Because this month’s issue of Manadala deals with the family, I have been asked to devote the present column to the topic of raising children as Buddhists. But I have to say from the outset that, for me, being a Buddhist was never a matter of adopting a particular identity, of being classified as a member of “this” as opposed to “that” religious group. In fact, one of the aspects of the Buddhadharma that I have always found most liberating is its questioning, even skeptical, attitude towards the ways in which we hold onto our various identities – even our religious identities – as defining who we truly are. This being the case, I am naturally loathe to inculcate in any of my children a concrete sense of “being a Buddhist.” My idea of bringing up children in the Dharma has little or nothing to do with providing them a pat answer to the question, “What is your religious affiliation?”
Instead, my wife, Truus, and I draw our inspiration from the precious spiritual friends who, by their examples and through their words, have revealed the essential qualities of the Buddhist way of life. I have always been impressed when His Holiness the Dalai Lama asks his audience not to regard him as a Tibetan, or even as a Buddhist, but simply as a fellow human being, a member of the human family who, like themselves, only wants to be happy. Taking down the walls that keep people separated from one another, His Holiness is then able to make contact with his “sisters and brothers” in a heart-to-heart fashion that allows no room for sectarianism of any sort to contaminate the intimate communication he fosters. With utmost respect for others, he is able to declare simply and truthfully, “My religion is kindness.” This, perhaps, is part of the secret of how he is able to touch others so profoundly. I remember listening to Catholic monastics describe the transformative effect he had on their lives by saying that it was only after meeting His Holiness that they truly understood the meaning of Christianity. As one Christian nun simply put it, “His eyes spoke God to me.”
How does all this relate to raising children in the Dharma? The example of His Holiness, and of our other spiritual guides, reminds us that being a “good Buddhist” means to penetrate below the surface differences that divide us so that we can open our hearts fully to others. Therefore, from the time they were very young, we have reminded our children of the pure, loving essence that dwells in the center of their hearts. We explain that while this pure essence – this enlightened potential or buddha-nature – is referred to by many different names in the different cultures and religions of the world, all these different terms refer somehow to the same underlying reality: that behind the clouds of hatred, jealousy, greed and ignorance temporarily blanketing our hearts shines the light of love, compassion and wisdom, and that as the purpose of life is to allow this light to shine forth as much as we can.
It has been our experience that children respond to this message in a very profound manner. And even in the popular culture they inhabit, where so many influences are harmful, there are powerful reminders of this underlying reality we can point to. For example, a movie our children have enjoyed and seen many times is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. One of my daughters, while still very young, took pleasure in pointing out to me that even though Gaston (the bullying villain of the piece) may appear okay from the outside, he acts like an ugly beast inside; and though the Beast may be ugly outside, on the inside he is really beautiful. And it was clear to her that true beauty (like the Dalai Lama’s true religion) is nothing other than a kind heart.
Of course, simply declaring that we possess this inner beauty is not enough. Like all of us, children need practical ways to contact it, to uncover it as a force in their lives. Of the different approaches that have proven helpful in this regard, one of the most powerful – perhaps because it does not rely on accustomed thought or word patterns – is the recitation of mantra. The sound of Tara’s mantra, for instance, has been a comforting presence for my children from even before they were born. When they were very little it was their lullaby, and even now, many years later, if some fear is keeping them from falling sleep, they will often ask us to sing it to them.
As the children grew, the sound of mantra became associated with visual images that further reinforced the loving, healing imagery of enlightenment. We were fortunate to live close to a Catholic church that had a beautiful statue in its garden. Nearly every day we strolled over to see Mary/Tara, as we still call her, and decorated her with offerings of leaves and flowers. Children love to make such offerings and we have been fortunate to live near not only the Mary/Tara statue, but Lama Yeshe’s stupa at Vajrapani Institute an many other holy objects as well. All of these holy objects, no matter how various they may be in appearance, are identified as one with both the enlightened beings outside us and the enlightened potential within. Furthermore, all the offerings we make are presented with the wish that all beings be happy.
Reinforcing the notion of inner beauty and purity is, of course, only one part of spiritual upbringing. To ground such a notion in reality, children must also have ways of dealing with the negativity that arises in their daily life. This is a complex subject, but what is essential is to help children realize that doing, saying or thinking something “bad” does not make them bad. The actual agents of harm are the greed, hatred and so forth that influence our actions simply through the force of habit. By being kind to animals and saving the life of insects – activities children naturally enjoy – they can do something tangible that outweighs whatever harm they may have done.
Lastly, even though I took pains to point out my aversion to the narrow sectarianism that can accompany identifying oneself as being Buddhist, Truus and I are extremely pleased that our children have been exposed to so many positive Buddhist influences, most notably the many extraordinary lamas who regularly visit the area. In addition, when we first moved to California, our children were loved and cared for by many people who shared our values, among them the four lovely Brooke sisters who warmly accepted them as part of their family. Afterwards, all three of our children attended Tara Day Care where Pam Cayton and Bev Gwyn in particular turned the Buddhist principles of kindness and compassion into practical methods for getting along with and caring for others. And, ever since its inception, our children have attended the annual Dharma Camp held at Vajrapani Institute, where they have been exposed to such powerful purification practices as Vajrasattva and Vajradaka meditation. If it is true that it takes a whole village to raise a child, then we feel extremely fortunate that our “village” here in California has helped provide our children with such a positive upbringing.Tags: jonathan landaw, parenting