Lama Zopa Rinpoche once instructed me to write a book on how to bring up children when he stayed at my house for a fortnight. Perhaps this will partially fulfill his wish!
Our family is very close. I always talk to the children more or less like they’re young adults. Meina is 18, Yuna is 15 and Minori is 13 – all girls. My wife Kazuko doesn’t attend Buddhist classes, do retreat or read books, but we talk a lot and she is genuinely a Dharma practitioner even though she doesn’t go to the teachings. She is so much so that when the Hayagriva Centre here in Perth was looking for a new director, her name came out best in the observations! She felt very honored and promised she would help in any way, but she is the family’s cook, gardener and driver – she’s our everything. She is my best friend, and also the children’s best friend.
In the family we try to practice. I try to bring Dharma from what we learn and transform it into day-to-day life, not just spiritual life. Dharma should be practiced in your family life, amongst friends, and in business.
How does one make merit? The teaching is very clear: you have to follow an ethical way of life, which is the basis of pratimoksha vows. You translate that into very simple terms: if you can, you have to be helpful to people. If you can’t, you must refrain from hurting them.
Then, how does one translate the bodhisattva vows for children? Try to be aware of others, care for them. I’m not theorizing here. I’m surprised to even hear myself saying all this, because these questions have forced me to think about it. In day-to-day life, when they were small I used to play a trick on them. When they came home from school I would ask them, “What good deed have you done today?” We want them to be mindful of at least one good thing that they did and then share it with everyone.
If you see how they are, though, they argue with me and debate with me – they’re like good friends. It’s not authoritative. When I was growing up my parents always – out of love and care I guess, and also being Chinese – always hammered into our minds to make money. “How are you going to survive? You have to study so you can earn good money, become a doctor or architect. You have to do that, you have to be successful, you have to maintain the reputation of the family.” Even before I met the Dharma I knew that if I had children I would do the total opposite.
When Meina wanted to go to university, she asked what I thought she should do. I explained to her that people generally say to do what you like, do what you think you’re good at, but I think the most important criterion is that you use whatever you learn there to benefit others. If you have the opportunity to do something that benefits others in a more direct way, I think it’s better. That’s number one. Number two is don’t ever think, “What is the best paid profession?”
I told her I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for seven years as a student, and at that time Colonel Sanders was still alive. My picture is still in the headquarters here because I was awarded as best employee in all of Australia. Colonel Sanders actually gave me a ruby pin with his image on it! I told my children that it taught me a big lesson: even if you’re cleaning the car park, or cleaning the kitchen or frying chicken, if you do it with enthusiasm and understand what it’s for, and you do it well, you get appreciated. Do what you do well, and try to always think there must be some other benefit.
So with children I never talk about money. Other parents argue about pocket money, whether they should give it to children or not. I happen to adopt the attitude that I don’t like to give them pocket money. But they know that whatever they need, they will have it. It’s amazing, actually, because they never take more than what they need. It’s a risky thing, though.
I said to Kazuko that when the children come along we should be more mindful; I don’t want there to be a difference between what we say and what we do. There is no key in any of our drawers; the children have access to everything. And there are no secrets. When you do that they develop a sense of belonging to the family.
I’ll tell you one interesting experiment. Here the Tooth Fairy usually leaves about fifty cents or a dollar. My daughter Yuna, the middle one, once lost her tooth, and wrote a letter and said, “Dear Tooth Fairy, please leave some money.” I told my wife I’d be interested to see what she would do with the money, so I gave her one hundred US dollars for one tooth. At that time we were on vacation. As far as I can see she has no need for money, so what would she do?
Do you know, to my biggest surprise, after getting the hundred dollars, she ran in and said, “Poppa, Poppa, I got one hundred dollars! Now we can pay for some of our meals. You don’t have to pay! This is so good!” To me this shows it’s working! Instead of saying it’s my hundred dollars, she really thought of others. The girls really think of others who are less fortunate.
I also encourage them to say the truth even if it’s not easy and uncomfortable. Later on when I learned more about Dharma and Vajrayana, I started to handle the children using the four modes: peace, increase, power and wrath. The first mode is generally very kind: I always joke with them and am very kind.
Then when I want to get a point across and sometimes it fails, then I try to be more generous and try to bribe them, and talk about rewards. Then, if that still doesn’t work, then you use your toughness. Even if that doesn’t work – and this is very rare, I can count on one hand the number of times the children received this – I talk about punishment. This would be like not watching “The Simpsons” for 10 weeks or something. The children know the gravity of the situation by the way I do things.
Do you know I’ve never taught the children about mantras? It’s only in the past couple of weeks that I have taught them om mani padme hum.
Meina has been to the center maybe four or five times because she wanted to go. You see, with the devotional aspect I’m not that much in a hurry. If we are talking about merit, merit is created by two things: by wisdom and by compassion.
You have to start from the bottom level. You must concern yourself with others and work with them, and you must try to understand how things really work. I kind of lead a study group on the bodhisattva vows here in Perth, and last week someone asked a question about the vow on not teaching emptiness to someone who isn’t prepared. This person, “So we shouldn’t teach emptiness to the children?”
I said yes, we should. I also said it horrifies me how people try to teach this high and profound word and meaning to young people without even seeing the direct connection between emptiness and happiness. I started teaching emptiness to them from an early age, using the example of net games. The umpire’s position is a good example of being empty of inherent existence because the two sides always see it as being totally opposite. When one says it’s a perfectly legitimate tackle, the other says it was off-side and that the umpire is lousy. I use little examples like that, and I started to tell the children that nothing, nothing is so solid on its own. It must have a contributory factor from us. I don’t use such big words though.
Here’s another example: my Number One and Number Two went to see the musician Jewel when she was here in concert. The youngest one didn’t want to go because she doesn’t like her. I didn’t make any comment. Then, just a few weeks later she went to see Alannis Morrisette, and when she came back she said, “Wow! It was fantastic!” The other two said, “Oh, she’s okay.”
Then I throw in the question: “Is there anything that is really a good song? What is a good song? Why do you always disagree with Rick Dees on the American Top Forty music show?” I like to talk to them like this. They say, “Well, it’s a lousy song. Why did it become number one?”
I ask them, “Why do you think it’s become number one?” and they reply that it’s because a lot of people like it. Then I explain that there is no such thing as the number one song. It must because you like it or they like it. And why do you like it? Because of your own tendencies or dispositions of liking and disliking things, or also being influenced by certain things, like whether something is in fashion or not, etc.
I say, “Look around. When you are happy or in a good frame of mind, then even the lousiest thing looks okay. If you’re in a bad mood then even the good things, like good food, aren’t as tasty.” I told them that if they believe in that then it’s more important to have a good frame of mind all the time.
I threw a challenge to them: I asked them to think of three or four of the best things that have ever happened to them in their lives where it actually didn’t involve anyone else. Of course they couldn’t find one because real happiness is always connected to other people. The light on their faces was wonderful!
Another thing that’s a no-no in our house is to say, “I’m proud of you.” I never use it. I try to say, “I rejoice, and I’m very happy for you, with you.” I tell them all the time to never, ever let pride get into you. Pride always involves comparing yourself with others. There will be people who are smarter than you, so in the end you’ll get jealous or depressed. Or if there’s someone who’s worse than you then you become arrogant.
I told them all the time to just do the best you can and try to get as much as you can from yourself. Even if they come last in the race, if they put in their best effort, then to me they are a champion.
Talking about self-confidence is much, much more than feeling pride. It doesn’t mean being competitive. I think it’s good to be competitive, and the hardest thing of all is to be competitive with yourself. It’s easy to beat others if you happen to be better than them, but to get the best out of yourself is better.
As long as we’re not afraid of transforming what we’re learning into everyday life, then with that frame of mind anything can happen. I believe that whenever there is a chance we should point it out to the children how everything we experience is subjective, and then connect it to an ethical way of life. If you connect the two then it’s good insurance for not misunderstanding. But if you say, “Oh, it’s only my view that counts,” then it could be very egocentric and bring the result you don’t want.
Like with generosity. I tell them that if they’re enjoying something, don’t share what’s left over – share what they’re actually enjoying. Our dog is spoiled because of this! You start by teaching not to lie, not to steal, and you yourself need to set the standard of not lying, not stealing. I never, ever use proper Buddhist words to do that – not yet, anyway! I’m not one of these educational parents that forces their kids to practice. I’m not a Buddhist with a capital B.Tags: parenting