A former colleague recently asked me to come up with an outline of how to teach the Four Noble Truths to children ages 4 to 14. It was going to be part of a presentation at his Unitarian Universalist congregation. I did a quick search for some online material, but was surprised at how scant the resources were when it came to teaching kids about Buddhism.
A monk once told me that in many Thai families, for example, the first thing parents teach their children is how to hold their hands when bowing. Then the parents move on to teaching the correct way to do the three bows before a Buddha image. Do they teach these prostrations and gestures because they are part of the rites and rituals of Buddhism?
Not really. While that does play a part, doing the bows and holding your hands correctly takes concentration. It requires that you pay attention to what you are doing. And rather than teach a very young child something as esoteric as cause and effect, Thai parents teach their children how to concentrate so they can do something correctly. Concentration is, after all, one of the three legs of Buddhism: Concentration, morality, wisdom.
I know there are others who despite their own Buddhist practice refuse to “indoctrinate” their children. Frankly, I find this attitude a bit self-serving. For most of us Buddhist converts, we came to Buddhism because we rejected our (most likely) Christian upbringing. The reason goes, I suppose, is that our children can “find” their own way just as we had. But this, to me, is a very flawed way of thinking.
For example, let’s consider all the people who accepted their Christian upbringing and continue practicing a Christian faith. Likely they did so because as children, their parents made sure they attended church, probably attended religion classes also because to truly know one’s faith, one ought to study its texts. And these children participated in many Christian rituals, no doubt – everything from saying grace at the dinner table to participating in activities at the church where the family attended.
The children accepted this and continued to hold on to their “religion” into adulthood.
We converts were undoubtedly raised this way as well, but along the way we began to question the doctrines and the practices. Supplied with unsatisfactory answers, we sought something else. For many of us, it was Buddhism. Now, ask yourself this: would you have found Buddhism if initially you hadn’t felt satisfied with your Christian upbringing? If you hadn’t been exposed to Christian practices within your family, would you have likely searched for something else? Maybe, maybe not.
The point I’m trying to make is that your childhood exposure to one religion prompted you to search for something else. However, let us not forget that a much larger group of people raised in similar circumstances found comfort and peace in the same religious practice as their parents and never developed a need to search elsewhere.
Yet, for some Buddhist converts, there is this odd desire to deny their children this same opportunity. Why not teach your child about Buddhism? Why not “indoctrinate” them? Teach and let go. If they accept your guidance, then they will be happy. And if they are unsatisfied, they will search for something else, just as you had. And maybe they will join an evangelical Christian church and be happy. Isn’t that what we want for our children, for them to be happy?
Some of you refuse to “force” your children to learn Buddhism and develop a practice because you don’t want to be like your parents who “forced” you to practice Christianity. But teaching your children Dhamma doesn’t need to be a “forced” activity.
The Buddha used the very common image of a mirror to teach his son Rahula when the boy was just 8 how important reflecting on our actions is to our welfare. Paying attention to what we do is critical to our Buddhist practice. And there are many ways to teach that to our children without “forcing” a doctrine on them. If you teach your children the cause and effect relationship between their actions and the outcomes those actions create, then you’re teaching them Buddhism.
One of the Five Recollections is: I am the owner of my kamma, born of my kamma, made of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma…” Being related to your kamma is literally just that: your children are representations of the fruits of your kamma. They’re your children for a reason. Contemplate that during your next meditation session and see what bubbles up in your mind.
Anyway, below is what I came up with after finding this site. It’s very basic, but it’s a start. Feedback is welcomed.
Four Noble Truths for children
1. We aren’t happy all the time; there are times when we are sad, angry, frightened, or lonely.
2. We feel sad, angry, frightened or lonely mostly because we can’t get what we want, or we’re told to do something we don’t want to.
3. It’s our fault that we feel this way, and we can stop it when we learn how to want the right things.
4. The Buddha gave us Eight things to remember to help us learn how to want the right things and accept that life doesn’t always go the way we want it to.
The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path essentially tells us there are right ways to do things and wrong ways. Doing the right thing is much more than being moral. Doing the right thing brings us a happiness that causes us to feel at ease, unworried and unafraid of what may happen next. It’s a happiness that doesn’t go away. The Buddha compared this type of happiness to a person’s shadow: it’s always following you but you can’t tell it’s there unless you look at it.
Doing things the wrong way is what brings us those feelings we don’t like. If we say mean things, we’re going to make someone else angry, and what do most people do to someone who has made them angry? They get even, they do something to harm the other person. So it starts with us. We create our unhappiness, and this can cause us to feel hopeless, like we’re stuck dragging a heavy weight all the time. The Buddha described how our wrong actions create burdens by using a simile of an ox dragging a cart. The cart is heavy and burdensome. It’s as if with each wrong action we take, we are tossing another heavy rock into a wagon we are tugging along behind us. If we’d just stop putting heavy rocks in the wagon, it would be easier to pull.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.