Everyone Learns Together: Youth, Families & the Dhamma
A Conversation with Ajahn Amaro

[Reprinted by permission from Fearless Mountain: Newsletter of the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, Volume 4, Number 3 (Fall 1999). Copyright 1999 by Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, www.abhayagiri.org.]

Traditionally, Theravada monasteries have served as community centers of sorts, providing places for people of all ages to come together in a variety of ways to express and connect with the spiritual aspects permeating much of our lives. This has certainly included young people, who join with the older generations in regular visits to the monastery. Over this past spring and summer, several special events have brought together the Abhayagiri Monastery community with youth and families. Fearless Mountain representatives Cator Shachoy, Barbara Gates, and Dennis Crean met recently with Ajahn Amaro to talk about these experiences and about children, parents, and the Dhamma.

Cator Shachoy: You spent some time with kids this summer—teaching at the Spirit Rock Family Retreat, visiting at Camp Winnarainbow, and hosting a teen weekend at Abhayagiri. What do you think draws kids to the Dharma and to you as a monk?

Ajahn Amaro: Well, it varies. There’s obviously a certain kind of peacefulness that people feel attracted to. Young people can also really relate to the sense of commitment. We’ve tied ourselves to something and are building our lives around it. And we are not afraid of looking pretty strange in the process! Then there’s a magnetic quality: “Hmm. I don’t know what these guys are, but I want to be close. I want to see what this is.” Even at the Family Retreat at Spirit Rock, where on one level the kids seemed mostly concerned with playing with each other and not terribly into much Dhamma stuff, I found they really wanted to hang out with me as a monk. I shaved four heads during the course of five days, not counting my own!

CS: A radical fashion statement!

AA: To some degree one wonders whether it was a fashion statement. But there was also the sense of, “Monks shave their heads. I want to be like that. That’s cool.” There is a kind of role modeling that goes on, particularly for the boys (there weren’t any nuns there). Some who were quite uncomfortable at showing any kind of softness or betraying any interest in anything spiritual actually let their defenses down. Because of wanting so much to draw close, they couldn’t stay cool and distant and uninterested. Their own enthusiasm got the better of them.

CS: After participating in these various events, did you notice any common themes?

AA: Yes, it was really striking—at Camp Winnarainbow, at Spirit Rock, pretty much across ages, young kids have a very clear sense of wanting to be honest. Or wanting to be harmless, really respecting the lives of other creatures and telling their parents off for swatting mosquitoes. They have a clear sense of morality. One boy asked us, “If you’re trying to be unaggressive and to be a nice guy, then sometimes you get trodden on by people who don’t appreciate the fact you are nice. They just want to take advantage of you. What do you do about that?” This was a twelve-year-old, trying to figure it out for himself: “I don’t want to harm anything, and I don’t want to be aggressive like the other guys. But I can also see that if I am too soft, it doesn’t do me or anybody else any good either.” There is a profound attraction towards goodness, but not in a prissy way. Kids see harmlessness and honesty and generosity as really important things in life, really worth paying attention to.

Dennis Crean: Are there any specific instances in the collection of teachings in which the Buddha was addressing children? Traditionally, how are kids introduced to the teachings?
AA: It is interesting that there is virtually nothing in the Pali Canon that is specifically for kids. I can think of two discourses of advice to the Buddha’s son, Rahula, one where he is taught mindfulness of breathing by Sariputta and another where the Buddha talks to him mostly about the karmic effects of lying and the importance of honesty in speech.
Really, though, there is such a vast array of teachings—in terms of generosity, virtue, samadhi training, etc.—of which large elements apply to kids as much as to grown ups. In my experience of being in Buddhist cultures, everyone learns together. At the Dhamma talk, everyone is there from grandma down to the babies. With groups of children, they use stories from the Dhammapada Commentary and the Jataka tales, all coming from the vast sea of Indian fables and folklore, and filled in with Buddhist principles and Buddhist characters. In fact, many of Aesop’s Fables come from the Jatakas. They are cautionary tales for children. Almost all talk about karma. The recurrent theme is: if you do good, then you will receive good; and if you do bad, then you will receive bad. This is how karma works. They use the Bodhisattva and different characters such as Devadatta, Ananda, and King Bimbisara. All these characters reappear in various different lifetimes. The stories are characterizations of moral tales. Traditionally, that was how children were taught.

Barbara Gates: At my daugher’s preschool on Buddha’s birthday, I told them the story of Siddhartha, using a picture book. It included his introduction to sickness, old age, and death. A number of the little kids—three- and four-year-olds—came up to me afterwards. They looked through the pictures and found the one with the dead body. They said, “Tell that part again! Tell that part again!” I notice that kids are often drawn toward looking at the hard facts of life, and they are drawn toward people who are willing to talk about impermanence and death, some of the things that are hidden in our culture. I wonder whether you have had that experience as well.

AA: Oh, yes. Not just impermanence and death, but the whole dark side. At the Spirit Rock retreat I got drawn into some storytelling. The stories I told had some serious bloodshed and darkness in them. The kids loved it. To the youngest kids of all—the four-, five-, and six-year-olds—I told a story about the cultivation of patience. In a previous life, the Bodhisattva is living in a cave. The royal hunting party is out, the men all chasing animals while the women are preparing the picnic. The women get fed up waiting for the men, so they wander around and stumble across the Bodhisattva in his cave. They see this guy with dreadlocks, birds’ nests in his hair, and cobwebs all over him. They start talking to him and find that underneath the dust and the cobwebs, he is also tall and handsome and has this great voice. Soon, he has all the women of the royal court gathered around him in rapt attention. Then the king shows up and says, “Who are you, trying to steal my women?!” The Bodhisattva replies, “I am just a hermit cultivating patience.” “Patience? I’ll see if you can be patient!” the king roars, and he chops off the Bodhisattva’s nose. He continues “testing his patience” by chopping off his hand, then another hand, an arm, etc. Finally, the Bodhisattva is sitting there with his feet, legs, arms, hands, nose, and ears all chopped off; and he’s bleeding to death. Well, the six-year-olds listening to this story can’t get enough: “Oh yeah. Yuck. Absolutely gross! Great, go on, do it. More, please.”

BG: Just like with the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, people need to see the shadow side.

AA: Yes. The researcher Bruno Bettelheim once did a comparison study, and the kids who heard the sanitized fairy tales—where the witches had counseling rather than being put in a barrel full of nails and rolled down a hill—were much more unequipped when faced with difficult real-life situations. The kids who read about the blood and ogres knew that when someone comes at you in a rage, reach for the magic feather and don’t panic; this can be dealt with. I think there is a lot of over-cautiousness in failing to present aging, sickness, death, and violence—the dark side.

CS: We tend to hide the shadow side when we are afraid of overwhelming or scaring our kids. It’s really probably ourselves whom we’re afraid of overwhelming or scaring, while the kids just naturally hear it and let it all pass through.

AA: Yes, so in storytelling you frame things and hold them in such a way that you are not simply trying to horrify people but to use the imagery to get people’s attention. With the older kids at Spirit Rock, I told the story of the Bodhisattva falling in love. It involves the beings who were later reborn as the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, and Uppalavanna, a very beautiful and enlightened nun. When the Bodhisattva falls in love with Uppalavanna, the queen at that time, she and Ananda, who is the king, conspire to help the Bodhisattva pull out of his deluded state of being besotted with her. The teens were shocked: “Hey, the Buddha fell in love! This is amazing!” Teenagers can all relate to falling madly in love with someone who is not quite the right one or with whom it doesn’t work out. So we tell stories, trying to find topics that are suitable or meaningful but without shying away from their natural intensity for fear of not presenting a pretty picture.

BG: It’s like sitting on the cushion and learning to be willing to experience anger or all the other sensations and thoughts you think are ugly. But what then might you say to a parent who often finds herself driven to express those thoughts or difficult feelings when in the heat of family life? As a parent, I need some Dharma help! For me it’s around anger. For other people it might be something else. I find myself doing and saying things for which I judge myself harshly the moment after I do them.

AA: First of all, I’m not a parent. But I have parents, so I am familiar with the scenarios. For parents, what seems to be one of the most prominent causes of passion in the relationship with their children is the whole galaxy of expectations and programs the adults have as the controllers, as those who dictate, “In this house we do this; we don’t do that. These are the rules.” When the kids confront or stumble over that and do or say things that don’t fit, then a complex of frustration, irritation, impatience, intolerance, etc., grows up around “you’re not doing what I say.”

BG: Yes! So what can we do then?

AA: The first step is a conscious awareness, a stepping back, preferably when the kid is not around and you have time to reflect. Ask yourself what expectations you have set up in determining, “When I bring up my kids, I am going to do this and not going to do that.” What have you put in place as your set of paradigms and axioms for your family life? How much are your children players in your drama? By getting familiar with your script and the scriptwriting process, you can then ask yourself, “Where did this come from? Why is that so important to me?” Some of your hopes and expectations may come from a very enlightened and wonderful place, motivated by goodheartedness. Others may come from unconscious desire systems, such as reactions against what your own parents did: “That’s what happened to me, and it’s definitely NOT going to happen to my kids!” Something else might come from your eco-friendly philosophy; and so on.

I remember an incident that happened with me years ago at Amaravati Monastery in England. Sundays there are really busy days, often with 80 or 100 people coming to visit us. I would typically go into the main meeting hall around 10 a.m. People are arriving then to offer the meal. When I happened to be the senior monk, I could be in there for five or six hours straight. As the day progressed, I would witness a strong motivation to get out, to go back to my room and read the Sunday paper. It was usually around four o’clock in the afternoon before I got out of the hall for the first time. So there I was one Sunday afternoon, finally back in my room reading the Sunday paper, when I heard a knock at the door. One of the junior monks was there asking, “Is this a convenient time to talk?” And I said, “Not right now.”

CS: You’d turned into your dad!

AA: Yes, there it was! As he closed the door, I thought to myself, “My God, it’s happened. I’m too busy reading the paper. I swore that would never happen.” I don’t even have children, but there it was, a familiar childhood scenario repeating itself.

So, the first step is recognition: you can see yourself doing something. But you can’t simply decide, “OK, I won’t be like that anymore.” A decision may set the intention, but an intention on its own is not enough to break a habit and recondition the mind. What it takes, then, is reviewing or rewriting the intentions, learning to see the reactions happening, and then not following them. You can cultivate a much more spacious attitude, like, “Why should my kid be a certain way? I may have wanted a macho, rolling-in-the-dirt kind of son, but instead I’ve got a doe-eyed, sensitive, lily-type son. Well, that’s who he is. Instead of comparing him to how I think he should be or what I want him to be, maybe I can meet him as he is.”

BG: Do you think it’s possible to work through old conditioning and get at those assumptions and expectations without having a sitting practice? After all, it’s often particularly hard for parents of young children to mobilize the discipline to establish a sitting practice.

AA: Even without sitting practice, there are many hours in the day to just watch what goes on in your mind, to review it, to map out your conditioning. If you are really interested, if it’s a real priority and you are making the effort, then bringing your attention to that domain is all it takes. If you have never meditated before, this may be more difficult; but if you have done some meditation before you had kids and you have a bit of a basis in samadhi and reflective wisdom, it will be easier. Obviously, sitting practice is very valuable, but I think it has been oversanctified. Just going about your business using reflective wisdom and general mindfulness as an ongoing practice should be more highly valued.

CS: So how can a family that wants to be Buddhist, to do Buddhist practice, integrate this into their homelife?

AA: One idea is to have a shrine in the home and a daily routine of chanting and meditation together. I know one family in England in which the seven-year-old daughter wanted to meditate. When her mum asked her, “What are you doing?” she replied, “I’m meditating. Sit down with me and meditate.” The seven-year-old got the mother meditating, and it became a family routine.

DC: How about when a family comes to the monastery. What can they do there?

AA: To begin with, the monastery environment itself is something that kids can easily relate to. There isn’t anything happening in which kids don’t belong. People are often asking us, “Is it OK to bring kids?” They are astonished when we say, “Sure, no problem.” After all, a monastery is not a retreat center; it is a broader environment. Traditionally at monasteries, if people are meditating, the kids are there meditating with everyone else. There are even instances in the canon in which children become enlightened, such as Dabbamalliputta, who became an arahant at the age of seven when they were shaving his head to become a novice.

After the Teen Weekend, a ten-year-old boy, Sebastian, didn’t want to go home and begged and begged to be allowed to stay. When his mum went home, he stayed on and joined in the daily routine. He helped out in the mornings with the monastery work period running for this and that, and in the afternoons Ajahn Pasanno would take him under his wing as he helped to organize all the construction and earth moving. There was absolutely no problem; he totally fitted in. And he really tried. He even made it to morning chanting a couple of times. He ended up falling asleep and lying down on the floor, but no one ever dreamt of saying, “Hey, that kid’s asleep. Either wake him up so he can join in, or get him out of here.”

There is a breadth in what a monastery environment can offer for families that represents a fuller range of the skillful means available in the Buddhist tradition than does a retreat environment with its strict routine. Simply getting stuff together before a visit can be a family activity. “Let’s give them this, let’s give them that.” I know a family that has a great time picking berries and making pies. Once you get to the monastery, there’s general playing, going for hikes, reading books. It’s quite OK for families to leave for a while to go swimming in the Russian River. Of course, everyone can join in with the chanting and bowing, or take time to chat with the monks and nuns. There’s been talk about having a family camp at Abhayagiri. With the amenities we’ve got, it may have to start out with just three or four families, and it will mostly be the families who get together to make it happen. But we are happy to support it.

In general, we encourage families to visit. Creating a monastery is about offering a place for all of us to come together in the context of our spiritual aspirations—monastics and laypeople, young and old. It’s a home for us all.

Cator Shachoy is a counselor at Camp Winnarainbow, works with preschool children, and teaches yoga. Barbara Gates is coeditor in chief of Inquiring Mind and draws on her experiences in family practice in her essays and her book, Already Home. Dennis Crean is editor of Fearless Mountain.

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