A Guide to Buddhist Parenting.

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The Emptiness of Family: A Guide to Engaged Parenting.

When we enter into the responsibilities of parenthood we welcome another sentient being into our mind-stream and open our mandala of practice to a fledgling life. This is no small responsibility, no momentary hefting of weight to be placed down later. We shoulder the burden of teaching this emerging mind how to interact with, and be prepared for, this world – This life of Samsara – This life of fleeting joy and momentary happiness.

This life of parent and teacher is a difficult one. Unlike a classroom or lecture hall, there is no bell that rings to end the session. No rush of students out of your room and out of your life for the night. In parenting there is a set of eyes that is constantly gazing upon you and absorbing everything that you do. You don’t teach this student by PowerPoint presentation and bullet-points or through allegory and metaphor.

This one is learning directly from your example. This one is learning directly from your practice. Just as through conception your genes (for better or worse) are passed on to your child; as they grow and develop, your karma is passed right along as they absorb, imitate and evolve.

I am not presenting the following outline as rules or guidelines to successful parenting. They are only examples from my own life on what worked, what failed and what continues to occur as I struggle with my practice as a Buddhist, as a parent and as a human being. They are a reference point for my practice outside of the zendo and in my home, my head and my self. Each separate but connected, an ocean of gray waves that can support my children in compassion and equanimity or pull them off-shore with anger and stress. I relied heavily on the conceptual framework from the Engaged School of Buddhist Practice, as I hope they do not mind, especially since I can think of little that is more engaged then parenting.

The Three Refuges of Engaged Parenting:

  1. I take refuge in myself as a parent, in my own awakened nature that will manifest itself through my interactions with my children. As they grow and develop, I will grow and develop. As they stumble and fall, I will stumble and fall. As they manifest joy and happiness, I will manifest joy and happiness. There is no part where my child begins and I end. When I punish my child, I punish myself.
  2. I will take refuge in the Four Immeasurables. Without dogma or expectation, my parenting will embody equanimity, Loving-kindness, Compassion and Joy. May I be a cause of happiness and experience it with my child. May I be free of clinging and the suffering it brings. May I feel and express bliss by seeing this as they are and not how I wish them to be. May I be free from bias and anger.
  3. I take refuge in the community of the family. There is a community that practices with me day in and day out. They greet me in the morning and wish me well as I go to sleep. Let me not forget that the interconnected web of my family will tremble as I tremble, smile as I smile, weep as I weep.

The Three Guiding Principles of Engaged Parenting

  1. I will not know what I am doing. All moments are novel and free from attachments. Each new challenge is birthed by new experiences. These challenges are not good nor are they bad. They will arise, provide a moment to meet them with compassion tempered by wisdom and then fall away. When I miss these moments, I miss a moment of practice, an engagement that will never arise again.
  2. I will bear witness to both the joy and suffering of my children. Each presents a moment to practice and each needs to be directly addressed. At no point should either be dismissed as meaningless or superficial. Each cry and each laugh begins with the same intake of breath and ends with the same sigh.
  3. I will present each interaction with my children as an action based on compassion tempered by wisdom and love. By treating my children with respect, I respect myself and by expressing my care for them I, in turn, will care for myself and my practice.

The Ten Precepts of Engaged Parenting

1. Watch my actions and words. As moments to practice and guide my children arise, I have to understand that everything I do will have effects. Even if I am not directly addressing my children, the way I address strangers, my wife and my friends build a template for how they will treat others. How I respond to should come from experience, compassion and kindness with a sense of accomplishing the same with my words and actions. How do my actions look though the lens of my child’s eyes?

2. Express Love. Any moment is a moment open to express caring. Provide genuine expressions of warmth especially during the moments when stress is high. I was told by a co-worker when my first child was an infant that I should not hold her when she cries because it would spoil her. I replied that there will be a time when my arms will be unable to sooth her or I will be too far away to provide comfort. But at this moment I can…and I will. When I am too far away to reach out and hold her, the impressions of these hugs will echo in her heart and mind.

3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Every broken promise from the small to the large lessens trust. If you make a promise then strive to keep it (even the ones made silently). If it is something you can’t guarantee follow up on then don’t provide the promise. I made a silent promise to my children to come home at lunch when I can. So for almost everyday during my lunch hour I come home and fulfill that silent promise to spend an extra, albeit small, portion of my time with them. I admit that at times I am withdrawn, or rushed but I at least have the time to give a hug.

4. Accept change. That same daughter that loved the constant hugs is feeling more independent now. She will tell me to go away and leave her alone. My interactions need to relate directly to her own needs and not my own expectations. There is no way to fight this change just accept it and provide the support and guidance that is needed.

5. Foster growth. As relationships change continue to foster growth. As toddlers begin to exert independence or teenagers desire freedom, provide the tools and wisdom to help your children develop self-control. The questions require honesty rather than manufactured quips and dogma.

6. Don’t bully. If what you are doing would get you punched if you did it to an adult then don’t do it. Simple. Don’t hit, insult, berate or intimidate. Buddha had plenty to say regarding violence but I like the following…

“Your thoughts can go anywhere.
But wherever you may go,
you will never find anyone that you love more than yourself.
So it is that each person loves himself best.
Thus, one who knows that each person loves himself most
should not harm others.”

Your child will have plenty of that in their future. Better to teach them how to stand up and take a punch by being strong and caring yourself.

7. Provide respect. Speak politely, respect ideas and opinion. Do not be dismissive. Provide for growth by allowing differing ideas and thoughts. While I don’t have teenagers yet, I expect this to play a large role in their development. But why not start early and build a foundation that will support your child for their entire life, even after you have passed.

8. Awareness. Shin Buddhist Poet, Asahara Saichi wrote the following.

Worried over this, worried over that—
That heavy burden has been taken away from me.
Ever since the burden was taken away,
How perfectly at peace I am

Take pleasure in a moment of peaceful awareness of your child. There are no guarantees that you will ever succeed as a parent or teacher, but sometimes a moment that is shared will remain in memory for years to come.

9. Remain Unbound. Do not force your children to adopt your views. When we force we are feeding our ego and our need rather than looking at the needs of our children. Let your actions provide guidance and form. If these actions are presented though compassion and love, then they will be of benefit.

10. Embrace Not Knowing. Forget about the knowledge you possess or acquired before becoming a parent. Allow yourself to learn and grow. Forget about the knowledge you learned as a parent of an infant. That infant is now a toddler. Forget what you learned as a parent of a toddler. That toddler is now a child. Just forget. There are no absolute truths to parenting, only guideposts and fences. Parenting is found in life and not in knowledge from words and books. It is born through experience and our own innate nature to nurture and encourage growth. Let that nature guide your parenting.

Be prepared to learn constantly and forget almost as quickly.


“Parenthood in one picture.” (imgur.com)

“This is the textbook definition of parenthood.”


Photo: Abi Porter/Flickr 

Mindful offering:

Infinity Pouf/Ottoman

Relephant read: 

White Privilege: Lessons from a White Mama of Black Children.


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anonymous Mar 13, 2016 12:07pm

Excellent way of telling, and pleasant article to obtain data about my presentation topic, which i am going to convey in university.

anonymous Aug 30, 2015 7:41pm

Beautiful. Thanks. I think my husband and I have raised our son that way (though perhaps not always consciously–we’re not Buddhist). Now that I have been doing Zen with a sangha, I know I’m doing this–now more consciously–with our toddler granddaughter.

anonymous Oct 6, 2013 9:11pm

My wife and I read this together and found it inspiring. Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

anonymous Aug 6, 2013 5:40pm

This is all good information on parenting but I think a lot of this is used in all religions.

anonymous Jul 30, 2013 6:17am

Hi…thanks for this lovely post…as a parent of 2 toddlers, I have recently made my household a vegan one…my older one has eaten meat before and still misses it…what then is your opinion on enforcing this view (of veganism) upon my children. It comes from a place of experience and knowledge of nutrition, compassionate living and sustainability and I always try to make them understand the reasons we live a vegan life. Just would like to get your thoughts on this.

    anonymous Dec 6, 2013 11:39am

    I don't enforce my views upon my children. Religious or dietary. Were I to become vegan, my children would be able to remain omnivorous if they choose to. My children understand my practice but I attempt to leave it as an understanding and not indoctrination (however compassionate a place it comes from).

anonymous May 20, 2013 12:21pm

Thank you. I am inspired by your article.

anonymous Nov 8, 2011 2:05am

Excellent post. I was checking continuously this weblog and I am impressed! Very helpful information specifically the final section 🙂 I deal with such information a lot. I used to be seeking this certain information for a long time. Thanks and best of luck.

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anonymous May 17, 2011 11:16am

Love this> "How do my actions look though the lens of my child’s eyes?"
and this> "Be prepared to learn constantly and forget almost as quickly."

Excellent article.

anonymous May 16, 2011 8:43pm

Thank you, ZDZD. I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not a parent – this gave me a to think about. I love the direction you're going, and I think starting to fill in some personal examples could produce an awesome and powerful work.

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Blake Wilson May 16, 2011 9:19am

As they say with gardening, "tend the soil, not the plant."

    John Pappas May 16, 2011 9:53am

    unfortunately in gardening, you pluck or eat the plant. EGADS!

Bob Weisenberg May 16, 2011 4:43am

Well done, John. Especially relevant as I just got back from visiting four grand babies, all under 4, two six months, in NY. I got to watch all these principles in close-up action.


anonymous May 15, 2011 4:34pm

Thanks for your words, John, much appreciated as always.

Makes me chuckle. I’m on my fourth child and still can’t get it right. How many will I have to have before I’m on top of all the ramifications of all that I say and do in front of them?

Non-violence is essential to me as a parent, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. Nurturing involves pruning and dead-heading as well as watering. At the moment, my big thing with the little ones is getting them to understand what it means to listen. I reckon this is a thread that could lead to a rope with which they’ll be able to lasso their own minds. Or not :-).

John Pappas May 15, 2011 3:46pm

From @nellalou on my personal blog

"There are those who really have no clue.

I think you meant it, and this is my interpretation, as not being rigid about things or not relying strictly on what one is told; but seeing to the exigences of the moment and taking the context into account rather than simply forgetting things. A kind of a balance between the maturity that the parent brings from their life experience and the impromptu and unique demands of the moment. I hope I have deduced your intention there correctly."

anonymous May 15, 2011 3:04pm

Parenting *is* spiritual practice, and probably the most challenging – and rewarding – one we may encounter in our lives. That gorgeous little creature we helped create or adopted knows how to push our ego buttons better than anyone else and there are constant – actually, endless – opportunities to learn to be present, be compassionate, deal with change and loss. And yet the rewards are endless too. Such as the moment we were eating dinner in a restaurant, and my daughter started climbing all over me (generally a no-no at the dinner table) just to tell me, "I love you."

This is great – thanks for sharing it with us!

anonymous May 15, 2011 1:21pm

Thanks for posting this. I appreciate the ideas as a parent.

I'm not sure if this is really directly related to Engaged Buddhism, as a philosophy, more than just the Dharma in general. (I say this as someone who is generally turned off by the political aspects of Engaged Buddhism.)

    anonymous May 15, 2011 2:15pm

    HA! As am I Al, as am I. The politcal aspect of Engaged Buddhism I find difficult to accept. However, the Three guiding principles of the Zen Peacemakers I find to be applicable in many situations.

    My constant disagreement with the term "Engaged Buddhist" is that all Buddhists are ,by the definition of their practice, engaged. Some socially, some on the homefront, some at work and some politically. All buddhists are engaged Buddhists to some extent.

    I brought this up in a post a while back and got absolutely reamed by some other bloggers for misrepresenting Engaged Buddhism. Not one of them wanted to admit that it was based on liberal politics (which is fine, I am a liberal myself) but by its own essense is then exclusive to those with differing politcal leanings.

    Unless, of course, Engaged Buddhists start protesting abortion clinics and taking up more conservative causes. Which they won't … because it is a liberal left leaning group.

    Thanks again Al!

anonymous May 14, 2011 8:06pm

Thank you for such a beautiful article. <3
As a parent of three teenagers, this has been one of the most precious things i have learned from practice: when a child is in distress or upset, don't try to use logic or reasoning to talk them out of their feelings. Let go of anything the mind wants to tell them about how it will be ok or why they don't need to feel what they feel, and just acknowledge and quietly bear witness to the emotion, repeating back to them what you hear them saying or expressing. this is so powerful in your relationship with your child, and its effects are immediate and inestimable. You can still set clear boundaries, but a child who knows they have been heard will respect the boundaries so much more easily.
i love what you say about not knowing.

anonymous May 14, 2011 3:19pm

Thanks for this article, John. I plan to share it with my husband. Cheers!

anonymous May 14, 2011 3:06pm

Very nice, thank you. It only takes a short while to realize that we parent our children by parenting ourselves, and whether we call it teaching or learning, it all happens face to face.

    John Pappas May 14, 2011 3:55pm

    That is basically it. If we can't actually connect with our own personal practice (whatever that is) it seems that we start piling it on our children. Unreasonable expectations, shortness of temper, disdain and anger begin to take root when compassion and understanding should be.

anonymous May 14, 2011 1:15pm

Really excellent teaching, John, a Lam-Rim.

As a marginally successful dad raising two very strong and functionally intelligent daughters (and it is just a personal quirk), I would only add one thing: Remember and honour your child's fundamental Buddha-Nature, no matter how obscured it may be at that particular moment. You mostly cover it in "7. Provide Respect", I would personally emphasize it a bit more. But all of your stuff is really good and thoughtful, excellent stuff.



    John Pappas May 14, 2011 3:58pm

    Thank you Rob. I left out Buddha Nature but tried to include the same concept here.

    "Let me not forget that the interconnected web of my family will tremble as I tremble, smile as I smile, weep as I weep"

    I will keep your comment in mind once they become teenagers…

    That will be a whole new post, I suspect.

      anonymous May 15, 2011 7:34pm

      A whole new post, about courage! (ours).

      Although not a teenager any more, my younger is teaching herself how to ride a motorcycle. Previously she flung herself about in gymnastics and Cheer and Dance, NA and Can champion teams, and as a 5 year old practiced for the Bar in gymnastics by walking on the top of the 2.5 inch round rail on the top of the swing set. (When I recently reminded her of that latter small obsession, she was sure that she was crazy to try it. Now that she was grown, it scared her. Now.) Oh, and did I mention the nude Bungee Jumping?

      My eldest, now 27, ice-climbed on the faces of Glaciers, and spent 3 weeks hiking on the summits of the Coast Range with Outward Bound.

      Raising kids is NOT for the faint of heart.


anonymous May 14, 2011 12:31pm

Thanks for this thoughtful and compassionate article. I’m not as familiar with the principles of engaged Buddhism as I would like to be but I now want to learn more.

Dawg Sitting Dawn Apr 16, 2016 12:08pm

With these words you wrote I feel a little more worthy of being a parent some day. Thank you

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John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won’t admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt