Buddhist Readiness

Alice looks down the Rabbit Hole

My kids have been a bit young for me to burden with philosophical conversations. But last night, during our evening ritual of laying next to each other in bed reading, my son looked over my shoulder and read a few sentences from a Buddhish philosophy book I was reading and laughingly said, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to read any more — this is saying we don’t exist. I can’t handle that.”

I agree.  At his age, he is busy trying to anchor down selves, identity and such.  He is not ready to handle this stuff.  As they say in education theory, he is not at a stage of learning readiness yet.

Question for Readers:

  • Theists:  Are there any central aspects in your Christianity that you feel must also heed learning readiness?
  • Atheists:  Any mathematical, epistemological or scientific info you feel is best to hold off from your kids until they are ready?
  • Buddhists:  How do you feel learning readiness applies to Buddhism?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “Buddhist Readiness

  1. Mathematical info? Definitely no Incompleteness Theorem until they’re at least Bar/Bat Mitzvah age!

    In reality I don’t think parental influence has much to do with it: some of the most traditionally “upsetting” things (eg. the fact of death, radical skepticism) are usually confronted by kids without much adult intervention. For the other things I think it’s more likely to follow the general learning curve anyway in terms of the pre-requisites of knowledge. For instance in the case of the denial of a unified self, some potential pre-requisites might be evolution, the materialistic explanation of the mind etc.

    How old is your kid? When these fears are displayed by adults (eg. evolution dehumanises us) it often means the person doesn’t understand the phenomenon in question to a sufficient degree of depth, it might be the same for children.

  2. Smile — Gödel & Escher will have to wait, agreed.
    My son is 10 years-old. It is not so much “fear” as it is that he readily says, “I am not ready yet.” He said that the first time I showed him pictures of external genitalia when he asked about them. Ooops. Bad Dad.

    I still say it is largely learning readiness. But I think you are right, if I understand you, I don’t have anything to do with that timing.

  3. DaCheese

    Of course there’s the counterpoint that exposing them to weird ideas early might short-circuit some the usual teen angst/rebellion turmoil that happens later. Kids of a certain age (say 10-12?) may actually be better equipped to deal with disturbing concepts than teenagers, whose turbulent emotions amplify and distort everything they think about.

    In my case, realizing the illogical nature of my parents’ religion early meant that I didn’t feel the need to “rebel” against it in my teenage years. By the time I was twelve, I had just accepted that my parents believed in silly stuff, but I loved them anyway.

    OTOH, I wasn’t exposed to enough philosophy as a child, so when I became a teenager and started to stumble into certain realizations on my own (issues of reality, identity, purpose, etc.), it had a really negative impact on me emotionally. I felt like I was the only one who’d figured it out, which just added to my sense of isolation. If I’d had prior exposure and a framework to help classify these issues, I might not have been as messed up as I was, or for as long.

  4. “Are there any central aspects in your Christianity that you feel must also heed learning readiness?”

    haha, the more i read of ultra-conservative Christianity the more and more i think this. they know what the bible “says”* not what it means. sometimes i think maybe the catholics had it right, keep things in Latin and away from the masses. but then my protestant side takes over and i set aside my intellectual snobbery.

    *and by says i mean being able to quote chapter and verse verbatim, nothing else.

  5. @ DaCheese :
    I love that. “Idea Innoculations”.
    Sorry for the isolation in your youth. Have you been able to reach out to kids going through the same since then?

    @ Zero1Ghost:
    I love that. The Bible needs learning readiness. I agree. To expect to understand an ancient document without understanding, history, how texts change, different systems of thought and so much more makes reading it at a young age almost a foolish venture. Heck, it is tough for adults. I agree that the Catholics could have been right in that, but they also but a death grip on orthodoxy.

  6. Ben Finney

    If they’re old enough to ask a question, I think it’s always true that they’re old enough to get a truthful, factual answer.

  7. @ Ben,
    Yeah, that is the policy I have been going by. But who knows, we shall wait and see! 🙂

  8. no wait, that’s no what i said at all! of course you can pick up a 2,000+/- year old document and completely understand it! d’uh!

    oh wait, yeah. you’re right, that’s what i said.

  9. My experience so far with my kids has been in line with what DaCheese says. I remember trying to explain that free will is an illusion, and having my oldest laugh at me. “That’s just stupid. I can decide to move my arm, and it moves!” Same with most of the other “profound” philosophical issues I’ve tried to explain to them. They’re unlikely to ever be impressed with the difficult philosophical problems, since that’s all stuff their dad used to ramble about, and their dad is just silly.

    As far as Biblical stuff goes, I don’t think it’s ever too early to have them read and discuss the stories. We do this regularly in our house — one of the kids will read a passage aloud, and then we’ll have several questions aimed at interpreting the meaning. The goal for me isn’t to inculcate them with answers at this point, but to get them in the habit of trying to understand the complex motivations and personalities of the characters involved. The Bible stories are as rich as any Shakespeare play, and I want them to be able to see this, rather than some platitude like “Hey kids, don’t eat apples!”. It also forces me to answer the tough questions that sometimes comes up.

  10. I agree, JS. In our family we discuss movies that way. We have read the Mahabharata and Jataka stories and discussed too. And I have a “Children’s Bible” that we read stories from — they laugh at many of them and see them as rightfully ridiculous. but they are impressed by others. The liked the one about Solomon threatening to divide the baby in half. They thought he was wise.

  11. Learning readiness is intrinsic to how Buddhism works. You could see experiential building blocks as the backbone of its structure. Take the 4 Noble Truths, for example, and the Eightfold Path. Each truth is an understanding of how things are, that leads to the discovery of the following one. You can’t appreciate the point of the practice offered in the Eightfold Path, if you haven’t ‘got’ the 4 Noble Truths.

    Many Buddhist paths involve a series of meditations, one leading to the next. From that point of view you could say that ‘learning readiness’ is the completion of one stage and the capacity to engage in the next. It’s not that anyone couldn’t skip the stages…just that nothing much might happen if they tried one without having gone through the preliminaries.

    I like how that fits with the development of Buddhist paths. Looking at the evolution of Buddhist ideas from a historiographical point of view, Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, is the end point; each vehicle (Sanskrit = ‘yana’) arises logically out of the previous one. For example, the first vehicle Shravakayana, the path of interest or study, leads naturally to Pratyekabuddhayana, the solitary practitioner trying things out for themselves. Each vehicle assumes the understanding of the previous ones and adds to them. (But from its own point of view, each path is entire in itself.)

    Dzogchen, has something akin to learning readiness built in to its approach. Because it views all Buddhist techniques and paths as method (a form with a function, rather than an ultimate truth), the practitioner regards practices of any path as options in a tool kit. Understanding your own capacity is an important part of learning. That’s also partly why the personal relationship with a teacher is so important in this style of Buddhism.

    There’s no hierarchy of learning from the Dzogchen perspective; it’s more like a latticework. If you have access to all sorts of methods, then the logic is to apply the most appropriate according to your capacity in any given moment. That way, you learn by doing, and application is increasingly less prescribed and more spontaneous. It’s a bit like any serious undertaking: the more you learn, the more you understand what you don’t know. When you start out, it’s difficult to measure what you don’t know. You can’t see it. Eventually you can, and finally, there’s not much left to see. 🙂

  12. Jeff

    Looking at the evolution of Buddhist ideas from a historiographical point of view, Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, is the end point; each vehicle (Sanskrit = ‘yana’) arises logically out of the previous one.

    Ordinarily, I don’t troll blogs, but I just stumbled upon this and had to comment. This is a perfect example of the triumphalism with which Tibetans have been indoctrinating Westerners for the past thirty odd years. They continually tell their acolytes that they alone have preserved the Dharma in all of its various forms, with, of course, the Tibetan version being the penultimate. As one fanatic told me, “These are the crème de la crème of Buddhist teachings.”

    The reality is that Tibetan Buddhism is like some sort of mythological hybrid creature from one of those old medieval bestiaries. It consists of a large philosophical corpus, containing some sophisticated ideas about the nature of reality and of the self, but it’s founded upon a metaphysical system straight out of the Middle Ages (which is where the Tibetans were until about fifty years ago) and it’s combined with a lot of superstitious and shamanic nonsense that the Tibetans teach their Western students to regard as the gospel truth (even doubting the lama’s word is grounds for rebirth in hell). They’ve been repeating for generations the same tired arguments, with little if any discernment or independent thought, and it’s a waste of time trying to refute them, not because they’re irrefutable but because the Tibetans are trapped in an anachronistic worldview and can’t see beyond it. I’ve yet to meet the lama who was capable of conceptualizing anything outside of the box in which he was raised. They’re as intractable, in their way, as are Christian fundamentalists.

    I want to make it clear that I am not a practitioner of another form of Buddhism, with an axe to grind. I have little use for Buddhism as a whole, but I consider Tibetan Buddhism to be the most egregious form. It doesn’t belong here in the West; it attracts fringe personalities and fosters fundamentalism. We have enough of that; we don’t need to start importing it from Asia. Even many Tibetans are beginning to drop it (and few of them are as heavily invested in it as the Westerners are, anyway).

    Now, of course, this young woman will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I obviously don’t have the karma to understand.

  13. @ Rin’dzin
    I like the notion of readiness in Vajrayāna — it is probably one of the most attractive elements I have always found in it. That plus its huge bag of tricks so that there is never a “one size fits all” approach.

    @ Jeff

    I agree with much of your criticism. However, your last paragraph’s rhetorical style of anticipating Rin’dzin’s answer was a bit distancing. Calling her a “young woman” as if that meant anything, was also a bit odd.

    But I agree that the categorizations that Nyingma (a branch of Tibetan Buddhism) seems to use is ripe with self-assured bias. I have seen other “inclusive” religions list other faiths on a stepping ladder of truth with themselves, of course, at the top. The methodology is questionable from the onset.

    Though as a method for understanding their own strivings it may be useful, taken as truth, it is degrading and deceptively simple. But it is a common religion rhetoric.

    I think Rin’dzin would would see all paths as valuable and, as she said, more like “a latticework” with “no hierarchy”, nonetheless, the hierarchy is obviously there. As in the re-marketing of much of Buddhism, old models are often remolded with new caveats and safeguards and new psychological interpretations so as to stay “Traditional” and “adaptive” all at the same time.

    I look forward to Rin’dzin and your responses.

  14. Jeff

    Calling her a “young woman” as if that meant anything, was also a bit odd.

    I just meant that I’m older.

  15. Perhaps, she is a spry 72 year-old due to years of abiding in a ‘ higher’ yana.

    Pecked out quickly on my DROID phone !

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