Religious Education for One’s Children
A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 17th July 1982
The question is: What form of religious education is helpful to open up children to the religious life?
I do think it is an extremely good question because it is for one thing so difficult to answer. In connection with this question, my mind turned to one of the Long Discourses of the Buddha entitled the Lohicca Sutta. Lohicca was the name of a Brāhman teacher who came to the Buddha. Mostly it was Brāhmans who came to him, Brāhman priests, teachers and so forth. Lohicca asked the Buddha this question: “Who is the blameless Teacher, or how can one become the blameless Teacher?” If you carefully study that Discourse you will discover at the end that the only blameless Teacher is the Perfected Holy One himself. (I think it is practically the last one of the Long Discourses, the Dīgha Nikāya). There is an extremely significant point involved in that. If the truly blameless religious Teacher is one who is the Perfected Holy One himself and we apply that to our ordinary secular everyday life and our family life and so on, the answer to the question of how to open up one’s children to living the religious life gets its own answer in its own way, namely that if the parents are perfect parents, then they will inevitably and naturally open up the religious life of the child.
What is one of our great difficulties where religious education is concerned? What do we do with our children where religion is concerned? We start off more or less all over the world by taking them to worship, the church, the temple, the mosque, whatever it may be. The little child sees a certain ritual being performed and all sorts of gestures, genuflexions and so on, and there is someone who conducts the service. In some cases there is no one who conducts the service. In certain Zarathushtrian religious ceremonies, no one conducts the service, everyone just takes the Zarathushtrian prayer book and reads through so many of the prayers, and that is about all. So the child is quite unable to make head or tail of all this mumbojumbo, as the child might call it! Also it must be remembered that with a very few exceptions the rituals and the prayers are in the original languages, the Zarathushtrian rituals and prayers are in the Avestan language, the Hindu in Sanskrit. The Christian now has changed, it used to be Latin. It was in Latin that the rituals and prayers took place. The child does not know a word of all these different languages! To this day there are only literally a handful of Parsis or Iranian Zarathushtrians who understand Avestan at all. It is just a closed book to them, all these long recitations and so forth. But the parents impress upon the children that, in order to live the good life and afterwards to reap the right reward after one is dead, it is necessary to do all this. Of course modern Zarathushtrian children are a little too cynical to believe all that! They say, “Frankly, when you’re dead, you’re dead!” I agree with them! It just does not matter whether you have mumbled so many prayers every day of your life or not.
That is one aspect, and then there is the other aspect which of course touches essentially social behaviour. This social behaviour has the sanction of religion behind it. You must be truthful, you must be kind, you must be pure, not do evil things, and then the usual things, the commandments, the advices as they are called, and so forth. All that has to be fulfilled in life. But how is that to be fulfilled in life? The child has certain inborn natural drives. After all we are descended from primates. The group of primates started something like thirty or forty million years ago, and man is the fourth subdivision of them. There were first the prosimians, then came the monkeys, then came the ape, and man. A particular branch of the primates gave birth to the evolution of two parallel lines, the pongids, which include the gorillas and the chimpanzees, and the hominid line which ultimately became man. So these two lines went parallel, but all life has certain other influences embedded in it, and this is the influence of the evolution through the reptilian and the mammalian stages. Our own brain, for instance, has a reptilian part, the R-complex as they call it, which is responsible for aggressiveness, fear and such characteristics. Then there is the mammalian part which is responsible for the natural affections and care for the young and looking after them. On top of that all, living in an uneasy truce with the primitive reptilian and mammalian brain, is the cerebral cortex. So we are born with a certain amount of conflicting factors at work, we cannot help it. We have natural tendencies to be angry, to be hateful, to be jealous, to be fearful, to be aggressive and so forth. They are there, and you cannot explain this to a little infant. The child reacts instinctively because that part of the brain is influencing that child’s behaviour. As the child grows up, of course, the influence of our social and cultural development imposes a restrictive influence upon these natural reactions. So every child grows up with a certain amount of conflicting forces working upon it.
If you introduce religion in terms of fixed doctrines and dogmas and concepts of heaven and hell and life after death and all the rest of it, it is a little bit too much really for the child to cope with. Most of it just gets suppressed and sinks into the well of the unconscious mind. But it acts all the time, and the more that goes into the unconscious the more it exercises a more powerful influence than the conscious mind. Virtue for most children means behaving in a manner and doing those things which will bring themselves good results. This in itself is a source of conflict, because if you live in the world self-oriented, you are living for yourself, against the external world. It takes a very long time for a child, in fact in ordinary adolescence the child has not the ability to appreciate these points. Some children may, but most children do not, appreciate the point that oneself is an integral part and parcel of a much greater whole. Every person that the child meets is the other person. “This is me, I am I. You are different, even the ones closest to me, Mum and Dad and my best friends at school…” They are also others still to me, I can’t imagine myself as completely inter-related and completely interacting with them. I value them and are nice to them through natural instinctive affection and also because of constant social contact in which I gain food, pleasure, toys and all the rest of it. So there is this element of conflict all the time being introduced to the child by the ordinary ways in which what is called religion is presented to it.
Then again there is the intellectual aspect. The child asks, “Where did I come from? Where was I before I was born?” Mamma almost invariably answers, “You were in my tummy. “ When a child is told that he or she was in Mummy’s tummy, the child wonders the very next moment, maybe, or the next week, or the next year, “From which part of my mother did I come out? Did she vomit me out?” I remember my mother told me a marvellous yarn about how I was born, how I came into this world! She did not say that I was in her tummy. She said she was sitting in the garden one evening and then suddenly God appeared and shouted to her and called her by name. (My name is of course Phirozshah, the masculine, and she was Phirozbai, ‘bai’ is the lady). God shouted her name and said, “Quick, quick, hold your sari out, I’m going to give you a baby!” And she did, apparently, that is to say that I imagined that she did! God dropped me into her sari which she held out! Oh, the adoring gratitude I felt to my mother that she saved my life! If I had fallen on the hard ground, I might have died! Sometime during my lifetime I have wondered whether it would not have been better for me to have fallen on the ground and have been saved a lot of trouble! However such are the sort of things that go through a child’s mind. But it seems to me far better to let the child know the truth straightforwardly in a simple way.
Associated with the questions “Where was I before I was born and where do I come from?” is the question “What happens to me after I am dead?” Because invariably every child meets with death all the time. There is a fly which is swatted, or the child sees a butcher’s shop with all those animals which are killed, or knows about funerals when somebody next door dies and there is a funeral. The child sees all that. “What happens to that man, where is he? Am I going to die? Or shall I be able to live forever? I don’t like the idea of dying, I want to live for ever.” I know how in my own case my great search intellectually, right from about the age of five or so, was, “What is the meaning of immortality, living for ever and ever?” That is how it was put to me, in terms of time, living for ever and ever, and I just had not the knowledge or the intelligence developed to be able to consider these questions properly at all. All that one is taught is, “You be good, you live a good life,” which means of course obeying your parents and pleasing them and your teachers, and working hard at school and looking after yourself carefully, and when you grow up doing a good job and earning a lot of money, marrying and having children and afterwards living to about a hundred years, and when you die you will go to Heaven! “And where is Heaven, what is Heaven?” Then the pious upward turned eyes looking up to Heaven, the skies, the starry skies! “You will go to Heaven and there you will find God and his angels and all the good people who lived in the world.”“What happens to the bad people?” “They go to hell.” “What happens in hell?” “They suffer frightful punishments.”
So you see, an extraordinary mountain of absurdity is put upon the little child’s head by having these ideas given to it. If parents were really honest they would answer these deep questions which the child naturally asks (without knowing at all how deep they are) by saying, “I don’t know. Can we find out, can we enquire, can we study, can we in some way or other discover the answer to these questions?” If parents were to tell their child quite honestly that they do not know the answers, not only to these questions but to so many others also, that they are unable to inform the child, then the child will have a much greater trust. I remember very well how I was told so many things in Zarathushtrian terms. But in Ceylon where I lived all my early years until I was nineteen there were of course Hindus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and Christians. There were no Jewish children or friends of mine that I knew. I used to talk to them about these things. Especially in Asia generally and particularly in India and in countries like Ceylon, children are constantly talking about these things. They are less intent upon kicking a football than upon making these enquiries and so forth. They used to tell me different things; they had ideas quite different from the ideas which were presented to me. And so of course another source of conflict, “Who is right, my parents and priests, or those people’s parents and priests?” If a child happens to be one who innately is interested in these things in what we would call religious matters, (and this is rather rare), it means tremendous conflict in the child and uncertainty, a sense of insecurity grows u p. If the parents were to say openly, “I don’t know the answers to these, but we can find out as we go on”, and if there is this feeling of security in relation to the parent from the child, then the child will be more willing to accept the instructions about social morality and behaviour. This is the starting point.
After all a child in the midst of a whole lot of children, not only in the kindergarten but from that age upwards, is learning first and foremost to be a good citizen, a good social human being. No, I should not say good because the definition of good is very difficult in this context, but an acceptable creature! “He is one of us, so he is acceptable.” This acceptability is of very great importance in childhood. We want to be accepted not only by our parents but also by all others with whom we come into contact. Acceptability also means a considerable degree of security which means that a child feels safe with fellow human beings. The child of course in relationship with other children will come across all kinds of difficulties, quarrels and so forth. Children quarrel very easily and just as easily make up the quarrel afterwards. But what is almost never presented to the child (because the parents themselves are quite ignorant of it and incapable of living up to it) is the fact that each child is completely interrelated with and interacting all the time with all others. This consciousness of otherness with respect to everything which is outside one’s own body is the very devil in our lives all the time. Look how competition takes place, how wars take place, because of this consciousness of others and difference, of unacceptability if the other behaves differently or believes this or that. These are the deep things. Now if the parents themselves lived pure good lives in the real sense, and are perfectly honest and harmonious amongst themselves, husbands and wives together, then that influence on the child will be very strong. It is no good telling a child to be loving and kind and considerate and so forth if the child does not see real loving kindness and considerateness and good behaviour between its father and mother. This is very very important. I know too well what a tragic influence it is upon a child when father and mother quarrel and shout at each other and so forth.
So both parents have to live the religious life in its deep sense. One may include the ritual aspect of religion because it has a subtle, unconscious influence upon the child’s psyche, there is no doubt about that. I remember so well in my own case that I used to sit with my mother in the afternoon and repeat the prayers on the verandah looking out onto the sea, the Indian Ocean, in the late afternoon with the sun setting, and also in the mid-afternoon with the bright sun and the lovely rippling of the little waves all along. This was something which filled me with wonder and reverence and a sense of awe, all of which was not fear. It was not fear, but it was a sort of delight that God made all this world and it was so beautiful and it was made for us, and a sense of deep gratitude welled out. But what is peculiar to me may not apply to some. But it can apply to most children because children are extremely sensitive, and they are extremely receptive, and they will naturally take into themselves whatsoever really helps to strengthen the at first unconscious recognition of something Transcendent. Of course the name is given, God, you can give any name you like. But when that recognition of something Transcendent is fed in the right way, it will flower out sooner or later.
The fact remains that every single creature, every single thing in the universe, every atom, every sub-atomic particle and the entire universe, is Transcendence embodied. I think it is one of the tragedies of Christian theology that it separated God as the Creator, the Eternal, Immortal Being from His Creation. “He is the wholly other than this, this is the mortal, the perishable”, and in so much of Christian outlook this is something to be despised, and looked down upon. And I am afraid that it is not exclusively Christian, it occurs, I think, to a certain degree in Buddhistic teaching the Foulness of the Body meditations, and all that sort of thing, and there is raised up a certain disregard and rejection of the body, which is perfectly ridiculous actually. I am not surprised that it arose in the time of the Buddha twenty five centuries ago, it was there already in Brāhmanical teachings that the body is something which is mean, which is to be despised, that the senses are the seducers and so forth. The senses are not seducers at all. We get seduced through sense impressions because we are ignorant. If we were not ignorant our sense impressions would not seduce us at all. Our senses are the only real cords of communion with Totality. When intellect, with all its machinations and all its deviousness and all the rest of it, has ceased to exercise its rather baneful influence, then what is there left but the senses? If the sense functioning and the response to all sense functioning is pure and perfect, the senses are the real cords of communion. If you have ever experienced any touch of Transcendence, you will discover that that is perfectly true. Neither the body nor the senses are to be despised. The body is the perfect thing that you have really and that you are, and the body is not merely a body, as all these rather doleful teachers have taught! This must be carefully understood.
When you say body, it implies at the same time the whole of the psyche, it implies the whole of the mind, it implies the whole of Totality altogether. It takes the universe to produce each and every creature and plant and so forth. We are ignorant of this activity of the universe as a whole. When we use a phrase like “The One Total Reality”, what does it really mean to each one of us? It is on the whole just a string of words, “One Total Reality”, three different words whose meanings you can look up in a dictionary. The consciousness which really has grown into full awareness of the One Total Reality is something utterly different from the petty little meanings of the dictionary. It is utterly beyond concept and word, it is a living power, a living influence. That is why, if we ourselves live in such a manner that this comes to life inside us as parents, then we will spread that influence all around us all the time, we cannot help it, we will not need to want to do the right thing, to wantto be a good influence and so forth, we will inevitably be the right influence, because all this really is natural and spontaneous. It has not got to be a thought out good deed sort of thing, the Boy Scout “bob-a-job” type of goodness. It is nothing of that sort.
Look at the sun. Can it help shining? Its very nature, its very constitution is such that the tremendous atomic explosions which take place constantly pour out light and heat and all sorts of radiations which are for the sustenance of the whole solar system. Each one of us has that divine potentiality within himself, within herself, and if we can so live that that divine potentiality flowers out naturally then it will be impossible for us not to be good. You see, the whole world has suffered for ages on this point. “The religious life is a miserable life, you have got to give up this and give up that and so forth.” Would you like to preserve your disease or give up the disease? Would you like to preserve misery or be free of misery? Look at it that way. The religious life is the truly human life, human in the truest sense of the word, and insofar as we are capable of living like that and do bend all our energies towards that living, we will inevitably influence the children around us, we cannot avoid it. And not only the children but all other human beings with whom we come in contact. This is the point. So where the intellectual aspect of opening up the child’s religious life is concerned, we have to help the child, not impose ideas, any ideas, but help the child to grow into these conceptions — more than conceptions — to try and become conscious of the reality of these deep things. You draw out of the child what is already there. As I say, every creature is Transcendence embodied, but that Transcendence in its embodiment is hidden. The embodying is an imprisoning effect, it is an enclosing effect. We have to try and free the child from the enclosing aspect of it and let its fundamental reality, its ultimate truth that it is Transcendence embodied, gradually emerge. This is the meaning of e-ducing, of e-ducating, to educate means to draw out of (educere, to draw out of). It is like that.
And it is a happy work, it is a fine work, it is a work which inevitably and invariably produces a condition and relationship of love, harmony, purity, goodness, wisdom, all these things, and beauty above all, because then the living human being actually flowers out. That human being is utterly beautiful. It is a case of having the ability to see the beauty. If one’s eye is single, one’s whole being is full of light, and because of that one will see beauty everywhere and in everybody and in everything. I have experienced this myself. In my unregenerate days which were not so very long ago I used to have very strong views, and critical views, about people who drank heavily and were a terrible sight, especially when we were living in Peckham. Twelve years we spent there and there were pubs close by, and sometimes (I was in my fifties then) when I used to see these drunken people come out, I used to feel such a reaction against them. Then gradually all that changed (not so gradually, it changed pretty quickly too). One day I saw somebody drunk, haggard looking, lined, come out, and suddenly I saw beauty, utter beauty, the hidden beauty which became open to me suddenly. When that sort of thing happens to you yourself at any time, anywhere, (it has to be a vital, living experience, the experience of that beauty must not be just a thought, something imposed by logical thinking, but a real, inward, conscious experience), once that happens then always you have the ability to see beauty where others would say, “What a mess”, and this, that and the other. But you can see it.
So now, the educating of the child by one’s living example and living influence is perhaps the supreme way in which one can open up the life of the child to religious living.