Starting a Buddhist Family Group
Many centers and resources in the West are geared towards providing instruction and meditation opportunities for adults. These centers and the programs they hold are modeled after the way the Buddha typically lived and taught dhamma – calm environments with still and attentive audiences.
Many Buddhist parents of young children are struck by how much different their home environments are from the monastery! Children are born with the energy to explore, play, and create, and have their own unique kamma to understand. They might not be ready to go on a meditation retreat, but they have just as many questions about the world as adults and can greatly benefit from the Buddha’s perspectives on a balanced and moral life.
The Buddha’s teaching is not specific to any age group. At its core it’s about truth and universal principles. With a bit of planning beforehand, it’s possible to arrange study and practice groups that are accessible to the whole family.
Ethos of a Family Group vs Sunday School
There are many possible ways to approach dhamma study. What is presented in these materials are suggestions for how to get the most from your family group. They have been found to be successful, but it’s useful to know they are designed for a particular goal. If you or your group has different goals, you will want to adapt your plans.
-These resources are the blueprint for a Family Group, not a religious school or daycare. The core idea is that no one is teaching and no one is being taught. This is an opportunity for parents and children to study valuable buddhist teachings together. The different group plans have a variety of stories, skits, activities and discussions meant to engage everyone. The best measure of success is that everyone walks away feeling they have learned something and can talk with the family and friends about their new topic. Parents can check in with their children after the group and find out what they understood and liked best.
Many discussions will work best with a facilitator. Likewise, stories and skits often have a narrator and can be acted out using the whole group. Meditations will have someone ringing the bell. Parents can preview the lesson plan and offer to take on different roles, as well as letting the children volunteer. It’s best if the roles rotate!
Commitment and Forming the Group
It’s important that parents see this as an opportunity to practice. Actually, it’s usually the adults who have more difficulty participating and offering their perspectives – because of years of passively sitting in classes and lectures! If the children are attending, at least one parent or caretaker should make the commitment to join them. That way they will have a common language to discuss the topic of the session. Also, the best form of instruction is example. If adults can’t be bothered to set aside some time for the group, what message are they sending their children about what they value?
When the group is picking a day and time for the gathering, try to find a schedule that works for the most people. It’s okay if things get in the way from time to time, but the more consistently you attend the better the children and families will get to know each other. The frequency of the sessions should be a reflection of how important dhamma study is to the group. Once a week might work for a smaller, core group that can adapt to things that come up. But a larger group might space out gatherings to ensure for best planning. It can be useful to aim for at least once a month to get started, even if you ultimately plan to have it less often. That way everyone will get to know the format and get used to committing to come before spacing things out further.
-The group should design a program that best fits their time and resources. Some groups are less than an hour, while others might go for two or three and be broken into smaller sessions. If there are enough adults or teenage children, there can be separate modules where one side does a structured activity or game and the other does a meditation and/or discussion. If you do break into modules, consider how to leave room for children to try the meditation or adults and older kids to enjoy leading the child activity. After coming back together, each side should report on what they did and what they got from it!
-Once you have an idea of how the group will run, give it a try. It’s important to be flexible and interact with the children as to what works best. If something is too dry or takes too long, consider whether it can be adjusted or left out entirely next time. After a few sessions you should have an idea of what will work with your mix of parents and children.
-Name the group! Put it to the children to pick a name for their group, and you will have an easy way to talk about what you did and what you will be doing when you are outside of it.
-How to find a space? For smaller groups you may be able to borrow a living room or cycle through the group members’ houses. Consider if the setting is conducive to focusing – distractions or too many other things in the space (toys, furniture, electronics) might signal a space to avoid. If there aren’t big enough spaces, consider if there is a church, community center, or office that would offer or rent a space. Many religious communities meet only a few times a week and are happy to have their space used as long as you take care of it. When securing such a space, make sure it is not too distant for families to commute to – time is precious in the modern world. Also be sure the cost is easy to cover. If one family would happily cover the cost for the benefit of doing the group, then it isn’t too expensive and should be easy to share the expense.
-Other elements, like having a snack time or transitioning to play or other activities, should be at your own discretion. These times are great ways to build community! Just try to have a clear start and end part for the family group, otherwise you may find the group disintegrates before the lesson has been covered.
Choosing Themes and Lesson Plans
-Finally we come to the lessons: It’s not essential that you have a theme for the session or a lesson plan. You can just come together to cover basic buddhist themes or do some devotional/mindfulness exercises. But this is a unique opportunity for studying the dhamma with the whole family present. If you have a clear theme for the session, you can come at it from multiple angles. It will also be easier to discuss later. The best themes are simple and straightforward – if you can sum it up in a single word, then it shouldn’t be too hard to explore or remember. If you can’t sum it up in a single word, this might be a hint that the topic could be confusing.
–Choosing a topic beforehand and planning the session is usually the hardest thing for parents to undertake. It’s good to understand this from the outset. It’s a sad reality that most groups will be entirely dependent on a few core parents or individuals who have the skills or extra time to do this work. If this is the case the lesson plan should be kept as simple as possible to avoid burnout – ask for suggestions for topics, for stories or games around that topic, and think up a few talking points if children are old enough to hold a discussion for any length of time. You can use regular parts of the program like a short meditation or chanting to help give the session solidity even if there isn’t a strong plan for the theme.
-It’s important for other parents to find ways to contribute and experiment with taking on facilitation, story reading, activities or planning. Otherwise, the group will unravel when the core members are busy or have to step away. The fact that it is difficult to make time is the proof that it is worth doing, for few worthwhile things are easy.
-It might be worthwhile to have a text message or email chain, or use a platform for chatting like discord or facebook groups. This way parents can throw out ideas which will can be refined into the session topic.
-The beautiful thing about having a theme is that you can circle back around to it later. Many Buddhist themes are so universal that you could cover them a dozen times with the same group of people and get something new each time.
Opening the Session
An important part of the group is opening with an expression of the group’s values and commitments. If the group is small, one or two families, this might not be necessary or might only be needed once. But it becomes more important the larger and more changing the group size.
Important values might mirror the five precepts:
1. Not to hurt ourselves or others, including animals
2. Not to take or damage others possessions
3. To respect each other’s bodies and not touch or grab without permission
4. To use only kind and honest speech
5. To refrain from intoxicants preceding and for the duration of the group (This is important for the adults!)
Important commitments might involve how we relate to the facilitator, raising our hands to speak, stopping and listening when the meditation bell is rung, or not talking when others are talking.
You might also choose to open or close the group with an expression from your lineage or form of practice. This could involve chanting a homage to the Triple Gem, offering flowers or food to the Buddha statue, or paying respects to any teachers or monastics present.
Content and Activities
-All the group materials here are offered as a means to bring people of all ages together. So, activities that are geared specifically towards children like simple games, or towards adults like reciting passages or gāthā’s, have been left aside. That’s not to say you can’t have games or readings – you should! But try to find ones that explore the topic of the session and are accessible.
When planning any activity, try to find a way to include everyone. This might mean reading something for a child who can’t read yet, or helping them with a brainstorming activity. We tried to focus on things that develop the theme rather than just fill time. If you finish early or late that’s okay.
Children have different interests and abilities as they grow through different phases. But because the themes will be universal, everyone should be able to contribute in their own way. It’s helpful not to assume the younger children don’t understand – if you listen closely to their ideas and questions you may be able to generate very fruitful conversations!
About the Resources on this Site
-The material presented on this site, unless otherwise noted, has been gathered for an audience that is mostly practicing in the Theravādā style. The majority of resources will still be useful for Mahayānā or Vajrayānā families, but certain elements might be adapted like the meditation or chanting exercises, the names of characters, or the exact lesson plans. If something contradicts what you have understood or been taught, consider the source. If it makes more sense to stick to the narrative in your own tradition, go with that!
-The material presented is offered without censorship. There are stories included from the jataka’s which include immorality, illness, danger, and even death. That is not to say they are inconsiderate – in many cases the wildest Buddhist story is still tame by the standards of most TV shows, even those nominally geared towards children. Consider – in a show or movie your child now watches, do characters insult each other? Steal things from each other? Threaten each other with violence or death? The difference in the jataka’s is that the bodhisatta is able to use his wisdom and practice to learn from the experience.
Just because we CAN shield our children from these realities, doesn’t mean we should. The Buddha’s teachings are meant to illuminate basic realities of being alive – aging, sickness, death and loss. These affect everyone and are the basis of compassion. The teachings point to immorality and negativity as a way of providing context for why virtue and kindness are so important. Unlike when your children will be exposed to media or real life situations dealing with these topics in the future, during these groups you have a chance to go through the situations together and talk about your perspectives.
There are certain cultural ideas in Theravādā Buddhism you might not want to emphasize like celestial beings, karma, or rebirth. If it strongly conflicts with your values, leave it out. But if it’s a recurring theme in the tradition, the parents can explore beforehand why they feel so strongly about it. Would the children have any problem with it? It’s not enough to say you take a science-based approach. Science is as much a religion in the modern day as any other; it enforces a belief system, has authoritative experts and norms, and has things it can’t explain. Providing a story or idea from another belief system can be an interesting way to explore what we really believe, and what that is based on. Nothing should be too sacred to question.
In some instances, the stories can be adapted with modern elements or situations. They didn’t have phones or airplanes in the time of the Buddha, so the stories talk about spells and flying chariots. Many of the elements which were fantastical at the time, like talking with people on the other side of the world, are not so bizarre these days. We might consider what another thousand years will do to what is commonly accepted?
At the end of the day, it’s up to the group what you wish to include and leave out. Let your family time be an expression of your own practice and values.