A new book aims to describe the art of child-rearing in Tibetan culture, in order to help Tibetans hold onto their traditions and as a teaching for the wider world.
A pilgrimage earlier this year took me to Northern India and Sikkhim where I visited Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries and witnessed a little of the spiritual practice which is so integral to the ordinary everyday life of the people there, amongst them many Tibetan refugees. Saddened to leave India I was interested on returning to my life and my family to pick up this book and find myself once more amongst Tibetans and to be offered another perspective on their lives and practice.
The Tibetan Art of Parenting offers a rich and well documented overview of the holistic theory and practice relating to childbirth and infancy within Tibetan culture. It is divided into seven parts, looking at approaches from pre-conception through to early childhood. Originally a work by Anne Maiden Brown and Edie Farwell, psychotherapist and anthropologist, it has been revised and now includes the collaboration of Dickey Nyeronghsa, a doctor from a lineage of Tibetan physicians, brought up in Tibet and now living in the US.
Title: The Tibetan Art of Parenting, From Before Conception Through Early Childhood
Author: Anne Maiden Brown, Edie Farwell, and Dickey Nyerongsha
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Available from: Wisdom Publications and Amazon.com.
The material is drawn from practice within the refugee community, principally in Dharamsala, Northern India, home of the Tibetan government in exile. The account adopts the device of introducing us to three fictional families living in or near Dharamsala, and narrative engages us with them at the different stages of parenting.
The work is intended for parents, child health professionals and legislators as well as sociologists and anthropologists. It seeks to present and preserve the rich tradition associated with birth within Tibetan culture. The authors are keen to stimulate dialogue between modern and traditional approaches, valuing the Tibetan understanding of childbirth as a natural process to be undertaken within the context and care of the family and wider community.
I had a mixed response to the book. As a parent and Buddhist I found it interesting but without being a childbirth practitioner there was more detail especially around preconception and gestation than I could engage with and I would have welcomed more information about Tibetan Buddhism itself. For any child health professional or alternative medicine practitioner I think this would be a most interesting read. It seems that there is evidence that Tibetans were the first people to study and illustrate the conception and development of the fetus through gestation.
In order to engage with the fictional, composite families one had to suspend belief –- it may well be that this did facilitate the narrative for me but it was an unusual contrast with the sections of more technical information. I imagine I may have found the original interviews more authentic and satisfying. I wasn’t sure who I was meeting.
During my reading of the book I gained more of a picture of the relationship of the families with their practice as Buddhists, a practice that is intertwined with folklore and superstition and with a dependence upon and close relationship with the monastics and lamas. Concepts of karma, rebirth and interconnectedness are introduced and of course essential to our understanding of the subject at hand. As a Sangharakshita disciple I missed the careful definition of terms.
The book which has comprehensive notes and glossary may well have benefited from some kind of appendix. However, as a layperson’s introduction to Tibetan birth practices, I do recognize that it would have been far beyond its remit to offer more than a superficial introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, complex as it is, not only in its meaning, but in its institutions and history.
In the main I found the book easy to follow and rich with interesting detail. As a parent I was able to recognize some of the obvious and frightening gaps in knowledge. Infection, without the understanding of basic sanitation, was often attributed to a spirit, witches or barren women — (they do get a hard time in this culture). Colostrum in breast milk was thrown away as impure. In Tibet in 1990 the average life span was 54 and although few women died in childbirth the infant mortality rate was over half.
Amongst the many positives the tradition emphasises the importance of nutrition for the mother, of massage and touch for the young child, with mother and baby rarely separated, and a serious response to post natal depression.
What interested me personally was the use of ritual at every stage of development before and after conception and birth and the extent to which this supports on every level the life of the mother, child and their family. A very lovely example is where the new born child has the seed syllable of the bodhisattva Manjushri painted on the tongue with saffron, symbolically bestowing wisdom and valuing articulate and clear communication.
Although some of the rituals may come across as less objective and more rooted in superstition it is clear that with many the effects give psychological support, serve to bind the child within its family and community and emphasize positive qualities and values.
The book also offers an insight into the changing lives of the new generation of Tibetans as refugees, how they meet western values and medical knowledge and what they may choose to leave behind of their traditional values and practices.
I do hope that the book achieves some of what it sets out to do and helps Tibetans to retain and value such of their traditional approaches as are of enduring merit and to recognize, in a world that fragments community, the rituals and beliefs that serve to root them in appreciation of and interconnectedness with others.
For westerners it will be difficult, without being steeped in the culture and religious belief of Tibetan Buddhists, to translate many of these practices into our lives. However what cannot be missed in this detailed and often fascinating account is the kindness of the Tibetan people, the cherishing of human life and of positive values which is so well developed and embedded in Tibetan society. This we can find within our western culture and it can be translated into any language.
Dharmavasita is from Brighton where she works and teaches at the Brighton Buddhist Centre and lives with her husband and 16 year old son. Dharmavasita first came across the Triratna Buddhist Community in 1979 and was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. She loves being a mother and loves teaching and practicing meditation –- there is always something more to learn.