Dhamma for the Young
Venerable Kusalo, himself a father for thirteen years, looks at various ideas in relation to offering the ideals of Buddhism to younger people and draws some parallels between these ideals and parenting.
I regard education, in the general sense, as the equipping of a being for their passage through life. I usually work on the basis that most of our behaviour is learned behaviour, and that the quality of what we learn determines how well we function in the world, i.e. the quality of our lives. Essentially, it is the environment we are exposed to that determines our perceptions of right and wrong and our value judgments of what is worth fighting for (and against). As parents, and to a much lesser degree as children, there is some choice over this ongoing exposure.
Education, in the specific sense of a systematic exposure to selected instruction, has a value which hopefully needs no selling. An education, these days, ought to be everyone's right by birth rather than by privilege. What does require some thought however is the nature of the instruction that we select. This is, in effect, the environment, or the material that we choose to expose ourselves to. What choices do you consciously, or unconsciously, make? Unfortunately we often just have to jump in the deep end of a `life experiment' to ascertain the validity of our choice. However, although "tried" can't always be followed by "and true", most traditional standards are considered eligible for this pairing - with good reason.
For the past five years I have consciously been jumping into the life experiment of Theravadin monasticism. Most of the principles that guide this life constitute an excellent framework around which a harmonious society can be built. Their essence is found summarised in the Five Precepts: non-killing (harmlessness), non-stealing (generosity), non-adultery (fidelity), non-lying (honesty) and non-intoxication (sobriety). They can be regarded as a minimum standard for human behaviour, anything less being merely animal. If you add to these the four Brahma Viharas (divine abidings) of metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion) mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity) you have the basic, Buddhist social and moral platform. The Three Refuges of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha defines the spiritual dimension.
I am not that well read in modern child psychology and have generally formed ideas from my own years as a parent and from just observing the parents and the environments of `good' kids. By `good' I mean; they are basically happy and content. They don't whinge a lot; they respect their parents' direction and are polite to others. You will have your own criteria, but one way of achieving a clear definition is by contemplating its opposite. This, for me, would be the precocious child; the child that forgets, or is allowed to forget, its relationship to others. One of the basic refrains I carry from my childhood is "Equal responsibilities equals equal rights"; when I pay for the groceries, I get to choose the flavour of the ice-cream, unless I have contributed in some other, usually small, way to the fabric of the household.
Monastic life has a very clear hierarchy and there is a relaxed comfort in being able to function, in a group, from a "knowing of one's place." I have lived many years of my (past) life in hedonistic, egalitarian anarchy and, although there were other factors, I see that an excess of independence, so-called freedom, generally only led me to alienation, isolation and depression. Human beings are social beings and, although they are individuals, they are not independent. Several principles are implied here in relation to producing well-balanced, socially integrated kids through education. One of the central elements is humility, being the foundation of courtesy, cooperation, tolerance and harmony in all forms of communion. It should go without saying that these principles will only be adopted if the one propounding them is also embodying them.
The Buddha's teaching, certainly as I encounter it, both as a doctrine and a lifestyle, turns around modesty. I like to use this word as an `accessible', day-to-day synonym for renunciation. It includes humility, moderation, gentleness, control, restraint, abstinence... The fundamental teaching of The four Noble Truths has: "Craving is the cause of dukkha (suffering) and abstinence from craving is freedom from suffering." Simple, huh? Now why can't I do that? Fortunately it's not totally either/or, and inclining to modesty is an inclination toward that same freedom from suffering. As a teacher of your children do you incline to a modest lifestyle; or is it merely "simple" because you can't afford more? Is your behaviour an example of modesty to your children? Are we encouraged toward modesty by the world? My thesaurus gives the antonym of modesty as `ostentation' = demonstration, display, parade, exhibitionism, splendour etc. Somehow these seem to be the values I encounter when I read a magazine or billboard or watch television. Advertising now offers the product as itself, plus. Get the candy bar (with 10% extra, free). The packet soup with a bonus holiday; the petrol with free discount vouchers, etc., etc. ad delirium. These things never come for free! I am led to believe that life as it is, here, normal, right now, can't be satisfactory as surely, somewhere else, it's on special. This is the sort of `educational' material I see myself having to work against. Most people agree the world is a bit of a rat-race - but don't we all find it so difficult to stop running?
A simple, modest, regulated lifestyle is an excellent place to start stopping. How you translate that into your life only you can determine; but, the less you need, desire, the less you have to pay for, the less you have to earn, and the less complex your whole infrastructure can become. All of this converts into one single, vital factor - TIME!
To a modest lifestyle I would add `attention'; in the context of giving attention, rather than asking them (the children) to pay attention. The greatest gift you can offer anyone - and in this case we are particularly talking about children - is your time. A piece of your life, no matter how small, if given unconditionally is worth any number of new toys, violin lessons, sweets, etc. Although it is your time given that gets the money that gets the toys, children have no real appreciation of this equation.
A simple example to test this idea: in bed, before sleep, take the time to give your body a little attention. Gently massage the face, the neck muscles, the scalp. Rub the arms, massage the chest, give the heart a good rub till you feel heat on the skin, the belly - gently feel each organ under the skin. This whole process can be quite extensive but even five minutes will, hopefully, leave your body feeling happy, a kind of soft glow. Kids' bodies, all bodies, really enjoy being touched, attended to. Our minds/hearts are no different, although the process of giving attention is more complex. Meditation is an important aspect of self-attending that has beneficial results (unfortunately details are outside the scope of this work). In class I try and touch the children verbally, with praise, affirmation, encouragement and interest. To touch emotionally, with love, is a joy. In the absence of any positive touch, children often use misbehaviour, having learned that this will get attention. Although only negative it is still preferred to no attention at all.
While I appreciate the unfortunate busy-ness modern life demands, if these kind of ideas aren't seriously upheld they will never find a footing. If there is no model for stopping, physically and emotionally, the insistent, demanding voices of production and consumption are difficult to subdue, leaving no room for the spiritual.
Related to attention, and as equally important as `being present' and hugs, is discipline. Unfortunately, if we see praise as the positive, then discipline is the negative. It means order and control; however, for children, it is your sense of order and your control over them, and they know better. If the boundaries of their allowable behaviour are clearly defined early in life, and regularly reinforced, they are generally much happier; knowing where they stand, and how far they can go. Self-discipline is something we learn; usually by being shown discipline being applied (often to ourselves). If the application is effective we have a good model of how discipline is applied to another and we can apply that to ourselves.
And how to determine what is just? How to treat kids fairly? There are increasing signs of social disorder and a lack of control. Teachers increasingly function as social workers and are often no more than disciplinarians. How is order to be maintained in group situations? Personally, I think society has a generally over-liberal approach to discipline. Children don't know right from wrong. They build up a list of likes and dislikes which usually bears little resemblance to any moral code and often is outside many social codes. The penalties, later in life, for not having been taught, are not only uncomfortable for the individual but for the society at large.
Reasoned logic, coming from loving parents who embody the values they are trying to instill, is preferable to physical punishment by far; if there is an ear ready to listen. This is not always so and I think it naive to rule out "smacking". Discipline is a delicate balance between abuse and indulgence.
One large obstacle to discipline we all have is the desire to be loved. I have heard children say to a parent "I'll hate you forever if you . . .(discipline me)." Fear of rejection immediately arises and has to be weighed against the principle involved. Don't be afraid to discipline, don't be intimidated into coercive `negotiation'. Your children will always love you, although it may not always appear that way. The long-term rewards far exceed short-term expediency.
The last area I would like to reflect on is `tradition', which includes symbols, ritual and ceremony. In an age of reason, everything must be logical, practical and utilitarian. Unfortunately the human organism isn't exactly any of those things. It does a pretty good job but, the difficulty is that we are dealing here with a non-standard entity, and this is the problem - trying to set a standard. Children are very susceptible to worldly symbols - that brand of jeans is totally cool (and so will I be if I have . . . ). But they also intuitively respond to religious symbols, particularly when they have an (emotional) association with pleasant ritual or ceremony. Lighting candles, the sprinkling of holy water, the smell of incense, seems to touch something basically simple and pure in all of us.
Rituals have a constancy and order that similarly appeal. The ritual cup of tea, the ritual greeting, the ritual bed-time story; all provide a familiarity that we find comforting. It is healthy for children to feel secure. Saying grace at meals is a worthy tradition; gratitude for the provisions and providers. Bowing is another. If you, or your children, don't already have one, set up a shrine and get the kids to put on it the things that they treasure, that they can bow to - and join them in bowing. Create some special time of ritual, create some special form of ritual; if you believe in it then it can work, especially with younger ones. I have lovely memories of many non-religious family rituals - the principle is the same even if the focus is a little different.
Hopefully these short reflections on modesty, attention, discipline and tradition are of some interest.
In the monastery there is the small, but healthy, core of several children's activities - Sunday School, Summer Camp and a regular magazine. I would like to offer these to a wider population, and, in conjunction with this, invite wider contribution, cooperation and participation. I feel there are not enough Dhamma opportunities available for younger people and I would like to make contact with new ideas, and new (or old) people who have an interest in `educating' children in a Buddhist context. If you are part of a group, or an individual, with or without children, and would like to connect with a broader sphere then I would love to hear from you. The idea of the global village is a bit beyond what I have in mind but this is an attempt at non- separateness, non-isolation.
One idea that I am very keen on is resource sharing. Having encountered a lack of off-the- shelf material I have put time into creating my own. I suspect that there are many others (planet-wide) doing the same thing. Is it too idealistic to suggest that these efforts can be coordinated and made generally available? Otherwise how many hours are spent on one-offs? Songs, poetry, stories, plays, games, art work, craft, etc. can be collated/catalogued and presented in a regular publication. Several forms of exchange: videos, computer disks, pen-pals, holidays, between individuals and groups, are also possible. There are many possibilities.
If you have any interest or ideas please get in touch with me at Amaravati; I am happy to help facilitate.