A couple of months ago, my kindergarten-aged son, started crying one night because be didn’t want mommy and daddy to grow old and die. 😭 I am not sure why he suddenly thought of this, but I guess sooner or later all kids will eventually figure out mortality and how it affects loved ones. My daughter, who’s much older, had questions back then, but I can’t remember what the outcome was. Further, my son brought it up again yesterday, so I decided to make a post about to a wider audience.
Buddhism is kind of a cerebral religion on paper (i.e. “textbook Buddhism”), but my kids have been raised in both American and Japanese culture, and in Japan, Buddhism has blended with local culture for more than 1,000 years, and it’s interesting to try to explain this to a little kid.
Buddhism in a textbook sense, teaches the cycle of rebirth (not reincarnation, which is another thing)1 such that beings are born over and over in a cycle that has persisted for countless eons, and will continue to persist for countless eons. Today’s wealthy millionaire could conceivably be born again as a humble insect in another place entirely, while in classical Indian-Buddhist literature, a being might be reborn over and over as “undesirable” lifeforms countless times for a past transgression. In some later Buddhist literature, they took this idea further to say that, in the vast cosmic history of time, every being was related to every other being through some past life or another, and thus everyone has been a mother, father, wife, husband, etc to every other being at some point.
I won’t even get into the countless debates, critical questions and so on. The overall idea of a near-infinite cycle of rebirth is fascinating to me, but the mechanics and particulars of this can get pretty hairy.
Further, my wife’s Japanese culture already has its own native religion, Shinto, which is entirely different and maintains its own set of beliefs that blended with Buddhism in some ways, and in other ways didn’t. For example, Shinto often teaches the idea that when a person dies, the mundane “spirit” remains on the earth for a time (and is both dangerous and impure) but that the higher “self” moves onto another afterlife (of which Shinto is kind of vague on). A fragmentation of the soul, in a sense.
Add to this with the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism in the middle ages onward, and you get a very nuanced interpretation whereby people who die are often referred to as hotoké (a buddha, in the more generic sense) in Japanese and will go onto the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in the afterlife.
In the book I finished on the medieval monk, Genshin, it talks about how increasing popularity of Pure Land Buddhism helped bridge a cultural gap in medieval Japanese society between understanding of the afterlife:
With Buddhism came the notion of transmigration, that is, the idea that all beings are continually reborn until they gain spiritual release by attaining buddhahood. Predictably, this novel idea lead to far-reaching changes in the Japanese notion of the afterlife. It is in this context that the Japanese were introduced to the idea that the Pure Land [of Amitabha Buddha] provided a simple yet effective way to gain liberation from future rebirths. Although Buddhist scholastic discourse holds that the Pure Land is a realm existing beyond the cycle of transmigration, at this early stage in Japan, the Pure Land was understood simply as a pleasant abode of the dead.Genshin’s Ōjōyōshū and the Construction of Pure Land Discourse in Heian Japan by Robert F. Rhodes and Dr. Richard K. Payne, pg 44.
That said, how the heck would you explain all that to a little boy?
The trick to talking about death to little kids is to 1) keep it simple and 2) don’t hit them over the head with religion.
In my son’s case, we explained it two ways: first, I told him that sometimes people are born again as something else, so they might be an animal or another person. As he loves nature and animals, especially the Wild Kratts, he thought this was a cool idea. Second, we told him that his great grandmother, who passed away last year, is hanging out with the Buddha in the Pure Land. Sometimes, in Japanese TV, you see subtle references to the Pure Land and its many lotuses, so I use the opportunity to tell him this is kind of what the Pure Land is like.
He seems content with this, and that’s about as far as I want to push it. I don’t see any point with confusing a six year old about the notion of the samsara (aimless wandering), among other things like the lower realms of rebirth and so on. When he’s ready, I can share other Buddhist teachings, but if he doesn’t ask, I don’t see much point in hitting over the head with things otherwise. Looking back, I think sometimes I tried to hard to teach my daughter, and now that she’s a teenager, she definitely seems less than interested. Then again, she’s a rebellious teenager. 🤷🏼♂️
On the one hand, my kids are in my care, so I owe it to them to provide the best parenting and guidance I can, but on the other hand, they are their own person so in spite of my own enthusiasm toward Buddhism, I have to accept the fact that the kids simply might not that interest and they have to find their own path. This is why, I think Buddhist texts (sutras) frequently talk about those who hear the Dharma and the benefits thereof. This “hearing” isn’t the physical act of sound, but refers to the idea of actually listening and comprehending the teachings, even if only a little, and that it is a personal choice not something that you compel others to follow through fear or guilt.
From there, the kids’ path is in their hands. 🙂
1 TL;DR – Buddhism teaches the concept of anattā (no-self) which contradicts the idea of reincarnation where a soul moves from body to body. The idea of Buddhist rebirth is one life laying the foundations for (or propelling) the birth of another life through causes and conditions, hence all beings are born within the confines of past circumstances, but it’s not the same as a soul transmigrating from one “shell” to another. It might feel kind of hair-splitting, but it was a HUGE debate back in the day and is still a major theological difference between Buddhism today and Hinduism, or practically every other major religion for that matter.