Reading together with my daughters and telling them stories is a time when I feel I can impart some Buddhist wisdom in a relaxed and gentle way. Small children often like to hear the same stories repeated over and over again, so it feels like there is a real opportunity for information to resonate and be absorbed.
After reading to Amaya one night, she still wasn’t sleepy and asked me to tell her a bedtime story of my invention. In my drowsy state it was difficult to think of anything, then the painting of Guru Rinpoche (the historical master who is known for establishing Buddhism in Tibet) hanging on the wall caught my eye, so I began to tell her the story of how King Trisong Detsen invited both Guru Rinpoche and the great scholar Shantarakshita to Tibet so that Buddhism could flourish there. I told her how, together, they built the first Buddhist temple in Tibet, the great Samye Monastery. This story somehow became a favorite and Amaya and I spent many evenings snuggled up together, drifting off thinking of Guru Rinpoche subduing the negative emotions of obstructing forces, of the king, whose intention and aspiration was also supported by Shantarakshita, all of which made possible the construction of Samye Monastery.
Last year, I started reading Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha by Jonathan Landaw for story time. Amaya had recently attended Bodhi Seeds, the first Khyentse Foundation Buddhist camp for kids and she would interrupt me to add details that she had learned about the Buddha’s life during the camp. I was very touched by the amount of detail she had retained. Educating our children about Buddhist history and values, and establishing the view of Buddhist practice can help them throughout their lives. But many of us parents are not trained educators; I find it is an ongoing battle simply to instil good manners and hygiene habits, let alone the seeds of the Buddha’s wisdom. I know that being a good example is always the best way to teach. However, that isn’t always possible.
Carefully selecting the right reading material feels like a lovely way to support our children’s positive development and to share quality time. It’s fun researching books that teach meditation and kindness to children, and I find the teachings contained therein to be just as helpful for me as they are for my daughters—books such as Sally Devorshine’s Now I Know series and Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Maclean have been recent favorites. Looking back to my own childhood, I can see that sometimes it was just a phrase that someone said or story read at school that had a major impact. And I also remember very clearly my mother reading to me before bed.
My mother would read actual Vajrayana Buddhist liturgies to me as a bedtime ritual. It might sound strange, but it was really lovely. The poetic beauty and wisdom of the texts became a reference point for me. I remember years later, as a teenager, going to bed late after a party, but even so before sleeping I would run through the visualization of the liturgy she had read to me long ago.
I am also realizing now that I need help in this endeavor, and want to reach out more and look for existing Buddhist programs for children. There are some really special ones happening now, such as Bodhi Kids, Saraha School, and the soon to be launched Middle Way Education web site, the Khyentse Foundation’s online Buddhist education hub to support parents and children. It sounds so cliché, but it really is true that the childhood years are gone before we know it. I think that as we work to educate our children we are also educating ourselves. When we teach, we begin to see where our own understanding may be lacking and how our own ethics can be enhanced. Seeking help from trained educators or becoming more informed seems really necessary.
Usually we invest in our children’s education in the hope that they will find success and prestige, be well informed, get ahead, and achieve good social status. However, there does seem to be a gap in the focus here, often completely overlooking inner wellbeing and kindness. Again, I look back to my own childhood and recall my father emphasizing the importance of education so that I would be able to get a well-paying job. However, after meeting the Dharma and as he approached the end of a terminal illness, he encouraged me many times to remember that although material gain can be useful, you cannot take it with you when you die, and to practice the Dharma as much as you can.
I encourage myself and others to find ways to incorporate Buddhist education into the daily routines of our families, knowing that soon our children will be grown and out in the world. Life is full of hardship and confusion, even for those of us with wonderful conditions. Our children need tools to start creating good habits in how they relate to the world, each other, and themselves, and Buddhism is an ideal tool even if not used as religious practice.
Many second- and even third-generation Dharma friends I have met seem to come from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha. I think that his focus on integrating the sangha children through camps and education has been a big factor. Also, the Khyentse Foundation is now exploring ways to support Buddhist parents and teachers, which is really comforting and encouraging as a Dharma parent. To have such an established organization guided by the wisdom of a teacher such as Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche, who is also genuinely dedicated to the preservation and advancement of all Buddhist lineages, should encourage all Dharma parents to recognize that raising kids in this way really is a priority. Finding the right educators, resources, and being informed ourselves can be invaluable in this process of connecting our children to Buddhism.
Below is a quote from the Khyentse Foundation’s page on education that I think is useful for all of us interested in this topic:
“In the Buddhist tradition, the transference of the wisdom lineages from masters to disciples is well established, but there are few examples of how to introduce Buddhism to children. Through our global study of Buddhist education, we have determined that teacher training is of utmost importance. Rinpoche has said that teachers are the great “influencers” of our lives. The teacher must reflect the core values of Buddhism—nonviolence, compassion, contemplation, generosity, discipline, patience, self-awareness—and have some understanding of dependent arising if hoping to influence their students to reflect the same.”