The Venerable Thich Minh Chau of Vietnam
Buddhism being a religion for everyone, must also be a religion for children and young people. Buddhist youth movements have come into existence, many temples have set up activities for the purpose of applying Buddhism to the education of children, of training them to become true Buddhists. Education here expressly aims at guiding Buddhist children to live in accordance with the true spirit of Buddhism e.g. to put into practice in their daily life, these five cardinal virtues which may be called the flowers of Buddhism: (1) Exertion, (2) Sympathy and equanimity, (3) Purity, (4) Wisdom, and (5) Compassion.
WHY BUDDHISM SHOULD BE IMPARTED TO CHILDREN
We stress the importance of imparting Buddhism to children, for the following reasons:
(1) Buddhism is a religion of wisdom, where knowledge and intelligence predominate, so that Buddhist, even if he or she be a child, should have a sound knowledge of Buddhism.
(2) Buddhism teaches that the root-cause of suffering is ignorance or failure to perceive the Truth. A Buddhist child, in order to live up to the spirit of Buddhism, should know the doctrine taught by Lord Buddha and ways and means to put it into practice. To know it he must study and experience it in his own life.
(3) Buddhism being a religion of wisdom, often is misunderstood as a religion of superstition because many of its followers are ignorant of the Buddhist doctrine. To avoid this deplorable ignorance of the Dharma, Buddhism should be imparted to the children from their infancy.
HOW TO IMPART BUDDHISM TO CHILDREN
Methods likely to be used – Buddhism is the best medicine to cure the mental disease of all beings, but if imparted in the wrong way to the children, it might become a poison very harmful to them. Those who assume the noble responsibility of imparting Buddhism to children must be very careful and well versed in ways and means of teaching Buddhism.
There are probably six methods of imparting Buddhism to children:
(1) Teaching – Buddhist lessons are taught in the same manner as geography or chemistry is taught in the school. There must be a model lesson clearly couched in simple terms, to be given to the children at each Dharma class. The teacher expounds the lesson clearly and tries his best to help children grasp the meaning it implies without forcing them to get it by heart. This way has the advantage of following closely the syllabus adopted, of being regular and methodical; but has the disadvantage of being too theoretical, of bringing back from the school-atmosphere which ought to be banned from a Sunday School or from a Buddhist youth movement.
(2) Narrating – The teacher is replaced by a narrator, who puts what he wants to impart to the children in a narrative form. Here no lesson is needed. He just has a talk with the children, asking them questions, suggesting their replies, but following a plan already sketched mentally by himself. While he narrates, he puts questions to the children, helping their answers, so that they may participate in the narrative itself, and the class, if it may be called so, becomes active, vivid and homely. This way has the advantage of being highly attractive to the children, as questions well put may develop their intelligence and investigating habit. But the difficulty here lies with the narrative itself, which is almost an art, and to keep a class alive with narrative alone requires some talents not accessible to everyone. This way has another drawback: as no written lesson is given to the children, they may forget what they have just heard, after starting for home.
(3) Suggestion, Reasoning, Explaining – No lesson, no class is needed. The monk or the layman in charge takes advantage of every possible opportunity to develop their faculty of understanding and reasoning and thus helps them grasp the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings. For instance, he leads the children to the temple to worship Lord Buddha’s image, and there he may explain to the children how Lord Buddha succeeded in possessing such peaceful eyes, and such entrancing beauty. All this is not a gift from nature, but a result of aeons after aeons’ endeavours and exertions. He may conclude by exhorting children to follow the virtues of exertion and purity, to always try their best to follow in Lord Buddha’s footsteps and not to harbour veil thoughts towards anyone. He may explain to them why, in the temple, the sparrows build their nests within the reach of everyone, having no fear of being molested or harmed by the monks. This is due simply to the fact that monks are keeping the vow of not harming any living creatures. And he may conclude by explaining to them that love attracts people while hatred and enmity keep them away, and by exhorting them to follow the virtue of compassion.
This method has the advantage of developing the faculty of reasoning and observation in the children, of using the light of the Dharma to explain what is occurring in their daily life. But those who use such a method must be well versed in the Dharma, must know well the characters of the children, and must possess a very active mind.
(4) By giving a proper background – The method here consists in giving to the children a proper background so that they can breathe the very atmosphere we need to impart to them. We know that children of genuine Buddhist parents grow up as genuine Buddhists in a natural way, as at home they are well familiar with a proper Buddhist environment. When the children come on Sunday to be taught Buddhism, the leader has to create the necessary background. For instance if he wants to impart the virtue of purity he has to arrange the compound where children will assemble very clean and in order, and he himself must be a pattern of cleanliness with his hair well combed if he is a layman, and his dress perfect, not in smartness but in cleanliness. When the children come, he glances at their dress and their hands so as to know how far they are following the virtue of Purity, and if something is lacking, he will remonstrate with them in a friendly manner. Do not inspect children as a captain inspects soldiers on parade. You will spoil at once the friendly atmosphere you want to create. If you want to impart to the children the notion of concord and harmony among themselves, you should try to create this very atmosphere among the batch of children under your guidance. You must treat all of them on the same footing of equality. You may have some preference for such and such children, but to be a good leader, you must nip all these feelings of partiality in the bud, and treat all children committed to your guidance equally. Of course, for some backward children, you may have more solicitude, but you should use it discreetly, especially before other children. When we fail to have such a quality, we cannot expect to impart this virtue of harmony and concord among children committed to our charge.
This method has the advantage of disposing of the whole time the children come to the temple or a Sunday School, to impart what virtue we want to impart to the children, of having more efficacy than mere teaching. But to create such a background, as we need it, is not an easy matter.
(5) By setting oneself as an example – Lord Buddha, although omniscient, seems remote to the children, who easily come under the influence of those with whom they come into contact in their daily life. Here are the personality and behaviour of those who teach Buddhism play an important role in imparting Buddhism to the children. What we want to impart to the children, we need first to set an example of. There is on use in asking them to follow the virtue of Purity while we are ourselves a pattern of untidiness. Children are very confident by nature. They love, obey and follow those who love them and set a good example to them. If they find out that their leader pays merely a lip-service to the Dharma, they may lose their confidence, and their love may turn to disappointment and even to dislike, and then education becomes meaningless to them. In a Buddhist movement, we cannot use authority and threats to win over children to us. By love alone, we may win their hearts and induce them to follow what virtues we need to impart to them. And love here always goes along with sincerity. Don’t try to teach children what we are unable to put into practice ourselves. We waste our time and what is more dangerous, we may spoil the children committed to our charge.
(6) By intuitive knowledge – This method is rather abstruse and difficult to analyse. I shall give here an instance from my own experience so as to illustrate this method.
When I first became a Samanara (novice monk) in Vietnam, my teacher assigned me a duty that was to dust one table daily in the temple. I confess that I did the work rather unwillingly, as I thought I had not chosen to become a monk for the purpose of cleaning a table. When I finished my work, my teacher would come and see my job done, put his hand to the remotest and innermost part of the table, extract some dust left there by me and ask me to do my job again, saying “How can you become a good monk without knowing how to dust a table?” I had to do my work again, more grudgingly of course, but anyhow, the work had been done nicely this time. One day he came to observe my doing the work, and after a time, he said: “When you are clearing away the dust from this table, think as if you are clearing the Klesa dust within you.” His words gave me a start, and in a flash, I grasped the meaning my teacher intended to convey to me, and needless to say, from this time onwards, I did my dusting work heartily. One day I put a basin of water before him rather clumsily and the basin struck the table with a clang. My teacher got up, took the basin up and put it down again on the table without a sound. He did not even glance at me, and resumed his work placidly, but I never forgot the teaching. So, this method is rather hazy and indefinite, to be known only between teacher and pupils. Usually the children are unable to grasp the meaning we want to convey to them through this method. But, anyhow, I mentioned it here so as to deal with the question exhaustively, and at the same time to give a clue to those really interested in this question of the education of children with the help of the Dharma. From personal experience, I find this method highly instructive and having a tremendous influence upon children. I may add that to those who have attained an advanced stage in meditation practice, and to those who really love children, this method may be the best.
Now that the education of children based upon Buddhist morality is still in the experimental stage, the monk or the layman in charge of the children may use any of these six methods without stressing too much any particular one. He must know how to handle them in a flexible way and try to adopt a method which is appropriate to the children and suitable to the surrounding in which they live.
THE PROPER WAY TO IMPART BUDDHISM
(1) Imparting Buddhism to children should be in accordance with the Dharma and appropriate to the character of the children.
(a) In accordance with the Dharma – Dharma lessons should not be contrary to the Dharma. Those who assume the duty of teaching Buddhism to the children should know the Dharma well and always continue their research in the Dharma field. We know that some children are very intelligent, of a curious nature, and may put embarrassing questions that can baffle the teacher himself. So those who teach Dharma to children must know how to answer the questions so as to enlighten them and not to lose prestige before them. Never be proud of your knowledge of the Dharma, for the Dharma is infinite like the limitless ocean, and children’s nature is fathomless like the bottomless sea.
(b) Appropriate to the character of the children – children are not grown up persons; Buddhism taught to them must not be the same as that taught to group up persons. Teaching them too much about the suffering of humanity, depicting the horrors of human nature, has a devastating effect upon their tender minds, and may develop in them pessimism, perplexity and disgust. The result would be disastrous to them, as this way of teaching poisons their tender minds. We often come across people who take a morbid delight in depicting the loathsomeness of the human flesh, especially that of the fair sex, and this before batches of children listening with mouths wide open. Lord Buddha taught this, not as a truth in itself, but as a method of meditation to those who are prone to bodily attachment. Moreover, boys’ and girls’ disposition are not alike and the way of teaching Buddhism to them cannot follow the same pattern. Experience tells us that among the five virtues to be imparted to the children, girls are rather prone to the virtue of Compassion, while boys take delight in the virtue of Exertion, but both share the same attachment to the Virtue of Joy and Equanimity. We narrate to both of them the Jataka story in which our Bodhisattva, in one of his previous lives, saw a tigress tormented by hunger and on the brink of devouring her cubs. Moved by pity and out of compassion for those creatures, he threw himself as a prey before her to save both the tigress and her cubs. Boys applaud at the act of the Bodhisattva sacrificing his life to the tigress, but stop short there without proceeding further, but the girls not noticing the act of bravery, keenly feel the atrocious suffering the Bodhisattva had to undergo, when torn to pieces by the hungry tigress. A good narrator generally draws applause from the boys and tears from the girls with the same story. Both boys and girls cherish the virtue of joy and equanimity. They are in the age of smiles, of a thousand flowers. When observing them playing, shouting, singing, so innocently and so prettily, we think it a crime to mar their innocence and cheerfulness by teaching to them suffering and all that is connected with the horror of human nature. We should also notice that among boys and girls, their temperament is very complex, subjected to frequent change, in accordance with their age, their knowledge and background, so that those who teach Buddhism to them must know their temperament and character and impart Buddhism to them accordingly. Do not try to teach them too much; teach little, but suitable to their temperament and character.
(2) Invite monks and nuns now and then to teach Buddhism to children – in districts and places where monks and nuns who know Buddhism well and who understand children are available. Their life, deportment and conduct have a tremendous influence upon children, help them to understand Buddhism and, what is more important, induce them to practise what they learn from Buddhism. The same lesson taught by one who really understands and practises Buddhism yields more influence upon children than the same lesson taught by one who has no practice to his credit. Better to invite monks to teach boys, and Buddhist nuns to teach girls, at least once in a while.
(3) To create the necessary surrounding and background in a Dharma class:
(a) Time – To children under 14, half an hour is the time limit. Children become restless when compelled to sit more than half an hour. The best time to teach Buddhism is in the morning, the earlier the better. The worst time is in the evening about 5 to 6 p.m. when, tired with a day’s activities, children become refractory to any teaching imparted to them.
(b) Peace and calmness – Do not allow children to indulge in strong physical activities before the Dharma class. This renders them listless and refractory to the imparting of the Dharma. Always choose a calm and peaceful place, if possible.
(c) Disposition and arrangement – Place children in a circle, so that the Dharma teacher can see all of them and notice any reaction when he imparts the Dharma to them. Do not place them in rows in the fashion of a class; this will create the illusion of a second school contrary to the spirit of a Dharma class.
(d) Separate classes for older girls and boys – If Dharma teachers are not lacking, it is better to conduct the Dharma class for girls and for boys separately. With the same Dharma lesson, the way to teach it to boys and girls is quite different. For instance, when you tell a Jataka story to the girls, you have to choose one which dwells upon the virtue of compassion and loving kindness, while to the boys, the Jataka story which relates the heroic deeds of the Bodhisattva suits best. Girls are prone to faith, admire what is graceful and peaceful; boys rather prefer what is witty, grand and noble, so that, separate Dharma classes for girls and boys are likely to yield better results.
(4) Mistakes to be avoided.
(a) Don’t ask children to believe blindly – Buddhism lays much stress on intelligence and wisdom. Therefore, teaching them to believe blindly in Buddhism is going against the true spirit of Buddhism. We know that children are in the age of belief, but even then, the Dharma teacher must know how to enlighten their belief and help them to look at things in a more intelligent way.
(b) Don’t cram Buddhism into the children – to cram is to heap lesson upon lesson upon the children, force them to learn by heart without giving them enough time to understand, so much so that the Dharma turns out to be an undigested food harmful to their tender minds. Buddhism differs from other religions and philosophies in that it respects individual investigation, lays stress on freedom of thought and develops the power of intelligence and wisdom.
(c) Do not confine teaching only to speech, lay stress on the practical side – try to help children to practise what we teach to them. With practice alone can children realise the true meaning of the Dharma. If we want to train children to become true Buddhists, we must help them practise in their daily life the cardinal virtues of Buddhism.
(5) Don’t pay mere lip service, try to be yourselves a pattern for the children. The Dharma teachers should try to live up to what they teach to the children. We must be ourselves a pattern of tidiness, of exertion, when we try to implant these virtues in the children. The very life and deportment of the Dharma teacher has a tremendous influence upon the children, who generally look up to the Dharma teacher to regulate their behaviour.
Conclusion – Lord Buddha says “The Dharma-gift excels all gifts”. When we impart Buddhism to the children, we sow the Dharma seed upon a field green with hope and rich in sap. It is a gesture that conveys so noble and lofty a meaning. We need only earnest attention, sincere endeavour and brotherly love of the children committed to our charge. And how happy we are, when we discover in their eyes, the reflection of Buddha’s compassion, and on their faces, the light of wisdom of our Enlightened One.
They who yield to their desires
Down the stream of craving swim;
As we see the spider run
In the net himself hath spun.
Wise men cut the net and go
Free from craving, free from woe.
Loose all behind, between, before,
Cross thou to the other shore.
With thy mind on all sides free
Birth and death no more shalt see.
- Dharmapada, 347-8