Spirituality for Kids “Lama Yeshe Style”
by Catherine Slocock
June 1, 2016
According to the Buddhist worldview we have all been reincarnating since beginningless time, a rather mind-bending thought! Nevertheless, even though this means we come into the world with a great deal of preconditioning, and not as “blank slates,” it is well-known that the influences we are exposed to in childhood and the habits we form in our early years have a particularly significant effect on us and our future development. Childhood is a deeply formative time and receiving positive spiritual guidance sooner in life rather than later can help us live happier, more beneficial lives.
But exposure to the wrong kind of spiritual input in childhood can be disastrous. Before I go further, I want to declare my vested interest in writing about this. Like a small but significant proportion of those currently studying in Western Tibetan Buddhist circles, I was raised a Catholic. Unfortunately, mine was not such a happy experience. I was an earnest and sensitive child and remember feeling deeply enthused by the lightness and expansiveness I experienced at events such as the occasion of my First Holy Communion, at the age of seven. But I was also deeply traumatized and confused by the terrifying hell rhetoric thrown at us by some of the nuns at the convent school I attended in my early years, and by the sadistic behavior the more twisted among them often displayed.
At my First Confession, age six, I threw hysterics. My fear of hell fires became so severe that I spent three years in the grip of episodes of migraine and cyclic vomiting. Indeed, I was so frequently sick and lost so much weight that I had to repeat a year of school. Further down the line, at the age of 23, while in treatment for depression, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist pronounced that my core belief was that I was bad. A light bulb went off as he told me this; I recognized the accuracy of his diagnosis. It has taken me another twenty years, though, to shake off that belief and to truly get to the bottom of where it originated. Call it strong karma, if you will.
That’s enough about me for now, though. I am sharing this painfully personal information with the very specific aim of illustrating how terribly wrong things can go when spirituality is transmitted to kids unskillfully. Of course, this doesn’t mean that as Buddhists we should shy away from exposing children to the Dharma. Far from it. But I certainly believe we should proceed with caution.
In my bid to find out more about this delicate but potentially wonderful territory, the skillful transmission of the Dharma, I decided there were few better people I could interview than Jonathan Landaw. Jon is a long-term Buddhist practitioner, a family man with three grown-up children, an author of several Dharma books and editor of many more. He is also a gentle, humble and much appreciated spiritual teacher and retreat leader. He became a student of Lama Yeshe back in the Seventies and when he speaks of Lama, his devotion is palpable.
When we met for the interview, Jon had just returned to California from a teaching tour in Florida. And one of his next Dharma “duties” is scheduled for July, when he is to deliver an illustrated presentation of the life of Buddha at Vajrapani Institute’s annual Wise Heart Family Camp. This camp has been held for the past 23 summers and Jon has narrated the story of Buddha at nearly every one of them. (He says he never gets tired of telling that story.) He bases his annual presentation on the book Prince Siddhartha, which he was originally asked to write while studying Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India in 1975. Most of the illustrations for his talk are also taken from that book and were created by his dear friend Janet Brooke, one of the original Vajrapani pioneers.
Because Jon has been so involved in Family Camp over the years and his life’s journey has been so deeply connected with the Dharma, I had somehow assumed that he would have grown up in a spiritually oriented setting. To my surprise, it emerged from our conversation that this was far from the case. “My father’s attitude,” he told me, “which strongly shaped my own, was straight out of Marx: Religion is the opium of people. Although he never denied what I would call ‘true spiritual qualities,’ he disparaged the hypocrisy, superstition and oppressiveness so sadly evident in the religious organizations with which he was familiar.”
Jon continued, “A great deal of the religiosity that I grew up distrusting seemed to me to boil down to the systematic instillation of guilt, a powerful means to exert control over others. When I was younger I actually took perverse pride in asserting that Jewish guilt, which I knew best and which was repeatedly caricatured in the movies of Woody Allen and the stories of Philip Roth, was the gold standard of such guilt. But later on my Catholic friends would disagree and assure me, ‘Jewish guilt is nothing compared to Catholic guilt!’ Then Protestant friends of mine would throw in their two cents. ‘Oh, no,’ they would declare, ‘both of you are amateurs! Protestants are the real professionals when it comes to feeling guilty and making others feel guilty.’
“So it eventually dawned on me that no one group has a monopoly on this crippling emotion, although many of its American manifestations can probably be traced back to those Puritans who, settling in New England, frightened their congregations into piety by insisting that their fundamental nature was rotten and completely depraved and that it was only by the grace of God ― which is reserved for an elect few only ― that such abject sinners have any chance of salvation at all. This attitude was so powerful that it seeped into the American consciousness as a whole, and is the likely source of the screwed-up attitudes towards sex and other ‘forbidden’ pleasures so prevalent in American culture. Lama Yeshe would often laugh at us and say, ‘You people! You cannot even take a bite of chocolate without feeling guilty about enjoying it!’”
As I listened to Jon I started to wonder how on earth, given that so many cultures have got it so painfully wrong, can we find a clear way to pass on wholesome spiritual values to our kids? I found myself asking him how his Heart Guru, Lama Yeshe, used to be around kids and whether Jon had ever seen him giving them formal Dharma teachings?
Jon replied, “Lama Yeshe loved kids and kids loved him. He was like your favorite uncle: so loving, good-natured, humorous and affectionate. He could be stern if discipline were required, but never arbitrary or malicious. I think the main way he taught spiritual values to kids was basically the same way he taught them to us so-called grown-ups, by his clear and present example rather than through formal lessons.
“There’s no question that the primary way kids really learn is through having an example that is being modeled for them consistently. Relating to a kid ― or to anyone else, for that matter ― with sincere respect and an attitude of genuine love and concern is the essence of both effective parenting and teaching. One of the things about Family Camp that I so greatly admire is how well the staff members are able to create and maintain a loving and supportive family environment. This atmosphere depends on the cultivation of respect, which in turn comes from recognizing that each individual, no matter what his or her outward appearance might be or how they may be behaving at any given moment, possesses the same potential for full enlightenment that the great spiritual masters, such as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, have fulfilled and demonstrated.
“Every year Family Camp is built around a specific theme, or spiritual quality, and this quality is usually illustrated by an image introduced through art projects, story-telling, play-acting and other creative, age-appropriate means, including mantra recitation and meditation. For example, if the theme for a particular camp is Wisdom, the image provided would be that of Manjushri; if it is Compassion, it would be Chenrezig; if Enlightened Activity, it would be Tara, and so on. But at the same time that the kids are becoming familiar with these “external” images, the main emphasis of each camp is on helping them become aware that they each possess, at the profoundest level of their being, the “internal” quality each image symbolizes. True respect for oneself as well as respect for others grows naturally out of such awareness.
“In Buddhist texts this in-dwelling limitless potential for spiritual growth is sometimes referred to as our Buddha Nature, but when speaking with kids I prefer not to use such terminology. Instead it is more effective to point out, using examples from their own experience, that we each have an undeniable capacity for love ― wishing others well ― and for compassion ― wishing those in pain to be free of it ― and that these qualities can be developed and expanded by simply focusing on them and giving them room to play. For example, a skillful parent or teacher can take advantage of children’s natural curiosity about small animals and even insects ― in this respect, children are natural-born zoologists ― to help them recognize, through close observation, that these creatures are living beings like themselves. Moreover, they can not only learn how to care for and protect these beings, but that it feels much more deeply satisfying to do so than to harm them. This kind of spiritual ‘education,’ if you want to call it that, is largely a matter of creating a culture in which values like love and the compassionate concern for others are consistently supported and demonstrated. ”
Listening to Jon, it struck me that a consistent culture, where qualities can be repeatedly modeled over time, is precisely something that Family Camp is able to offer participants. Although the event itself is quite short, lasting only from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, it occupies a much larger space in the children’s experience and imagination. Jon mentioned that many of the kids and their parents come back year after year, and when they are too old to attend Family Camp, some go on to Teen Camp, and then on to Young Adult Camp, and along the way a few become counselors and assistant counselors. Also, since the format of Family Camp requires attendance from a parent (or an adult who is significant in the child’s life), these parents have an opportunity to soak up the positive principles that are being shared at Family Camp and to continue to model them in the family setting once they return home.
For some reason, when Jon talked of families returning home after camp and carrying on with their spiritual growth there, I envisioned them sitting down together to meditate. But Jon was quick to correct me on this one. “I don’t consider Family Camp to be a success if families are meditating together at home,” he told me, “or a failure if they’re not. I think a camp can be considered successful to the extent that it helps inform the way the family members actually live their lives and relate to one another. If they bring into their lives elements of mutual respect and understanding, of learning how to listen to others, of sympathy and so forth, then even if they don’t do any formal meditation practice, that’s not a problem for me. It’s not about the outward stuff ― the altar, the painted images, or even the meditation practice; it’s about the extent to which we can access our love, our compassion, our wisdom, our deeper nature, and share it with others.”
When it comes to creating a consistent positive culture, Jon shared with me a quote from a young camp participant that I found particularly poignant. This camper, while sharing feedback in a closing circle, said that the thing she found most special about the camps at Vajrapani is that they are the only places she knows of “where it is cool to be kind.” Jon then commented, “Such a statement is both very heartening and very disheartening at the same time. It is disheartening because it implies that in the ordinary environment our children inhabit, it is considered cool to be sarcastic, or cutting, or blasé. But during those three or four days at Family Camp, being kind is what is considered cool.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Jon if there was anything further he would like to add. Earlier, I had shared with him a little bit of my own mixed and sometimes rather agonizing experiences of childhood spirituality, and whether it was intentional or not, the last thought Jon shared with me struck a deep and soothing chord with my younger guilt-ridden self. I feel compelled to share it here; it feels like essential and deeply healing advice that many might benefit from hearing.
“Once, many years ago, I asked some advice from Diney Woodsorrel, a dear friend and early member of Vajrapani who died in 1983. She was a parent and I wondered what the best way was to help when kids were feeling some really powerful negative emotion, whether it was fear or hatred or something else. She answered that the first thing is do was simply acknowledge it. Support the child in recognizing whatever feeling is arising, rather than glossing over it or trying to brush it aside. Affirm to the child that he or she is actually feeling that way; no blame or judgement, just an honest acknowledgement of the truth. The second thing is to point out that he or she will not always feel this way. Like all feelings, they last a while and eventually fade. So even though this feeling is part of the child’s present reality, it is not who the child ultimately is. It is not the child’s fundamental, unchanging nature.
“I found Diney’s advice simple, profound and very helpful, especially when I eventually became a parent myself. And even though Diney didn’t explicitly draw the connection between the transient nature of the disturbing emotions and the existence of our fundamental Buddha Nature, I think the two insights are interconnected. It is from the clear, open space left behind when these emotions subside that the deeper qualities of love, compassion and wisdom can arise. Depending upon the age of the child and the parent’s skill in communicating, I think these insights can be shared effectively.”
It seems to me that these are precisely the words my traumatized childhood self so badly needed to hear almost forty years ago, as I stewed in confusion and hysterical vomiting and unconsciously sent myself repeatedly to hell. I’m glad I finally got to hear them. And I’m glad that parents and kids at Wise Heart Family Camp may get a chance to be exposed to such a healthy brand of spirituality. What Jon describes sounds like something that can cut through the instillation of guilt so often associated with organized religion and instead sow the seeds of a culture where it is ‘cool to be kind.’ How cool is that!