How would Buddha handle your kids?

by John Bulit, (Sourced and edited from: "Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism" by John Bullitt), The Buddhist Channel, April 14, 2005

John Bullit evokes the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta to elicit  the five noteworthy aspects on how the Buddha effectively taught the 7-year  old Rahula the Dhamma.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The Buddha's advice to parents is straightforward - help your children become generous, virtuous, responsible, skilled and self-sufficient adults [see DN 31 and Sn II.4].

Teaching Buddhism to one's children does not mean giving them long lectures about dependent  co-arising, or forcing them to memorize the Buddha's lists of the eightfold  this, the ten such-and-suches, the seventeen so-and-sos. It simply means giving  them the basic skills they'll need in order to find true happiness. The  rest will take care of itself.

The single most important lesson  parents can convey to their children is that every action has  consequences. Each moment presents us with an opportunity, and it is up  to us to choose how we want to think, speak, or act. It is these choices that  eventually determine our happiness. This is the essence of kamma, the basic  law of cause and effect that underlies the Dhamma. It also happens to be the  message behind one of the few recorded teachings the Buddha gave to his only  child, Rahula.[1] This sutta - the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta (MN  61) - offers parents some important clues about teaching Dhamma to young  children - in terms of both the content of what to teach and the method  to use.

In this sutta the Buddha reprimands  the seven year old Rahula for telling a small lie. The content  (and  intent) of the Buddha's lesson here is clear and simple: it  concerns right speech, and helping Rahula keep himself true to the  fundamental principles of virtue.

There are several noteworthy aspects  to the Buddha's method. First, by artfully drawing comparisons  to an everyday utensil (in this case, a water dipper), the Buddha makes his  point in vivid and age-appropriate  language that Rahula can easily understand.

Second, the Buddha doesn't launch into a  long-winded abstract lecture on the nature of kamma, but instead keeps the  lesson focused on the immediate issue at hand: choosing your actions  carefully.

Third, although the five precepts do indeed  constitute the fundamental framework for moral conduct, the Buddha does not  mention them here - presumably because some of the precepts (concerning  sexuality and using intoxicants) are simply not relevant to most seven year  olds. (Perhaps the Buddha had more to say about the precepts by the time Rahula  was a teenager.)

Fourth, the Buddha keeps Rahula  engaged during the lesson by asking him simple questions; this is no  dry, soporific lecture.

And finally, the Buddha takes advantage of the  opportunity presented by this "teaching moment" to expand into deeper  territory, to explain to Rahula the importance of reflecting inwardly  before, during, and after performing an action of any sort - whether of body,  speech, or mind. The Buddha thus places Rahula's original small misdeed  into a much broader context, transforming it into a lesson of deep and  lasting significance.

Although most of us who are parents can only dream  of teaching our children as consciously and effectively as the Buddha did, we  can still learn from his example. But before we can translate his example into action, there is one crucial point to recognize: the Buddha's instructions to  his son were given by someone who really knew what he was talking about;  Rahula's teacher was someone who truly practiced what he preached, a role model  par excellence.

So the message is clear: if we hope to instruct  our children about matters concerning the path of Dhamma, we had  better be sure that we ourselves are practicing on that path.  If you extol the virtues of skillful qualities such as generosity, truthfulness,  and patience, but your children only see you being stingy, overhear you telling  lies, or see you losing your temper, then your message will be lost.

Of course, you need not have perfected the  Dhamma in order to instruct your children, but for your instruction  to carry any weight your children must be able to witness firsthand that you are earnestly striving to put these same teachings into  practice yourself. And if you can inspire them by your example and give them  the skills they need to know to live in tune with the Dhamma, then you've given  them a rare gift indeed.

The wise
hope for a child
of heightened or  similar birth,
not for one
of lowered birth,
a disgrace to the  family.

These children in the world,
lay followers,
consummate in  virtue, conviction;
generous, free from stinginess,
shine forth in any  gathering
like the moon
when freed from a cloud.      [Iti 74]

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