Saturday, 21 April 2012

Etiquette at Buddhist meetings

I will now discuss a topic that’s very close to my heart: etiquette at Buddhist meetings.
As you know if you’ve read my profile or any post of my blog, I grew up in a Buddhist household. Both my parents are buddhist and at least until I was 16, my house was regularly offered for Buddhist meetings. Since the age of 12, I also actively took part in meetings myself. 
I was a very vivacious child and I still remember with some embarrassment episodes in which people (not necessarily my parents) told me off for disrupting a meeting. Sure, it wasn’t pleasant, but growing up I started to appreciate the importance of good manners in general, not just at meetings.
I haven’t got the faintest clue how many meetings I’ve been to in my life, I just know it’s a massive number, in different cities and different countries. I gathered a collection of memories and dos and don’ts that I think might prove useful for people who attend meetings and, possibly, also for people who are thinking about offering their house. 

Let’s first talk about what happens at an average discussion meeting. Similar considerations will apply for most types of meetings, with minimal adjustments.
A normal discussion meeting usually lasts an hour and a half. It is held in a room where everyone can sit comfortably. Everyone should feel at ease and free to discuss anything they want, be it an experience or a request for advice and guidance. 
In the UK, you would have a planning meeting where roles are assigned to different people. First of all a topic is chosen, then there may be the following roles:
Moderator = the person who starts and ends the meeting, introducing the topic, any speaker and making sure any person who would like to speak is allowed to do so.
Experience = someone who will share an experience, possibly related to the topic
Study = someone who will study a passage of the gosho related to the topic and share it with everyone
Encouragement = someone who will read aloud and maybe explain Sensei’s guidance for the month
As a matter of fact, you may not have this distinction, and more often than not, the moderator will do all of the above. It worked well when I was in NWL and there were loads of people there, many of whom were really shy, so this was a way to make sure many people would feel empowered to speak in front of everyone.
One thing to remember (especially for new members) is that you do not have to speak if you don’t want to. A moderator is not there to push you and force you to speak, just to make sure that if you want to, you are not prevented from doing it because someone else is talking too much. That said, if you are completely against talking at a discussion meeting, maybe you should consider reflecting on the reasons. Sharing your experiences, questions and doubts at a discussion meeting is incredibly powerful and can open up your life and conquer situations you deemed unconquerable. To make a long story short, you may suddenly realise that your problem is not that unique, and that there is a solution to it.
Let’s now talk about some aspects I consider really important.
The Butsuma. (this is especially useful if you want to offer your house). 
The room you invite people in should be big enough to welcome all the potential members either sitting on chairs or on the floor. For various reasons (space, Japanese influence…), most people have their butsuma in the living room, with a couch, a carpet and lots of cushions.
It should be clean and reasonably comfortable (ie not too cold, not too warm). 
A very important point, the Gohonzon should be easy to see from any point of the room.
That said, I don’t want people to think that they can’t host a meeting unless they have a posh living room to offer. Bedrooms are also fine, although as a young woman, I have received guidance not to offer my bedroom for mixed divisions meetings because things might get creepy (in short). My bedroom is tiny, and I offer it for YWD meetings only.
Also important, before you offer the house, to check with any person who might potentially be disturbed by the meeting. This includes family members, flatmates or neighbours.
I knew a woman once, a pioneer member, who always offered her house. At some point, for various reasons, the so called living room became the room where her daughter slept (convertible couch). She kept on offering the house, even if that meant confining her daughter away from her room, even when it got late and she wanted to go to bed.
Not a good idea.
The rule of thumb is: animals should be locked in a room, unless you have confirmation that every single person attending the meeting is fine with animals. I think it’s a good idea to lock the dog or cat prior to the meeting, instead of waiting to see if someone has a massive panic attack. 

I know the dog is your baby, but let’s compromise here, aye? (btw, huge cat lover here)
Phones should be on silent or switched off. Period. If you have very good, very serious reasons for keeping your phone on (i.e. you’re waiting for work related calls, etc…), you should immediately leave the room if the phone rings. 
I remember one of the worst meeting I’ve ever been in my life (I will quote it again in this article), where a lady (who had the nerve to boast she had been practising for twenty years), answered a phone call in the middle of a meeting! And I’m not even talking about a quick “Hi, sorry I’m at a meeting, I’ll call you back”. She didn’t budge from her comfortable spot on the couch, and had an actual conversation on the phone while someone else was telling their experience. That’s about as rude as it gets.
Big topic. A tiny bit controversial. As I said, I was raised in a very strict environment. Then I came to the UK and I was completely and utterly shocked at how lax everyone is regarding children at meetings. Whenever I timidly raised the issue, I have been criticised for exaggerating or not having enough patience. I even had people expressing doubts about my abilities as a teacher, because I took exception of a 2 years old slamming the Butsuma door open six times in ten minutes! I had toddlers crawling all over me while I was crying, and I had to tell my very first experience while kids were running and screaming at the back of the room. In that meeting I already mentioned, the main experience of the day was told entirely over the chatter of two children, who had an entire house at their disposal and chose to sit just next to us. 

At no point in any of these episodes I saw parents or other members dealing with the disruption. At the cost of appearing unjust, I have to say I can’t stand it.
If I’m telling a tearful experience, I don’t need a child screaming and running everywhere. If I’m listening to an incredible experience, I want every other person in the room to be quiet and respect the person who’s sharing. I’m sorry, but these sort of episodes just show a lack of manners from the children and the parents.
Now, to also talk from the point of view of children with Buddhist parents (and remember, I have been one). Meetings are hugely boring things for children. It’s just adults talking, really, or repeating the same sentences over and over again. It’s dire. Dull. Uninteresting. You should only take a kid to a meeting if you know there’s going to be other children and a separate space where they can play, or specific activities for them in a separate room. At the very least, you should arrange for your child to have some quiet activity to do at the back of the room (like a book, colouring, or a quiet videogame)
Going back to members’ right to feel at ease and talk about what they need to talk about, remember that a lot of topics may be covered that are not appropriate for children and can confuse or scare them. You may talk about illnesses, death, sex, coming out, job related issues. Many of these things are not good for children’s ears.
An interesting concept is that children are not part of the meeting, so they have to be considered as guests.
I am fully aware that for some members, the only way they can join meetings is to host them at their place and/or take their children with them. I am aware that arranging for someone to stay with them in another room is not always possible (hell, sometimes another room is not even available!).
For these reasons, I think the best thing to do is, as always, chant. Parents should chant in order for the best possible conditions to manifest for them and their children.

The main point to remember, at the end of the day, is that during a Buddhist meeting, respect is paramount. Respect is at the basis of our meetings. This is why, to conclude, unless a specific invitation is made by the host, people should leave not more than a few minutes after the agreed end for the meeting.

1 comment:

  1. I love children and work with children but I really can't stand when children are allowed to "run riot". Children need care and stimulation. I have never been to a meeting in a home with children but at toso they have a room with toys and games and adults who can play with them, and sometimes they will do songs or plays (the community centre has a stage). So it's a really positive experience for the children.


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