Planned Parenting: Making Your Children's Lives Meaningful

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Lavaur, France (Archive #1783)

Compiled from teachings given on May 15 and May 23, 2009, during a 100 Million Mani Retreat at Institut Vajra Yogini, Lavaur, France, with some small additions from an explanation of the seven qualities in which to educate children given at Root Institute, Bodhgaya, India, January 4, 2009. Edited by Ven. Joan Nicell, 2014.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with a young student, Maitripa College, USA, 2010. Photo: Marc Sakamoto.
Raising Children with a Bodhicitta Motivation

You and every single sentient being—all the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, asuras, suras, and intermediate state beings—are like one big family. This is because every one of them has been your mother, not just one time but numberless times during your beginningless rebirths. Every sentient being has given you a body numberless times, not just a human body but also the bodies of the different kinds of animals, hungry ghosts, and so on. Each time you were born from a womb or an egg, they gave you a body. Just taking into consideration the times you were born with a human body, every sentient being has given birth to you numberless times. Then, as your human mother they were kind to you in four ways: they protected your life from hundreds of dangers every day, they educated you in the ways of the world, they bore many hardships for your well-being, and they created a great amount of negative karma for the sake of your happiness and well-being. Every sentient being—every hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human being, asura, and sura—has done this for you when, as human beings, they were your mother. Similarly, whenever you were born as an animal your mother was kind to you; for example, when you were born as a bird, every day your mother went to look for food and killed many insects and worms to feed to you.

It is truly unbelievable how these mothers of old protected you, bore so many hardships for you, and created so much negative karma for you. Can you even begin to imagine their kindness? But, unfortunately, almost every single one of their actions became negative because it was done out of attachment to you. In order to avoid this, the best way for parents to take care of their children is to think of them simply as a sentient being, rather than as “my child.” For example, when you generate bodhicitta for all sentient beings at the beginning of any spiritual practice, think that your child is one of those sentient beings. Whether you are reading a prayer, doing a session of a retreat, or even just reciting a mantra such as OM MANI PADME HUM, you do it for the benefit of all sentient beings, for everyone: the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, asuras, suras, and intermediate state beings. If you do these activities for every single sentient being, including every single insect, it goes without saying that you do it for your own children. If you think in this way, you will have the same motivation to care for your children as you would any sentient being.

Because your children are sentient beings, you have received every happiness experienced during beginningless rebirths from them. You also receive all your present happiness from them and you receive all the happiness of future lives from them (not just the happiness of one future life but the happiness of all future lives). In addition, you receive liberation from samsara from them and you also receive the realizations of the entire path up to enlightenment from them. By understanding and recognizing this, you will see that your children are the most precious and kindest beings in your life. Therefore, when you begin a practice with the motivation of bodhicitta, the thought to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings, recall that your child is one of those sentient beings and do the practice with that awareness. Similarly, when you conclude your practices with a dedication to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, remember that your child is one of those sentient beings.

Of course, all other sentient beings are exactly the same as your children in being most precious and kind, but because you, as parents, have a particular karmic connection with, and are responsible for, the specific sentient beings that are your children, you should emphasize the thought of them as sentient beings. By thinking in this way you will have a totally different attitude toward your children; there will not be the slightest negative thought caused by the eight worldly concerns1, instead you will take care of them motivated by the positive thought of cherishing a sentient being.

On the other hand, if you allow yourself to come under the influence of the eight worldly concerns, when your children do something to please you, something that you like, you will happily take care of them. However, when they do something that is contrary to your wishes, something that upsets you or makes you angry, it is possible that you may even be tempted to give them up entirely. This change in your attitude happens because of your attachment to your own happiness.

With bodhicitta, you will feel that your children are the most precious and the kindest beings in your life. Of course, in general, all sentient beings are precious and kind, but parents need to specifically remember that their children are included among those sentient beings. If you have this attitude, you will take care of them with a healthy, positive mind, rather than with a negative emotional mind and the pain of attachment. Always keep in mind that your children are the most precious and kindest beings in your life and that you are responsible for taking care of them. Rejoice by thinking:

How wonderful that my life can be beneficial for even one sentient being.
How wonderful that I can take care of even one sentient being.
How wonderful that my limbs can be useful for looking after and bringing happiness to even one sentient being.

Especially when you encounter difficulties—when your children do not listen to you, when you cannot control them, and when you are busy and feel disappointed with your children—it is good to rejoice in this way. If you can do this, there will be no difficulties in your mind, in your heart. With a sincere wish to help your children, the annoyed and exhausted mind that wishes to give your children up will happen less often or even not arise. Motivated by bodhicitta you will be able to rejoice in this positive way.

Likewise, the motivation for doing a job that involves taking care of other people’s children or the elderly should be exactly the same as the one you have for looking after your own child. The thought that “This person is the most precious and the most kind” is the best attitude to have when you are doing this kind of work. With the motivation of bodhicitta, every hardship that you undergo and every single service that you do for others will purify the negative karma you have collected during beginningless rebirths. In addition, it will become a means for you to collect extensive merit. With this attitude your work will become the practice of all six perfections, or paramitas: giving, morality, patience, perseverance, concentration, and wisdom. For example, when practicing the perfection of wisdom, you can think that the I, the action of taking care of the other person, and the person you are taking care of are empty of true existence and are merely labeled by the mind. Because whatever you do motivated by bodhicitta collects extensive merits, everything you do to take care of that other person will become a cause of enlightenment and a quick path to enlightenment.

It is mentioned that even though Maitreya Buddha generated compassion and bodhicitta much earlier than did Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha actually achieved enlightenment first because his compassion was much stronger. This enabled him to collect much more extensive merit and purify far greater negative karma accumulated in the past. For example, when in one life as brothers they encountered a family of five tigers dying of starvation, Maitreya Buddha did not offer his body to them whereas Guru Shakyamuni Buddha did. Like this, if you are able to generate strong compassion for your children and, instead of being driven by attachment to them, you use them in your Dharma practice, your children will give you enlightenment. Also if, with this motivation, you do a job that entails taking care of other people’s children or the elderly, you will receive realizations and achieve enlightenment quickly. Similarly, even if you just look after a pet with this motivation, you will achieve enlightenment quickly from that sentient being.

Using Children and Relationships in Dharma Practice

Parents need to learn how to take care of their children properly. Whether you are a mother or father, or even if you are not a parent but are involved in taking care of children, your attitude should be the very same: you should consider those children to be your main object of practice or meditation. Since you spend so many years of your life with them, it is important to make them the focus of your Dharma practice. But, by saying this, I am not suggesting that everyone have children! My point is that if you are planning to have children, you should be really careful and, before having children, learn how to make their lives as beneficial as possible. Of course, there is still no guarantee that everything will work out; your children will have their own karma. But, because children spend so much time with their parents, you can potentially have an enormous influence on them. Therefore, parents have a huge responsibility. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about this and so don’t plan what they are going to do with that new life after giving birth to it. Instead they tend to think that having children will be pure bliss, without a single problem, like a wonderful dream come true.

The same is true of relationships. People think: “If I could only be with him or her, that is all I need in my life.” They never think about the possible problems, and instead see a life filled with beauty and bliss. They think: “If I could only live with this person, I could kiss the rest of the world good-bye. Whatever happens, even if the world were to be destroyed by fire, it wouldn’t matter.” It is very interesting to investigate how the mind thinks and, in particular, “the trip” that attachment takes us on. Attachment sees only beauty, only bliss. It considers that particular person to be absolutely wonderful and the most important and best thing in our life.

Even before meeting someone, you hope to encounter such a person and imagine how the relationship will be, including the trips you will go on together. Mentally you make up stories or daydream about how nice it will be. Some people with money are even willing to spend thousands of dollars and buy loads of gifts just to meet someone.

At the beginning of a relationship there is a lot of excitement. You are attracted to each other and meet for an hour or so here and there, perhaps in a park or at a restaurant. Then you meet more and more often and come to think: “How wonderful it would be if we could live together.” Then you either get married or move in together, but only then do you begin to really see the other person. The days pass and gradually anger starts to arise as the other person behaves in ways or says things that you don’t like. You begin to notice many previously unnoticed things about him or her, such as the unpleasant smell of his or her body and excrement. Gradually you come to see many faults. You begin to see the selfish mind of the other person: that he or she doesn’t want to do what you want him or her to do, and that he or she only wants to do whatever he or she wants. Unhappiness starts to develop and increases more and more.

Although at the beginning there were no problems and you were completely absorbed in bliss, now that bliss is like a cloud or a rainbow disappearing from the sky. First there is just a trace left, and then it is completely gone. The days pass and there are more and more problems. Eventually, your heartfelt wish comes to be expressed in the thought: “When can I be free of this person?” At this point your way of thinking is completely opposite to what it was at the beginning of the relationship. Now what you wish and pray for from the bottom of your heart is to be free from this person! That becomes the most important thing in your life; to be free from him or her is what would make you the happiest person. Day and night, while you are at work and when you return home, you continually ask yourself: “When am I going to be free?” You look for a way to make this happen, and as a result there is more and more fighting and quarrelling. Your life becomes filled with tears and misery. You blame each other, saying, “You did this” and “You did that.” Eventually either you leave or the other person leaves. And then what you want is to never see that person again! Whereas at one time the best thing imaginable was to be with that person forever, now the best thing would be to never encounter him or her ever again.

One time when I was in Singapore an Indian couple came to visit me. They told me that they couldn’t wait for their daughter to get married and asked me to pray for this to happen quickly. I advised them to be careful, to take their time, and to not rush, but I didn’t go into any detail about the possible problems that could arise. They seemed to have no idea what marriage implied; it was as if they were completely hallucinated. For them their daughter’s marriage was the most important thing in their life. They seemed to be oblivious to what happens next, that it is not always sun-shining bliss. This shows that not only the couple themselves but also their parents never actually think about what can happen; they just assume that they will always have a good life together. Even though everyone sees and hears about the problems that occur in relationships, they don’t think that they will happen to them. However, soon or later there will be problems; for example, you might begin to fight over money and other possessions, and even end up suing each other.

When the experience of being together starts to become negative, you see more and more problems, and at the same time your attachment diminishes more and more until all the excitement is gone. But even before that relationship is completely finished, you begin another relationship with the thought: “This person loves me more than my present partner.” You start the same mental story all over again: “This person is fantastic; he or she only loves me. If I could only be with him or her, there would be no problems, only bliss. There won’t be any darkness this time, just sun-shining happiness.” Then, the same story starts all over again. You move in together and gradually the other person learns more about what you are like, and you also begin to see things that you didn’t notice before. You find more and more faults in each other, and gradually lose interest in each other. Once again the relationship ends. Then again you meet someone new and think: “This person loves me so much more than that person.”

On top of these problems, if you have children, all the attention tends to become focused on them, whereas before the focus was on each other. If that happens you can easily come to feel that your partner doesn’t love you anymore. This troubles you and your mind becomes unhappy.

For all these reasons, you should consider a relationship to be an opportunity to practice Dharma free from worldly thoughts, just like rearing a child. In particular, you should ensure that it becomes a cause of enlightenment by keeping in mind the motivation of bodhicitta. You should cherish, serve, and dedicate your life to that person in the same way that you want to do for all sentient beings. You can do this by using your relationship to practice morality by, for example, taking the five lay vows: abstaining from killing, stealing, having sexual intercourse with someone else’s partner, telling lies, and indulging in intoxicating substances. In addition you can use your relationship to engage in the other five perfections of giving, patience, perseverance, concentration, and wisdom. In this way you can use your relationship to practice the six perfections, just as you would your children. If, in particular, you can learn patience from your partner, he or she will give you enlightenment.

If you are able to use being together to practice Dharma, it will be a very healthy life. To do this, whether you are in a relationship, have your own children, or take care of children, the elderly, or your parents, you should see yourself as their servant and the others—those sentient beings—who you take care of as your lord or boss. Then serve them by working to free them from suffering and bring them happiness. This is the attitude of a bodhisattva towards all sentient beings.

You can think about your partner in exactly the same way as I mentioned before about your children; for example, think: “I have received every happiness experienced throughout beginningless rebirths from him or her.” Just that kindness is unimaginable, but on top of that you also receive all your future happiness from that person. In addition, you also receive liberation from every suffering, which is much more precious, from him or her. Then, you also receive enlightenment, which is even more precious, from that person. Therefore, he or she is the most precious, dearest, and kindest person in your entire life.

You can also think that your partner has been your mother in the past and at that time treated you with the four types of kindness. By thinking of the extensive kindness you received from him or her, you will come to see yourself as his or her servant, whereby your living together becomes Dharma. Everything you do in that relationship will be done to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. With the attitude that the other person is the most precious and kindest, and that you are his or her servant, every single one of your actions will become a means of collecting extensive merit. If your actions are done with bodhicitta, you will collect limitless skies of merit, and your actions will become the cause to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. By thinking, “I am going to offer service to this person, to this most precious sentient being,” every day you will collect limitless skies of merit and also purify the defilements collected throughout beginningless rebirths. Since you will constantly create the cause for the biggest success—full enlightenment—for all sentient beings, your life will have much hope. This motivation is better than that of the hearers and solitary realizers because even though they have achieved high spiritual paths (the path of merit, preparatory path, right-seeing path, and so forth), their motivation is merely to achieve their own freedom from suffering. They have no thought to benefit other sentient beings; instead they are living their lives only for the sake of their own happiness, that is, to achieve their own liberation from samsara. Therefore, as far as motivation is concerned, you are much more fortunate, even though they have achieved realizations.

You have to take past karma into account when trying to understand your relationships. Everything you expect to happen doesn’t necessarily happen because the way things go depends on the karma that you and the other person created in the past. If you remember every day to relate events to karma by thinking, “This is my karma” and “This is his or her karma,” a potential problem doesn’t even become a problem because you accept the situation. It doesn’t bother you, and there is peace in your heart. If, on the other hand, you don’t think of and don’t accept karma, you will feel as if you are being crushed under mountains of problems. This is due to your own mental projections; it is your faulty way of thinking that makes you feel like that.

If you remember karma, then even if one day your partner leaves you, there will be no problem at all. You will respect that person’s decision through remembering how he or she is the dearest, most precious, and kindest sentient being from whom you receive all your past, present, and future happiness. By thinking in this way you will not have any clinging or attachment, and even if the person decides to leave you, everything will be okay. You will be able to mentally offer him or her whatever is best. If a relationship begins with this way of thinking, it will also end well. If the motivation at the beginning is faulty, then at the end when separation occurs, there will be intense suffering; you may even think to commit suicide.

By thinking in the ways that I have explained here, you will be able to fully enjoy your life. You will find satisfaction and fulfillment, and experience inner peace and happiness. Otherwise, no matter how much excitement there is, how many things happen to you, your heart will always be empty. Such an empty life is common in the West; it causes people to be filled with misery.

Educating Children in the Good Heart

It is very important to make a plan for your children’s lives to be beneficial, both for your children’s sake and for the rest of the world. People who are starting a new business, for example, begin by developing a plan to make it the most profitable possible. Usually people do this thinking only of themselves, but it would be good to also plan to make the business beneficial for others. Similarly, before you bring children into the world you should make a plan—given that a sentient being’s life is much more important than a business! Every day Buddhist parents make prayers, recite mantras, and so forth for the benefit of all sentient beings—the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, asuras, suras, and intermediate state beings. Since your children are also included in those sentient beings, you must make a plan as to how to make their lives the most beneficial possible. This is because, among the numberless sentient beings, you have a specific responsibility for your children’s lives. Therefore, you must make a plan to make their lives meaningful. You must also ensure that their lives are not passed in suffering, at least for themselves, but also for your family, the surrounding people, and the country.

You, as parents, have a huge responsibility for the kind of people your children will grow up to be. Because you spend so much time with them, your attitude and behavior can have a lasting influence on your children. Of course, there is no guarantee your children will do everything you tell them to do; they also have their own individual karma. Having created strong karma in their past lives, your children’s lives may well turn out completely different to the way you brought them up. But because what happens to them also depends on many causes and conditions, you still need to take upon yourselves the responsibility to help your children. Therefore, you need to have a clear plan as to how to educate them. If you don’t direct your children’s lives in a positive way, their futures will be very unsure, and the opportunity you had to help them will be lost. Although many good things could have happened to your children, because you lacked a clear idea about parenting, their lives can potentially become filled with constant suffering and problems.

A good parenting plan comes from having a healthy, positive motivation for bringing your children up, one that is based on a good heart rather than on attachment. If you, as parents, have a good heart and a good attitude toward life, and consequently try to do positive things to help others in your daily life, it will have a strong impact on your children. It will be of great help to them and will enable them to grow up with a healthy mind—a positive, pure Dharma mind. With this type of mind they won’t cause harm to themselves, nor will they harm other sentient beings: their families, neighbors, fellow countrymen, and the people of the world, in general, as well as animals. Not only that, this healthy mind will also enable your children to bring peace and happiness to others. Because children learn from their parents, if they see you trying to benefit others they will receive a positive, beneficial message from you. Then when your children have their own children, they will pass on that same education by also living their lives with a good heart and benefiting others. Your children will be an example for their own children, that is, for your grandchildren. In this way, parents can help to transmit from generation to generation the importance of having a good heart, of avoiding causing harm to others, and of doing as many beneficial activities as possible for them. If you, as parents, do this, the result will not only be an enjoyable family life for you and your children, but it will also bring much happiness and peace to the sentient beings of this world, life after life. Therefore, your role as parents is extremely important and entails a truly great responsibility.

Educating Children in the Seven Qualities

In addition to a good heart, there are seven basic qualities in which it is important to educate your children. These seven are based on a set of sixteen Dharma rules2 compiled long ago for the whole country of Tibet by one of the Dharma kings, Songtsen Gampo, an embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. The purpose of these rules, or guidelines, is to ensure that everyone’s life be wholesome, and a source of peace and happiness for others, rather than a source of harm. By following the guidelines, people’s lives will be healthier and more meaningful, and everything they do will become good karma, without creating any negative karma. Since from their own side your children also need to create positive karma in order to experience happiness and success, they need to be taught some basic qualities. Just as a beggar on the street is not nourished by someone else eating delicious food in an expensive restaurant, your children will not experience happiness as a result of the good karma you create; instead they must create good karma themselves.

The first of the seven qualities to teach your children is kindness. You should encourage your children to practice kindness in their daily lives, not just with their fellow human beings (including their enemies), but also with animals and insects.

The second quality is that of rejoicing, or being joyful. When your children see good things happen to other people, such as their finding a good friend, a nice house, or a good car, or their job or business going well, or even just that they have a beautiful body, it is important for your children to learn to feel happy and to rejoice, thinking: “How wonderful it is that they have this good fortune.” Instead of being jealous or envious and wanting what others have, which creates obstacles to their own and others’ wishes being fulfilled, you should teach your children to always rejoice when other sentient beings find happiness. Delighting in others’ good fortune will keep their minds happy and give them real inner peace. It will bring about a healthy mind and their lives will be full of ups, rather than downs. For this reason, rejoicing can be considered one of the very best Dharma practices, meditations, and psychologies.

These two attitudes of kindness and rejoicing can be taught to children, for example, in a public school setting, without any need to explain, and without any need for them to believe, that they are creating good karma. Even without telling them that and without their understanding it, they will still create good karma whenever they are kind or practice rejoicing. Because karma has the characteristic of expanding over time, from one small act of kindness or rejoicing they will experience success and happiness, not only in this life, but for hundreds or even thousands of lifetimes. If they are kind to others many times in one day, from each one of those acts of kindness they will experience the corresponding happy results.

By practicing kindness and rejoicing in others’ good fortune, their minds will always be happy and healthy. When the mind is happy, the body becomes healthy, and the chances of illnesses that come, according to medical research, from anger and selfishness, such as high blood pressure—the cause of heart attacks and strokes—will be greatly reduced. I also read in a newspaper that a doctor in Delhi found that people who have a habit of saying bad things to others, such as calling them names, have an increased incidence of heart disease. This happens because when you put a negative label on someone or some situation, you then see it as bad and your mind becomes unhappy. This disturbed state of mind can influence the circulation of the blood, resulting in heart attacks and strokes.

The third quality that children need to be taught is patience. If your children are free from anger, they won’t harm themselves or other sentient beings, including animals, whereby they won’t create negative karma. If, on the other hand, they tend to be angry, the anger will always cause disturbance and unhappiness to their own minds, as well as to the minds of the people around them. From one act of anger, your children will experience the suffering result not only in the lower realms, where there is unbelievable suffering, but also later on in the human realm. This is because when, due to the ripening of a good karma, they once again obtain a human rebirth, they will continue to experience the results of their previous anger, such as having an ugly body and encountering many problems and obstacles. They will experience the suffering results of one act of anger for hundreds or even thousands of lifetimes.

Training in patience now will help your children avoid becoming angry in future lives. It will leave positive imprints on their minds that will bring the effect of their having more patience, as a result of which they will stop harming others. In this way, they will bring peace and happiness to this world now, and also bring peace and happiness to sentient beings life after life. It has often happened in the history of the world that people in powerful positions did not practice patience and so killed millions of innocent people, including children. Teaching your children patience can help prevent such events from happening again in the future.

Another quality that is absolutely essential for children to develop is contentment, or renunciation. Many problems occur in the world due to a lack of contentment. Even wealthy people, millionaires and billionaires, end up in prison after they are caught embezzling funds that in reality they do not need. When young people, in particular, lack contentment, they are at a high risk of getting involved in drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, they become unable to live a normal life and even to hold down a job, let alone practice Dharma. Eventually the addiction can totally destroy their entire life. They become completely submersed year after year in problems, as though stuck in quicksand, unable to get out. By practicing contentment, they will be protected from bad habits that ruin and waste their lives and prevent them from being useful to others, instead causing them to create a lot of trouble for their families and other people. Thus, contentment is very important for your children’s happiness and mental peace.

Parents should also teach their children that when someone harms, disrespects, or even abuses them, the best response is forgiveness. Forgiveness is extremely important. If, rather than holding a grudge, your children are able to forgive others, there will be peace in their own hearts, as well as in the hearts of those who harm them. If, instead, your children don’t learn to forgive others, the meaning of their lives and the purpose of their being born human—to bring peace to themselves, to their family, and to the other people in the world—will be lost.

I once saw an interview on television with a woman in the United States whose young daughter had been kidnapped, raped, and killed by a man. Even though she wasn’t a Buddhist, she said that she didn’t want to kill the man and instead forgave him. This amazing ability to forgive him came from her incredibly good heart. Another man who had been shot six times also said, when interviewed, that he didn’t want to kill the man who had shot him. He too didn’t seem to be a Buddhist but he had a very good heart and was very kind.

You should also teach your children the importance of apologizing when they do something that harms other people, such as insulting them or speaking angrily to them. If they immediately apologize for their mistakes, it will bring peace in your children’s hearts and also in the hearts of the people they harmed. As a result, these people will not hold a grudge against your children. This will spread peace from one person to another, whereby your children will be able to contribute to peace in the world.

The last of the seven qualities that you should teach your children is courage. Often people have the tendency to put themselves down, thinking, “I’m hopeless.” By seeing themselves as having no good qualities, they become depressed and unable to do anything for anyone. With courage, your children will be able to lift their minds up and forge ahead, both in worldly matters as well as in Dharma practice. Courage gives you the mental strength needed to develop qualities, and the confidence that you can help others and lead them to happiness. It also enables you to bear the hardships involved in giving up the selfish mind. Therefore, courage is very, very important.

To develop the courage needed to engage in the practice of the path in this very life, you can contemplate the fact that you have obtained the eight freedoms and ten endowments of a perfect human rebirth. These eighteen qualities make it possible to achieve the three great meanings, or objectives: the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara, and full enlightenment. This opportunity is obtained just once and is difficult to obtain again. Thinking about this will give you the courage to use your life in the development of the path. This kind of courage is particularly important in the West, where there are so many people who, due to thinking that their lives are meaningless, become depressed and even end up committing suicide.

You should see these seven qualities as guidelines for educating your children. They provide a very clear idea of how to raise your children and how to help them. Instead of causing harm to themselves and others, from life to life they will bring benefit to themselves, their families, their neighbors, and to the other sentient beings of this world. Due to having these seven qualities, your children will be happy and do many good things for others. Even if they only develop the first quality, kindness, and then treat everyone they meet with kindness, the effect on other people will be truly amazing.

Every time your children do something positive, however much you suffered because of and for them, it will all become worthwhile. For example, for about nine months you, as the mother, carried your children in your womb, willingly bearing all sorts of difficulties for them. Then, after the birth, you, as parents, made so many sacrifices, bore so many difficulties, and worked so hard to make money to take care of your children. But even long before that, you spent so many years getting an education—going from kindergarten to primary school to high school, and perhaps even on to college or university—so that you could get a degree and find a job to make enough money to buy or build a house for your future children. Like this, you spend so many years sacrificing your lives for your children. Just living with children causes so much exhaustion, worry, and fear. But now, every time your children do something positive, all the hardships are made worthwhile.

In brief, you should bring your children up with a clear plan for their lives to be beneficial for sentient beings life after life, or, at the very least, for your family, your neighbors, your country, and this world. You should teach them not to harm others and to have a good heart, and, from among the seven qualities, at least to be kind. Like the expression: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” if your children have a good heart and do even one act of kindness a day, this will keep difficulties away for you, as their parents. All those years of suffering, worry, and fear will have brought a good result, and you will be able to rejoice in the efforts you made to educate your children. Otherwise, your life as parents will not become Dharma, and instead you will act only out of attachment. In spite of your exhaustion and hard work, your children won’t even have a good life. They won’t be content and their lives will be spent in suffering. Besides your own problems, your children will have problems. Things will be difficult for everyone, and there will be much suffering for your entire family. Life will pass only in suffering, and then death will happen. This is how things work in samsara.

Having children is a huge responsibility; it is no easy matter at all. You are not only responsible for your children’s happiness during their lifetime, you are also responsible for providing them with an education that will help them at the time of their death, the most crucial moment of life. Therefore, it is not enough to give your children the sense pleasures and physical comforts of daily life. Rather, the most important thing is to think about what will be of most benefit to them at death.

Everyone has to die. It is not that some people in this world will live forever while others will die. Even the Buddha showed the aspect of passing into the sorrowless state. He showed this aspect even though he had attained liberation from the oceans of samsaric sufferings by ceasing their causes, karma and delusions. He showed this aspect even though he had totally removed the cause of delusions, their negative imprints, by actualizing the remedy, the path. He showed this aspect even though he had attained full enlightenment through ceasing even the subtle defilements by completing the whole Mahayana path—the five paths and ten bhumis. And he showed this aspect even though he had actualized the two kayas, the dharmakaya and rupakaya, by completing the two types of merit—the merit of wisdom and the merit of virtue. Even though the Buddha had achieved all this, in the end, when he passed away, his holy body was burned in a cremation fire in Kushinagar, India. Similarly, all the other enlightened beings, those who correctly practiced the path that the Buddha had revealed and thereby achieved enlightenment, also had to leave their holy bodies behind, such that now only their relics remain.

Your children will also have to die, and after their death there are only two possibilities—to be reborn in the lower realms or in the higher realms—and which it will be depends entirely on their karma. You can see for yourselves whether in one day they collect more negative karma or more positive karma. In general non-virtuous actions tend to be more complete than virtuous actions in terms of the motivation, the actual action, and the conclusion, and are therefore more powerful. Virtuous actions, instead, tend to be done without having, at the beginning, a motivation of bodhicitta or a Dharma mind; in the middle the actual action is not done perfectly or else is very weak; and at the end either a dedication is not done at all or else it is not done well.

There are also many obstacles to creating and preserving virtue. For example, ill will reduces the power of virtue, making it weak. Heresy and anger, which arise quite often, are also very powerful means of destroying merit. Thus, even when virtuous actions are done, if they are not dedicated to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings, they can be destroyed, in a finger snap, by heresy or anger. Then, even if they are dedicated to enlightenment but not sealed with emptiness, they are weakened by heresy and anger. We have to keep this in mind and be very careful in our daily lives not to allow the little virtue we collect here and there, in fact quite rarely, to be destroyed. In short, first of all it is extremely difficult for our actions to become virtue, then even if they do become virtue there are many obstacles to their lasting a long time, and, finally, it is quite rare for them to be done perfectly and to become powerful.

The point I want to make here is that if you choose to have children, you must have a plan as to how to make being a parent beneficial for the world and for sentient beings. Even if you cannot teach your children all seven qualities, you must educate them in as many of them as possible. Also, as parents you need to practice these qualities yourselves in order to set a good example for your children. In this way, your children will learn from you and will be much more likely to develop these qualities themselves.

Helping Your Children Collect Merit

Years ago I visited a distant relative and her husband at their home in Darjeeling. Their children were quite young at the time, but every morning, after they had washed and dressed and were ready to go to school, the whole family would go together to their shrine room, which was very beautiful, and do three prostrations in front of an altar on which there were many statues. They did this every day before leaving for school. As I have mentioned on other occasions, the benefit of doing even one prostration to a statue of the Buddha is unbelievable. It creates the karma to be reborn as a wheel-turning king as many times as the number of atoms of the earth that your body covers as you prostrate. To obtain this type of rebirth requires infinite, inconceivable merit. In the case of those children in Darjeeling, there were many holy objects on the altar and they did three prostrations to them, so can you imagine how much merit they collected? By doing three prostrations, they created three causes of enlightenment. In addition, depending on how many statues there were, they created that much more merit. If there were a thousand statues and they had prostrated just once to all of them, they would have created a thousand causes of enlightenment. If your children were to do the same, it would give them so much hope as every day they would create the causes for happiness and success in this life and in their future lives, as well as the causes for liberation and enlightenment.

In short, you have a very special opportunity to help your children. By teaching them to prostrate to holy objects, not only are you helping them in this life, you are also helping them create the causes to experience happiness life after life. In addition, you are bringing them to liberation and enlightenment. Isn’t that just amazing?

Although here I have specifically mentioned the benefits of prostrations, there are many other things you can teach your children. For example, each of your children could have their own statue, perhaps of Tara or Chenrezig. It is also good to have an altar in your home with many pictures, thangkas, and statues of buddhas or deities. Then every day, in the morning and perhaps also in the evening, but at least once a day, your children could offer a candy or a biscuit on a nice plate to their own statue as well as to all the other pictures, thangkas, and statues. If they can’t do more, they should at least say OM AH HUM, blessing the candy or biscuit to become oceans of nectar, and then offer it. You can also make prayers together such as:

By this merit, may I never cause harm to any sentient being and may I cause all sentient beings to have every happiness up to enlightenment as quickly as possible.


By this merit, may I, like the Buddha, be able to liberate numberless sentient beings from suffering and bring them to enlightenment as quickly as possible.

By dedicating in this way, your children will not only collect the extensive merit of making offerings, but also the merit will become extremely powerful.

How can you expect your children to have happy lives if, from their own side, they don’t create good karma? Without merit, without good karma, it is impossible for them to achieve happiness and success. No matter how many university degrees someone has, these days there is no guarantee that they will find a job and be happy. On the other hand, there are many people who live a happy and satisfied life, who experience inner peace, even though they don’t have a university degree. For these reasons, you must focus on using skillful means to enable your children to create merit. You must put effort into this so that sooner or later they will come to have an easy life, one that is free from problems. By creating merit, they will have every success in life, including finding a job.

I have given you a few examples but there are many more things that you, as a Buddhist family, can do to help your children. I have already mentioned the seven particular qualities that you should teach your children, but you can also teach them all the sixteen qualities, or dharmas, that were set out by Songtsen Gampo. If, in addition to providing this education, you also pray for your children, your prayers will be very powerful due to your strong karmic connection with them. However, at the same time as praying for your children, you should also skillfully guide them to do many small practices that create merit in their daily lives, such as making charity to other sentient beings, including animals, insects, and so forth.

I want to clarify that when I suggest that at the same time as educating your children, you should pray for them, I don’t mean that you should pray for them to be successful in passing their exams! That is a tiny prayer; it doesn’t create the causes for them to experience happiness life after life, nor does it create the causes for their liberation and enlightenment. Of course, you can pray for their long lives, for them to be healthy, for all their wishes to succeed in accordance with the Dharma, for their actions not to become negative karma, and for them to not cause harm to themselves and others; but, in particular, you can also pray:

May my children develop the same qualities as Tara (or Chenrezig, Manjushri, Medicine Buddha, or Lama Tsongkhapa) in this very lifetime and be able to do perfect work for sentient beings, freeing them from the oceans of samsaric sufferings and bringing them to full enlightenment as quickly as possible.

This prayer is short but it includes everything, all the realizations. Another prayer that you can do for your children is the one to meet Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings, which possess special qualities:


May I and all sentient beings be able to meet the pure wisdom teachings of the Victorious One, which contain the biography of those eminent ones who live in pure morality, have the brave attitude to follow extensively the bodhisattva’s conduct, and practice the yogas of the two stages, the essence of which is the transcendental wisdom of non-dual bliss and emptiness. May I and all sentient beings be able to meet this pure complete teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa, the unification of sutra and tantra, right this second.

Or you can pray for them to be guided by Lama Tsongkhapa:


In all our lives, through the victorious one, Lama Tsongkhapa,
Acting in person as the Mahayana guru,
May we never turn aside for even an instant
From the excellent path praised by the Victorious Ones.

This is the prayer that I usually recite when I meet people. I also chant the various mantras that purify the heaviest negative karmas, those “without break,” which cause you to be reborn in the lowest hell, where you experience the heaviest suffering for the longest time. I also recite the Maitreya Buddha mantra and pray that when Maitreya Buddha comes to this world, they may become his disciples, receive teachings directly from him, and obtain a predication of their enlightenment during the time of Maitreya Buddha’s teachings. I recite these mantras for them and pray for them to never to be reborn in the lower realms, and I recite this prayer for them to be guided by Lama Tsongkhapa.

It is also very good to recite the prayer from the Cittamani Tara practice:

By correctly devoting ourselves in thought and action to the virtuous friend, from whom we receive all the collections of goodness, and by training our minds in the path that pleases all the buddhas, may we achieve peerless enlightenment.

You can pray to Tara together with your children in the same way that you yourself normally pray. I am just giving you some ideas, and then you can elaborate on them. There are many, many things that you can do to educate your children, and to make it meaningful that they have been born into a Buddhist family.

Similarly, you, as Buddhists, should also give the pets, such as dogs and cats, that are in your care a very special life. By “special” I don’t mean special food or special clothing! I mean that you should chant the powerful mantras to them that purify their negative karma, so that they are never again born in the lower realms and achieve enlightenment quickly. You should chant such mantras to them every day and also recite aloud the above prayers, as well as various lam-rim prayers, to them. If you have a stupa you should also take your pet around it. At my house in Aptos, California, I had a stupa specially made, containing a lot of tsa-tsas, around which to carry a dog that a Mexican woman had saved from being put to sleep. However, you can also place as many holy objects, such as tsa-tsas, statues, and stupas, as possible on different levels on a table, and take your animals around it. In this way the negative karma that they have collected over many eons gets purified. Even one circumambulation around a stupa or statue containing the four dharmakaya relic mantras purifies the negative karma to be reborn in the eight hot hells. It has this amazing benefit. So, depending on how many times you take the animal around the table, that many eons of negative karma get purified and that many causes of enlightenment are created.

What I am saying is that by hearing mantras or prayers, even though they don’t understand a single word, and by being taken around holy objects, your pets’ negative karma is purified, and, when they die, they will be reborn in the higher realms. It also creates the causes, many times over, for their liberation and enlightenment.

There should be these special advantages for an animal to be in the care of a Buddhist. It would be a great pity not to benefit the animals that you keep as pets for your own happiness, since you have this opportunity to help them obtain a higher rebirth, meet the Dharma and a virtuous friend, and achieve liberation from samsara and enlightenment.

Since Buddhists should give even the animals in their care a special life, there is no question that they should do this for their children. However, while I know some Buddhist parents who try to set an example for their children and explain the Dharma to them, I know many others who do not do this. Instead, they tend to let their children do whatever they want. This is a pity because when children are young, before they grow up and leave home, there are so many opportunities to help them collect merit, and to give them an education that will plant the seeds of enlightenment in their minds. Of course, there is no guarantee you will succeed in helping your children because, as I mentioned before, children have their own karma created in their past lives. Some children will turn out well and as teenagers will be more disciplined, more compassionate, and more content. Others, because of the influence of the world and their friends, will become distant from the Dharma, and will come to have a totally different life from what their parents hoped they would have. Regardless, as Buddhist parents you have the responsibility to give your children some special benefit; otherwise being born in a Buddhist family is no different from being born in a non-Buddhist family. While they are young, to not use the opportunity to plant the seeds of good habits would be very unfortunate. By this I am not implying that you should force your children to adopt your lifestyle. Rather, I just want to emphasize that it is important to help your children abandon the causes of suffering and create the causes of happiness—not only this life’s happiness but also the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara, and full enlightenment. If they learned some Dharma practices, recited some mantras, and so on when they were young, even if they don’t continue with these when they get older, all the merit they collected earlier on will still cause them to meet and practice the Dharma in their future lives, and will bring them happiness for many future lives. Therefore, because it is not easy to help your children as they get older, don’t want to listen to you anymore, and come under the influence of other people, you should try to benefit them as much as possible while they are young.

In conclusion, there are many ways that you can make your children’s lives meaningful so that at the very least they do not cause harm to themselves and, if possible, also bring happiness and benefit to other sentient beings and to the world. Since as Buddhist parents you can do so much to help your children, it would be a great pity, extremely sad, and very strange if you did not teach your children what you have faith in and what you have found to be beneficial for your own life.


1  Wishing to experience happiness and to avoid suffering; to gain material things and to avoid losing them; to be praised and to avoid criticism; to have a good reputation and to avoid a bad one. [Return to text]

2 The branch of FPMT called Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom aims at providing a secular education in various fields based on Buddhist principles. They have published a book based on the Sixteen Dharmas of King Songtsen Gampo called Sixteen Guidelines for Life.  [Return to text]