Buddhists have children too!

That foundations can be laid in the classroom for an understanding of the nature of Christianity is rarely challeneged. Many people see the necessity and possibility for teaching about Islam, Hindusm and Sikhism as well. Buddhism, however, is often neglected. The first argument that is used for such neglect is that there are no Buddhist minority groups to be integrated into our urban environments. That argument ignores Buddhism’s general cultural impact on the Western world. Ninian Smart comments in The Religious Experience of Mankind, Fontana 1971, p. 692

‘It has all the appearances of being the faith which will challenge Christianity most seriously in the West.’

A statement such as this can be hotly contested but it does raise the issue of the importance of Buddhism on grounds other than the integration of minority communities.

The other main argument against the teaching of Buddhism, lower than the level of sixth forms, at least, is the difficulty of its central concepts, rebirth combined with a not-self doctrine and the goal of Nirvana, for example. I ask people who use this argument whether they find it possible to teach the ideas that are contained in the New Testament christological titles, or the classic formulations of the Council of Chalcedon, the theories of the Atonement or the doctrine of the Trinity, which, it can be claimed, are similarly central to Christianity. The answer, of course, is that we do not teach Christianity to younger children through these concepts. There are other ways, more appropriate to their age and interests in which to lay the foundations of understanding. These other ways do not assume that Christianity equals its doctrines, but use other dimensions as well and combine with them the various levels at which a religion operates in an individual’s life and in society as a whole.

Three general points can be made to give confidence in the handling of Buddhism in the classroom. The first is that Buddhists have children and teach their religion to them. That may seem a strange point to make but it does indicate that there are things than can be said and done by and with children that do not undermine the integrity of one’s presentation, because Buddhists themselves attempt the task.

Secondly, it is very Buddhist to adapt teaching to the specific experience and understanding of the audience. Gautama Buddha was a skilful teacher who saw experience as the only proper authority and basis for growth. This is reflected in the use of the word ‘ehipassiko’ to illustrate the ‘come and see’, test it out in your own experience nature of Buddhism. The story of Kisogotani called ‘The Parable of the Mustard Seed’ told in E. A. Burtt’s The Teaching of the Compassionate Buddha, Mentor, 1955, illustrates this too.

Immediately after his enlightenment Gautama expressed the difficulty of conveying dharma to the wide range of human beings. He was, however, persuaded to do so; but the ‘raft’ of the teaching and of Buddhism as a religion is ‘for crossing over, not for retaining’. The doctrine of impermanence applies rigorously to all conditioned things — including Buddhism. The importance of this teaching-skill and its place as a full-blown doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism has received attention recently in a book by Michael Pye Skilful Means, Duckworth 1979. Two classic parables of this skill are to be found in the Lotus Sutra, translated Hurvitz, Columbia 1976, Chapters 2 and 7. Buddhism’s capacity for adaptation and assimilation has helped its spread and Alan Watts demonstrates this with Zen in China, The Way of Zen, Penguin 1962.

It is claimed that the Buddha taught not only in the language of men but also in the language of the angels, of the fairies . . . and even of the birds and beasts of the forests. ‘ I have done this so that every living thing may understand the law.’ One example of this teaching is The Buddha’s Law Among the Birds, translated by E. Conze, Cassirer 1974. There is an abbreviated version in Rawding’s book The Buddha, Cambridge 1975, p. 40. (Note that this latter is a misleading book in many respects and must be used carefully.)

Thirdly, as we have left behind the early scholarly emphasis on a rationalistic and textually — oriented Buddhism, the richness and diversity, not only of Mahayana but of Theravada Buddhism has emerged. The focus on context as well as the text, practice as well as precept have brought the religion to life. The affective has as much place as the cognitive (Gombrich’s terms), and we begin to realise that it is as Buddhist to pursue the kind of life in society that achieves merit and a better rebirth, or attains happiness (see doctrines of Rissho — Kosei — Kai) or is ‘world-Brightening’ (Japanese posters) as to seek Nirvana. Buddhism can include asking the Buddha for help and depending on him in faith as well as acknowledging that he was only a man who taught a Way after he himself had attained Nirvana. There are some excellent studies on the levels and interactions of Buddhism in various societies.

  • J. Bunnaq, Buddhist Monk, Buddhist Layman (Thailand), C.U.P. 1973.
  • R. Gombrich, Precept and Practice (Ceylon) O.U.P. 1971.
  • M. Spiro, Buddhism and Society (Burma) New York, 1970.
  • S.J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in N.E. Thailand, C.U.P. 197?. H. Welch, Buddhism Under Mao (China) Harvard 1972.

1. The Life of the Buddha

‘Buddhism is most easily understood through the story of its founder’ (M. Pye). Since it is obvious when talking to teachers that individuals and their pupils vary as to what they find relevant or digestible in the Life, or whether they want to attempt to sort out history from legend and myth, I make the following general suggestions.

E.J. Thomas The Life of the Buddha as Legend and History, R.K.P. paperback, is still a standard book and provides stimulus to teachers who want to work out some scheme on the basis of the life. A new book, M. Pye The Buddha, Duckworth 1979, seek to investigate ‘the historical, legendary and mythical forms of the story and the threads of meaning which persist in all three’.

A short and brilliant evocation of the Buddha’s life in its context is M. Camthers, The Buddha O.U.P. 1983.

A Buddhist presentation of the life ‘as it appears in the Pali Canon’, which seeks to present a simple portrait from the earliest sources is: Nanomoli Thera The Life of the Buddha, published in 1972 by the Buddhist Publication Society, P.O. Box 61, Kandy, Ceylon. The portrait comes over well.

‘The Blessed One inspired Trust and Confidence.’

'The speech issuing from his mouth was distinct, intelligible, melodious, audible, ringing, incisive, deep and sonorous.’

Teachers react very differently to the use of strip-cartoon as a way of presenting material but children almost always respond with delight.

The Independent Publishing Company, 38 Kennington Lane, London SEll, market the Amar Chitra Katha series. No. 22 is The Buddha.

Wisdom Publications have now made available a beautifully illustrated version of the Buddha’s life for children: J. Landaw and J. Brooke, Prince Siddhartha, 1984. Less expensive and with full page illustrations is The Story of the Buddha by the Association of Buddhist Women in the U.K. (available from The London Buddhist Vihara, 5 Heathfield Gardens, London W4 4JU).

A book like Elizabeth Coatsworth The Cat Who Went to Heaven, Dent 1966, provides some delightful links with the Life. A poor Chinese artist is commissioned to paint the Decease of the Buddha for a local temple. He goes over the details of the Buddha’s life in his thoughts to prepare him and give him insight for the work. Its use could be based on a general issue such as what one needs to know and understand before one can start painting a picture. What preparation should be put into an important commission or portrait of a great man. Discussion based on the book is bound to include Buddhism’s attitude to the animal world and the continuity of life with it, for the cat is important in the story. The Buddha’s Law Among the Birds brings up similar issues.

Another inexpensive aid available from Independent Publishing Company is in the form of two Indian Art Painting Books Nos. 1 & 2 The Buddha, 35 p each. Illustrations of the Life based on famous works of art are outlined in black for painting or colouring. The teacher might find some outlines useful for tracing or duplication but some are inevitably crudely reproduced. Other versions of line drawing lives are Buddhist Painting Book (available from Throssel Hole Priory, Carrshield, Hexham, Northumberland) and The Life of the Buddha (from Sacred Trinity Centre, Chapel Street, Salford M3 7AJ).

2. Buddhist Works of Art

The topic of the Life of Gautama links naturally with the use of Buddhist works of art. Use of art material can begin in a very general way. Children can be asked what they first notice about someone and how a picture can convey kindness, wisdom, anger, hunger, richness, etc. General attempts at expression can be made by them before specifically Buddhist material is used. Or one can begin with a picture of the Buddha and ask pupils to comment. What kind of a man was he, would they like to meet him, what is he doing, what is happening to him? The lists of the ‘thirty two marks of a great man’ are interesting and some are obvious in the pictures. Thomas discusses these on p. 220 ff. Compiling a list like this can be absorbing for children. There are of course some images of the Buddha which are very famous. D. Naylor, Thinking about Buddhism has three of these, pp. 20, 22, 23. The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Ashmolean, Oxford, have good collections and sell both postcards and slides of their items. Embassies and tourist boards of Buddhist countries often provide posters and booklets of famous images and Buddhist sites. Centres like the Manjushri Institute, Conshead Priory, Ulverston, Cumbria, sell three dimensional images, posters and cards and have a mail-order service. Film strips are listed in the Shap — CRE manual with comments. The standard book on the Buddha in art is The Image of the Buddha, Serindia Publications/UNESCO, 1978, £25; The texts as well as the illustrations are superb. By the time I revisited this article I had completed a booklet Buddhist Iconography which attempts to present symbols and images with explanations that are suitable for use on OHP sheets (obtainable from P. Morgan, Westminster College, Oxford).

3. Jataka Tales and Other Stories

It was thought that a Buddha could remember his previous lives and the most delightful vehicles for the communication of Buddhist social morality are the stories Gutama told about his previous births in human and animal form. These are called the Jataka stories. Many of them overlap with the general Indian folk law and animal tales but they are used widely in the Buddhist world to teach children and provide much entertainment. An indepth study of one of these stories is The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessontara, ed. by M. Cone and R. Gombrich, Oxford 1977. It contains a translation of the story, an introduction to its importance and many pictorial reproductions. R. Gombrich says that it is ‘the most famous story in the Buddhist world. It has been retold in every Buddhist language, in elegant literature and popular poetry; it has been represented in the art of every, Buddhist country; it has formed the theme of countless sermons, dramas, dances and ceremonies. In the Theravada Buddhist countries . . . it is still learnt by every child: even the biography of the Buddha is not better known.’ The Jataka stories in the Pali Canon number 547 such tales! Some of the popular ones are marketed by the Independent Publishing Co in small, inexpensive and colourful volumes:

  • Jataka Tales from the Ajanta Murals, Echo Books
  • Buddhist Folklore, Echo Books.
  • Amar Chitra Katha series
    • No. 45 Monkey Jatakas;
    • No. 79 Deer Jatakas;
    • No. 126 Elephant Jatakas.
  • John Snelling, Buddhist Stories.

4. Doctrine

If anyone wants to tackle Basic Doctrine the most fundamental of all is impermanence (Anicca). This is the stuff of suffering and when applied to the person makes the point that he does not have an eternal essence — all of him is condition and subject to change. The life of Gautama Buddha shows the crisis he went through when the truth of impermanence dawned on him in his encounter with an old, a sick and a dead man. Experience of impermanence can be fostered in the classroom with pictures of:

  • new and old shoes
  • new cars and scrapyards
  • new houses and condemned property
  • new highrise flats and those abandoned and vandalised
  • shelves of a supermarket and rubbish dumps
  • youth and age
  • the blossoming and death of a flower.

‘Change is inherent in all compound things.’ This must of course be handled carefully because it can cause distress but it can also foster a matter of fact grasp of change. The teacher of religious education is used to material which is deeply and humanly challenging! Another way of presenting movement and change is to think of cycles of life, wheels of life. A circle and spokes or segments are easy and satisfying to draw and one can build up individual or collective examples.

(a) Wheels of the day’s activities and routine, especially of the elements which recur.
(b) Wheels of the routine of a week.
(c) The cycle of the year.
(d) A life-time’s cycle.

The last especially can be connected with one of the simple Buddhist Wheels of Life. The posters of these are widely available (e.g. Manjushri Institute) and have a detailed explanation on the back. The whole of Buddhist doctrine can be packed into the more complicated ones and the central animal symbols of greed, hate and desire open up the possibilities of work on symbols in general.

5. Buddhist Ritual

There are obvious dangers in setting up shrines in the classroom but it seems to me quite valuable to use posters or three dimensional images of the Buddha to show children the kind of things that Buddhists might say and do before it. Richard Gombrich quotes the words that Ceylon Buddhists would use when offering flowers, light and incense to the Buddha. All these things have symbolic value in their own right and can be explored at that level (for instance lotus buds are a favourite offering where available). It is quite fun to try make butter lamps (used in Tibet) or coconut oil lamps (Ceylon) as well as talk about night — lights and light as a general theme. If the objects are not available the picture in Religions of the World, School study Bible series, Holme McDougall, is packed with material for comment.

This only begins to indicate the range of what might be done. I have not even mentioned the making of mandalas or a possible study of the development of stupas and Buddhist Temples. There are many more stories to be discovered (like the one on p. 159 f, in Religion in the Multi-Faith School, ed. W. Owen Cole, now published by Hilton and the two Buddhist tales Karma/Nivana, by Paul Carus); more symbols to be explored, but the important thing is to begin and once we have begun the flood — gates of possibilities will open.

A Revisit

And the floodgates have indeed opened in terms of the extra attention that has been paid to the place of Buddhism in the curriculum and in the amount of material that has been published. In the Summer of 1984, following a conference on Buddhism and Education in Oxford in 1983, RE Today published an article called Treat Buddhism as a Viable Proposition. In the Spring of 1985 Resource printed a survey called Getting to Grips with Buddhism and then a whole edition on Buddhism in the Spring of 1986. This included articles on Buddhism in the Primary and Secondary schools, at A-level and a list of resources. In the Autumn of 1986, . . . British Journal of Religious Education did a thematic issue on Teaching Buddhism in the Primary School. The 1985 South Coast and 1988 York Shap conferences were devoted to Buddhism. A Collection of the 1985 papers is obtainable from West Sussex Institute of Higher Education: it is edited by C. Erricker and P. Connolly and called The Presence and Practice of Buddhism. The 1988 papers, under the title Experiencing Buddhism, are obtainable from M. Hayward at the College of Ripon St. John, York. The major exhibition Buddhism, Art and Faith at the British Museum attracted many people, including many schools. For those interested in art, there is a catalogue edited by W. Zwalf. Another publishing venture has been R. Gombrich and H. Bechert The World of Buddhism, Thames and Hudson, which has many interesting articles and superb picture spreads. There is also a Buddhist Resources Group linked with Shap to assist teachers and be a pool of consultation.

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