Written by Soun Kosetsu Randy Earl, Novice Priest
In dharma talks I tend to draw from my personal life experiences because that is what I know and thus more authentically represents my own practice and understanding. This means, for better or worse, that my family members often figure prominently in my examples and stories. My youngest child, Duncan, has played this role several times, thus folks have asked me about his interest in Buddhism and Zen and what I have done to share the teachings with him. This post is an attempt to describe my approach to teaching the dharma and zen practice to a child and to share my lessons learned and some helpful resources.
Learning by Imitation
Duncan first expressed interest in the way children learn most things, through imitation. He saw me meditating so he wanted to meditate. Once he showed an interest, I was happy to introduce him to zazen and let him pick it up at his own pace. He started sitting for about five minutes at a time and now sits for about 15 minutes at a time, although not as frequently as I sit. I gave him his own meditation bench (kindly made by sensei!) and cushion, which he has used since he was 6 years old.
I felt that the standard zazen instructions might be a bit tough for a six-year-old to appreciate, so I quickly looked for guidance from those more experienced in teaching meditation to children. One little book and CD that I found very useful and highly recommend is Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents), by Eline Snel. The book contains several simple exercises that are designed for a child to be able to easily practice and understand, accompanied with a CD of those exercises. We have used those often and Duncan found them soothing and helpful. Seeing the impact of these exercises on Duncan, I often use the wonderful guided meditations from The Art of Mindful Living, by Thich Nhat Hanh. For example, he loves one which is also one of my favorites, which I'll abbreviate here as “Flower/Fresh, Mountain/Solid, Water/Reflecting, and Space/Free.”
By my nature I like to let things develop organically at their own pace, so I was not pushing Duncan in any way to meditate more often or for longer periods; instead, I just followed his lead and interest, which continued over the years (although sporadically, as one would expect for a child). Similarly, I was not providing any formal training program. However, if I'm honest here, I have to confess that this was probably in no small part an over-reaction to my childhood and my feeling that religious instruction at an early age consitutes indoctrination in that a young child doesn't have the mental framework to appropriately question and test what they are being told.
The Need for Structure
On the other hand, when one has found a world view that provides meaning and structure, as Zen has for me, is it not worthwhile to give your child every opportunity to have the same experience? The answer for me is of course so, I feel deeply that I want to offer this path out of suffering to my children. The only question is, what is the skillful means by which to do this, in terms of appropriate age, technique, and so on?
The matter was forced, so to speak, when my son joined the Cub Scouts. The scouting program is steeped in the Christian tradition, and being “reverent” and doing one's “duty to God” are foundational elements of scouting. As with any scout, Duncan was expected to be reverent and to participate in the advancement requirements dealing with religion. Perhaps more importantly, he was suddenly subjected to the peer pressure of seeing the other scouts earning their religious awards, displaying them proudly, and asking Duncan where his was.
To their credit, the Boy Scouts of America have made an effort to be inclusive of other religious traditions by establishing the “Religious Emblems Programs.” These programs allow religious leaders from other traditions to establish their own program for meeting the requirements earning these awards. Fortunately, there is a National Buddhist Committee on Scouting which has established such programs for Buddhists, including the Metta Award for Cub Scouts (there is also a Sangha Award for Boy scouts).
If you have a child in scouts and are interested in these programs, I encourage you to follow the link above for more information. They do require a vetting of the religious leader who will provide the instruction; any brown or black robe priest of the Silent Thunder Order would be able to qualify. I simply had to submit my credentials with a reference and I was accepted as being Buddhist clergy and therefore able to structure and administer Duncan's training program (to the requirements established by the committee). Of course, we are talking about Cub Scouts, so for this age, the training program is not prohibitively rigorous.
I have to admit, I am happy that this chain of circumstances forced me to overcome my reluctance to provide religious training for Duncan. He is naturally compassionate but lacked the framework for addressing many of the questions that arise in dealing with the world, which can be complex for anyone, let alone (or perhaps especially) for children his age. Although the committee provided some basic requirements, they were very broad, allowing for individual program development. Again, I looked for resources, knowing that the writings I am used to studying would not be appropriate for his age. I was once again fortunate to find some story books that were very helpful. Although I am sure there are others, I only have experience with these two so far:
Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire, by Dharmachari Nagaraja. This book provides a nice summary of many of the foundational Buddhist principles and teachings, as well as many of the traditional moral tales.
Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents (This Little Light of Mine), by Sarah Conover, is very similar, but has more of a Zen flavor, which I personally find more resonant.
Duncan likes both of these books and, although he is an avid reader, especially enjoys having me read the stories to him at bedtime. Just as with the Christian parables and tales with other traditions, these stories are a wonderful way to communicate and explain the values of our tradition to young children.
Teach Your Children Well
To quote Crosby, Stills & Nash, it is indeed important to teach our children well. I'm glad that scouting gave me the nudge to reexamine my approach and give Duncan a more structured introduction to Buddhism and Zen. As a result, Duncan earned and recently received his Cub Scout Metta award, which is proudly pinned to his left breast pocket in the picture. I forgot to mention that during this process I discussed this with the leaders of our cub den and pack and they were very supportive and encouraging. In fact, they structured the curriculum program for this year such that families were planned to provide religious instruction at home, so non-Christians would not feel left out. Duncan was very proud to earn his Metta Award medal at the recent pack meeting. More importantly, now that I have been given the push I needed to begin, I will continue to encourage Duncan in developing his interest in Zen and the Buddha way.