Learning Compassion in the Sunshine State

Mary Talbot visits a Florida family forging a Buddhist life.

Mary Talbot


Palm Beach Dharma Center's children's class meets the Rinpoches.

SATURDAY MORNING, just after breakfast, and a balmy Florida mist is lifting from the damp streets and luxuriant shrubbery a few blocks off the South Dixie Highway in Lake Worth, a city on the outskirts of West Palm Beach. Tom Felt, a third-generation Floridian, middle school English teacher, and father of eight-year old twin girls, Laurel and Taylor, unpacks tubes of printing ink, rollers, and swaths of colored cotton in the parking lot of the Palm Beach Dharma Center, a branch of the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center, an organization in the Tibetan Nyingma lineage. The center, housed in a cushy, low-slung bungalow, is indistinguishable from the other houses on the block except for a demure sign on the front lawn. The ink and flags are for a craft project Felt has devised for a monthly children’s dharma group he founded and leads.

For more than a decade, Felt has studied with two Tibetan brothers, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche. But when he and his partner, Keith Platt, who teaches social work at Florida Atlantic University, became fathers, his dharma focus shifted from his own instruction to that of his daughters. “When we had the girls, it was easy to become disconnected from the sangha,” says Felt.

“With the class, I feel like I’m doing something purposeful. It’s my way of bringing in people who have children, and it allows the adults to do their practice on Saturday morning while the kids can develop their own—or at least have the chance to taste practice. It was really the only way I could figure out how to bring my family into the practice in a concerted way.”

A handful of kids trickle into the parking lot; their parents veer off to the main shrine room for ngondro— preliminary practice—and Felt leads the children, most of whom know one another, into an immaculate, carpeted room off the center’s store, unfurnished but for a fully-rigged altar and some pillows. There is one new student, Elias, who is ten and has the look of a boy being subjected to what he sees as his mother’s latest embarrassing whim. Tom gently introduces Elias, gives him a cushion to sit on, and passes out handmade booklets on sadhana—spiritual practice—to the group.

“Now the first thing we need to do is develop our generosity,” says Felt, in a careful, teacherly tone. “First, we’ll make the water offering.” The kids rush to the altar to grab a plastic pitcher and splash water into the brass dishes. “Take your time, very nice,” Felt praises. “Water is a good place to start, because water is something we can easily give away.” Then it’s incense time. Maia, eight, burns herself on a match and plunges her finger into her mouth. “It’s okay,” she mumbles. “Elias, you want to try?” asks Felt. Elias shakes his head. “That’s okay, you don’t have to. Now we chant the seven-line prayer.” The children move smoothly through the pages of the sadhana,and each section sparks a discussion:

“The Buddha taught eight steps to being a good person,” Felt continues. “What do some of those steps look like?” Taylor shoots up her hand, a pink mala dangling on her wrist. “Not pushing people. Not saying mean things or gossiping.”

Felt: “Right. That’s right action and right speech.”

Hunter, a peripatetic five-year-old who is Maia’s little brother, has built himself a foxhole out of meditation cushions—no one pays him much attention.

“What does it mean to be compassionate?” asks Felt.

Taylor: “Be kind to people you know and even people you don’t know.”

Maia: “You should have compassion for bullies.”

Hunter: “I know! I know! Lions! Because they hurt you real bad but they still need compassion!”

Maia: “They’re just hungry, Hunter. What about the polar bears!”

Taylor: “The ice is melting and the polar bears are in trouble.”

Hunter: “I saw that on Ice Age!”

Taylor: “Wars.”

Felt: “You mean we should send our compassion to people in wars?”

Laurel: “Yes, because both sides are getting hurt.”

Hunter: “But one side is the bad guys!”

Felt: “Why do you think they are bad guys?”

Hunter: “Because they fight and show that they’re evil.”

Taylor: “If I were in Canada, I might think the Florida people were evil. And I’d want to go to war with us. But if the Canada people had compassion for the Florida people, and the Florida people had compassion for the Canada people, then we probably wouldn’t go to war.”

Felt has confided that for him, leading the children in meditation is the hardest part of the class, but he gamely introduces the sitting period. “We’re not going to think about what’s for snack, or the FCAT [Florida’s standardized tests, about which Felt thinks a lot], or how much homework we have. And if we do, we can say, ‘Oh, that’s thinking,’ and let it go, and come back to watching the breath.”
© Mary Talbot
Hunter: “I can’t see my breath!”

Felt: “But you can feel it.”

After a few minutes of silence and squirming, Felt rings the bell.

“I couldn’t meditate,” says Taylor. “I couldn’t either,” says Maia.

Taylor: “It’s because we get distracted.”

Hunter: “Everything distracts me.”

As the kids stand up to go outside, Felt points out ways in which they practice generosity without even noticing: “Maia and Hunter brought food for the kitties, Laurel and Taylor brought popsicles and some money. You all carried the flowers into the shrine room. You practice generosity all the time, and it feels good, doesn’t it?” “Yes!” Hunter replies. “I also know how to read, how to snap, whistle, and do cartwheels. That feels good, too.” The kids take turns printing their prayer flags with a linoleum block that Felt carved with an image of Chenrezig and the mantra of compassion, Om Mani Padme Hum. They play tag, eat snacks, and pet the center’s cats. After Elias has stamped his squares of cloth and hung them up to dry, Felt tells him: “The flags flap in the wind, and the wind takes our prayers to everybody. Elias, your generosity and compassion are making that happen.” For the first time all morning, Elias smiles.

At home, in Jupiter, about twenty miles north of West Palm, the girls eat their lunch and talk about being the children of vegetarian, Buddhist, gay men.“It doesn’t get any more alternative than us,” says Keith. “Not around here.” Their lives seem well anchored by the routines of home, school, and the outdoors: they ride bikes and draw fairies, do homework, and explore their vast backyard in a terrain that, before a housing boom began, was a grass swamp criss-crossed with canals. It is still populated by armadillos, water birds, and rabbits. “Why don’t you eat meat?” prompts Felt. “’Cause I like cows,” says Laurel. “Pigs are cute, too. Chickens aren’t cute, and they aren’t pettable, but I still don’t eat them.” “You killed the dogs,” says Taylor. “Well, we did bring about their death,” says Felt. “But they were in so much pain and so much distress that we thought it was better to put them to sleep. We chanted Tibetan mantras while it was happening. Why do you think we should have compassion for other beings, like animals?” he asks the twins. “Because you might have been an animal in another lifetime,” says Laurel. “You could have been a little girl, or you could have been a hedgehog.”

In their rambling house, there’s space for a lapis colored shrine room appointed with thangkas, a classical altar, and vestiges of the girls’ craft projects: a prayer wheel made from a Morton Salt carton, more hand-stamped prayer flags. After lunch, Laurel and Taylor sit on their fathers’ laps and rest their feet on the family dog. Yet in spite of their daughters’ extraordinary gentleness, and the obvious effort their parents put into creating a fertile spiritual environment for them, Felt still confesses feelings of inadequacy—the modern parent’s albatross. “There’s work, then I get home exhausted and have to make dinner, do bath time, and then I want to collapse. I feel guilty that I don’t practice on a regular basis.” But through osmosis, or karmic heredity, the girls keep up their own extemporaneous religious life. “Sometimes they ask me to go meditate with them. Or they collect wild flowers from the yard and put them on the altar.” Felt and Platt do take heart. “The girls are the miracle of our lives,” says Platt. “We had been together for fourteen years when a friend offered to be our surrogate. She said she thought we would raise our children in a spiritual way that would benefit the planet. She knew we had this foundation.”

Contributing editor Mary Talbot lives in New York City with her two children and is an administrator at a public elementary school.

Image 1: Courtesy of Palm Beach Dharma Center

Image 2: © Mary Talbot

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