This post was inspired by recent, and very cute events. Also, I’ve noticed for a long time that people tend to find my blog searching Google for tips on raising children Buddhist. So this post is dedicated to all you Buddhist parents out there! Some quick background information first though. My wife is Japanese and was raised Buddhist, while I was a convert at 16, but more active 3 years ago (at 27). In a way, we have the benefit of raising our daughter with the richness of Asian Buddhist heritage, but also with the contemporary background I have. The best of both worlds I think. :)
We have a small Buddhist altar that we bought in Japan, specifically the temple of Tsukiji Hongwanji in Tokyo, and from the beginning we showed her the altar. When she was about a year old, she could grasp the small bell-ringer and smack the bell with it. She loved it, and would BANG-BANG-BANG the bell over and over again, especially with the wooden handle, not the padded end.
We also took her to Sunday temple services with us by the time she was 4 months old. The first time she went to the temple, she cried a lot when they rang the temple bell, being very loud and sudden, but I would just take her to the hallway and just pace the halls back and forth and she would sleep in my arms. I really enjoyed those times actually. Many of the old Japanese-American ladies at our temple would also fawn all over the baby as well, so she was very popular. ;)
Somehow in the process she also learned how to gassho which means to put your hands together in respect. What was funny is that she learned this on her own. I remember watching a documentary on Buddhist temples one time, and they were featuring the famous Japanese temple of Taima-dera, where the Taima Mandala tapestry was housed, and when they showed the tapestry on the screen, she suddenly did gassho on her own. Each time they showed the image, she did it again and again. The mandala image looks similar to the altar we have at the temple in Seattle, so she must have made a mental connection on her own.
Now my daughter is 21 months old, and has started a new habit. She likes to open the altar herself (with help from mom), smack the bell a few times, put her hands together in gassho, and then wave “bye-bye” to the image of Amida Buddha. This isn’t something we’ve taught her, but something she just picked up on her own. Also, she has fun decorating my Buddhist books with her stickers when I’m not looking:
The reason why I mention all this is that when it comes to raising children as Buddhist, I think the best approach is teaching by example, not trying to force it down their throats, or confuse them with a bunch of terms and practices they won’t understand. When I tell her about Amida Buddha, I just tell her he’s a nice guy. I don’t need to emphasize things like Enlightenment, or the nature of the Buddhas. I don’t need to inundate her with abstract topics like compassion or wisdom. She’ll figure it out later in her own time and if she’s curious. If she’s not curious, what’s the point in lecturing her?
Jodo Shinshu, among Buddhist sects, is among the most family-friendly. It emphasizes gratitude and humility, and is geared toward working-class people given its roots as a lay-Buddhist organization from 12-13th century Japan.* So, we take her to the Sunday School there, and she plays on the slide, eats snacks and occasionally makes crafts. The themes are not overtly Buddhist, but just being in a wholesome Buddhist environment works wonders. She learns to be thankful for the food she receives, she learns to speak kindly to others, and to be nice to other children.
That’s the real secret of raising Buddhist children. The Buddha emphasized in many, many texts the importance of living a wholesome, moral lifestyle, and extending this to one’s family as well. The Buddha encouraged gratitude and respect to one’s parents, encouraged parents to love and protect their children, and for spouses to love and respect one another. A great sutra for that spells this out is the Sigalovada Sutta in the Pali Canon (DN 31).**
Lastly, one other thing to remember is that children are adults in little bodies. You do not own your children, but they are in your care, and since you have brought them into this world, fragile and confused, you owe them the best, most loving and wholesome life you can offer them. Someday you or your children will die and separate from one another, but if you make efforts now to raise them in a loving environment, it will benefit them for many years to come, and indirectly many other people in the world.
* – The early Shinshu followers used to meet in houses from time to time and usually an elder led the service. The more institutionalized Jodo Shinshu religion came later.
** – I am still amazed how many people in the West incorrectly teach that Buddhism is a “do anything you want” religion, but if you read the Buddha’s teachings, the sutras, you will see a very different picture. The Buddha strongly emphasized the need to cause as little harm as possible, and Moral Precepts were his “gift” (his words, not mine) to the world. People who follow the precepts do many other people kindness and create far fewer problems for themselves. This includes the fifth precept, abstension from alcohol and drugs. That’s one habit you don’t want your kids to learn by example.