How to Educate Our Children
The single most important unit of the BLIA is the family. If our membership is unable to create productive and harmonious families, we will not be able to succeed in our larger aims. Raising children has become more difficult in the modern world than it ever was before. The technical and interpersonal skills required of adults today are much more complex than in the past; and they are more difficult to achieve, since modern society also contains so many distractions. In the following sections, I will discuss some of the most important things to keep in mind concerning the raising and educating of children.
The foundation of learning is receptivity. If a child is not receptive to instruction, it will be very difficult to teach him anything. Children learn by example much more than through direct verbal instruction. The first goal of parents should be to inculcate attitudes of receptivity in their children. When children are young, they can be taught curiosity and receptivity if their parents frequently engage them in stimulating, playful activities. Since we want to encourage curiosity and receptivity, it is important not to punish children for exhibiting these traits. When we observe them learning these healthy attitudes, we can reward them subtly with praise and affection. When they become recalcitrant and stubborn, it is best to redirect their interests and ignore the immediate mood. Children are usually most wary when they do not understand what is happening or how to behave. Sharp words and anger can only increase their wariness.
Receptivity is an important trait for all people in all walks of life. For Buddhists, it is absolutely essential. Learning the Dharma completely depends on our being receptive to it. We “enter Samadhi only through listening, thinking and cultivating” ourselves. There is no other way. No one can train himself in higher awareness by being close-minded.
Every sutra begins with the words, “Thus have I heard.” And they all end with the words, “Believe, receive and practice these teachings.”
Once children have learned how to be receptive, we can begin to teach them patience, endurance, humility, tolerance and fairness. Receptivity is the foundation. When it is well established, the higher virtues necessary for successful practice of Buddhism can be learned.
Manners lubricate social relations. The basis of good manners is nothing more than having consideration for others. As children grow, they need to be taught how to be thoughtful of others. Just as with receptivity, good manners are best learned through example and patient accumulation. No one learns them overnight. As we teach our children manners, it is important not to be too critical or rigid in our thinking. We don’t want to teach them to be formal and anxious when they are in the company of others. We want to teach them to be pleasant and thoughtful.
The Agama Sutra says, “The Dharma is found in respect.” In another place it says, “Moral propriety is discovered only in respect.”
As children grow older, it is time to begin teaching them that the basis of consideration and thoughtfulness is respect. It is impossible to be thoughtful of another person yet not accord them respect.
In the Agama Sutra, the Buddha devotes many passages to teaching his listeners how to show one another respect, and how to behave toward each other with good manners. There are passages on how parents and children should interact, how husbands and wives should behave, and how friends should treat one another.
Buddhist masters have been concerned with these subjects ever since the Buddha’s Parinirvana. Manners and respect are very important for the smooth functioning of the monastic community, and they are essential for the peace and productivity of society at large.
The basic core of good manners always is having consideration for others. It is important to remember, though, that different societies do this in different ways, and the same society will do this in different ways at different times. Manners are relative and changeable. They are a system of rules followed by the people in a community. In this, they resemble language or styles of dress.
The basic core of good manners always is having consideration for others, but the form this takes is never the same over a long period of time. And it is usually not the same from one place to another. In America, people shake hands. In Japan, they bow. The way parents raise their children must depend on the society in which they live.
To say manners are relative is most definitely not to say that they are unimportant. Chinese history is full of examples of what happens when manners and rules of behavior completely break down. Chinese Confucianism was a reaction to the internecine strife of the Warring States period. That period was so full of violence and contention, it has never been forgotten by the Chinese people. To this day, Chinese still emphasize manners and rules of propriety above all else in their relations with each other.
Confucius said, “Discipline yourself daily and follow the rules of propriety, then all under heaven will be merciful.” He also said, “It is rare to find anyone who understands filial piety but does not respect his elders. He who respects his elders will never disturb the peace.”
That is true. If a person is able to respect his parents, teachers and friends, he will not be likely to commit crimes or cause other sorts of trouble to society. As we teach our children to be thoughtful of others, we must also teach them the rules for doing this. When children have learned both of these aspects of good manners, they will have the tools necessary to function in society and get along with others. They will grow up to be a benefit to others and themselves, and they will be in an excellent position to further their studies of Buddhism.
Respect for life
Most violence in the world today can be traced back to a fundamental lack of respect for life. All over the world, we find young people who think that sadism is a game. We see parents teaching their children to hunt and fish as if killing were something to be proud of. If we raise children to believe that life is cheap and expendable, why should we be surprised when they grow up to be terrible people who stop at nothing to gain their samsaric ends? And what right do we have to express surprise that society is in turmoil?
The Dharmapada says, “All sentient beings fear death, and there is not one of them who does not dislike being beaten. We all can see this truth from our own experience; none of us should kill or harm other beings. If you can be peaceful toward all and not defile yourself with violence, then you will not be harmed in this life, and in your next life, you will be happy and secure.”
Parents must teach their children that all life is one, all life is precious, and all life is worthy of deep concern.
Fear of hard work is a disease. Dislike of work is a foundation on which only trouble can be built. Nothing good will ever come of it. No achievement worth its name can ever be built on laziness. When people constantly try to avoid work, they start to lose themselves in immediate pleasures. They become devious as they try to find ways to get others to do what they should be doing themselves. When they come across even slight difficulties, they quickly give up and then look for someone else to blame for their failure.
“When work is done to the fullest, it is like play with no end.” This old saying is true. Whenever we work hard and willingly, it is enjoyable. History is full of stories about people who started with nothing but ended up creating wonderful things. None of those stories would have happened if the people in them had been unwilling to work. When people are industrious, they can make anything happen. When they are lazy, even if you give them a fortune, they will waste it.
When raising children, it is important that we start teaching them the value and pleasure of work from a very early age. To be effective in teaching them industriousness, it is important that we set a good example for them. If you come home every night and complain about your own job in front of your children, what kind of an example do you think you are setting? We want to communicate the pleasure of work to our children. If we ourselves are able to deal with life’s many ups and downs in a positive and industrious manner, our children will be quick to follow our examples.
Sometimes work is hard. Life is hard. But life never gets any easier if we spend all our time trying to shirk our responsibilities. An idle machine begins to rust. Stagnant water quickly becomes foul. In times of hardship, we must remember these truths. When we work to overcome difficulties, we succeed. When we give up, success becomes impossible.
This is a crucially important example for all parents to set for their children. A positive, willing attitude toward work is more valuable than gold. A self-sufficient, independent, confident child who knows how to make his own way in the world is the greatest reward a parent can hope for.
“Out of ten things in life, eight or nine of them will be contrary to what we want.” This saying is true. If we base our attitude toward life on an awareness of the inherent difficulty of existence, we will be in a position to deal with whatever comes our way. If our response to misfortune, however, is characteristically one of complaint and resent- ment, we will only succeed in adding emotional trouble to the original problem.
Be grateful that you are alive. If we are grateful just to be breathing, everything else will fall into place. Respect for others will come naturally, work will be enjoyable, and the hardships that inevi- tably beset all of us will not seem so bad if our fundamental attitude toward life includes a large measure of gratitude.
Parents must strive to exhibit attitudes of gratitude toward every-thing in the world so that their children will grow up firmly blessed with these values. Children should be taught to appreciate the sky, the sun, the rain, the earth and all the things that grow and move. Stop to appreciate a bird’s call, a flower’s radiance, so that your children can learn to appreciate these things as well.
Children learn first to appreciate the things around them. When they are able to do this, it is time to begin teaching them to appre- ciate the people around them. Most of us would be entirely helpless without other people. Children must learn to appreciate their brothers and sisters, their friends, their teachers, their neighbors and, of course, their parents. Once they have learned to be appreciative of the people in their world, having a sense of gratitude toward everything that happens will follow naturally.
It is a great good fortune to be alive in the human realm. A human body is hard to attain. Once we have learned to feel properly grateful for existence itself, we will possess the right frame of mind with which to discover the expansive and awesome awareness of Buddha nature. Gratitude is a fundamental attitude that makes room for higher virtues to grow. When children grow up within the vast security of this basic attitude, they have gained a foundation on which enormous achieve- ments can be built. There is no such thing as a bodhisattva who lacks gratitude anywhere in this universe.
“Children who study the Dharma will never go bad.” This saying is quite true, because the Dharma is the best foundation for human character in the whole world. The Dharma is true, and by its truth it imparts wisdom to all who learn it.
Children who are taught the truth of cause and effect will not waste their time trying to gain petty advantages through immoral means because, before they even start, they know full well that the karmic “costs” will be higher than any samsaric “advantage” they could ever hope to gain. At the same time, these same children will understand the value of generosity and compassion. They will understand the very deep reasons why they must treat friends well, and why they must respect the ways of the world.
Children who understand the four means of embracing will under- stand how to deal well with others. Children who understand the six perfections will have the resources necessary to accomplish almost anything in this world. Children who understand the four immeasur- able mind will know how to help others as they help themselves.
The Dharma is for people; it is for young people every bit as much as it is for adults. When children learn to behave in accordance with the Dharma, they are learning the greatest lesson in the universe. As time goes by, they will see the benefit of what they have learned.
Learning the Middle Way of peace, concentration, industriousness and compassion confers immense benefits on children. Is there any better way to enter adulthood than within the embrace of Sakyamuni Buddha’s Dharma?
Parents can best teach the Dharma to their children by planting seeds for further growth whenever the opportunity arises. We don’t want to preach to them so much they become tired of listening to us. Rather, we want to encourage them to see with the clarity of their own minds that the Dharma is the highest expression of the bodhi mind. If we are convinced of its value, our conviction will be felt by our children.
People who develop unstable personalities have many troubles in life. They are hard to get along with, and they often are prone to depression and negative emotions. These tendencies nearly always can be traced back to the homes in which they grew up. Parents must realize how profound and far-reaching the effects of their treatment of their children can be. If we want our children to develop stable personalities, it is important that we send them clear and stable messages. We send them these messages by our behavior more than anything we say.
An unstable personality is well described in the Ekottarikagama Sutra. The sutra says an inhumane person is “One who does not laugh when we ought to laugh, one who does not feel joy when he ought to feel joy, one who is not compassionate when he ought to be compas- sionate. When he hears of evil, he does not try to stop it, and when he hears of goodness, he feels no joy.”
The first rule of teaching our children to have stable personalities is to not act like the person described in the quotation above.
If parents are careful not to display contrary traits like those described above, they will have gone a long way toward helping their children achieve stable personalities. Beyond this, it is important to show children how to cooperate with others, and how to accept themselves as part of a larger group.
Children must be taught compassion and caring for others. They need to learn how to expend energy in these fields whenever that energy is called for. Caring and compassion are partly reactions to situations, but they are also positive activities that stem from the individual. Children need to learn that one does not always wait to be compassionate, and that one’s circle of concern should be wider than the few people one sees every day.
Beyond this, children need to learn how to admit mistakes and change for the better. Honest self-reflection is something that can be learned. When we notice that we are mistaken, we should gladly accept this awareness and seek to change ourselves immediately.
Stubbornness and pride are impediments to change. Children need to be taught this in a way that maintains their self-respect. True self-es- teem must be built on active character traits, not static, emotion-laden moods.
Strong belief in the Dharma is crucial for well-being in adult life. If children witness their parents’ reliance on belief as they grow up, by the time they become adults, they will have had a long lesson in the importance and value of belief. Belief is most important for us when everything else fails. When the conditions of life really rock our boats, it is hard to be stable, and it is hard to hold onto our moral values if we lack a foundation of belief. If our faith is strong, however, nothing will cause us to lose our way. Belief is a guide through darkness. Faith gives us purpose when all else seems lost.
As Buddhists, our basic faith comes from the Buddha himself. His teachings and his life are an example of truth, virtue, wisdom and perseverance. The heart of Buddha’s teachings lies in our own hearts. The Dharma is based on a reliance on our own innermost Buddha nature and the wisdom of our own inherent bodhi mind. When children learn that their parents have successfully based their lives on these truths, they will learn to base their lives on them, too.
When faith is strong, compassion, generosity and wisdom rise naturally to the fore. Grateful knowledge of the immensity of life comes naturally to people who have faith, and with this knowledge comes joy. There is nothing better to give our children than this! Nothing.
When we give our children money, we do make it possible for them to enjoy life a little more than they might have without our gift. When we give them faith, however, we make it possible for them to
understand life, and there is no greater joy than this. I hope all parents will work to teach their children the value of the Dharma. Bring them to your temples and to your BLIA meetings. Don’t leave them out. Don’t wait for them to find all over again what you already have found. “A thousand years of darkness are dispelled by a single light.”
“Light is handed down from one generation to the next. It can be multiplied a thousand times and never diminished at all.”