When my son Elias was not yet two, one of his godmothers gave him a children’s version of the story of Siddhartha. He was delighted by the beautiful illustrations and was very curious about the depictions of old age, disease and death. “Sick mahn,” “O’d mahn,” he’d point. For the time being I avoided the “dead mahn” picture, choosing the parts of the book that seemed most relevant and appropriate. He especially loved the picture of baby Buddha wearing a cloth that looked like a “dypah.” As he grew older, he relished the stories of the superhuman powers of the young man Buddha as he chopped down two trees with one blow and tamed the wild horse Kanthaka.
When he was old enough, I began reading the book to him from the beginning. As we read about the night the young prince took leave of his sleeping wife and young son, I found myself grow uneasy. Would the very graphic story of Siddhartha stealing away in the night create an impression stronger than the abstract concept that this was an enormous sacrifice done for the sake of enlightenment, for the good of all humanity? I set the book aside—for many months. Two years later, when I tried reading it to him again, I had basically the same experience.
My son comes from a lineage of fathers who left sons, and I long for the pattern to be broken, for Elias to grow into a man who takes upon himself the sacrifice necessary to stay and raise a family. Until I had a child, however, I had no idea how much time and commitment it takes to encourage the good qualities that might make this possible. As Elias has grown, my need to convey to him a framework of ethics has also grown, as have my questions about effective ways to do this. Before his birth, my main practice was vipassana, and it was, for me, one distinctly without children. Samadhi and insight depended upon hours of uninterrupted time. My daily life raising my son alone has made it seem nearly impossible to continue in this way—to sit regularly, if at all, to sit with unbroken attention. Our spiritual exercises have been holding hands before meals and lighting a candle at night and saying, “Thank you, Great Spirit,” for blessings of the day. We have talked about anicca, everything changing, from time to time. But something warm and inviting and juicy that might come from my years of practice has not yet kicked in.
Sandy Eastoak, the mother of two, has opened a door. In Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Mindfulness with Children, she has compiled an inspiring and eminently useful set of writings by dharma teachers, parents and children, revealing ways in which Buddhist philosophy and practices can be integrated into our homes and practice centers. This is, as Eastoak calls it, “a radical book . . .” that “asks for changes in our parenting, in our meditation centers, in the very way we think about Buddhism.” It is, in fact, a book that recognizes the need for a cultural evolution. Seeking a too-perfect and undisturbed context in which to practice, our tendency as North Americans is to exclude our children. From her chosen epigraph—“O sincere trainees, create no dharma orphans”—to her list of resources that draws upon many traditions as conveyors of dharma, Eastoak plants the seeds of a Buddhist practice that embraces the boisterous, unpredictable, chaotic, exhausting, annoying, joyful path of raising children and offers ways to introduce these children to the peace and calm and joyous greatness of the natural mind.
Drawing upon several different traditions of Buddhism which are active in the United States, the parents and teachers included in this book discuss the challenges of introducing spiritual practice to children, translate basic dharma teachings for young people, and also offer a multitude of specific ways to bring the teachings alive at mealtimes, bedtimes, angrytimes, storytimes, in the seasons of our lives and the seasons of the natural world. The precepts and paramis, the three jewels of refuge, and lovingkindness meditation are presented for children in a way that, as one parent writes, makes them understandable for us! And blessedly, this spiritual primer doesn’t avoid or condemn the realities of parenting. It notices the challenging moments and surrounds them with compassion: “Breathing in, I am angry. Breathing out, I am still angry.” This is just what is happening.
I recall hearing once that when the Buddha was asked which of the three refuges was most important, he replied, “the sangha.” A number of essays in the book discuss ways of practicing at centers where children are welcomed, have their own programs, and childcare is a work assignment for all participating adults. Part of what we miss as parents practicing is this chance to be surrounded by others who support us, witness our actions, remind us. Isolated in our nuclear families, how greatly we need the precious jewel of the sangha.
While the book is directed in terminology and practice primarily to Buddhists, Eastoak enlarges the context, introduces the essence beneath the form. “We are embedded in the great web of dharma that is the universe. . . ,” she writes. “. . . our dharma family is the trees and birds, mosses and fungi, fish and mammals, rocks and waters of our home.” In her brilliant introduction, which is worth the price of the book, she makes clear that loving our children, doing Buddhist practice, and healing the earth are all interconnected. This fact reflects an immediacy that rings true for both us and our children, and leads into a Buddhism that is greater than any sectarian exercises. As Eastoak puts it,
“. . . our desire to share our practice with our children is not that they light incense and sit on zafus as they grow up, but that they stay acutely in touch with the most urgent questions of our collective being and find their own wise and compassionate answers. . . . On earth today, the challenges and hopes of mindful parenting are universal.”
Eastoak refers to a woman who envisioned the Buddha climbing back in through the window to join his wife and child. I welcome this vision of family Buddhism, and am relieved that others share my concerns. Perhaps as the myth evolves, Siddhartha’s child who was named “Rahula,” meaning “fetter,” will be renamed “Opportunity” by the Buddha. Learning through and with the masters of the moment—our children—parenting can be thoroughly honored as a spiritual path.