The Buddhist Child and the Triple Gem

Uposatha Day, New Moon, April 10, 2013

Last week I brought up the topic of Buddhism for children. What do we teach them and how do we do it? I am glad that so many posted comments, which I take as indicative of the importance of this topic in many people’s lives. I proposed that we look at the following progression of practices or contemplations (I renamed a couple of them for clarity):

Refuge in the Triple Gem.
Development of generosity.
Development of virtue.
The higher prospects.
The drawbacks of samsara.
The rewards of renunciation.
The Four Noble Truths.
Right View, Right Resolve.
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Today I want to take up Refuge in the Triple Gem. This topic began with my ongoing project of writing about Buddhist religiosity. I discuss the Triple Gem HERE. One’s task as a parent is to instill awe in the little ones for that which is truly awesome.

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around the Buddhism, not always an easy project to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of Practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace.

The Triple Gem is the basis of Buddhist faith or trust as we embark on the path. “Faith” is not a bad word as long as we are clear that his is not blind faith. As we progress we have every opportunity to test it and actually until we verify it for ourselves we have not made it our own. When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in the enormity of this personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust that such a personality is even possible. With our own progress on the Path that we will begin to see how his qualities of mind actually start to begin to commence starting to emerge gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves,
veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Children seem to be easily fascinated with the life of the Buddha and telling the Buddha’s story is an traditional way of instilling awe in this personality. There is a range of versions of this life, some very simple and unembellished, others full of magic, earth quakes, heavenly visitors. Kids take it all in, but how much mythology is introduced might be a matter of taste. Make use of modern media! There are a number of movies about the life of the Buddha and documentaries, many of them can be downloaded for free. Of course we all naturally develop reverence for personalities.

Unfortunately in modern culture we find a hard time finding personalities that are worthy of awe; so we worship celebrities. The movie “Little Buddha” actually features a very well-known celebrity actor playing the Buddha, so that might be a sneaky way to divert your kids’ energy in a more wholesome direction. Next week I will write about ritual and bows as traditional physical ways of expressing, and therefore developing, veneration.

Art is also a way to relate to the Buddha. There are many depictions of the Buddha that can be quite inspiring. When I teach Sunday school I print up some pages from the life of the Buddha for the little kids to color.

The Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is a bit more abstract for children, though adults who come to Buddhism generally start here. A unique quality of the Dharma is described by the Pali word “ehipassika,” verifiable, literally from “come-and-see-y.”  When the Buddha says “come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “see” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is Refuge in the Dharma. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dhammic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential.

A traditional way to express reverence for the teachings is through chanting, though that might take some getting used to. Any exposure to the teachings is helpful. The Jataka stories, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, are a media that children enjoy and that are good at conveying Buddhist values and can be used to promote discussion. Also the Dhammapada might work for older kids; it is full of short nuggets.

The Sangha is the living representatives of the Buddhist life. Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we often accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians, scoundrels and celebrities rather than to admirable friends. In Buddhism the word Sangha is ambiguous: There is an Ariya-Sangha (Noble Community) and a Bhikkhu-Sangha (Monastic Community). The Ariya-Sangha is most worthy; these are people who have made great progress on the path, have reached at least the first level of Awakening. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is like a school that trains people to become Ariyans but actually lets in monks and nuns when they still have little attainment. It is actually the monks and nuns who are readily recognized as a Sangha thought their distinctive attire. As such the Bhikkhu-Sangha not only sustantially includes the Ariya-Sangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might symbolize the Buddha.

The Sangha is the easiest Gem to develop a relationship to … if you can find it! This is a big problem in the West, the Sangha (either kind) is pretty meager. However, this relationship is important for a number of reasons. First, the Sangha is a wonderful source of living breathing inspiration and teaching (the Buddha said that hanging out with admirable friends is the entirety of Buddhist practice since it inspires one to the rest). Second, their code of conduct actually defines the structure of the entire Buddhist community.

Next week I will talk about ritual and bows as means to develop awe. The week after that I would like make suggestions about how to find and cultivate connections with Sangha and Buddhist community in your area. In the meantime keep posting comments and questions.

5 Responses to “The Buddhist Child and the Triple Gem”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    what what it is the Buddha realized (typo)


  2. Nan Nelson Says:

    excellent distinction about Ariya-Sangha and Bhikku-Sangha…..
    not just for kids only !!!!!


  3. Alan Says:

    Some parents may be interested in meditation retreats for children:


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