We live for a mere moment on this tiny blue dot. We struggle, first to merely breath, then to walk, communicate, and expand our awareness. Maybe we eventually create art, or join with other humans to build something that will last beyond our lifetimes. We socialize, and form bonds, and create families. Some of us are lucky enough to experience the most amazing miracle, having children. And during the whole process, we learn, we grow, we gather information about what has worked and what has not. In our brief stay here, we each find ways to understand and deal with our suffering, and try to increase our joy and happiness and that of those we touch. We experiment and learn from experience. If we are lucky, we learn from other people's mistakes instead of our own! Among the most important lessons we learn are those that help us to understand and deal with our suffering, to increase our capacity for joy, and to connect deeply with others in satisfying ways.
Like most people, my children are an invaluable part of this continual process; an endless cycle of discovery and sharing. Just as we learned from our parents, friends, and whatever else the universe threw at us, so we share with our children, and learn from them as well.
Our kids may learn some useful facts and skills in school, but the framework that they build their world view on, and the foundation they have for understanding everything in their life, begins at home from the moment they come in to our lives. Whether we intentionally teach them lessons, or unintentionally model behavior for them, early memories of us become the foundation for all future experience. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the best we can.
In my case, I'm a Buddhist. As a philosophy of life, and as a daily practice, my intent is to understand and integrate the teachings of the Buddha into every aspect of my life. If washing the dishes can be seen as a sacred event, worthy of mindfulness, an opportunity to cultivate the paramitas and grow spiritually, then how could I possibly ignore that interacting with my children is also a sacred task? My natural desire for my children's happiness means that I want to share with them the knowledge and tools that I have gained from Buddhism, as it is a system of thought and an approach to life that I have great faith in for exactly that end; finding deep and lasting happiness in life, dealing skillfully with suffering, and increasing our capacity for joy.
This brings up some questions for me. For example, where should I start? From the vast collection of Buddhist literature, which parts are most appropriate for children? Should children and adults be taught differently, and if so, how? What advice or example did Buddha give regarding children?
I haven't seen a lot of material that directly references children in Buddhism. It seems likely that if specific teachings for children were important and necessary, Buddha would have taught more of them. In a sense, compared to Buddha's incomprehensible achievement, we are all like children, so maybe it's not so much age that determines when a specific teaching is appropriate, but where on the path a person is.
Also, when dealing with any teaching, we need to be careful to consider the context and do our best to understand why certain actions were taken rather than just parrot them. The Buddha, after all, left his family to practice. And there's the story of Vessantara, who gave away his wife and kids in order to free himself for Dharma practice. In reading the dilemma posed by this action, we see that why we choose an action is an essential part of that action. Intent matters. I get the reasons why Buddha, and later Vessantara left their families. They had a burning desire to wake up, and they believed that leaving their family was the only way to achieve that noble goal.
But for me the dilemma is not completely solved. Buddha referred to his son, Rahula, as a fetter. His attachment to his son was holding him back. I can only partially understand this sentiment. While attachment is certainly an important thing to overcome, why would a person have to leave the family to overcome it? Can't we stay with the family, and take advantage of every experience with them to grow spiritually? Do I have to sit in a forest alone to meditate? Or can I play guitar with my son, mindfully, with compassion, and appropriate focus? Can't family life also be a valid spiritual path?
The answer seems to be, as it so often is, that it depends. Some people can indeed make family life their practice. Whether this is an accident of nature or the result of deliberate nurture, I don't know. But for me, I recognize that my practice is deeply inspired by my family, and opportunities to be generous, patient, etc, are plentiful in the context of a family, far more so than when I lived alone! It seems to me that Buddha taught the monastic path as well as the lay path because they fit for different people. In my case, the lay path looks like the right fit, yet I understand and support the monastic path for those who choose it. I don't believe one is inherently better than the other. It simply depends on the character, nature, and habits of the person making the choice.
So, in my case, I have chosen to live as a family man, and my interaction with my family is my main practice. Part of that practice is teaching my children, which means intentionally teaching them what I can of Buddhism, and also maintaining my own practice in order to help ensure that any unintentional lessons I pass on are also the best that I can offer.
Rahula, Buddha's son, did not get to spend time with his father until he was about 7 years old. It must have been strange for Rahula to go visit his father in a monastery, and become a disciple like any other student. I wonder if it was difficult for him. Did he struggle to forgive his father? Or did he understand the importance of Buddha's achievement, and accept the choice as one that ultimately benefited not only him, but countless beings? It seems like he did understand, because once he joined his father at the monastery, he received teachings from his father. His diligence in his practice indicates a profound respect and acceptance of the situation. The Buddha told him to be mindful of his actions, body speech and mind, and to think before acting, whether the action would lead to suffering or away from it, for himself and others. And the foundation of that is honesty.
It was 11 years later, when the Buddha saw that Rahula was ready, that he gave him teachings on meditation, had him take vows and begin to develop monastic discipline. Apparently the teachings were taken to heart and practiced, as he achieved his goal of awakening. That, to me, is pretty good evidence that Buddha made a wise choice in first leaving, then later passing on the benefit of his own profound practice.
This brief glimpse into the life of Rahula is about all we know about him, but it's still quite helpful. First, Buddha taught his son that honesty is essential for spiritual growth, and told him to examine his intents and actions to see how they defined his life. Several years of honest reflection later, when the child was ready to look in to more complex ideas and commit to a more challenging practice, he was allowed to take vows and increase the intensity of his training. We all have to walk before we run, and each child grows at his own pace, not necessarily the pace that we want them to. They might grow faster or slower than we do. In order to recognize how things are, we have to be ready to let go of our expectations and attachments to how we think things should be. Without a strong foundation of self examination and an understanding of cause and effect, more intense practice simply can't work, not even for Buddha and his son. We have to "make haste slowly."
Having children doesn't always mean passing on our genes, of course. Buddha taught many disciples other than his son, of course, and I am sure that he taught each one with the same pure devotion that he applied to everything. As far as growing a family, adoption can be a wonderful option. My own father adopted me when I was 10, after being married to my mother for several years. I always considered him dad. I suspect that is because what he passed on to me was more relevant to my happiness than mere genetic survival information. He didn't say much, but he never faltered at supporting the family, spoke to my mother with respect, and took promises very seriously. Even without many words, he passed on principles of right and wrong, and a sense of cause and effect that included a healthy respect for consequences. He gave us a head start on understanding and being able to live according to what we believe is good and right. He didn't know how to meditate, and he never read the teachings of Buddha, but he gave me the foundation to understand and appreciate the Dharma when I left home and began my own search.
Our children's education is an intricate dance between our examples, our words, the meme rich environment they live in, and what ever else the universe throws at them. Each new experience is interpreted through the lens of earliest memories, good or bad, which is why it is so important to give our children a solid foundation from the earliest possible age. So much of what they experience, how they see the world, and what it takes to deal with suffering and experience joy, depends on how good of a job we do. Our genes give them some basic help with survival, while our memes help them live a meaningful life. We can't choose which genes they get, at least not yet, not to any meaningful degree. But we can choose which memes we support with our attention, our intention, and our application.
While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.
When it comes to what to teach, we can only directly teach what we managed to learn ourselves, and that is of course quite limited. But if we cultivate an understanding of the Dharma, and manage to pass that meme to our children, they gain an opportunity to go far beyond mere words. We can try to force them learn what we think they need to know, or we can explore ideas with them with enthusiasm. In the first case, at best they will gain most of what we know. But if we can show them that learning itself can be a joy (the paramita of joyful effort), if we can manage to inspire our children with generosity and patience, then the love of learning can open our children to far more than what we know; potentially, it opens them to the possibility of enlightenment!
In that sense, the specifics of what subjects are taught are not as important as the process itself. Learning that honesty is essential to the process of living a satisfying life. Learning how to focus inwardly and be aware of intent and action. Learning how to deliberately put your attention on a subject and keep it there (paramita of concentration). How to deal with boredom. How to notice what types of behavior take us towards or away from love and understanding in relationships. How to cultivate discipline. When and how to overcome or manage base instinct when appropriate. Learning how and why to be polite. Learning that comfort is sometimes a false friend. Essentially, sharing the Dharma with our children, in terms that they can understand, at the point in their lives when they are ready to hear and begin to practice them, is the most valuable thing we can teach them.
We don't necessarily have to quote Buddha (though that can be helpful as well!). We probably shouldn't start out with memorizing sutras! But we do need to mindful of helping them gain the tools and understanding that lead to waking up and living a wholesome life, with a deep appreciation of beauty and joy. Formal studies might come later, if it fits for them.
A friend recently posted "Buddha did not teach to create Buddhism. He taught to create more Buddhas." And ultimately, what better gift can we pass on to our children than an understanding of what it takes to become free from suffering? In our relationship with our children, we have a unique opportunity to be a role model with very little effort on our part! Good or bad, they will follow what we do at least as much as what we say. This is why the quality of our practice is as important to our children as it is to us. In addition to providing information that we can pass on, it helps us better live a life that can be emulated. We don't need to be perfect, we just need to keep moving in the best direction that we can. However far we get on the path, wouldn't it be wonderful if our children went even further?