I recall taking Kye, my grandson, aged nine, to Australia for a month. I offered a Dharma Gathering for around 120 participants. Three friends from Bodhi Farm, near Lismore, New South Wales, kindly offered to take my grandson at dawn to find kangaroos, several kilometres away from the Yarrahapanni retreat centre, a sub-tropical forest running down to the edge of the majestic ocean.
Around 5:30 am, just as the dawn chorus began, I said to the boy in deep sleep: “Kangaroo hunting time!”
Kye slept in the bunk above me. I hardly finished the sentence when he was out of bed, on the floor and getting dressed. Parents know that it’s never easy getting kids out of bed in the morning. Kids love adventure. The guys drove off with Kye for their kangaroo hunt.
Kye told me later that he could not believe the size of fully grown kangaroos. They were taller than him. As he got closer and closer to a family of kangaroos, just outside the rainforest, they looked at him with the same bemusement, as he looked at them. Such situations express the natural wonder of children, often immensely curious; they can show a spiritual empathy with creatures, large and small. His sister. D’nae, 11, loves horses. She spends hours every week in the stables taking care of them.
My other grandson, aged six, was walking home on a cold winter’s night with his mother (Nshorna, my daughter). He noticed a beggar sitting on the pavement. Tears came out of his eyes when Nshorna told there were thousands of people in Britain sleeping rough. My grandson insisted on emptying his Piggy Bank, where he kept all his coins. Mother and son returned to the beggar where the boy gave him his savings of around £4.60.
Awe, empathy and loving kindness reveal some of the expressions of children.
One young child asked her mother: “What happens to us when we die?” Her mother returned the question: “What do you think happens to us when we die?”
The child said: “I think that when we die we become birds, so that we can fly up to Heaven.”
Some may think that the imagination of the child expresses a sweet thought. I believe it goes much deeper than that. Uninhibited with worldly concerns, the child has a natural interest in the transcendent and told his mother, we can make the journey to the transcendent when we stop clinging to self-interest above everything else. We need to listen to the wisdom of youngsters.
Children will ask us profound questions from time to time. They will say something out of the ordinary. We are the gods in the life of children. The gods have a duty to find meaningful responses, so that we nurture the spiritual aspirations of children and teenagers. If adults can only say: “I don’t know,” then the young will lose faith in their enquiry because the gods in their life have let them down.
Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality deserves a wide audience. Dr. Alexander von Gontard, Chairperson for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Saarland University Hospital, near Hamburg, Germany, engages in a deep exploration of the emotional, psychological and spiritual experiences of children. He has listened to many youngsters during the past three decades.
His book draws on the upbringing of Prince Gotama, who announced his royal privileges until he fully woke up (a Buddha). The book divides into three primary areas. The first section addresses the Buddha’s childhood, his conversations with children and the importance of children in the Buddhist tradition, India and the rest of Asia.
The second section points to the insights of Carl Jung, (1875- 1961), a Buddha of the heart and mind. Jung explained an integrated spirituality, the archetype of the divine child and the child’s relationship to spirituality/religion. Jung recognised the importance of the inner child within all of us. In adult life, the healthy inner children show in our ability to relate to babies, children and teenagers, to be playful and creative in our daily experience.
The third section explores the teachings (Dharma) of the Buddha and its practical application including the development of childhood spirituality. Alexander writes about the Four Noble Truths, Eight Worldly Conditions, Eightfold Path, the three Characteristics of Existence and Divine Abidings.
Children can reveal a remarkable curiosity, a deep enquiry and genuine willingness to understand transcendent issues, outside of everyday experience and knowledge.
As a paediatrician and Jungian analyst, Alexander draws upon decades of first-hand experience with children and adolescents. He quotes often the words of his young clients. I found it fascinating to read the words of the children, some of whom were close to death. This book offers a real support to every parent, family, schoolteacher, doctor, therapist, and anyone who spends time with children and teenagers or wishes to get in touch with their inner child.
Readers might wish to go through the book a second time and only read the words (written in italics) of the children and adolescents. They remind us of important aspects of life that we neglect far too often. The sight of a new born baby or the death of a loved one, a brush with death or a sudden experience in nature may put us back in touch with those questions that concern children. It is unfortunate if we wait for a major event in our life to look into spiritual and existential issues.
We need to listen to the children. If they seem shy to ask deep questions about life or offer their insights, then consider asking them questions in a proper time and place. It takes a skill, so the children do not feel under pressure to respond. You may marvel at what they say.
This book reminds us that we can sometimes find the voice of the Buddha in the young. A precious read for people interested in the approach to children, East and West.
Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality
Sub-title: The Buddha’s Children
Alexander von Gontard.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London 2017
ISBN 978 1 78592 038 7
(Support your local bookshop. Take the ISBN number and the bookshop can order for you. Book also available through online agencies).
Alexander has very kindly dedicated his book to myself,
as a teacher and friend for more than 25 years.