The Challenges of Growing Up Buddhist in America

My daughter, “Princess“, recently told me a sad story at her school that I wanted to share.

Princess is 7 years old and is in the 1st grade. In her class, she sits at a large table with other kids, and they sometimes have conversations while doing schoolwork. In one conversation from December, one of the boys at her table asked her if she believed in God (i.e. Christianity). She said ‘no’, she believes in the Buddha. The little boy then said that she could only believe in God, or not. In other words, there were only 2 choices.

The little boy told then her that the Buddha was an evil god that made people do bad things.

Her feelings were really hurt, but she never told me about this story until last week. I told her that she doesn’t have to believe in God or the Buddha if she doesn’t want to, and she doesn’t have to listen to kids like that. She told me that she likes the Buddha and believes in him.1 But she felt really lonely because she is probably the only Buddhist in the class.

Since she is half-Japanese, she thinks that only Japanese people are Buddhist because the only Buddhist culture she knows is Japan. I told her that I’m a Buddhist, but she thought I am Buddhist because of my wife. I told her that I was Buddhist before I met my wife, and she said “oh ok”. I also told her that many other people, Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc, are Buddhist and again she was kind of surprised.

Still, she feels lonely because she doesn’t know any other Buddhists at her school, and feels pressure from the other kids to be Christian. This is not just at her current school; she had similar conversations at her previous school. I don’t think these kids are bad, because they’re probably just repeating what they’re parents teach them (or their church). Kids are a reflection of their parents, after all. :-/

This is the challenge any minority feels in any culture: trying to fit in, but still have your identity. If we moved to Japan, she would have the same problem for a different reason: children in Japan would tease her for being “half-Japanese”, and looking “foreign” even though she speaks Japanese natively. In the case of America, her school is very ethnically diverse, which is great, but religion is an important issue here and so she feel’s pressure to following the majority religion even though she is happy being a Buddhist and her parents are Buddhist.2

We don’t visit a lot of Buddhist temples these days because we’re busy raising a family, and there aren’t many temples that have Japanese members, so my daughter doesn’t get to meet other Buddhist children very often. I may try to bring her to other temples in the near future though so she can meet other kids or at least feel like she’s not alone.

Anyhow, let me know what you think. Do you have kids who get teased for being different? Do they feel lonely? How do you handle such issues?

1 I know some people will read this and say “there are no beliefs in Buddhism”, but remember she’s only 7 years old. She knows the Buddha is a really nice teacher, and such, but I don’t want to confuse her with semantics and such. If she wants to believe in the Buddha, that’s fine with me. If she believes in the Pure Land, that’s fine too.

2 I had a similar experience when I was in high-school. One of the people in my class knew I was Buddhist and stated out loud that I was going to hell because of it. Sometime later, I did start going to a church with a female friend that I liked, but I left after 2 years (my first year in college) when I realized that I just never really believed in it. I was following it for the wrong reasons.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Growing Up Buddhist in America”

  1. I have two young children who attend a public school here in Denver. Although my wife and I are both Buddhist the boys don’t feel they need to identify with that, which is fine with us although they do know quite a bit about Buddhism and enjoy it. Last year my wife shaved her head. Some of the kids at school noticed it when she went to pick the boys up from school and asked them about it. They explained that she is a Buddhist priest. Most of the kids ended the conversation at that point but there was some teasing and our boys didn’t like that. They talked to us later and told us that they just explained to their friends all of the things they enjoy about their family life and their Buddhist parents. They really do admire the people we are and the things we have learned from Buddhism. It was very touching to hear them talk about us in this way and it was interesting how much they knew about the Bodhisattva Path without knowing what those words are.


    1. Hi Raichozan,

      There’s no lack of Buddhist groups here in Seattle, but sadly most aren’t kid friendly and the ones that are usually function more like social clubs than proper temples. So, the search continues but I’ll take that advice in any case. 🙂


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