Who is Jacqueline Kramer? She's certainly not a traditional Buddhist guru with retreat centers and students traveling halfway around the world to hear her teachings. Nor does she have an exotic name or an important spiritual title. But there is no doubt that she has some serious experience under her belt.
Kramer has been a practicing Buddhist for 25 years and a practicing mother for 21 of those years. In her debut book, Buddha Mom, she proves that her dedication to these two callings and her integration of them make her an authority on the subject. The book is part memoir, part parenting manual, and filled to the gills with inspirational verse; Jacqueline Kramer throws everything into the mix. She shares what she has learned during her personal journey and lays out simple tools anyone can use to awaken and nourish the sacred inherent in parenting and everyday life.
As a Buddhist mom myself, with a new 18-month-old guru and meditation cushions now gathering dust between each use, I was hungry for some tips on Buddhist-inspired "enlightened" parenting. Kramer kicks off the book with her warm-and-fuzzy memories of pregnancy and birthing. She writes: "I loved being pregnant. I loved the power and sensuality of it. I loved taking a step out of my egocentric world into a realm where I was just a function of Nature, one piece of an enormous puzzle. Pregnancy brought me into the moment and back to my elemental, sensual earthiness, connecting me with the wisdom and perfection of nature." Reading this love-fest initially made me wonder what realm this woman was living in. After feeling waves of inadequacy wash over me, I was able to acknowledge the judgments that were surfacing (a true exercise in putting all that "Buddhist awareness" to work), and then simply kept reading. After all, I reasoned, I didn't want to discount someone just because they (unlike me) actually really, really, really enjoyed being pregnant.
My patience soon paid off, as I read about Kramer's initial experiences with Buddhism. She was drawn to do her first retreat because of strong feelings of unaccountable anger that were everpresent within her. Adding fuel to the fire was the Buddhist nun Anagarika Dhamma Dinna who became her teacher for the next 20 years. Personally greeting Kramer at the gate of the retreat center, Anagarika takes one look at Kramer and says "So, you're in the hate group." Thinking back to the incident, Kramer reflects, "She said exactly what I needed to hear in order to get right down to the business of clearing up my murky consciousness. During that retreat there were many times I just wanted to scream, to leave."
The author leads us to this newly edgy revelation, but that's all we get; she doesn't share with us the process of how she got from undercurrents of anger to the dreamy love haze of pregnancy three years later. She touches on her struggles but does not bring us into their depths. This has the disappointing effect of distancing and excluding the reader. I had this experience at various times throughout "SETTING FOOT on the PATH" which includes the first three chapters and comprises the whole first section of the book.
Once Jacqueline Kramer actually gets on the path, however, with the section comprising the rest of the book, entitled "THE PRACTICE on the PATH," she clearly hits her stride. She shares with us how after becoming a mother she realized her path was not that of the revered Buddhist nun but instead that of a Buddhist layperson, a "householder." She writes, "When I came to a crossroads in my life, with mothering and householding pointing in one direction and the contemplative life in the other, I went to see my teacher and sought her counsel. I was enraptured by the beauty and power of the spiritual life I was seeing. The rapture was broken by the sound of my teacher's voice informing me, point blank, that if I was meant to be a Buddhist nun I would be doing so now. She said that since I was clearly engaged in the life of a householder, I would get the most benefit from committing fully to that path." Kramer then sets to work seeking and finding holiness in what she had previously viewed as merely the mundane.
Kramer deftly outlines the basic principles of Buddhism in straightforward language and then shows how they can be incorporated into the experiences of everyday mothering. Her chapters on Simplicity, Homemaking, Nurturance, Cleaning, Joyful Service, Self-Love, Unconditional Love, Faith, and Meditation reflect deeply on mothering and the practice of the Buddhist teachings. She shows us how enlightenment is really just being present and mindful while doing the everyday "chores" of motherhood and householding. She invites us to re-awaken to the sensual and healing qualities of washing dishes and "creating nurturing meals."
I read this book during the few precious hours of the day when my home is quiet. After each reading session, almost by osmosis, I found myself becoming more mindful in my daily routines. It was fascinating to me how even these slight changes in thinking could make my experience of life so much more enjoyable. The chapter on Self Love is a must read for every mother. In it she shares that it took being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome for her to start loving and taking care of herself. Here she realizes that she cannot give to her child or anyone else what she doesn't have, and quotes the Buddha thus: "A mother best serves her child who serves herself". Yes, something we have all heard before, but it deserves repeating.
The basic tenets of Buddhism that Kramer uses as her moral compass are similar to those of many of the great religious and spiritual traditions of the world. Anecdotes and inspirational affirmations abound as she draws from an eclectic mix of sources, including Zen Masters, Jewish Mystics, Arabian folklore, and her own mother, Rose. Interestingly enough, we discover later in the book that she is also a practitioner of Religious Science. Of this she says: "I learned from Buddhism to look within; I learned from Religious Science how to heal the negative trends I found while looking within."
Kramer's writing is fluid and lyrical at times, but can get a bit flowery (remember the dreamy pregnancy sequence?). Generally her writing tends to take a backseat to the breadth of wisdom she shares from her decades of inner reflection and healing.
All in all Buddha Mom accomplishes what it sets out to do: it is a gentle guide for any woman, regardless of religious orientation, who is trying to connect her spirituality with her mothering. It offers comfort, reassurance, and hope. After all, when was the last time you read anything that encouraged you to view changing a dirty diaper as a vehicle for enlightenment? As someone who has been there, Jacqueline Kramer reminds us that mothering is indeed ripe with opportunity.