We’ll begin with Clover who is four, nearly five. We can guarantee that whatever the situation, she will ask the questions that are the most direct and awkward for adults, but logical and pertinent for her (and probably us too, when we admit it).
But first l must introduce you to our family. I am Emma. I have been married to my husband Jackfor ten years, and we have two daughters—Amber, eight, and Clover, four. Jack is a freelance photographer and I am an actress. We have been practising Tibetan Buddhists for ten years but both come from a Christian background.
Clover and Amber’s Grampsie (Jack’s father) died suddenly two years ago. Amber has processed his death in her own quiet way, but Clover–who was only two years old at the time–wants answers. He is still very much alive in her four-year-old mind.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the idea of reincarnation is integral to the construction of much of its teachings. According to Buddhist teachings, we are reincarnated after death and born again in another form—human, spirit or animal. If we are lucky it will be in another human form. Reincarnation is central to the karmic law of cause and effect. Something always continues as the result of a previous event—it’s just hard for us to pinpoint the continuation after death as being one form or another. The physical absence of someone after death is probably more shocking to adults than children—children are remarkably flexible and adaptable.
Clover and Amber’s grandmother, with whom Clover is very close, is a devout Christian. She firmly believes that as Grampsie lived a good life, he is now at Christ’s side with God in heaven, and she will be reunited with him when her time comes. She doesn’t hesitate to tell this to Clover.
Clover, of course, would like proof that this is what is going to happen. Because now she has heard two viewpoints, she boldly surmises, “The real thing is, that we can’t prove Grampsie has gone to heaven, can we? Because you can only know that once you have died.”
So what do I tell Clover about death, given the conflicting belief systems she has heard? I believe that if we don’t tell children anything about death, we would be denying our parental responsibilities to prepare them for a world riddled with death and destruction. Death is certainly part of life, and we are only building fear and illusion if we deny this fact to ourselves and to our children. So I tell her that some people like Granny believe we go to heaven after we die and some believe we are reborn in a new life as babies. While I know that her four-year-old brain cannot understand the intricacies of Buddhist and Christian philosophies, I hope I have given her choices and trust that children process complex information in their own way.
I initially wondered if offering the children these choices in belief systems would confuse them. But the most profound discovery I have made is that the coexistence of two sets of beliefs presents no conflict in their minds, indicated by Clover’s next question: “How long do you spend in heaven before you are born again?” (Tibetans believe it is no longer than 49 days in the Bardo, or in-between state.) It appears that by presenting them with different sets of beliefs, we are introducing them to the process of grappling with the profound questions of life and death.
One of the most appealing things about studying Buddhism is that scepticism is a built-in part of the process. The historical Buddha and contemporary Buddhist teachers all tell us not to take teachings and traditions at face value, but rather to test out the principles of Buddhism in the experimental lab of our own lives. We should not blindly accept anything without the strength of experience to support it.
And there has never been a bigger testing ground in our lives than the household we are running now, with children. One of Jack’s favourite quotes about reincarnation is from Voltaire. “It is no more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”
While I certainly cannot prove reincarnation to myself or to my daughter, it is an idea that seems no more ludicrous than the atheist notion that one minute we are here and the next after death we are not, or the Christian idea that we sit at God’s side for eternity in heaven.
Clover is always ready to throw a new test into the equation. She announces on another occasion when she arrives home after school, “Actually, I know where Grampsie is. He’s sitting on a cloud above my school checking that I am behaving myself. Chantel told me, because that’s where her Grandad is, and that’s where all grandparents are.” No debate. Suddenly she’s sure, at least for today.
I am prepared to accept that the Buddhist idea of reincarnation is nothing more than a metaphor for the idea that all of our actions in life—good or bad—have the power to continue after death in the lives of others that we manage to touch.
None of us in the house are sure where Grampsie has gone, but like Clover, I am happy to carry on finding new ways of exploring…together.