Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Buddhist Parenting and Education


Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Buddhist Parenting and Education

About This Resource

Summary In this talk, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche answers questions from parents and teachers about Buddhism and raising children in today's world.


On May 25, 2020, Middle Way Education and Middle Way School co-hosted a Q&A with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on buddhism, parenting, and education. Rinpoche is our advisor and the inspiration behind both organizations. In this talk, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche answers questions from parents and teachers about Buddhism and raising children in today’s world.

Listen to the full recording

Note: due to the instability of the internet connection in India, there are some gaps in the recording.


Read the transcript

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Hello everyone and I hope you are all not too stressed or worried with what is happening at the moment. I myself have been locked down here almost two months now. And just now I have heard that we will remain in lock down for five more weeks. I shouldn’t really be saying this but I kind of like this lock-down thing, but I also know a lot of people are suffering.

I have received the questions and I will try to answer some of them. I may incorporate several similar questions so that I don’t have to go through all. Some of the questions are very good. I may even read the questions out loud later.

Now, I decided to browse the dictionary to find the definition of education. And one of the definitions is “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction.” It’s not so good is it? And then there’s another one, okay so then I looked at the definition of teaching. This is really not so good. There are a few definitions. “Ideas or principles taught by an authority.” Not so good, is it. Then I looked at the definition of school: “to train or discipline someone in a particular skill or activity.” Let’s look at this word discipline: “to train oneself or somebody to do something in a controlled and a habitual way.”

Now, all these definitions are kind of scary. I think education or schooling, is a very precarious thing to do. Adults like us educating anyone, let alone schooling and disciplining and offering education to young people who are quite pure and uncontaminated, like a blank canvas. I feel we have to be careful not to make a mess out of this canvas. It’s scary to decide what another human being needs. Even though I don’t have any experience in teaching kids, I have sort of been teaching adults, so I have a little experience on this one.

When we talk about others, especially kids, we are not saying everyone is the same. It’s not like thousands of people came out of the same mold, factory-produced. These are all different beings with different constitutions, different cultural backgrounds, different moods, different ways of thinking. They all have different causes and conditions. And as a Buddhist, I consider not just the causes and conditions of this life, but also the influence of all the habitual patterns and causes and conditions of past lives.

So this is why we have to be very cautious. And especially now, things are moving very fast. It is 2020 and by the time some of these kids finish their so-called education we humans invented, let’s say in twenty years, it will be 2040. 2040, wow. That’s going to be a different world, for sure. That much we can say.

You all know the world is moving very fast. Things that used to be a problem are no more a problem. A lot of things are easier, like how many people are listening to this talk right this moment from how many different continents? From one perspective things have improved. If you like the word “improved.” But together with this, things have also become more dangerous, more uncertain, faster. So this makes me feel that educating anyone, let alone kids, is a big gamble.

But having said all of this, I feel that we have no choice but to offer them some sort of a tool and some form of discipline, which is why I looked up the word discipline. And we should offer this tool, these techniques, with a good motivation, right? But what do we mean by good motivation?

I think to begin checking motivation, humility is the most important. Like asking yourself is what we are doing really good for them? Even though questioning ourselves is always going to put us on edge, feeling uncertain, unsettled, I think it’s good. I think it’s always much better than arrogance and a pride like—oh this will work. This is good for them. That’s always too dangerous. So that sort of wondering—will it be good? I hope it’s going to be good—that kind of humility, is really important, I think. Then… this is probably because I am Buddhist so this is the Buddhist talking now…we have a motivation that whatever we offer— technique, skill, knowledge— one way or another will take them closer to the truth, the reality of our life, the truth.

Many people think that when Buddhists talk about uncertainty or change, they are very pessimistic, but that’s absolutely not true. Impermanence is good news also. Change can be good, right? So I think an education system that supports this knowledge will really make a difference when they grow up.

Now, what is the truth? These truths were not made up by the Buddha, they are fundamental to all life. One truth is that things are uncertain. In the classic Buddhist language: things are impermanent, changeable. And I think, one way or another, if we can plant this seed in their heads at a very young age, that things are uncertain, it brings them closer to that truth. Uncertainty doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Many people think that when Buddhists talk about uncertainty or change, they are very pessimistic, but that’s absolutely not true. Impermanence is good news also. Change can be good, right? So I think an education system that supports this knowledge—that things are changeable, things are not permanent, things are not how you envision, nothing is no insurance or guarantee—will really make a difference when they grow up.

We are talking about the next generation earth dwellers. So if we can educate our kids based on the truth that things are changeable, I think this may influence the way they dress, the way they eat, the way they shop, the way they build a house or not build house. I think this is important.

And then—now this is all the Buddhist information—another truth is that no matter what, no matter what, we are not going to be satisfied one hundred percent. This delusion that this or that is going to complete satisfy you misleads us a lot. So giving the young people some sense of that brings them closer to the truth.

There were some really good questions about parenting. Don’t you think we need a training for parents? Very much so, very much so. Actually I think probably we adults need much more, right? I think we adults, the teachers and the parents, getting training will automatically help the students and children, right?

Anyway, that things are not going to satisfy us how we hoped and planned, how we assumed and expected—that information we need to emphasize.

Then another truth: how things appear, how we label, how we project, are not necessarily how things really are. This aspect, or this wisdom or this truth somehow needs to be in our education system. When we sing, when we do our meal chant, in our conversations, our storytelling.

So, those three truths are what we call in Buddhism the three characteristics: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or non-self, annica, dukkha and anatta.

So from a Buddhist point of view, we can approach education thinking: we have no choice but to educate our younger generation, so we do it with a humility and good motivation, and that good motivation means trying to bring them closer to the truth, and the truth is those three charactaristics.

You may say everything I just told you—that things are changeable, things don’t really satisfy you completely, and that they are not as they appear—you can say all of this is just a narrative, just a story, religious mumbo jumbo. You can say that. But there is one thing that is not narrative, that is not a story, that is not a mumbo jumbo, not a myth, and that is: pure cognizance.

It might be good to simply ask: do you have mind? It does not necessarily require an answer. There’s a cognizance, there’s a mind. And this is important to understand. Mind is that which is wanting, needing, interpreting. Mind is so powerful.

We all have mind. Children have mind. I think it would be good if we bring up this subject with them. I don’t know how. We can discuss this. It might be good to simply ask: do you have mind? It does not necessarily require an answer. There’s a cognizance, there’s a mind. And this is important to understand. Mind is that which is wanting, needing, interpreting. Mind is so powerful.

So in our education, if we could somehow have a way to manage this mind, if we can have a technique to sort of train the mind. And then not just the mind but also the body. Taking care of the body is very, very important. The body is the container of the mind. Then the earth is the container of the body. The world that we live in is our dwelling place. It’s like our bedroom. We cannot make a mess out of this, our dwelling place.

But between managing the body or mind, the mind is the most important. When we are talking about managing the mind, we can think of it as the sort grandfather or the grandmother of all, everything. Mind often manifests as emotion. So I am sure we adults have so many wants, needs, fears, hopes, irritations, sadness, loneliness. And of course the kids are also going to have those. They already have them, their own version of course, and they are going to go on having emotions. This is how it is. So they can learn how to manage the emotions of wanting, needing… Managing does not mean controlling, necessarily. It can mean even identifying.

If a child wants candy, then you can say: “Hello, this thing you’re feeling is called wanting. This wanting is something not only you experience; others also experience.” So it’s not just managing their own emotions but training the children to recognize the experience of other children, not only children, but other insects, butterflies, birds, classmates, parents. They all have fear. They all have wants, needs, irritations, loneliness, and sadness.

In addition to acknowledging that you have emotions, and that others have emotions, we know that they will also change. What makes you sad this year is not going to make you sad next year. There will be something else. Many times [gap in recording, inaudible] like layersThere are many categories of emotion, names that we have to memorise. I used to think what is the point of learning all this. But now actually I am thinking it’s quite important for the kids to know there is an emotion called anger. There is an emotion called [gap in recording inaudible]. You can even extend it to the result of the emotion. Like when somebody’s happy they smile, when somebody’s unhappy they brood. There is a kind of physical reaction to this.

I think this kind of a training on emotions, just having that sort of awareness [gap in recording] because if you know what [gap in recording inaudible]. Then because of the uncertainty that we were talking earlier, we know that we are going to get hurt. We know we are going to also be happy again, of course. Generally we are trained to notice the unhappiness more. But we can train to know we are happy. And that we are going to be unhappy. And so on. Unhappy, happy, depressed, not depressed, angry, love, everything, whatever, somehow not just maintaining, actually.

Okay so we get hurt, we get broken. And that can happen of course. That will happen, on a small scale, or very big. So we can teach children how to recover. Heal. That’s what I am talking about. Self-healing, recovering, resilience. Plants, trees, they seem to have this ability. Things get broken and then they heal themselves. They keep growing.

So these are the things that I was thinking that hopefully you can do. I should be also thinking myself since I am supposed to be sort of involving in this project. Then I think maybe Noa and all of us we can spend time on this a little bit. So that’s basically a summary of what I wanted to say.

Now to answer some of the questions. I don’t think it’s necessary to actually to answer each of your questions, because I think some of what I’ve already said is responding to your questions.

There is a question about how we can help incorporate dharma into everyday life of the child.

See, this is the thing: a lot of us Buddhists think to practice dharma is to have some sort of a prescribed, designed tool, like sitting, doing prostrations, or burning an incense. Of course those things help. But I think, as I was telling you earlier, singing a song about change, about things being not stable—such as my internet right now—things are never going to satisfy you, no matter what…to have that, to live with this, that’s a practice of dharma. That’s actually more of a practice of the dharma than burning incense. But of course I don’t want you to do away with, you know, all the rituals, those who are doing them. Kids enjoy them. Whatever it takes.

Now, there were a few questions regarding how many kids these days are overprotected by their education, they don’t have the experience of being confronted with the world. This is a very important question actually. Zealous, ambitious, loving, kind parents sometimes try to sort of shelter kids from the reality. Maybe that’s not a good thing. But this is why I was talking about cognizance and managing your emotions, such as wanting and needing. If we can somehow put that in their awareness, even if it is a side thing, then we can go to [gap in recording inaudible] or the [gap in recording inaudible]. This fundamental sort of information will hopefully make a difference.

There are also some very practical questions such as: Should vegetarian parents encourage kids to be vegetarian? What do we do with the screens such as movies, and iPads, and wow, it’s a… I know these are very important questions. I really don’t know how to answer those questions.

Our education system is sort of designed for these jobs that are disappearing. And as I said right in the beginning, forty years from now I don’t know what kind of world we will be living in and if what we know now will even make any sense. But one thing people are saying is that confidence in your mind, who you are, your identity, that’s always going to be hovering above you or inside you somewhere, no matter where you live, no matter what century you live in.

I know there are a lot of parents who spend a lot of money on education. I think many parents, especially in Asia, like in China, like too many lessons, too many. These are very difficult for me to answer, because I think you all live in different situations. Of course the happiness and the joy and the fun of the kids I think is really important for their confidence, because you know people are saying that more and more machines are going to take over our jobs. So I don’t know, our education system is sort of designed for these jobs that are disappearing. And as I said right in the beginning, forty years from now I don’t know what kind of world we will be living in and if what we know now will even make any sense. But one thing people are saying is that confidence in your mind, who you are, your identity, that’s always going to be hovering above you or inside you somewhere, no matter where you live, no matter what century you live in. So if we could spend time and energy, in these as I was suggesting earlier …

[internet disruptions]

The world is changing very fast but as you see here where I live, the world is not moving that fast. So I think working with the kids’ confidence and identity, values, who you are, accepting the truth. I think those things are something that the parents can invest time and energy in.

I am sorry this hasn’t been that smooth, so my thread of answering your questions also got disturbed a little bit. But anyway I think have sort of covered most of your questions during my summary.

There are some questions from people curious about Buddhism questions like: “maybe Buddhism is related to quantum physics.” Yes, but I think it’s not just like quantum physics. Buddhism, like many Indian wisdom traditions, is a science. It’s really a path to look at your life. I would not say Buddhism is just about quantum physics. It has a lot of physics, and there is a lot about mind, and there is a lot about non-duality of mind and the matter. Not an easy question to answer, this one.

I am just stressing this because there is one question: “isn’t it terrifying to think that there is another reality such as ultimate reality?” No, because in Buddhism ultimate reality is just a tool. There is no such thing as an ultimate wisdom waiting out there. Both the relative and the ultimate are just tools for a philosopher or for a thinker. We use this tool to understand the truths that I was talking about earlier, remember, that things changeable, not a single thing will satisfy you a hundred percent, and your perceptions are not how it is. The classic example is the mirage. You see from the distance like a water, but it’s not really water, but it has the appearance of the water.

This is a nitty gritty aspect of Buddhist philosophy. I can’t really answer these deep questions within just a few words and in a short time. But anyway the Buddhists see life, even our values, as a mirage, like a dream. Some of you, especially those who are new to Buddhist philosophy or the Buddhist path, may hear “illusion” and jump to the conclusion that we think life and values are not that important. Actually, when I say that things are like a mirage or an illusion, I am not downgrading or denigrating anything. Illusion is very powerful.

It’s like time, right? What is time? Time really doesn’t have a solid substance, it’s not something that you can touch or feel or keep. But wow, time is one of the biggest dictators in our life. Time is the most powerful. Time is the biggest terror but at the same time, time is also the biggest healer. So, like that.

You know time, space, direction, beginning, end, all this are there, they function, they give us hope, they give us fear, but none of them has any solid sort of truly existing essence that you can, what do you call it, cling onto as something truly existing.

Here is a good question: “How are we going from emptiness to actualising love?”

Wow, that’s a really important question, actually, for a Buddhist. In Buddhism, understanding emptiness is the king or the queen, the superior of all the love and compassion. Emptiness and the compassion are never separated. I think the word emptiness may be misleading some of people. I think it has a connotation of negation.

If you come back to the example of time, it does not really have anything that is solid but it also isn’t a void. There is an imputed label, like this is year 2020. Or we talk about Christmas time, Thanksgiving time, summertime, wintertime, but these are not solid entities. At the same time you cannot really say they don’t exist. Now the Buddhists see every aspect of our life just like that. And the benefit of seeing this is suddenly you are free from one dimension. For instance like if we are having a nice time like in a coffee shop or somewhere having a really good time, one hour goes quickly. But if we are in a prison for one hour, an hour takes a long time.

So this time we experience depends on different causes and conditions, but if you know the relativity of the time, you will not be hijacked by this one dimension of “oh time goes very fast” or “time is so slow.”

Many of these questions, especially from those who are not Buddhist, are really, really deep, very important questions. I don’t think I can explain these things in a short time, and there are many. I think we can’t finish it tonight, but I am sure one of these days again we will meet again. It looks like more and more we will be meeting like this, and hopefully next time we will be meeting when I have a better connection so that we don’t have to cut and you know [gap in recording inaudible]

Ha, there is one question: “Where does the intention fit into karma, cause, and effect?”

It’s a bit like this: Where does H20 fit in the water? H20 is the water. This is a classic Buddhist example. Karma means action. When you talk about action, you are always talking about the actor, the agent. Without the agent there is no karma. Now who is this agent? Mind. It is the mind that acts. It is the mind that reaps the result, the fruit. So this is why for Buddhists karma is like almost synonymous to intention.

There is a question: “Whether you call yourself Buddhist or not are you on an awakening journey?”

The label is not important.

There are still more questions but I think we will end it today here. I have tried to cover most of the questions right at the beginning.

Noa Jones: Thank you Rinpoche.

Rinpoche: So, I hope you guys take care of yourself. You know this situation of course, especially in America, is really bad. We are all very concerned. We are doing prayers every day. So many people are dead, dying, and then a lot of people have the case. But looking at a brighter side, I think this is also such a good opportunity for us. I don’t know whether we human beings are smart enough to really take this opportunity to really… I don’t know. It’s like a junction, a crossroad. There are so many birds surrounding my house because birds are finally finding some sort of peace.

And you may have heard in Delhi there’s blue sky. There are places near here that haven’t had a view of the snow mountains for five or six decades. People even forgot that you could see them, and they are seeing it now. I don’t know whether we human beings will be smart enough to really change our lifestyle. I hope so. I wish. Because it has been almost three, four, five months and we are getting a sort of training to live in a different way. I hope that we can do this. I am sure we will be free from this Covid-19 situation, but we need to really learn to live properly. I don’t know the next one—disaster, plague—the next one might be so bad that washing hands with a bard of soap is useless. At least we can do this right now.

So I don’t know, this is just probably wishful thinking but at least I’ll do prayers, and it would be nice if our leaders talked less about the economic impact after this, because there are many other things that are part of our life such as clean air. I wish that our leaders could actually take this opportunity and take this chance and change the course. Anyway, especially those who live in New York, take care, wash your hands, and I guess you will have to use moisturizer after this. How come everybody talks about washing hands but nobody talks about, you know, using moisturizer after it? Because washing hands a lot is not so good, is it? Anyway that’s it.

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