The Buddhist Child in a Nutshell

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 3, 2013

threewalnutsLast week I outlined a gradual course of practice beginning with the Refuges and generosity and ending with samadhi, a course that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west, but most of which is much more familiar in Asia, and in any case comes directly from the horse’s mouth. After my post appeared an astute parent recognized the implications this course might have for Buddhist education for children and emailed asking if I might post something about teaching Buddhism to children. I would like to begin this topic herewith.

First I should mention an unsettling aspect of most of Western Buddhism: We don’t know how to involve our kids! Western centers are notoriously child-unfriendly. This should be astonishing because Buddhism over the last 100 generations has always involved children, ever since Rahula, the Buddha’s son, became a novice monk at age 7. How hard can it be to get a handle on this?

Sometimes it is a matter of attitude. I have heard some Buddhist parents say that their intention is to let their kids grow up so that then they can make up their own minds whether to become Buddhists or not. Personally this viewpoint puzzles me; it seems presuppose that we are each endowed with a degree of rationality and free-thinking that can be preserved in a pristine state through childhood and then let loose on the world. A free thought is in fact a rare thing; I am not sure I’ve had one for weeks. The success of the marketing industry makes clear how impressionable each of us is, suckers and chumps from toddlerhood  for the most irrational of influences.

The best any father or mother could wish for her or his child is that he or she be exposed to the healthiest, most wholesome influences possible, those that are maximally conducive to the development of personal happiness, of kindness and compassion toward others, and of wisdom all around. We as initially non-Buddhist adults are generally drawn to Buddhism because we recognize that it has exactly these qualities, and then we find we must persevere against our own upbringings to realize these qualities in ourselves. Our children are already such  easy marks for the many offensive influences running through our society that there is a certain urgency about making the values, world view and wisdom of the Buddha an integral part of their upbringing.

CoreFlowerI think this puzzling aspect of Western Buddhism arises from a far too narrow focus in our practice and understanding of Buddhism. This narrow focus not only shuts our children out of participation but inhibits our own development as well-rounded Buddhists as well. The realization of this is my reason for writing the series/ebooklet on “Buddhist Religiosity,” to try to instill a richer, more complete and holistic sense of what Buddhism is … without sacrificing a smidgen of rationality, free thinking or wisdom in the process. As I have described in this series, well rounded Buddhism is like a flower, while much of Western Buddhism is like the stem of a flower, or maybe just the upper third of the stem. The stem, the Path proper, culminating in meditation practice, is the most intense practice and tends not to be a draw for children. The rest is fun and more interpersonal, and provides a strong support for the more intense practice also for adults.

I propose that I go through the gradual path to discuss how each point in turn can be developed in the young, and even in adults. Recall that the steps are as follows:

Refuge in the Triple Gem.

Development of generosity.

Development of virtue.

MeditatorFlowerThe heavens, that is, an understanding of the transcendent dimension of our life and practice.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, that is, an understanding of the downside of samsara, the soap-operatic quality of conventional life.

The rewards of renunciation.

At this point the mind is already “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” but we might continue with what Western Buddhists are most likely familiar with:

The Four Noble Truths.

Right View, Right Resolve.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Next week I will write about children might develop awe for the awesome, for the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I hope as we go through these points that parents post comments with their own ideas and experiences or confusion in working with these areas. I hope to focus on practical tips.

14 Responses to “The Buddhist Child in a Nutshell”

  1. Kitty Johnson Says:

    Wonderful and well-said!


  2. chevita Says:

    Thank you Bhante. I look forward to your thoughts on integrating practical Buddhist ideals into everyday parenting. I have introduced and incorporate the steps you’ve outlined above in our daily living with the children, except for the Eightfold Noble Path. We observe 7 precepts on Uposatha (we eat after noon), observe 5 precepts all other days, and the children meditate and send metta between 2-5 days/week. If you could share your knowledge and wisdom about how to support the stages of the developing child with the practice, it would provide a framework for a Buddhist education.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I am very much interested in hearing your, and others’, personal experiences in implementing these practices. Many of the readers of these posts probably have much more practical experience than myself. We can start with the steps as the Buddha enumerated them for us, but practical implementation in a very complex society, full of dangers the Buddha would hardly have imagined, is maybe something we can figure out together.


  3. EveryVoiceCounts Says:

    I think we tend to feel uncomfortable dictating others’ thoughts because that is an imposition. Which it is. An imposition that is, as you say, being foisted upon all of us, from all angles, every day from birth.

    So for any parent it is worth consciously guiding what experiences our children will be exposed to, what kind of people, what words, what actions, what advertising/TV/books, what food. As they grow older they will make more and more of their own choices and by then they will base their choices on the assumption that wise, compassionate and respectful behaviour is normal, healthy and to be expected.

    And along with guiding their experiences if we can teach our children to practice seeing what is going on inside and out, not just reacting but spending time noticing, then they have a chance to take over the reigns from us and guide themselves compassionately and wisely through their experience of life.

    Absolutely Buddhism must be children-friendly, after all children are some of our most precious and brilliant teachers!


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Well said!


    • Chevita Says:

      I agree with being a conscientious parent, intentional about the influences that will shape children. But my daily struggle is, how do I balance it so I’m not isolating us from participating in a “very complex society…full of dangers” that endorses the ego and deepens the delusions?


      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        I wish there was an easy answer to this but fear not. I think a degree of seclusion from the influences of the broader culture is necessary for the practicing Buddhist, actually for anyone who wants to develop a reasonable amount of sanity, not just for kids but for adults too. Monastic life takes this to an extreme, but I think within a lay life a degree of seclusion is also possible.

        The big issue with kids is that you do not want to isolate them from their friends, but any parental policies you might set up have no force at their friends house. I think it is imperative to limit exposure to commercial media, for instance, but when you try to enforce that they just spend more time with their friends. In a rare case a kid actually might take the policy to heart and develop her own sense of constraint.

        A vibrant kid-friendly Buddhist community of like-minded people can be helpful. However they can be hard to find in the West. I hope to write about the resources provided by Asian Buddhist communities that can be very welcoming to ethnic Westerners.

        This is a good topic for ongoing discussion and other parents who read this may have good practical advice.


      • chevita Says:

        Bhante, thank you for that affirmation about the necessity of practical seclusion from the wider society’s influences. The pressures for full participation is strong, and without a supportive community of like-minded practitioners, it’s hard to know if I am doing the right thing.


      • EveryVoiceCounts Says:

        It is a fine balancing act.

        We start off nurturing tiny humans 24 hours a day, barely taking our eyes off them, and a couple of decades later it’s likely we’ll barely hear from them at times. So the period in between has to be a process of wisdom-sharing and letting go so that the child doesn’t run face-first into the ‘real world’ with no prior exposure and no tools to deal with it the day they leave home.

        I think as long as you find the point at which you can feel confident that you are doing the best for your child, you are going to be the most relaxed and happy parent you can be, which will create a safe emotional environment for your child.


  4. findouting Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I find the discussion on the need for isolation most interesting. And yes, thanks for the comment on the necessity for a certain level of isolation. My own experience with trying to bring Buddhist values to my child is that isolation is both necessary and difficult to implement, and to make matters even more complex, it is necessary to let the child also take forays into the big bad world and face its temptations so that at the end practices are not just culturally ingrained but also consciously chosen. I stress this because I come across young people from culture groups with strongly established and ingrained value systems — tribals, for instance, who tend to get totally confused when they do come in contact with the bigger world, and there is a culture shock so to speak. Some actually develop a feverish attraction for the glittery new thing and get restless to do anything at all to get in. Of course, these are extreme cases, but they are not uncommon. But I think finally, in today’s world, a child (-turned-adult) will sooner or later have to choose to be and do whatever, which includes Buddhist practice, since the culture groups or sanghas simply do not have space enough to sustain a person through a life time, because the big-bad-world is growing more and more intrusive. And I guess we have to do our best and then allow for some amount of struggle for the young person herself.



    • chevita Says:

      This is part of my struggle as a parent. At what point do I allow the child’s kamma to affect his upbringing, and where do I fit in as a facilitator to help him develop his paramis? With three children, it’s becoming obvious each’s differing strengths and weaknesses, each’s potential for practice. But, am I wasting my effort to provide an environment for the children to bolster the skillful behaviors and understanding of the law of kamma as we interface daily with the “big-bad-world”? After all, even our own paramis must ripen before we develop an affinity for the Dhamma’s teachings. Should the ripening process come from within the individual, or does the environment the parents provide stimulate that process?

      If the children eventually do not choose to step onto the Path, then at the very least, I’ve introduced them to the Dhamma so that in a future life, the paramis will ripen.


      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        Chevita and Aparna,

        One of the things I will try to develop in the weeks to come is connecting with a Buddhist community. This can provide a healthy environment for the whole family so that the children are not entirely dependent on their parents’ paramis. Ideally home would be a refuge from the big bad world but that can be a challenge to implement.



  5. findouting Says:

    Hi Chevita,

    I have just one daughter, so I can appreciate the immense responsibility of bringing up three different child personalities all at once. I guess for me the turning point from stressful to relaxed parenting — in Buddhist terms and otherwise — came when I realised that I can only do the parent’s job of parenting, not the child’s job of living her own life, and all that is in my hands is to do my job well. You are right that our own paramis have to be mature… for me the experience was that in my pre-Buddhist days I messed along as well as I could, but since I started practicing, and the tiny subtle changes started happening, my daughter too noticed the changes quite closely and in a detailed way. Today my daughter has a certain amount of faith in meditation, though her practice is heavily dependent on mine, which unfortunately keep fluctuating, she has developed certain practices to deal with life that I did not have at her age, being from a rather chaotic background. But that does not mean there is no struggle. At present my daughter is saving every penny to buy herself a touch screen mobile phone. She is fully aware that she does not need such a phone — admits that it is nothing but fascination — greed really, but is not able to shake that off. But she showed strength enough not to get her father — my ex — to buy her one when he was willing to do so. She reasoned that she did not have the moral right to spend her parent’s money on an unnecessary item, so she is saving her own pocket money for the purpose. I do not know what will come of this struggle finally, but I know I am what I am because of the same kind of struggles many times over. So there is no reason why my daughter should not be allowed her fair share of the same…..:)


  6. Thomas J. NItschke Says:

    My wife is a practicing Buddhist, I am not, however, only because of the roadblocks created by finding a place to practice and a teacher. That said at the outset, I would welcome the opportunity to have my children now 3 and 4 to be raised as Buddhists. While I see your point, it is unclear to me how you intend to teach children.

    When I first met my wife I asked her about Buddhism and she gave me a lot of information. When she was done I said “that is all great but what did the Buddha say?” After reading this article I have the same question for you. “That is all great but what are you actually going to say to the children?”


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