of Judaism.

    Then when I met my Christian wife, I couldn’t help but approach Christianity in the same way. Most fundamentally, Buddhism provided me the courage to walk into a religion that had been demonized in much I had been raised with, with an openness to see what this religion I ridiculed from a collective unconscious of fear had to teach me. And as I explored Christianity through the lens of both Buddhadharma and Judaism and talked to my wife about it, her appreciation of her birth religion deepened. She also began to explore Buddhism and I have seen her tightness about how certain religious things should be open up in beautiful ways.

    I also want to say that we have both found it to be very funny how these three religions tend to be related to by Jews and Christians. In many Jewish circles (now), exploring Buddhism is welcomed (“It’s not really a religion anyway — it’s a philosophy” they might say), but exploring Christianity is still a serious no-no. In many Christian circles, Judaism is appreciated as the root of Christianity and is open to exploration, but Buddhism is “Godless” and is to be shunned. There are still so many walls people put up based on history and misunderstandings. Sometimes it makes me so sad to see. At least for our tri-religion family, each tradition and the interactions among the three have brought great joy and beauty into our lives.


  4. Thank you so much for posting this, Susan. So helpful! By the way, I love your 14 year old’s “sworl.”

  5. Luke Says:

    As a muslim I highly enjoyed reading your blog about this and can see how this can enhance the religious lives of many muslims as well (be they part of an interfaith marriage or not). Which explains why some of my muslim friends enjoy buddhism so much in addition to their adopted or birth faith religion.


  6. […] are also sections on the appeal (or not) of Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism for interfaith […]


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