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Mindful Parenting: Raising Buddhist Children

This is the first post by Shastri Gayle Van Gils.

I clearly remember the talk Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche gave to us on the importance of raising families. It was the mid-70’s, and having children wasnowhere near the top of my consciousness. Trungpa’s wish was for us to mix our dharma practice with our lives. He wanted to us to live the American dream, to get married, be prosperous and raise children who could grow up and help our world. Because I was barely a grown child myself, when he asked us all to be willing to give up our personal enlightenment through seclusion and retreat in favor raising families and planting the seeds of enlightened society, I was surprised.


About two years after this talk, I was having a deep conversation with another teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul, Rinpoche. Jamgon Kongtrul was just twenty-two years old and of a long monastic tradition, leading him to question Trungpa’s notion of family vs. extended retreat practice. I told him that I intended to mix my family and practice in the way that Trungpa desired, and he told me, “That could become a big distraction to your practice. Did you follow the religion of your parents? What makes you think that your children will become Buddhists or practice dharma?” He had a good point, but in my heart I knew I wanted to see through challenge that had been set in place.

In 1987 our first son, Alex, was born. Jonathan followed in 1991. By that time my husband and I had firmly established our meditation practices, a special room for meditation in our home and many administrative and teaching duties at our local Shambhala Center in Los Angeles. Meditation and Buddhist practice had established itself as a natural fixture in our lives. We never formally “introduced” or pushed our practice on our sons, but it was a pervasive element in our household. When they began asking us if they could join us on a mediation cushion, we allowed them to sit and come and go from the mediation room as they pleased.

It started to become clear that Buddhism was an interest to both of our son. When our oldest son was 7 and our younger 3, we began to take a week vacation each summer to “Family Camp” at the Karme Choling Meditation center in Vermont. The camp was filled with unique activities. The mornings were dedicated to meditation practice for the parents, while the children played in the beautiful Vermont wilderness. In the afternoons families would often congregate to work on arts and crafts, take an outing to a nearby lake or listen to stories. My favorite event was a “no-flashlight” hike up a small mountain guided only by moonlight.

The children participated in Buddhist events, such as a few minutes of guided meditation, creations of “shrines” with bits of nature or found objects and the “Rights of Passage” program when they reached 8 or 9. In this program, the kids were given a deeper look into the Buddhist tradition, with the chance to explore calligraphy, poetry, Japanese style archery and a greater understanding of meditation. The experience of making his own bow and arrow from start to finish was a highlight of this transitional program for both Alex and Jonathan. I remember clearly Alex’s wonder as he described hunting for just the right size bough. The children spent all day on this search. Then they learned how it needed to soak in the lake in order to become
pliable, later carefully notching the ends and attaching the string to hold the tension of the bow as it cured. I am so grateful for the lessons on attention to detail, patience and gentleness in this project and the entire program. I was in tears as the boys became young warriors and took their shots with the bows and arrows, which still grace our home shrine.

As my kids grew older and more independent, they both took Buddhism into their lives in different ways. Both of my sons attended “Sun Camp” in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado which implements the principles and activities created by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in a week-long camp which allows the kids to create the environment and gain incredibly useful skills for living in the real world. My son Jonathan has told me that this week-long camp in the middle of the Colorado wilderness was a chance for him not only to connect with Buddhism, but the purest opportunity he got all year to listen to himself, explore nature and companionship.

Our boys decided to participate in Shambhala Training weekend programs in our home center in St. Petersburg Florida, accompanied us each summer to Shambhala Mountain Center where we studied with the Sakyong, Mipham Rinpoche, and we took them Buddhist events such as a public talk by the Dalai Lama in Miami, Florida. By age 16, both of our sons had independently chosen to take Refuge Vows, declaring Buddhism as their chosen wisdom path. I am happy for them, and they tell us that their meditation practice has helped with the bumps of adolescence, the stress of school, and with the fine art of friendship.

There was never any guarantee that we could raise sons who would chose to put the welfare of others ahead of other pursuits, but against all odds, we have. Another unexpected joy from raising children who practice meditation, is how we were able to relate to the bumps and problems of our family life together. We were each able to take greater responsibility for our own reactions, and to apologize much more quickly when we crossed “the line”. I have grown tremendously on my own path as a result of their honesty and direct reflections back to me, and they have been able to see through patterns of behavior that were latent before they became hardened, into habits that can be terribly difficult to overcome. All in all we are one happy family, and I am grateful for the request that was made to me so many years ago!

Shastri Gayle Van Gils is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist Lineage. She was a close student of Chogyam Trungpa, and is currently studying with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida with her husband Gerard and their dog and cat. Alex and Jonathan are off pursuing their studies.

Gayle’s background also includes an MBA and work as a management consultant as well as years spent creating clay sculptures. This varied background informs the courses on utilizing one’s whole potential that she teaches through her companywww.center4creativeintelligence. Gayle is a certified Life and Executive Coach who supports individuals and leaders to find joy and balance in their interpersonal, professional, and spiritual life.

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tthank you for this

Thank you so much for this. It inspires me to take a further look at my practice in the context of my own children. For anyone with little kids who'd like help explaining their practice to them, check out Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful book "A Pebble for Your Pocket." But thank you again, this is very moving and inspiring.

tthank you for this

Thank you so much for this. It inspires me to take a further look at my practice in the context of my own children. For anyone with little kids who'd like help explaining their practice to them, check out Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful book "A Pebble for Your Pocket." But thank you again, this is very moving and inspiring.

what a beautiful childhood


What a gift you have given your children in the mindful life you have made possible for them. That sounds like a childhood every child would dream of having. And what a gift they give in return, honoring your path by joining it. It is wonderful to know there are children with such thoughtful context moving into the adult world. 
One of the things i think Buddhism (in its various forms) teaches that is essential to child raising - or being a teacher, or simply relating to young people - is the importance of learning to listen openly to another person. To listen to a child and see them and hear them and meet them where they are, without your own agenda, is so important... and so rare. 
Compassion, self-observation, listening, quietness, the softness of vulnerability, understanding the paradoxical nature of things, understanding the connection between all things...
also: no blame, no resentment, no justification, no "being right," no guilt, no victimhood...
what a gift if we can parent mindfully, and bring these things into the relationships in which we have the most influence in this world.
From a Western, psychological point of view, there is also just a lot of sanity in the personal work people do as Buddhist practitioners, and that helps create a good basis for sane parenting. 
I look forward to what these children will do as adults in the world! :)

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