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~