The Buddha's Apprentice : Children's Book Review

The Buddha's Apprentice at Bedtime, by Dharmachari Nagaraja

It's my fervent hope that the practice of reading stories at bedtime is not being superseded by the seductions of television and computers. There's an intimacy involved in sitting down with a book and reading aloud to a child that is missed in the more solitary experience you get in front of a screen or monitor. The "teaching" part goes beyond the relay of information and into the realm of the human heart, body contact, intonation, and relationship. My own children are grown now, but I believe that story time was an important and memorable part of their childhood experience, and one they pass on to their own children.

My youngest grandchild, little Luka, is not yet old enough to sit still for a story. At nineteen months, his little body resists the requirement of sitting still, and his hyperactive mind, that of paying attention. When he gets to be old enough, though, I'll be reading to him, starting with the nursery rhymes and fairy tales intended for the very youngest ears. It will be a little while before he's ready for something more sustained, but when he is, I'll look forward to reading him the stories from this book.

I have learned so much, myself, in recent years, from the teachings of the dharma that I would want to pass on to Luka, but the question is always, what is he ready for? I don't want to come across all preachy and heavy-handed, because that can as easily turn a young mind away as turn it on. But the stories in this book -- the subtitle calls them "Tales of Compassion and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child -- to Delight and Inspire" -- live up to their billing. They are good stories, adapted from traditional sources, based on the common values of kindness and compassion. Their teaching is exemplary rather than didactic, and each one has its own simplicity and charm. They are told in language that is comfortably readable, and are accompanied by brief, useful essays suggesting how they are best used.

Each of the stories begins with the injunction, "Relax, close your eyes, and imagine..."--an opening intended to introduce a child to the pleasantly attentive state of meditation; and in fact several meditation practices suitable for children are suggested in the last pages of the book. Since I have no children or grandchildren of appropriate age, I have no way of knowing how they might take to them. I have often wondered, though, when and how it might be possible to introduce a child to a practice that has become so meaningful in my own life, and would be curious to know what kind of response could be expected from those described. I'll admit to having my doubts, I suppose in part because it took me so many years, myself, to be ready for its benefits!

The acid test: would I read this book to Luka, when he's old enough? Absolutely. It's a book I'm sure any Buddhist-inclining parent would welcome in their children's library.

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