If there is one question that I am often asked as a Buddhist minister it is, “How can I raise an enlightened child?” As the Buddhist tradition continues to rapidly grow and influence our culture, I believe that it is a most legitimate question. Let me respond here as both the parent of a wondrous nineteen-year-old son, the spouse of an early childhood expert (my beloved wife of 25 years) and as a practitioner (nearly 40 years) and teacher of Buddhism (over twenty years).
I will attempt this by sharing with you a series of articles, each focused on a different aggregate (Skandha in traditional Buddhist language) of human development. I will begin with infancy until the age of puberty and then into the teen age years and finish with early adulthood.
Furthermore, I start these essays with two caveats; first, please do not reproduce unless you intend to devote the rest of your life to the well-being of your child. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a passionate career or contribute unique or important gifts to the world. It just means that you will probably never do anything more significant than nurture a healthy, passionate and vibrant human being. Having spent my entire adult life as a Mindfulness Counselor, I can tell you that the suffering of the world would be greatly diminished by just this one consideration. Second, please remember that you need not accept anything I have to say. Absorb whatever you find useful and reject what you find useless. I have made many mistakes as a parent and have learned far more from those mistakes than I have from my successes. My hope is that you will not use this information as way to subjugate yourself to blame or shame, but rather that you will find something useful that will in some small way enrich both you and your children’s lives.
First of all, let us define our terms. What exactly do we mean by “enlightened?” In Buddhist language we actually prefer the synonym ‘awakened.’ To be awakened is to regularly open our eyes to the interdependent nature of the universe and then to intentionally immerse ourselves with eyes wide open to the experience of this web of interbeing through the actions of our daily lives. In some circles, this experience is also defined as ‘oneness.’ The practical import of this is that we practice seeing and interacting with the world through the pragmatic practices of ‘mindfulness.’ The fruits of mindfulness are a greater clarity of consciousness, an expansion of joy and a responsive action of compassion.
Let me share with you the theory of how modern Buddhists look at the nature of being human. The human being is understood to be the product of millions of years of evolution. Each new little human being comes into the world not as a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, but as the crowning glory of endless waves of mutation and adaption. That creates a foundation for the way a child will interpret the world. In other words, much of who we are has already been established by our genetic inheritance, not just the color or our eyes or our gait, but our preponderance for disease and probably even our preferences for language and learning.
The next phase in our development includes those who raise us and the social milieu into which we are born. We absorb the memes of our culture and begin trying to incorporate them into our interactions with the world around us. This culminates in the creation of a personal identity, which for better or worse, will help us to survive in a world that can sometimes be a fairly hostile environment.
What we end up with is a being that often feels isolated from the rest of the world and is constantly striving to survive as a persona or ego. This accumulated conditioning creates a sort of veil through which we perceive our life. The point of Buddhist praxis is to help us to clear away the veil of conditioning that prevents us from experiencing life as it really is and to help us to live more fully and love more freely. In other words, we learn to live in such a way that we are more focused on giving of ourselves so completely and plunging into our lives, that we begin to eradicate the more primitive boundaries of our self- consciousness. This allows us to enter into a larger and stronger arena of universal consciousness, unbound by conventional or limiting ideology. The Way of the Buddhas is nothing less than a call to realize our greatest potential as human beings and so transcend previous evolutionary limitations. In fact, this is one way to understand the word “Buddha”: a new being emerging from the muddied ooze of our primordial past into the flowering—lotus like—of an expanded humanity.
Now, with all of that beautiful philosophy behind us, let me now address specific ways in which I advise folks to work with their infants. Most of Buddhist theory jives pretty well with contemporary insights from the scientific fields of anthropology and medicine. It is actually a Buddhist maxim that the biggest part of mindfulness is cultivating a “not knowing” or beginner’s state of mind where we are open to new knowledge and the awe of free inquiry. Whenever a new understanding is clearly established, we have the choice of either jettisoning the old view or reinterpreting it in a symbolic fashion (an example of this is the classic teaching of reincarnation understood as a symbol for our evolutionary history. The ancient parables of the historical Buddha’s previous incarnations—which may have been the origin of Aesop’s famous fables—as various creatures of the wild kingdom can become wonderful metaphors for our own collective history where we understand that we are not just cousins to primates but also to cabbage and clusters of stars).
When it comes to raising an infant, clear patterns of practice will both illuminate the relationship and at the same time, allow us to “test” and see if they work for us personally. While there are definite guidelines, there are no absolute rules. Each parent and each child needs to be taken on his or her own terms and experiment in the way that works best individually.
Here are some basic approaches that I teach as a Buddhist parent:
In our communities, I recommend that parents have as much constant physical contact with their babies as they can. It is no accident that all land mammals and many other species sleep, eat and play with their young in the continual warmth of each other’s bodies. It is only humans who have created the strange habit of being apart from their young. Study after scientific study has demonstrated that the development of our child’s body and brain is interdependent with a close and comforting physical relationship.
We can initiate this process by speaking, singing to and stroking the belly of the mother. I cannot fully express to you the great joy that I experienced caressing and constantly communicating with my wife’s body while she was pregnant. When my son was born and I was able to actually help lift him from the birth canal, he gave a healthy scream of life and then quickly quieted in a soothing sigh as I softly whispered to him as I had done countless times before. Even our physician was amazed by this demonstration of closeness that he unfortunately found all too rare among fathers.
After birth, this close connection casually creates in little beings their first post-natal experience of Oneness, a symbiosis that begins in the womb and is then continually reinforced. I actually recommend that this affection continue throughout his or her entire life. As a Harley riding, veteran martial artist and fine cigar enthusiast, I find that a kiss and physical affection with my adult son is no reflection of a reduced perception of machismo but an embodiment of my humanness beyond any limited or homophobic interpretation of what it means to be a man.
Accordingly, one of the first things we can do as parents is to bear witness to the amazing and awe-inspiring potential of our child. A dramatic way to do this is to honor the child not as a possession, but rather as a wonderful gift that requires responsible nurturing and cultivation.
As any awakened parent knows, our children teach us far more than we will ever be able to impart. We begin this by speaking with our little one in an adult fashion long before they are able to fully comprehend our meaning. This doesn’t, of course, eliminate the great fun that comes from the coos of “baby talk,” it just means that we begin to interact with our child in a way that reflects a deep sense of respect for their inherent “Buddha Nature” or their innate ability to eventually understand and integrate reason and insight. I am convinced that my son’s early dramatic ability to speak clearly (at a little over six months) was because of the endless hours we spent conversing with him as if he could really grasp what we were saying.
3. Community (called Sangha in Buddhism):
As the old saying goes, “There is a time for every season.” Especially during this season of a child’s life, it is critical to immerse them in a safe and sane environment. Any signs of psychiatric issues need to be addressed promptly by a professional physician. If parents are dealing with difficult interpersonal issues, they should make it a priority to resolve them and find healthy ways to solve problems as they arise. I often say that if you want to have happy, healthy kids then you should focus on being a happy, healthy couple. The biggest mistake I see parents making is that they ignore their needs as a couple and become lost in the day-to-day challenges of raising a child. This also holds true for those who are raising a child as a single parent.
It is vital that a community of caring, compassionate adults surround both the parent and the child. I believe that a child develops more completely if it is marinated in both the yin and the yang of human energies. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” is not just an adage; it is a reality that we ignore at our peril. I always admonish parents to put a lot of effort into creating this community as it is one of the most important assets you and your child will ever have.
Once again, I remind you that these are my own experienced opinions based upon a lifetime of walking in the Way of the Awakened.
For the next installments, check out:
How to Raise en Enlightened Child-Part II
How to Raise en Enlightened Child-Part III
The Secrets of Raising an Enlightened Teen-Part IV
© 2012 – 2013, Sensei Tony Stultz. All rights reserved.