A Guide to Buddhist Parenting


By John Pappas

The Emptiness of Family: A Guide to Engaged Parenting.

When we enter into the responsibilities of parenthood we welcome another sentient being into our mind-stream and open our mandala of practice to a fledgling life. This is no small responsibility, no momentary hefting of weight to be placed down later. We shoulder the burden of teaching this emerging mind how to interact with, and be prepared for, this world – This life of Samsara – This life of fleeting joy and momentary happiness.

This life of parent and teacher is a difficult one. Unlike a classroom or lecture hall, there is no bell that rings to end the session. No rush of students out of your room and out of your life for the night. In parenting there is a set of eyes that is constantly gazing upon you and absorbing everything that you do. You don’t teach this student by PowerPoint presentation and bullet-points or through allegory and metaphor.

This one is learning directly from your example. This one is learning directly from your practice. Just as through conception your genes (for better or worse) are passed on to your child; as they grow and develop, your karma is passed right along as they absorb, imitate and evolve.

I am not presenting the following outline as rules or guidelines to successful parenting. They are only examples from my own life on what worked, what failed and what continues to occur as I struggle with my practice as a Buddhist, as a parent and as a human being. They are a reference point for my practice outside of the zendo and in my home, my head and my self. Each separate but connected, an ocean of gray waves that can support my children in compassion and equanimity or pull them off-shore with anger and stress. I relied heavily on the conceptual framework from the Engaged School of Buddhist Practice, as I hope they do not mind, especially since I can think of little that is more engaged then parenting.

The Three Refuges of Engaged Parenting:

  1. I take refuge in myself as a parent, in my own awakened nature that will manifest itself through my interactions with my children. As they grow and develop, I will grow and develop. As they stumble and fall, I will stumble and fall. As they manifest joy and happiness, I will manifest joy and happiness. There is no part where my child begins and I end. When I punish my child, I punish myself.
  2. I will take refuge in the Four Immeasurables. Without dogma or expectation, my parenting will embody equanimity, Loving-kindness, Compassion and Joy. May I be a cause of happiness and experience it with my child. May I be free of clinging and the suffering it brings. May I feel and express bliss by seeing this as they are and not how I wish them to be. May I be free from bias and anger.
  3. I take refuge in the community of the family. There is a community that practices with me day in and day out. They greet me in the morning and wish me well as I go to sleep. Let me not forget that the interconnected web of my family will tremble as I tremble, smile as I smile, weep as I weep.

The Three Guiding Principles of Engaged Parenting

  1. I will not know what I am doing. All moments are novel and free from attachments. Each new challenge is birthed by new experiences. These challenges are not good nor are they bad. They will arise, provide a moment to meet them with compassion tempered by wisdom and then fall away. When I miss these moments, I miss a moment of practice, an engagement that will never arise again.
  2. I will bear witness to both the joy and suffering of my children. Each presents a moment to practice and each needs to be directly addressed. At no point should either be dismissed as meaningless or superficial. Each cry and each laugh begins with the same intake of breath and ends with the same sigh.
  3. I will present each interaction with my children as an action based on compassion tempered by wisdom and love. By treating my children with respect, I respect myself and by expressing my care for them I, in turn, will care for myself and my practice.

The Ten Precepts of Engaged Parenting

1. Watch my actions and words. As moments to practice and guide my children arise, I have to understand that everything I do will have effects. Even if I am not directly addressing my children, the way I address strangers, my wife and my friends build a template for how they will treat others. How I respond to should come from experience, compassion and kindness with a sense of accomplishing the same with my words and actions. How do my actions look though the lens of my child’s eyes?

2. Express Love. Any moment is a moment open to express caring. Provide genuine expressions of warmth especially during the moments when stress is high. I was told by a co-worker when my first child was an infant that I should not hold her when she cries because it would spoil her. I replied that there will be a time when my arms will be unable to sooth her or I will be too far away to provide comfort. But at this moment I can…and I will. When I am too far away to reach out and hold her, the impressions of these hugs will echo in her heart and mind.

3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Every broken promise from the small to the large lessens trust. If you make a promise then strive to keep it (even the ones made silently). If it is something you can’t guarantee follow up on then don’t provide the promise. I made a silent promise to my children to come home at lunch when I can. So for almost everyday during my lunch hour I come home and fulfill that silent promise to spend an extra, albeit small, portion of my time with them. I admit that at times I am withdrawn, or rushed but I at least have the time to give a hug.

4. Accept change. That same daughter that loved the constant hugs is feeling more independent now. She will tell me to go away and leave her alone. My interactions need to relate directly to her own needs and not my own expectations. There is no way to fight this change just accept it and provide the support and guidance that is needed.

5. Foster growth. As relationships change continue to foster growth. As toddlers begin to exert independence or teenagers desire freedom, provide the tools and wisdom to help your children develop self-control. The questions require honesty rather than manufactured quips and dogma.

6. Don’t bully. If what you are doing would get you punched if you did it to an adult then don’t do it. Simple. Don’t hit, insult, berate or intimidate. Buddha had plenty to say regarding violence but I like the following…

“Your thoughts can go anywhere.
But wherever you may go,
you will never find anyone that you love more than yourself.
So it is that each person loves himself best.
Thus, one who knows that each person loves himself most
should not harm others.”

Your child will have plenty of that in their future. Better to teach them how to stand up and take a punch by being strong and caring yourself.

7. Provide respect. Speak politely, respect ideas and opinion. Do not be dismissive. Provide for growth by allowing differing ideas and thoughts. While I don’t have teenagers yet, I expect this to play a large role in their development. But why not start early and build a foundation that will support your child for their entire life, even after you have passed.

8. Awareness. Shin Buddhist Poet, Asahara Saichi wrote the following.

Worried over this, worried over that—
That heavy burden has been taken away from me.
Ever since the burden was taken away,
How perfectly at peace I am

Take pleasure in a moment of peaceful awareness of your child. There are no guarantees that you will ever succeed as a parent or teacher, but sometimes a moment that is shared will remain in memory for years to come.

9. Remain Unbound. Do not force your children to adopt your views. When we force we are feeding our ego and our need rather than looking at the needs of our children. Let your actions provide guidance and form. If these actions are presented though compassion and love, then they will be of benefit.

10. Embrace Not Knowing. Forget about the knowledge you possess or acquired before becoming a parent. Allow yourself to learn and grow. Forget about the knowledge you learned as a parent of an infant. That infant is now a toddler. Forget what you learned as a parent of a toddler. That toddler is now a child. Just forget. There are no absolute truths to parenting, only guideposts and fences. Parenting is found in life and not in knowledge from words and books. It is born through experience and our own innate nature to nurture and encourage growth. Let that nature guide your parenting.

Be prepared to learn constantly and forget almost as quickly.

This article has been republished from Elephant Journal


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