Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day?

Man, I loves me some Buddhism.

It's all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I'm certain he would be a self-help guru. He'd make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don't need to believe in a deity at all), it's still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.

So here's a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it's being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother's side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha's mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king's palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or "holy man" — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his "Enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha.

What's the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa (A second translation is here), The DhammapadaThe Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.

The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they'll  have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha's 10 precepts and teachings.

Conveying meaning to kids: It's never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there's one thing I've learned about talking to kids about religion, it's that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statue or statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you're just more likely to hold the kid's attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.

This post originally appeared in April 2012.

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part II)

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Are you looking to introduce religion to your child in a neutral and decidedly non-devotional way, but don't know where to start? Do you lack the knowledge you think you should have? Do your eyes sort of glaze over when you hear the words "religious literacy?" Then this shopping guide is for you! In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I've amassed some of my favorite resources in hopes that you'll encourage your child to learn a bit more about the religious world around them — and have some fun while they're at it. This is the second of two parts; the first is here. 11. DK Children’s Illustrated Bible. You just can't do religious literacy without a Bible in the house, folks, and not all of them are created equal. The DK, with stories retold by Selina Hastings and pictures by Eric Thomas, is the best I've seen on a number of levels. Small, compact, accurate, and readable, it's also packed with excellent illustrations and photographs. In second place: The Kingfisher Children's Illustrated Bible. Available on Amazon for $9.35

12. Plush Krishna: As a kid in the '70s, "Krishna" was a word I heard only when "Hare" was in front of it. I have vivid memories of bald-headed Hare Krishnas dressed in robes and handing out flowers at the airport. (They rarely do that anymore, I'm told.) I didn't know until I was well into adulthood that Krishna was actually a flute-playing, blue-tinged Hindu deity, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Krishna is hugely important in Hinduism, and ubiquitous in artwork all over the world, which makes him a natural choice for a stuffed friend. Plus, he's cute as all get-out. Available from Gopal Soft Toys: $41.95

13. Alphabet Kaba. This is such a cool toy! The Alphabet Kaba is a rendition of the classic alphabet blocks, this time depicting both English and Arabic letters and numbers, and stored inside a wooded Kaaba — which, if you remember from this post, is the name of the black-shrouded building in the center of Mecca. It is toward the Kaaba that all Muslims throughout the world pray five times a day. A great little piece of knowledge for kids to grasp. Available from Islamic Goods Direct for about 8 pounds (or $12.85)

14. Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places. Native American traditions deserve as much attention as any other system of religious belief, especially considering their role in the history of the Americas. Written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Thomas Locker, this book depicts a conversation between Little Turtle and his uncle, Old Bear. It also includes a neat map of North America back when it was just tribal territories, as well as a pronunciation guide. There are a lot of beautiful books about the tales and legends of native American religion, but this one will get you started. (Amazon, $7)

15. Yoga mat: In the course of only a couple of decades, yoga has gone from a relatively unknown activity to completely mainstream. Some yoga studios regularly schedule kids' classes, and even schools have begun offering yoga as physical education (with mixed results, unfortunately). There is absolutely no "religion" in any of the yoga classes I've attended over the years — it's all about deep breathing, deep stretching, and clearing the mind — but yoga did start out as a religious practice and still is used that way by millions of people. Let's not forget to make that connection for our children! Available on Amazon: $15 and up.

16. Bang! How We Came to Be. Religious beliefs are fascinating, and understanding them bring us closer as human beings. But science is equally fascinating and equally likely to bring us closer together as human beings. The science of evolution is incredibly important for kids to understand, and the sooner the better. This one breaks down evolution in language even little ones can enjoy. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but can't wait. Available on Amazon: $11.56

17. Muhammad by Demi. The famed illustrator created this breathtaking book a couple of years ago — managing to do what few others have done: Illustrate Muhammad without suffering a major backlash from the Muslim community, which strictly forbids depictions of the prophet. Demi treads the line beautifully and respectfully by putting Muhammad in a golden shadow throughout the book. Very imaginative. The story, also, is accurate and well-told. Great for kids 9-ish and up. Available on Amazon: $14.96

18. Jewish Holiday Calendar Magnets. One of the best ways to teach kids about Judaism is to honor some of the many Jewish holidays.  There are plenty to choose from — and this 14-piece magnet set can attest to that. Most Jewish holidays center on significant events and legends from Hebrew history. I adore these magnets, which can be used as space holders on magnetic calendars or as conversation starters for little ones. Available on Etsy: $16 for the set.

19. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. This is a must read, in my opinion. Gorgeously illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska, The Golden Rule tells the story of a little boy who sees a billboard while walking with his grandfather. The billboard says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." What follows is a sweet, poignant discussion about "the Golden Rule," where it comes from (it predates Jesus by a lot) and why it's so important. It also goes through each religion's iteration of the Golden Rule. I love this book. For children ages 4 to 10. Available on Amazon for $11.53.

20. Pocket Buddhas.Because they're small, cute, and — well, do you really need a third reason? Available from Amazon: $8.95 apiece.

 

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part I)

In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I'm offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won't buy but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Seriously, if you want some assistance in "introducing" world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I'll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday. Don't look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I'll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.

1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as "a picture book for all ages," People is the best celebration of diversity I've ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it's all the more important. You'd never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of "communication." Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most "modern" communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36

2. "What Do You Believe?" This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it's not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect.  This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I'd get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55

3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)

4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It's such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it's got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park's version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89

5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It's a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I'm TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it's a photo series on  documenting the Arab woman's experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99

6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow.  When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It's small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82

7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let's get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the "magic" believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74

8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it's expensive. So I'm doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it's terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the "artifacts" in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)

9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the "humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike." Kimberly said her kids loved it. I'm definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26

10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that "Pooh's Way" is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It's very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59

For Part II, click here.

 

Judge Not, for There are Few Things More Annoying than a Judgey-Ass Parent

On Monday, I'll publish my highly anticipated 10 Commandments For Talking to Kids About God. Yes, I said anticipated. Maybe not literally anticipated, but anticipated in a greatly-exaggerated-so-as-to-build-hype sort of a way — which is also important. Just not literally important. Anyway, in the meantime, I thought I'd preface my list with a gentle reminder: No matter how you choose to handle religion (or any other subject!) with your own child, try not to go all judgey on parents who have chosen different paths.

This is a tough one. We parents are, by nature, so damn self-righteous. You know it’s true. We might not consider ourselves perfect parents, but that doesn’t stop us from noticing all the ways in which we’re superior to others — especially when something is important to us and we truly believe our way is the right way.

But the thing about parental judgeyness? It's highly annoying and almost never helpful.

Take, for example, my decision to be open about my beliefs with my daughter. Some will think this is a great idea; others will think it's a tremendously bad idea. So which is it? How the hell should I know? My kid's only 6. This one decision could lead to something really great for my kid, or it could lead to something really bad, or it could lead to something just fine. I won't know until she's, like, 80, at which point it's very likely I won't care anymore.

Not to go all Buddhist on you (too late), but it’s a fallacy to label things as good or bad. Because life is an evolving story — one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. We make our choices with the hope that they will lead only to good things. But we know, too, that we're limited by our resources, experiences, knowledge and personalities — as well as the personalities of our children.

You might lament how your neighbor is bringing up her kid. Maybe you think it's a shame that Little Joe has to go to church and pray at dinner and believe in the power of Jesus Christ. But what kind of kid is Joe? Is he nice? Does your kid like him? If so, maybe give the religious stuff a pass.

If your friends or family members are hurting their kids, I trust that you’ll step in and take action. Short of that, though, try observing others' decisions, rather than judging them. Maybe say to yourself. "Wow, that doesn't appeal to me. But I wonder if it will turn out to be a good thing, a bad thing or a neutral thing."

Now is the point where I start to hear my friends clearing their throats in the background. (Quiet down out there!) So let me admit, openly and without hesitation, that I may be the writer here but I'm not the role model. I often find myself in the position of Sir Judge-a-Lot, and must remind myself that what seems weird, nonsensical or poorly considered to me actually could work out great for others. Judgeyness (which I wish WordPress would stop underlining with red dots) is like any other addiction; we must combat it one day at a time.

Luckily, the payoff is immediate. Time and again, I find that when I stop judging and start observing with compassion, I begin to look inward — at what I can learn, not what I can teach. My stress is lowered, my friendships are stronger, and my heart is happier.

And, as if that weren't enough, I'm a better parent, too.