Dharma in the Arts: Finding Dharma in Children’s Books

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Contributed by Rhondda Smiley

As we each continue on our path and immerse ourselves in the Dharma, we begin to see it revealed all around us. Before we know it, everything in our world ” Hollywood movies, music, the Goldfish crackers package, billboards, the cashier at the supermarket, the boss, family ” seems to be working to help us get the message, to help us get out of our suffering.

I find the Dharma over and over again in children’s books. It makes sense that we would want to share stories with our children that encourage kindness and compassion, and help them to see clearly how the world is. As I further my studies of Buddhist scripture in the ACI courses, I find these words and messages echoed in the books I read with my daughter India. Here are a few that we love. I’m sure you can think of many more from your own experience, either that you pull off the shelf at your child’s bedtime, or dimly remembered from your own childhood.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble – written and illustrated by William Steig

Steig is best-known as the author of Shrek. But here is his touching story in which Sylvester and his family learn that others are “more precious than a wish-giving gem”, to quote the Lojong in Eight Verses. In this text, Kadampa Geshe Thangri Thangpa Dorje Seng-ge focuses on how the difficult people in our lives are to be treasured for the opportunities they give us to practice compassion and wisdom. This story shows how those very closest to us provide us with very similar opportunities to open our hearts fully, in both happy and challenging circumstances.

Sylvester is a young donkey who loves to collect interesting stones. One day he finds a captivating red pebble, which indeed is that very wish-giving gem – whatever Sylvester wishes comes true when he holds the magic pebble. But in a moment of mental affliction, when confronted by a fearful lion, he wishes himself into the form of a rock. The magic pebble is out of his reach, and he his unable to return to his former self.

His parents are heartbroken by Sylvester’s unexplained absence. The poignant illustrations sincerely convey their sorrow as they search for their son and finally resign themselves to having lost him forever. There is, however, a happy ending, with a euphoric reunion. Sylvester and his family decide to put the magic pebble safely away – “some day they might want to use it, but really, for now, what more could they wish for? They all had all that they wanted.”

Black Beauty – by Anna Sewell

Told in a first person narrative from the title horse’s point of view, Black Beauty chronicles his changing fortunes as he passes through the hands of masters both kind and cruel. In its time, the novel was not intended as a children’s tale, but as a serious call to Victorian society to examine the plight of animals. It describes in considerable detail popular practices of the time ” such as the use of bearing reins and blinkers ” that are painful and harmful to horses.

This book is a wonderfully sensitive entry into a contemplation of the suffering of animals, as one of the steps and stages of the Lam Rim. In Liberation in Our Hands, Pabongka Rinpoche urges us to feel in meditation that we have actually taken birth in one of the lower states, as a path to developing renunciation. He writes, “through meditation, we must evoke a vivid sense of what it would be like for us to be born as these beings and to undergo the same sufferings ourselves”. Black Beauty compassionately illustrates the animal sufferings of hunger and thirst, heat and cold, and exploitation, to name a few. There are happy times for Black Beauty, but the contrast between his good times and bad reminds us that even the most cosseted animals are not in control of their own welfare, depending entirely on their human masters.

The book is filled with memorable characters, both horse and human. Ginger and Merrylegs are Black Beauty’s equine companions at the happy Birtwick Park. There they are cared for by the kind and compassionate groom John Manly, who teaches his young apprentice Joe, “there is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham….”

Our family highly recommends The Whole Story edition of this book if you can find it. It provides wonderful commentary on the text, giving historical context, detailed explanations and period visual references (in addition to the illustrations throughout) that really made the story come alive for us.

The Country Bunny & the Little Gold Shoes – by DuBose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Flack

Did you know that there is not one, but five Easter Bunnies? They must be the kindest, the swiftest and the wisest of all the bunnies. When one gets too old for the job, Grandfather Rabbit chooses a successor. Every little bunny dreams of growing up to be an Easter Bunny. Little Cottontail shares this dream, though she is ridiculed by the fancy white and big, strong jack rabbits. Then one day, much to her surprise there were twenty-one Cottontail babies to take care of. She turns her attentions to raising her babies (did I mention she’s a single mother?). But when they are grown she tells them, “now we are going to have some fun”. Each offspring is given a job in taking care of their home and family ” cooking, cleaning, mending, gardening, making music or pictures.

When the time comes for the newest Easter Bunny to be selected, she is chosen as the wisest, kindest, swiftest and also cleverest bunny, as demonstrated in her ability to care for her family and home. She spends the night before Easter travelling the world to deliver eggs to little children. As the night wears on, Grandfather Bunny calls her, and presents her with the very loveliest egg of all (it glittered like a diamond). He tells her, “Because you have such a loving heart for children, I am going to give you the best but hardest trip of all, but if you get there you will give more happiness than any other Easter Bunny.”

She is to carry this egg to a sick boy at the top of an icy peak, over two rivers and past three mountains. She makes the arduous journey, but just before reaching the summit, slips, tumbles and injures her leg. Still she tries to get up to complete her task, as the sun is rising and she knows how sad the little boy would be without his egg. Grandfather Bunny appears to help her, proclaiming her not only the wisest, kindest, and swiftest, but also the bravest bunny, and gives her a pair of magical gold shoes. With these she alights and delivers her treasure.

You know those days when, if everything works like you’ve planned it, if every traffic light cooperates, you just might get everything you need to done and make it to the daycare on time for pickup? Those are the times my friend April quips, “where’s my cape?” I take my inspiration from Little Cottontail. She is a shining example of virya, or the Perfection of Joyful Effort. She models this goodness for her children, too. Household chores are fun, and everyone has a contribution to make ” the ones who paint pictures to pretty the place up are as important as those who make the beds. In the colourful retro illustrations, you can fairly see their home gleam, and hear the music and laughter that must fill the air of their country cottage, where there is hardly ever a tear or cross word. When her path becomes rough, and almost too much to bear, she rises up, powered by her consideration for another. In that moment, she experiences the grace that allows her to attain her goal.

1 comment on “Dharma in the Arts: Finding Dharma in Children’s Books”

  1. Alan Madsen says:

    So true…
    The better kid’s books offer so much distilled wisdom.


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