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Buddhism in the News


Monday, August 20, 2007

Buddhism and Children

I read an interesting article in the latest Tricycle Buddhist Review regarding Buddhism and children. Basically the author, Clark Strand, was saying that American Buddhists need to teach their children to be Buddhists to make sure the religion continues to grow or it risks dying out.

While I'm sure that his intentions are good this article raises a big red flag for me. That is because I do not feel that children should be indoctrinated or forced into their parent's religion. Perhaps it stems from being raised in a religion that told me not to question the things being taught to me as absolute and unassailable truth. And the strong feelings of anger, being lied to, mislead and being spiritually and mentally abused that came with realizing that there was more out there then I was blindly taught to believe in.

Author and Atheist Richard Dawkins has some interesting things to say regarding children and religion:

I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labeled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals.

James: Dawkins is on to something yet I do not feel that this means we should not teach our children certain things such as ways to relax and calm themselves when feeling afraid and scared. This could come in the form (for Buddhist parents but also for those of other faiths) of teaching a type of basic, dogma-free meditation or just simple breathing techniques. I also see it important to teach them basic humanity--right and wrong, kindness, compassion, love, acceptance and other life lessons.

This also means that we must look into whether children should be allowed to join monasteries or if a person must be at least 18 before being allowed to enter into such a major life decision/commitment. We Buddhists (and most importantly monks and lay leaders) should study and re-evaluate what the monastic life does to a child. However, I understand that most children do not take actual monastic vows. I also realize that in many Buddhist countries the monasteries act as schools and homes for poor, unwanted children but monks aren't trained to be parents either. These are murky, difficult issues to wrestle with to be sure. I need to meditate upon this more.

In my opinion, however, forcing hard religious opinions and beliefs upon children blocks their own ability to decide things for themselves and sets them up for intolerance and distrust of others in their adult years. At the very least I think that parents and monasteries should emphasize this important teaching by Buddha from the Kalama Sutra:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Nor traditions because they are old and have been handed down from generation to generation and in many locations. Nor in rumor because it has been spoken by many. Nor in writings by sages because sages wrote them. Nor in one’s own fancies, thinking that it is such an extraordinary thought, it must have been inspired by a god or higher power. Nor in inferences drawn from some haphazard assumption made by us. Nor in what seems to be of necessity by analogy. Nor in anything merely because it is based on the authority of our teachers, masters, and elders.

However, after thorough observation, investigation, analysis and reflection, when you find that anything agrees with reason and your experience, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, and of the world at large; accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it; and live up to it.

These words, the Buddha went on to say, must be applied to his own teachings.

James: There is nothing wrong with also teaching the basic, general teachings of the Buddha and Dharma but I believe that it should be coupled with telling children that there are other beliefs out there. In addition, teach them not to let anyone tell them what to believe or not to believe. To quote Dawkins again:

Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are "valid," let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.

PHOTO: Buddhist Children Ceremony in Seoul, South Korea taken by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

~Peace to all beings~

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Garnet said...

The way we see it, our children are not being forced into any religion. We are teaching them a set of morals and ethics which is largely what Buddhism contains. How could we call ourselves parents if we failed to demonstrate and guide them in good morals and ethics? Give them a good foundation and they will make wise decisions as adults, yes?

[Love your blog, follow it weekly!]

Anukriti said...

Agree that parents should let their children learn the postive aspects of different religions. This will help children learn not only about their own religion but also other religions. It is also a good way to understand the beliefs of other religion and generating religious tolerance.

h. said...

Hey J!

Good post. This is exactly how I've chosen to raise my children from the day they were born. Guide them- teach them the importance of compassion, non-judgement, etc.

I pray that they will always follow that inner voice that speaks such things.

My mom had a hard time in the beginning dealing with the fact I wasn't taking my son to sunday school every week- but after a couple of years I think she has finally accepted it. Thank goodness. The guilt trips were exhausting!! :)

PeterAtLarge said...

There's a surely difference to be made between teaching and indoctrination. Teaching, good. Indoctrination, bad. As for those young children sent to monasteries, my thought is that we Americans have done enough damage already barging into other people's cultural traditions. We are in no position to offer our sage judgment on this or any other matter. Blessings, PaL

EdaMommy said...

I agree with the teaching=good, indoctrination=bad thinking here. One of our jobs as parents is to try to live as examples for our kids, for better or worse. However, I will say that having grown up without a religious tradition (was raised a secular humanist), I would like to have had one, if only to have a base set of spiritual rubrics, you know?

They call him James Ure said...


I agree that Buddhism offers an excellent foundation of morals and ethics and by it's nature I see it as a very tolerant religion.

I think it important as well though to teach them that it is o.k. to follow a different spiritual path if they decide to do so as they grow up.

It sounds like you guys are on the right track. And thank-you for the kind words regarding my blog. I appreciate your comments. :)


Absolutely. We sure need more religious tolerance in the world. That was the main point that I wanted to emphasize in this post.


Hey West Side friend o' mine!! I think you are doing a GREAT job in raising your kids and teaching them tolerance. As well as a strong spiritual foundation. You guys are an inspiration. ;)


Yes, there is a BIG distinction to be made between those teaching and those indoctrinating and I hope I conveyed that. If not, then I thank-you for fleshing that out. :)

I think you are right about raising children in monasteries. It is not our right as citizens of other countries and cultures to tell others how to act and raise their children as long as they are not being abused.

In addition, these children aren't being held against their will If I'm not mistaken. I think too that despite monks not being, perhaps, the best parents that they are giving them at least a home that they might now have otherwise.

Not to mention a certain amount of education both worldly and spiritually.

Many of these kids often leave the monasteries as they come of age. Yet others stay. I think the main point is that they are free to come and go.

They call him James Ure said...


I agree that a basic foundation of spiritual ethics and morals is a very important thing to convey to our children.

Then they have a balanced foundation between secular humanism and spirituality. I think that problems arise when any extremes are adhered too. This is a great time to rely on following the middle path.

Then as adults they are more spiritually equipped to decided the path (if any) they wish to follow.

Tim said...

As the parent of four, I did what I could to instill a "Do what you will but harm ye none." Sort of the pagan Golden Rule, if you will. But I also found them to be their own beings with their own destinies and all that I tried to instill and/or teach had a limited effect. Kids grow into finding their own beliefs as you did James; and as I did too.

Prashant said...

I agree with all my will:
Somethings are better understood through time and experience.

Smiles :)

jack said...

I agree with your viewpoint here.

The resident monk at the temple I attend once explained that Buddhism was a religion for adults, and based on my own personal experience I agree. This is sometimes a difficult path toward self-knowledge -- not kid stuff at all.

The heavy indoctrination of my childhood failed; the values my parents taught by example without preaching at all were the ones that have stayed with me.

The culture matters too. Organized religion is as much a cultural entity as it is a spiritual one. In Buddhist countries, being a part of a Buddhist temple as a child is part of the cultural context of the country. In the U.S., this would not be true. I think kids at an early age need association with cultural structures that encourage wholesome values. With a little creativity, though, structures can be found that don't burden the message with religious indoctrination.

If your child loves and respects you, he will likely follow you. If he does not, no amount of indoctrination will cure the defect such that he will adopt your values.

They call him James Ure said...


Excellent, well-rounded comment. I bow to the Buddha within you. :)

They call him James Ure said...


I couldn't have said it better myself friend. :) BIG HUGS!!!!!!!!


Agreed. Time and experience are very important in one's spiritual development. Buddhism especially emphasizes personal experience.

abacus said...

yeah, i am late to the party,

my two cents - if we accept our selves as buddhists we should have no problem letting our kids follow us as they would like to or not if they would not like to, but if we love ourselves, we will naturally want to share of ourselves, thats being a parent :-)

They call him James Ure said...


Well said.

Anonymous said...

As Buddhists, what is some advice for parents on how to present beliefs about aliens to very young children (3-5 years-old)?

They call him James Ure said...


I'm really not sure. I'm not versed on aliens.

SUE LANDSMAN-- said...

What a fascinating blog...I've been searching for wisdom about buddhism and kids. I'm the kind of person you could describe as a buddhist on a good day and an atheist on a bad one :-) I've been finding myself envying my fundamentalist christian friends (I homeschool my kids, so we hang out with all sorts) for exactly what someone above described--the spritual rubric with which to teach their kids.

I do know that kids do learn from example, and am not a fan of indoctrination. On the other hand, I'd really like to give my kids some familiarity with religious/spritual matters so that they have some tools to start with and can begin to think and talk about these things when they're ready.

Anonymous said...

Well, Really, Buddhism is NOT a RELIGION so a parent would not be forcing a RELIGION onto a child. It is a way of life. It is not telling someone that there is a big man up in the sky looking down on you and judgeing everything that you do.It is a philosophy based on being kind, acepting responsibility for your own life and what happens in it, and avoiding greed and an everlasting lust after material objects that can keep so many people suffering and feeling like thay need more to be happy. If someone doesn't know what buddhism is or what it stands for they should not be writing articles about it or commenting on articles about it.

marry said...

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saƧ ekimi said...

I'm really not sure. I'm not versed on aliens.

Jizo Hodo said...

Hi everyone. My name is Jizo Hodo and I am the full Time teacher at the Zen Sukoyaka Youth Academy and parent of 3. We are a very small school in a very small town in North East Arkansas. Not that this make me any kind of an expert, in fact working with children has made me realize just how much I don't know. I have really enjoyed this post and many of the responses. I read one post that quoted a Buddhist Monk as saying that Buddhism is an adult religion. In my experience nothing is farther from the truth. I also agree that there is a big difference between teaching and indoctrinating them. While I am Buddhist I in no way stop my children for attending church if they want. Like us (adults) they have to have the opportunity to test the teaching against their own experiences. Presented properly children understand the Buddhas teachings better than most adults I talk to. Thats not to say that teaching children anything doesn't take patience and determination but for me its well worth it when I see children walking to the zendo before school each morning for meditation when they could have slept in another 45 minutes.

Children are eager to learn and the teachings of Buddhism helps them to understand why some kids and even grown up are mean and do and say things that are hurtful. It also gives them tools to help them with their own anger. Children are already compassionate by their very nature (most of them) We can give that compassion room to grow by allowing them to exercise compassion (helping others). Today it seems like everyone is telling our children that they need add something, learn more, or change something in order to be complete. They grow up believing something is missing. This alone can cause a child much suffering. What they learn for Buddhism is exactly the opposite, they are already complete, perfect and full of life. Today their is a wealth or information on teaching children Buddhism on the internet. More and more I see zendos and temples starting youth programs I would encourage anyone thinking about teaching children Buddhism to do so. Nothing will ever be as challenging or rewarding. Just remember that a gentle breeze moves many leaves.

If you are looking for great children's books Thich Nhat Hanh has published some very good ones and you can find others on the Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax web site

Kelly James said...

This boy is very sweet but the most important thing is education if you have an education you will eget success.

Adim said...

Nice post.I am looking forward for new ones, keep up the great work.

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