Helping your children develop their own spiritual lives

When we first start to practice the Dharma and experience some of its powerful effects on our life, our first instinct is to try get everyone else to practice the Dharma as well.  This is especially true for our children.  We see clearly how the Dharma could help all those in our family, and we want them to be happy, so we want them also to come into the Dharma.  The essence of all Dharma instructions is Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha so that we can help others do the same, so it seems only fitting and appropriate that we try help our children also practice the spiritual path.  But it is precisely because we want our children to also take up a spiritual path that we have to completely let go of the idea!

I once asked Gen Losang, “please give me a 100% guarranteed method for helping my children come into the Dharma.”  His reply was “send them to Catholic School.”  While he was of course joking, his point was well made.  The more we try push our kids into a particular spiritual path, the more obstacles we create to them actually following it.  The fundamental point is this:  the spiritual path only works if you do it from your own side because you realize you need it and you want it.  The same is true for our kids.  We can enculturate our kids into the Dharma, surrounding them with all sorts of Buddhas, take them to Buddhist teachings and temples, but we can’t ever make them practice.  Since Dharma is a process of changing our own mind, it is something that has to come from within them.  Like all other things with our kids, the more we push them into something, the more they will reject it.

It is very easy for our motivation wanting our kids to practice to become contaminated.  The more attached we are to them ‘being Buddhist’ or ‘practicing’, the more we guarrantee that they will run away.  When somebody tries to manipulate you into believing something, what is your reaction?  You reject what they have to say.  We become attached to them practicing because we have these fantasies of the whole family joyfully practicing Dharma together.  We become attached to them practicing because we want to impress our Dharma friends with how ‘into’ the Dharma our kids are.  We become attached to them practicing because we are tired of dealing with their problems, and we know the Dharma can fix them.  We become attached to them practicing because we think if they practice too we will have less obstacles to our own ability to go to teachings, festivals and the like.  We become attached to them practicing because we have a tendency to try have our kids live the life we wish we had lived, but didn’t.  We become attached to them practicing because we feel like we will have failed as a parent if they do not.  The list goes on and on.  Each and every one of these minds is an enormous obstacle to our children’s spiritual life, and we must abandon every single one.

A very senior teacher once told me, “Leave your children completely free to come into the Dharma from their own side, and in that space set a good example.”  He then went on to say, “and frankly, the same is true with adults.”  As long as our motivation is mixed with any of the above attachments, we are not leaving them completely free.  The reality is the Buddhist path is not for everyone.  We need to accept that it is quite likely our kids will never practice the Dharma (in this life, at least).  And this is perfectly OK.  For me, it has been so difficult to generate a genuinely pure motivation free from any of these attachments, that I have had to go to the opposite extreme and completely and totally forget about the idea of them ever practicing.  My job is to work on my own mind.  Full stop.  My job is to gain experience of the instructions within my own mind, nothing more.  I just need to go about my business of practicing the Dharma myself, transforming myself, becoming a better person, a better father, and if in so doing my kids develop an interest in the Dharma, then that is their business, not mine.  The interesting thing, though not at all surprising if we think about it, is the more I let go of any of my family practicing, the more they become interested in it.

We should only give our children Dharma instructions if they ask for it – many times, and genuinely from their own side.  We can always give them wisdom, because wisdom is equally useful for everyone, but we should only explain to them the Dharma as such based upon repeated requests on their part.  A mistake that I have made very often is when my kids do ask from their own side, all of my attachments come surging back up, and then I flood them with way more Dharma than they asked for.  The end result is they can’t digest it all, they wind up feeling overwhelmed, and so they reject what I had to say and they become fearful of ever asking me again.  It is far better to give them significantly less than what they asked for than even a little bit too much.  If you give them too little, they can then ask for more again from their own side.

Once somebody tastes or observes pure wisdom, they are able on their own to discern the difference between qualified and unqualified instructions.  A living example of somebody transforming themselves with the Dharma is infinitely more powerful than any words we can say.  If we ourselves are living our lives in accordance with the inner meaning of the instructions (not just adopting the external paraphanilia of a ‘Dharma practitioner’), then this will be the greatest teacher our children can have.  We should even let go of ‘trying to be a good example’ for them because this is just a more subtle form of manipulation.  No, we should just practice Dharma, and if this inspires others to do the same, then great.  If it doesn’t, then that’s OK too.

Your turn:  Describe a situation in which you were unskillful in encouraging somebody to practice Dharma.  

3 thoughts on “Helping your children develop their own spiritual lives

    • I myself have made every mistake in the book! We should never be down on ourselves about our past mistakes. The best response always is to learn to laugh at ourselves, learn and move on.

  1. Wonderfully put! I have thought that I want nothing for my girls other than for them to have Dharma in their lives, but it is important the attachment that can easily be mixed in with that.

    Loved Gen Losang’s response!! Especially since that is how I came to Dharma (well part of it anyway) 🙂

    Just found your blog so look forward to reading more.

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