My daughter has recently reached four years old, and has blossomed mentally and physically. What surprises me at this age is how her mind has matured and how she picks up on things that I might overlook. Recently, she started to imitate the Buddha seated in meditation as a joke. I don’t know exactly where she picked this up, but in the bathtub she’ll cross her little legs, put her hands in the proper mudra (gesture) and sit very straight, just like you see in statues of the Buddha. She also wears this proud grin on her face, eager to impress Daddy too.
While visiting Japan for the New Year, she developed a fondness for visiting Buddhist temples. In Japan, temples often have a large wooden donation box with a grill at the top. She likes to ask me for a handful of coins (one is usually customary) so she can drop them in the box. Then, imitating Daddy once more, she puts her hands together in respect and makes an exaggerated bow. You can see her doing this in the photo above. I admit I taught her how to do this as a matter of cultural etiquette but her enthusiasm is something I never expected.
There are many things in Buddhism that can be hard to convey in words, and until now I felt she had been too young to teach all but the most basic truths. She knows that the Buddha is a “nice guy” and how to pay respect accordingly. She understands that when people or pets die, they “become Buddha” too, referring to the interdependent co-arising of all phenomena and the Buddha who embodies this truth. And she knows of the Buddha’s Pure Land, the peaceful place people take refuge after they pass away. For holidays, she knows of the Buddha’s Birthday, as well as Bodhi (Enlightenment) Day. What’s been challenging as a Buddhist parent and convert is finding the right vocabulary to explain it all though.
This is not the sort of thing usually discussed in Buddhist books or seminars or meditation centers but is part of our daily lives, and I feel Buddhism’s strength lies in its daily application and its empirical teachings. A visit to a temple in Japan, while fun for me as a Japanophile and Buddhist, also provides a wholesome atmosphere for my daughter. If she learns positive values in the process, so much the better. As a parent, I struggle to resist the urge to shield her, but as recent events have shown, she has blossomed in unexpected ways all on her own. It’s certainly reassuring.
As for the question of how to teach Buddhism to a toddler, I owe a great deal to my wife, who is more adept at articulating these truths, owing to her Japanese and Buddhist cultural background. She learned about the Buddha as a child, just as I learned about God and Heaven in my youth. Her experience has provided those much needed explanations, both to my daughter and me, when I am stuck in the intellectual realm. Indeed, I’ve been humbled by her simple reply about “becoming Buddha” after death, because if my daughter had asked me the same question, I would have been unable to avoid a lengthy textbook explanation about rebirth, co-arising and so on.
Perhaps this is the challenge for Buddhist parents in the West, both converts and Asian immigrants: articulating Buddhism for the next generation and more importantly, instilling positive values without words.
Often times, actions and conduct can speak louder than words.