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The Buddha's Children Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality by Alexander von Gontard Book

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The Buddha's Children Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality by Alexander von Gontard Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: In this book, Alexander von Gontard, a child psychiatrist, uses the language, thought and imagery of Buddhism to explore the spirituality of children. The book begins by exploring the Buddha's own childhood and the 'divine child' in Buddhism, a key archetype in Jungian psychology. The author defines the spirituality and religiosity of children and adolescents and identifies manifestations of spirituality in children, such as experiences of awe and wonder, and favourable conditions for spirituality, such as silence, nature, extreme conditions and mindfulness. Drawing on his own experience working with children in therapeutic practice, von Gontard discusses the parallels between spontaneous spirituality seen in childhood and the Buddha's teachings. Revealing how the spiritual insights and experiences of children and adolescents can uncover a deep and wise understanding of human life that is compatible with the Buddha's teachings, this book will be of particular interest to professionals and academics in psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, education and religious studies. 

The Buddha's Children Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality by Alexander von Gontard Book Read Online Epub - Pdf File Download More Ebooks Every Category Go Ebooks Libaray Online Website.

The Buddha's Children Buddhist Understanding of Childhood Spirituality by Alexander von Gontard Book Read Online Chapter One




The story of the Buddha (563–483 BCE) is easily told. He was born under the name of Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago, in Lumbini, now part of present-day Nepal. He was the son of the local ruler.1 His mother died a week after his birth, whereupon he was raised by his stepmother and his father in a life of material luxury. As a young man of 29 years, he left his wife and new-born child to seek deep realisations and understandings of life. His first spiritual approach to enlightenment was through asceticism. Having starved himself to an extremely emaciated condition, he realised that neither luxury and indulgence nor extreme restriction would offer insight, but only the middle way. After regaining strength and sitting for a prolonged time in meditation under a Bodhi tree, at the age of 35 years, he came to deep realisations (enlightenment), which were so profound that he initially remained silent. When he did start to teach, the Buddha (the enlightened one, as he was called by now) quickly gathered a large following and continued to travel and to share freely his wisdoms and insights with everyone. He had the good fortune of reaching the age of 80 years and was able to continue teaching right up to his death. The essence of his teachings is so practical, helpful and useful that they continue to reach humans all over the world – even to this day, 2500 years later.

This is the story in a nutshell. As John Strong (2009) has pointed out, there is not one story of the Buddha but many stories with great variations of themes, depending on the historical sources, translations and re-translations. One must remember that the talks and teachings of the Buddha were passed on by oral tradition for centuries. Much later, only around 80 BCE, were they written down. This timescale would be comparable to William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616 CE) plays being passed on orally, told and translated repeatedly and finally written down in our time. The basic plots of his plays would have been retained, but the language will have been transformed greatly in the process.

In addition to the original texts of the Buddha, which were written in an ancient language called Pali, there are translations and re-translations in many other Asian languages (such as Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit). In the process, new versions and additions emerged. One can easily imagine that, in the long process of oral transmission, details might have been changed, although the essence of the teachings will have been preserved. As we shall see later, the grouping of the Buddhist teachings into distinct themes will have been an invaluable aid for the transmission over so many centuries.

If one looks at the Buddha’s life history, two strands can be identified. The first is the story of the Buddha’s own life as a historical person, who was born and who passed through the stages of childhood and adolescence, just as every human being does. It is astonishing how many historical facts are available regarding his extraordinary life – even 2500 years later. These will be summarised in the next section.

The second strand deals with the Buddha as a supernatural, magical being with superhuman capacities – but not as a historical person like you and me. This strand of transmission shows the young Buddha with all the qualities of a ‘divine child’ according to the archetypal concept of Carl Jung. In this function, the divine Buddha child can provide solace, hope and trust in the future. The fictional or mythological Buddha will be dealt with in a later section.

For the historical strand of the Buddha’s biography, I will refer to the classical book of H.W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha (2016), first published in 1982. For the second strand, the fictional Buddha, Strong’s biography (2009) provides invaluable information. In keeping with the theme of this book, the focus will be on the Buddha’s own childhood and adolescence.


Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BCE in the village of Lumbini, now located in southern Nepal. He spent all of his life in an area of 600 km by 300 km in Northern India, an area of fertile plains bordering on high mountains in the north.

I find it very difficult to imagine what India must have been like such a long time ago. It must have been a sparsely populated, quiet, agriculturally cultivated and beautiful country – very unlike modern Indian cities with the noise of congested traffic, air pollution, plastic rubbish by the sides of the streets and people everywhere.2 It must have been similar to the rural India which I recall as a child. I remember bullock carts with two huge wooden wheels, wandering cows (although cows were not considered holy in the Buddha’s times) (Schumann 2016, p.206), clay huts, farmers on the fields, central village wells, the smell of cow dung fires – and, of course, no electricity. Could the villages have been a bit like that so long ago?


Village scene in Sarnath, Northern India. This is where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Rural life has not changed much since the Buddha‘s times.

Yet, as Schumann points out, the main location of the Buddha’s teaching activity was not in the villages but in the towns and the cities: ‘We hear too of villages and peasants, but it is above all the towns that formed the background of the Buddha’s mission; they are the focal points of a flourishing and political life’ (2016, p.2). These were completely different from modern Indian cities. Often there were fortresses with big city walls and moats, close to rivers, with palaces, bazaars and living quarters. Outside the cities, there were parks and gardens where wanderers met (2016, p.13).

The sixth century BCE was a time of spiritual upheaval and of reaction against established religious traditions, which had become too mechanistic and dogmatic. The time was ripe for a change, comparable to the social upheavals and spiritual questioning of the 1960s. Siddhartha Gautama was not the only founder of a spiritual tradition at this time. As Schumann shows, the Buddha had several rival spiritual contemporaries, the most important contender of whom was Mahavira. He was the founder of Jainism, a highly ascetic religious sect which has a great following in India today, but which has less appeal to Westerners.

At that time, Northern India was divided into kingdoms and republics. Interestingly, Siddhartha Gautama’s father was not a king, but a ruler of the Republic of the Sakyas, which nowadays is the border area of Northern India and Nepal. The Sakyas were warriors, administrators and judges, who elected their own president or ruler. At that time, the warrior caste ranked higher in society than other castes such as the Brahmins, the priests. Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, was the chief of the Sakyas by vote and not by birthright – and Siddhartha Gautama was his first son (Schumann 2016, p.6).

According to the historical legends, his mother Maya was 40 years old at the time of his birth. Even nowadays, the first delivery of 40-year-old mothers carries a much higher risk for both mother and child before, during and after birth. Maya wanted to deliver her baby at the home of her parents. She travelled by oxcart over hot and dusty roads, but did not make it to her destination in time. In Lumbini (southern Nepal), Siddhartha was born – with Maya apparently in a standing position but holding on to the branches of a sal tree – without any medical assistance. The sal tree is an evergreen hardwood tree, which can reach heights of 30 to 35 metres. It is common in the Indian subcontinent and carries large green leaves. Ever since then, it has become a symbol of impermanence in Buddhism.


Frieze of Queen Maya giving birth to her son, Siddhartha Gautama. She is holding on to the branches of a sal tree in a standing position. Her baby is being born from the right side of her body, adorned with a halo, received by a midwife – or by the god Indra, according to the legends.

After delivery, Maya was exhausted and returned to her home town of Kappilavathu. While the baby was fine, Maya developed a fever and, tragically, died a week later (Schumann 2016, p.9). Even nowadays, the maternal death rate is high in developing countries without adequate medical care. According to World Bank statistics, the worldwide maternal mortality rate has fortunately dropped in the past 25 years. However, great differences exist between countries even in 2014: while the maternal mortality rate was 6 per 100,000 live births in Germany (9 in the UK and 14 in the USA), it remained high in India at 174 (World Bank 2014). It can be speculated that it must have been much higher in the Buddha’s time, meaning that many children became half-orphans by surviving their mothers at birth.

Siddhartha, the one-week-old half-orphan, was fortunate: his aunt and future stepmother, who had just given birth to his half-brother Nanda, looked after, raised and breastfed him so that at no time was he without care and nurturing.

In a recent review, Fisher (2015) summarised the extant literature on adoption and fostering. Foster and adoptive children are at risk for many negative outcomes, including mental health, and developmental and neurological difficulties, especially if they have experienced neglect and multiple placements (i.e. changes of caregivers). If they are well looked after, the developmental risks are not increased and children can actually develop a higher degree of resilience, which is a protective factor. Therefore, as Siddhartha Gautama was well looked after and nurtured by his stepmother, one can presume that he did not necessarily carry a higher risk of developmental and psychological disorders.

According to the legends, at the age of three days, the new-born Siddhartha was greeted by a wise old man called Asita, who prophesied that he would become a Buddha – an enlightened person. Eight other Brahmin priests who performed the naming ceremony also prophesied success for the child – either in the field of religion as a Buddha or in worldly realms as a ruler.

Both predictions must have been worrying for his father, who had to cope with the loss of his wife and probably desired nothing more than for his son to follow in his footsteps and to become a wise governor and ruler. These parental wishes can be understood as projections. Projections are expectations which are often harboured unconsciously by parents and projected onto their children. They can be positive and negative, realistic and unrealistic. These projections are no problem if they have a positive content and are realistic. However, they can be detrimental if negative feelings, unresolved biographical issues and own difficult experiences, such as trauma and maltreatment, are projected by parents onto their children.

In summary, children are the recipients of human projections and expectations: ‘Children in all contexts are likely to receive a heavy dose of adult projections and to bear the weight of parental expectations’ (Sasson 2013, p.11). Problems can arise when parental expectations and the child’s temperament and core personality are so different that they clash. As we shall see, Siddhartha Gautama was well cared for and looked after from infancy onwards, and was spoilt materially in every possible way, which can also be a developmental risk. According to one study, affluent American adolescents had a higher tendency to strive for outside success and high achievement, but for girls the emphasis was often on physical appearance to gain popularity, while for boys it could involve substance abuse to fit in with their peers, or exploitative behaviour (Miller 2015, pp.224–225).

Fortunately, Siddhartha Gautama did not succumb to the lure of his affluence – and did not fulfil his father’s expectations, as his father’s projections and his temperament were too different from his own. Also, he felt a calling to follow his own spiritual path, a process Jung called ‘individuation’. Indeed, individuation is associated with two movements: one of separation, and one of connection and rejoining, as the Jungian analyst Murray Stein (2006) outlined. Individuation entails both the search for one’s own identity, to become the person one is, and also to see that one is always connected with others. It can also be seen as a vocation that needs to be fulfilled – in Siddhartha Gautama’s case to become a spiritual teacher rather than a worldly ruler. To prevent this from happening, his father tried to keep him apart from the plights of ordinary people, and to indulge him in every way possible.

What do we know about Siddhartha’s childhood? It is not much, but certainly more than we know, for example, about the early years of Jesus Christ. Actually, there are only a few scenes in the Bible of Jesus as a child, for example when he ran away from his parents and remained in the temple, which will be dealt with in a later section.

Siddhartha Gautama grew up in such wealth that all of his wishes were fulfilled. Still, he was not interested in practical activities such as agriculture, or martial activities, which must have been extremely worrying and difficult to accept for his father and his family (Schumann 2016, p.24). Instead, he was drawn to philosophising, contemplating and meditating, quite a contrast to what was expected of a future statesman. As Schumann put it:

the Gautama family, observing with anxiety this unworldliness and curiosity about the transcendental, tried as far as possible to put a stop to this. When the legend tells us that Suddhodana guarded his son from contact with the world in order to keep the sight of suffering from him, the real reason may have been to keep him from renouncing the world. (Schumann 2016, p.29)

Later in the book, Schumann describes the differences between father and son:

If Suddhodana…had hoped that his eldest son would turn out as a robust man of action, taking interest in the world and being politically ambitious, he was disappointed. Not attracted by jolly group games and military exercises, the young man had become a loner, far too much inclined to philosophical speculations and spiritual contemplations. Instead of enjoying the pleasures of his position, he had developed his own standards and, therefore, was dissatisfied with the world and suffering from its inadequacies. At the same time, he meditated on how, subjectively, to transcend the world. In short, he was in psychological terms the sensitive, habitually introverted intellectual type. It was hardly surprising that household and married life did not satisfy him, and that he seized the opportunity to renounce the world as a samana [monk]. (Schumann 2016, p.195)

In summary, Siddhartha grew up in a palace and all of his material needs were more than covered. As he recounted, ‘I lived a spoilt, very spoilt life’ (Schumann 2016, p.23). When he was 16 years of age (547 BC), he married his cousin Yasodhara, but it took another 13 years until his son Rahula was born. Overall, there is a lack of rebelliousness in Siddhartha’s adolescence. However, his disenchantment with his materially satiated life finally led him to abandon his previous life as a young adult at the age of 29 years.

From early on, Siddhartha must have felt a strong calling towards spiritual life. His inherent spontaneous spirituality, which all humans are blessed with, was simply so overwhelming that he had to follow it. Twenty-five centuries later, Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the wisest and most well-known contemporary Buddhist teachers, recounted a similar calling as a child. In a moving interview (Winfrey 2010), he was asked by Oprah Winfrey:

OW: ‘Any wonderful memory that you can share of your childhood – your favourite childhood memory?’

TNH: ‘One day I saw a picture of the Buddha on a Buddhist magazine and he was sitting on the grass.’

OW: ‘How old were you?’

TNH: ‘Seven, eight…and he was sitting on the grass very peaceful…smiling…and I was impressed. Around me, people were not like that, so I had the desire to be someone like him. And I nourished that kind of desire until the age of sixteen when I had the permission of my parents to go and ordain as a Buddhist monk.’

OW: ‘What did these urgings, this sense of this what I must do, I must become…what did that feel like?’

TNH: ‘I would not be happy if I had not become a monk and that is the feeling.’

What is expressed beautifully in this interview is the strong spiritual calling of a young child who knew exactly and intuitively what his path in life would be. While Thich Nhat Hanh was able to ordain at an early age as an adolescent, Siddhartha Gautama had to wait until he was 29 years old to take the big step.

In his biography, three scenes of Siddhartha Gautama stand out: the experience of deep meditative states as a child under the rose-apple tree, the four excursions and the great departure as a young adult. These will be dealt with in the following passages.


The rose-apple tree scene seems trivial, but actually plays a pivotal role in the biography of the Buddha. It is so important because Siddhartha Gautama ‘tasted the possibility of liberation for the first time – something universally available to anyone who tries’ (Sasson 2013, p.82). The rose-apple tree is a low-branching shrub, which can reach heights of up to 15 metres, carrying fruits similar to guavas.

The ploughing festival was an important celebration at court. Everyone appeared in his or her best attire. Suddhodana took his son and his nurses to the field and Siddhartha Gautama sat under a rose-apple tree in the shade. In this famous ‘ploughing scene’, the Buddha watched his father ploughing a field during a ceremony to assert his sovereignty as the ruler.

Sitting under the rose-apple tree, he entered into deep meditation. In one version in the texts, he continued to sit in the shade of the tree, even though the shade of all other trees had moved. He realised that, even in this important ceremonial event, there is suffering for living beings, for the insects and worms which are churned up by the ploughs and then eaten by the birds. In other texts, adornments to the story include that the plough killed a frog and a snake, as well. A young boy nearby grabbed the frog to eat and threw away the snake. Also, Siddhartha Gautama felt deep empathy for humans, for the labourers sweating under the sun, and for the hardships the oxen had to endure by pulling the plough (Sasson 2013, p.83). In contrast to his father, who was ploughing and thereby creating pain, Siddhartha Gautama stood back and distanced himself from the worldly role of his father, thereby underlining his role as a monk.

In the ‘Greater Discourse to Saccaka’ (Buddha, Middle Length Discourses 1995, sutra 36, para.31) the scene is described in detail:

I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realisation: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’

Under the rose-apple tree, Siddhartha Gautama entered into the first of four absorptions, called jhanas in Pali. The four absorptions are deep meditative states starting with inner happiness, followed by sublime joy, equanimity and the fourth stage of clear insight, called ‘neither pleasure nor pain’ (see Titmuss 1998, pp.188ff.). The first meditative stage of inner happiness is characterised by joy, calmness and focused attention. It is a subjectively deep and moving stage of meditation that can be enhanced by focusing on an object, typically on the breath. By watching the breath come and go, quietness naturally comes and calmness progresses to even deeper stages of absorption. As pleasant as these meditative experiences are, they are not a prerequisite to insight and understanding. Some people never reach these stages, but nonetheless show great wisdom – while others might enter the jhanas easily and become attached and try to re-enact these special feelings.

Without a doubt, children can experience stages of inner happiness spontaneously, for example when they are overwhelmed by nature. Experiencing this stage of absorption can act as a reminder of the possibilities of spiritual life. When the young Siddhartha Gautama went into this stage, he was both alone and not alone. In the presence of his father ploughing a field, he was physically close to his father and what he represented, and this must have felt very familiar and maybe even consoling and stabilising. At the same time, this must have been a completely new realm of spiritual experience that he experienced alone – deep joy, happiness and compassion for all living beings. He must have felt what in Christian terms would be called being in touch with ‘the heavenly Father’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’. These feelings can be positive, as in the case of Siddhartha Gautama. However, as all spiritual experiences, they can have a negative tinge and induce a feeling of separation and distance. Both types of experience can have lifelong implications and be important turning points. As we shall see later, the memory of the rose-apple scene as a child was so powerful for Siddhartha Gautama as an adult that he stopped his experiments with starvation and asceticism.

Jung described a similar scene when he was walking to school – that is, in an everyday situation. In 1959, John Freeman, the deputy editor of the New Statesman and later ambassador to India, conducted the famous BBC interview with Jung, which can be watched in its entire length on YouTube and elsewhere (BBC 1959). When Freeman asked, ‘Do you remember the first occasion when you felt consciousness of your own individual self?’, the 84-year-old Jung answered:

That was in my eleventh year. There I suddenly was on my way to school, I suddenly stepped out of a mist. It was just as if I had been in the mist, walking in the mist, and I stepped out of it and I knew, ‘I am. I am what I am.’ And then I thought, ‘But what have I been before?’ And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing how to differentiate my self from things. I was just one thing among other things.

Jung could not recount any precipitating events prior to this spiritual experience; he was going to school as he did every day. However, after the event he knew that something had changed. He had gained consciousness and a feeling of identity. At the same time, he felt a distance to and estrangement from his father. He realised fully that his father, too, was not infallible: ‘It was hanging together with the fact that I was, and from there on I saw that my father was different.’

Jung uses the symbol of the mist or fog to convey the dramatic change, which occurred to him in an everyday setting, the way to school. In a thick fog, vision is limited to the next few feet in front of oneself – everything else has vanished. Objects lose their three-dimensionality and only two-dimensional contours in grey remain. Yet, the objects have not disappeared; they are only momentarily not visible. As soon as the mist lifts, the full range of impressions returns. Jung says that as a child he lived in a mist – not different from other things. When he suddenly steps out of the mist, an irreversible shift of perception happens: he sees clearly, perceives himself as an individual – and his father as a human being with shortcomings, not the omnipotent and infallible father of this childhood.

This description bears many similarities with the Buddha’s teachings. When one sees reality clearly, the mist will disappear. Or, using a different symbol, behind the clouds one can see the sky, which has always been there. In other words, one knows, one does not have to believe, which is a hallmark of deep spiritual understanding.

These experiences cannot be summoned by will – they occur spontaneously. They were remembered decades later by Jung, and this was the true turning point for him. As with all deep experiences, there is no way back. Jung stated that from then onwards his view of his father changed: the childlike perception of an omnipotent parent was lost irrevocably and forever. Jung said that his father had become fallible.

Later in the interview, Jung is asked by John Freeman, ‘Do you now believe in God?’, upon which Jung hesitated and answered, ‘Now? Difficult to say. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.’

It is this type of knowing which is an indication of true understanding. When one has understood, one truly knows. In addition, this knowing remains lifelong. The scene is still so vivid and alive that Jung is touched by it 73 years later in the latter part of his life. Many children experience states of absorption like Siddhartha Gautama or Carl Jung.

I remember sitting by a lake in India among shrubs and looking at the muddy shore. I must have been five years old. An intense feeling of timelessness and expansiveness came over me, as I listened to the waves splashing. They were too small to actually break at the shore. The sounds of the waves were unreal and seemed to emerge from a long distance away, even though the waves were just a few feet away. Ever since then, meditating by water and witnessing waves has been very dear to me. Waves are a much-loved symbol of the non-duality of ultimate and relative life. On the one hand, a wave is part of the ocean; on the other hand, the ocean would not be an ocean without the waves. The two are inseparable and a wonderful symbol of life – unifying the large and the small picture.

These childhood impressions had a deep and important effect throughout my life. For many years, we spent the summer holidays in Greece. A place I especially liked was a small lighthouse overlooking the sea from a cliff. I would sit for hours in meditation, listening to the wind and the splashing noise of the waves at the rocks. Sometimes dolphins would swim by, and, with eyes closed, I noted the spraying sounds as they jumped out of the water and back again. When I opened my eyes, I would see the deep blue colour of the Mediterranean below, and the infinite blue sky above, in deep reverence.

Waves and oceans have been the symbol for the ultimate and the relative – in childhood and in adulthood – for many people. The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh used the symbol of the waves beautifully:

Some waves on the ocean are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and to die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for the wave is the moment the wave realises that it is water. At that moment, all fear of death disappears. (Hanh 2007, p.38)

What he is saying here is that our relative life and the ultimate are never separate, even though we often do not realise this simple truth. The waves change, but the water does not. Once we do see clearly, everything fits into place and we feel at ease:

Even while living in the world of waves, we touch the water, knowing that a wave is nothing but water. We suffer if we touch only the wave, but if we learn how to stay in touch with the water, we feel the greatest relief. (Hanh 2007, p.153)

This relief comes with accepting transience and impermanence as intrinsic parts of the relative human life, while the ultimate does not change:

Once you are capable of catching the water, you will not mind the coming and going of the waves. You are no longer concerned about the birth and the death of the wave. You are no longer afraid. You are no longer upset about the beginning or the end of the wave, or that the wave is higher or lower, more or less beautiful. You are capable of letting these ideas go because you have already touched the water. (Hanh 2007, p.157)


Children just love the ocean and the waves, which are prime symbols of their relative and universal nature, that is, their spirituality.

In summary, Siddhartha Gautama and most children experience deep spiritual insights, which are often expressed in symbols such as the rose-apple tree, the mist or the waves. As we shall see later, these insights appear spontaneously, as children and adolescents carry a natural capacity towards spirituality. This capacity does not disappear with adulthood, as the biography of the Buddha reveals. The two pivotal experiences that mark the Buddha’s biography beyond adolescence, that is, as a young adult, were the four excursions (also known as the four signs) and the great departure, his renunciation.


This famous series of four events describes Siddhartha Gautama witnessing old age, sickness and death when he finally leaves the palace as a young man. As Schumann recounts, Siddhartha Gautama left his palace walls on four occasions riding a four-horse chariot (Schumann 2016, p.44). On the first occasion, he saw an ageing man approaching death. On the following excursions, he witnessed a sick man, a corpse and a monk. Realising the limitations and transience of life, his wish was formed to become a monk. Just at this time his son Rahula was about to be born.

It is hard to believe that Siddhartha Gautama could have grown up in such a protected environment until the age of 29 years. Reflecting on my own childhood in India, as Western children we grew up in a protected compound with a house and beautiful gardens, surrounded by a high wall. Outside the wall, just a few yards away, the real, pulsating and chaotic life of India was to be experienced. I remember the sight of beggars stricken by leprosy just outside by the road. As children, we tried to escape from this protected and confining environment from time to time, for example by walking back from school, even though it was strictly forbidden by our parents. Some people were selling peanuts and sweets, which we loved, to us children. One day, I witnessed a funeral procession in the streets, which was a public event. Lying on a horse-drawn cart, and accompanied by mourning family members, the dead man was not in a coffin, but lying open on the cart and wrapped in white cotton, visible for everyone. For the first time in my life, I saw a corpse. I must have been seven years of age and was deeply touched by realising that people actually stop living and that life is not endless. This image left a very strong impression and has remained with me ever since.

My own excursions happened at a much younger age than those of Siddhartha Gautama and had less impact. Siddhartha Gautama was shaken and struck by what he had seen, which are universal predicaments of life – ageing, sickness and death – as well as the role model of a monk on his spiritual search.


It must have been a time of great inner turmoil when Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave his family. As Schumann (2016) points out, Siddhartha Gautama was not able to look at or touch his new-born son in fear that he would not be able to leave. Instead, he fled at midnight on his horse, accompanied by a servant. His wife Yasodhara was lying asleep with his new-born son Rahula lying in her arms when he abandoned his young family.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine that Siddhartha Gautama actually called his son Rahula, which means fetter, bondage, impediment, chain and restraint – not a very nice name for a baby. One can witness such negative projections in psychotherapy and family counselling, when parents harbour deep resentments towards their children. These negative projections can be so virulent that parents use such names as ‘monster’, ‘tyrant’ and ‘nail in my coffin’ – even for infants.

Siddhartha Gautama must have felt that family life would be a hindrance to his spiritual calling. At the same time, his sacrifice of his family has become an ideal of renunciation ever since. This event can be seen critically, if followed literally, as, for example, Sasson writes: ‘The future Buddha abandons his new-born son for the sake of an abstract ideal’ (2013, p.2) and thereby creates a role model for the abandonment of children. While this huge sacrifice of his family seemed to be the only way out for Siddhartha Gautama in his spiritual quest, this model of renunciation is not a prerequisite for a spiritual life. To the contrary, raising children, witnessing their growth and participating in the wonder of their developing life can be both challenging and a true spiritual task, as described by the Kabat-Zinns in their book on parenting:

Parenting is one of the most challenging, demanding, and stressful jobs on the planet. It is also one of the most important, for how it is done influences in great measure the heart and soul and consciousness of the next generation… (Kabat-Zinn and Kabat-Zinn 1997, p.13)

Titmuss (2015a) critically addressed the family relationships of Siddhartha Gautama in an essay entitled The Buddha and His Dysfunctional Family. The themes of abandonment, loss of his mother and conflicts with his own father could imply that dysfunctional family dynamics prevailed, combined with ambivalent feelings towards long-lasting, committed relationships. It can be speculated that Siddhartha Gautama’s own childhood experiences could also be a reason for the neglect of the theme of childhood in his life and his teachings.

How did Siddhartha Gautama’s life proceed after leaving his home and his luxurious environment? As Schumann (2016) recounts, he cut off his hair in a monkish fashion and spent his first days outdoors as a wandering mendicant, looking for a teacher. His first teacher was a man called Alara Kalama, but he was not satisfied with his traditional teachings of meditation. His second teacher was a man called Uddaka Ramaputta, but, again, he could not find the answers to his search. According to Schumann (2016), his studies with these two teachers lasted for less than a year.

Siddhartha Gautama’s next step was to retreat into the forest. At the age of 30, he started his ascetic practices, such as trying to stop thinking, holding the breath for as long as possible, doing without clothing even in cold weather, remaining standing for as long as possible, and refusing food. His self-starvation was so extreme that it led him to the point of death. He even gathered a group of five followers who were fascinated by his discipline and rigour.

At that point of advanced emaciation, he realised that his extreme self-torture was not conducive to gaining true wisdom – and he started to eat again. It is interesting that he then remembered the important rose-apple or ploughing scene of his childhood when he entered into deep states of absorption. This memory was in many ways the turning point, as Schumann writes:

Could it be that this type of contemplation was the way to enlightenment? And since an emaciated body showing every sign of deprivation is not the best equipment for the spiritual search, Siddhartha had, shortly after recalling that youthful experience, abandoned asceticism and fasting and returned to a more balanced way of life. (Schumann 2016, pp.53–54)

In so doing, he disappointed his five disciples who left him on the spot. Siddhartha Gautama was once again alone.

This passage underlines the importance of deep childhood experience, which can act as a psychological foundation to deal with later crises. Childhood memories can re-emerge in adulthood and be truly turning points, which are moments in time characterised by sudden, life-changing events that are beyond the individual’s control. Also, as we shall see later, both types of excesses – luxury, indulgence and seeking for sensation, as well as asceticism and self-torture – are harmful for body, mind and spirit. As the Buddha later realised, the ‘middle way’ is the most conducive and healing path for human life – a simple truth that is often not seen, for example, by children and adolescents with anorexia nervosa and other psychological disorders.

After regaining weight and health, Siddhartha Gautama continued his meditative explorations, finally reaching deeper understandings while sitting under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) in Bodh Gaya in Northern India. From this moment of awakening onwards, he was called the Buddha, that is, the enlightened one. Again, the symbol of the tree plays an important role in this event. Three times in his life, trees were silent witnesses: the sal tree his mother Maya held on to at his birth, the rose-apple tree during his spiritual absorption as a child and, now, the pipal tree, at his enlightenment. The tree is a revered symbol of transcendence in many religions. Trees have roots secured in the earth and branches reaching out to the sky. Their sturdiness and longevity are symbols of endurance. In many traditions, trees are believed to be animated by female gods. Trees provide shelter and a sacred space for insight, and even enlightenment as in the Buddha’s case. A pipal tree still stands at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, as well as in many other sacred Buddhist sites. The pipal tree is a semi-evergreen tree, which can grow up to 30 metres in height. The leaves have ‘drip tips’ and seem to move continuously in the wind.

Such was the impact of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the pipal tree that he spent the first seven days afterwards right there in a state of serenity.

After several weeks of meditation, he walked 210 km to Sarnath, just north of Varanasi. Fifty-six days after his enlightenment, he gave his first sermon in Sarnath to no other than his five former followers during his ascetic period. In this first important talk known as the ‘Sermon of the Turning Wheel’, the Buddha outlined the futility of the extremes of sensual pleasure and self-torment – and the solution of the ‘middle way’. He also passed on for the first time the essence of his teachings, the four noble truths, which is a topic of the third part of this book.

During this first important sermon, one of his followers gained full understanding and asked to be ordained. In due course, more and more people were touched by the Buddhist teachings and the number of monks grew continuously. People then, as nowadays, were attracted to the wise, non-dogmatic, non-ritualistic and freeing truths of his teachings, simply based on one’s own empirical experience.

I am specially drawn to Sarnath, where Christopher Titmuss and other teachers give annual retreats and talks. I first visited Sarnath for one such retreat in 2007 in the turmoil of a personal crisis and lived under the very simple conditions of the Thai monastery. Sarnath was a sleepy village then, just a few kilometres outside of Varanasi, the holy Hindu city. Different Buddhist countries (such as Thailand, Burma, Japan, China and Tibet) have erected monasteries there. While meditating, I was touched by the knowledge that, only a few metres away, the Buddha had sat on the same ground and had given his first sermon to his five colleagues from his early years as an ascetic. An archaeological site protects the ruins of Buddhist temples and monasteries. A large stupa of 44 metres in height stands where the Buddha spoke his first sermon and declared that the middle way was the most viable and insightful – not the extremes of indulgence or ascetic renunciation. This teaching was what I still had to deal with then. Sarnath was exactly the right place to be. I returned again in 2012 and 2015. Even in those few years, Sarnath had changed greatly. The traffic and the population had increased. In addition, it had become a popular spot on weekends for Hindu weddings. These are noisy events, with loudspeakers blasting out Bollywood pop songs at full volume. This time, it was a challenging practice to remain non-reactive to the sounds and accept that truly everything in relative life is changing, constantly changing.


The Buddha, the enlightened one, in deep meditation, with eyes closed and a peaceful, serene, smiling facial expression. This beautiful sculpture of his head is adorned with foils of gold donated by pilgrims. The head is now no longer directly accessible, but has been placed on top of a big statue of the Buddha in the Thai temple in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

How did the Buddha continue to live after his first famous sermon? He remained a wandering mendicant for the rest of his life, spending only the rainy seasons in fixed huts, thereby forming the first monasteries. He talked freely with anyone who asked and gathered an increasingly large following of both monks (later also nuns) as well as lay followers. As we shall see, he primarily addressed adults, seldom adolescents and never children. Before dealing with his talks, we now look at the second storyline of the Buddha’s childhood, that of the fictional, mythological Buddha.


In contrast to the historical Buddha, his hagiography sounds quite different in other Buddhist texts. As Strong points out, there is no single biography of the Buddha but different versions of the same story:

For there is no one biography of the Buddha, and each Buddhist telling and retelling of stories about him has been influenced by historical recollections, doctrinal emphases, ritual concerns, political allegiances, social and cultural factors, or simply the desire to weave a good tale. (Strong 2009, p.xii)

In other words, those episodes of the Buddha’s life which were especially inspiring to humans have been recalled and reconstructed to form his mythological biography. Strong argues that:

together the stories make up a sacred biography, or rather, several sacred biographies, for we shall see that there are many versions of tales about the Buddha. These narrations may contain ‘fictions’ about the Buddha – legends and traditions that have accrued around him – but these ‘fictions’ are in many ways ‘truer’ or at least religiously more meaningful, than the ‘facts’. (2009, p.2)

Strong is implying that mythology can be more inspiring to the human psyche than neutral historical facts.

Departing from the real person of Siddhartha Gautama, and later the Buddha, means that one is leaving the arena of biography, psychology and history and is entering into the arena of belief, mythology and archetypal imagery. Strong sees these supernatural, detailed magical stories as self-fulfilling narrations, as the sites of the Buddha’s life eventually became major pilgrimage destinations:

This kind of detail reflects the simultaneous and symbiotic growth of both biographical and pilgrimage traditions. On the one hand, sites became established as the places where certain stories happened; on the other hand, stories came to be told to explain the existence of certain sites. This was a process that could easily feed on itself, for, once a site was considered sacred, any unusual topographical feature in the area could be enough to give rise to a new story. (Strong 2009, p.9)

According to the mythological traditions, the Buddha was not a unique historical person. To the contrary, there is a huge, ongoing lineage of Buddhas – he had predecessors and will have successors. This means that there has been a sequence of hundreds and even thousands of Buddhas. Strong has compiled a list of the 25 most important previous Buddhas (of a total of no less than 512,024 Buddhas), starting from incalculable ages a hundred thousand aeons ago to the present aeon (Strong 2009, pp.26–29).

According to different legends and traditions, the Buddha is said to have prepared himself carefully for his rebirth, while living in a special type of heaven called the ‘Tushita’ heaven, which was believed to be the dwelling place for divine beings. After considering the right place, family and mother, he descended from heaven as a six-tusked white elephant into the womb of his mother by entering from the right side of her body. In some traditions, this event is rendered as a dream of Maya, the Buddha’s mother.


The beginning of the pregnancy. A white elephant is entering the right side of the body of Queen Maya. In some legends, she only dreams of the white elephant.

The white elephant is a holy symbol. In India, holy elephants are revered in many Hindu temples to this day. Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, is the most-loved Hindu god and worshipped as the remover of obstacles and as a guardian of thresholds. In addition, the white elephant has continued to be a symbol of sovereignty. Inside the womb, the Buddha sat in a cross-legged position facing outwards for ten lunar months during pregnancy. According to other sources, he sat on a soft silk cushion in a chamber with jewelled ornaments. According to other legends, this chamber would later also be born and rise to heaven. Before birth, he was visited by divinities and already carried the 32 physical marks of a great man (see below). His mother could even see him contemplating inside of her.

At the end of pregnancy, the Buddha was born from his mother’s side without any pains, as a vaginal birth would erase memories of previous lives. During birth, Maya remained in a standing position and held on to the branches of a tree. During birth, a bright light appeared and the earth shook. In addition, many other wonders occurred: the blind were able to see, the deaf could hear and the animals lost their fear. Miraculously, at the exact time of birth, seven other human beings were born, including the Buddha’s future wife Yasodhara.

Upon leaving his mother’s body, the Buddha was received by the gods, who protected him from falling on the ground. They bathed him in streams of hot and cold water, which poured from heaven. Though just born, he was immediately able to walk: he took seven steps to the east, south, west and north and contemplated on the four directions. When he touched the earth with his feet, giant lotuses blossomed. He was also able to speak immediately and proclaimed that he was the chief of this world and that this would be his last birth.

The 32 marks of the great man, which he already had prenatally, are also dealt with in great detail in several texts. Again, Strong compiled an interesting list of these marks, indicating holiness and nobility (2009, p.57). These included the bump on his head, a tuft of hair between his eyebrows, eyelashes of a cow, webbed hands and feet, and many more. When the Buddha was taken to the temple of a goddess, he put his feet forward, directed at the goddess, instead of his head which would have been the custom. Thereupon, the goddess acknowledged his superiority. When the Buddha was shown to yet other gods, they stepped down from their pedestals and fell down at his feet. Finally, when the baby Buddha was shown to his father, Suddhodana prostrated himself to worship his son, acknowledging his superiority.

As a baby, the Buddha had several nurses to attend to him and continued to live a life of luxury and indulgence throughout his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Even as a young infant, he enjoyed exceptional toys, such as golden carts drawn by deer, toy elephants, horses, ox carts and dolls. The environment was described as not just luxurious, but also peaceful, harmonious and happy (Sasson 2013, p.79).

His first day at school is described as more than miraculous, according to other texts. Siddhartha Gautama was accompanied by no less than 10,000 boys and 10,000 carts filled with gold. He was greeted by 8000 maidens, strewing flowers. Of course, no actual schooling was needed, as he knew everything already. He easily replaced his teachers and took over the teaching himself (Sasson 2013, p.90). As a child and youth, the Buddha excelled in writing and arts. His knowledge was astonishing and his skills as a warrior unmatched. He learned how to ride a horse, direct an elephant and drive a chariot. He enjoyed delicious meals, expensive and exquisite clothes and was entertained by women. In fact, some traditions speak of three wives and thousands of concubines. He lived in three palaces (one for summer, one for winter and one for the rainy season), adorned by three lotus pools (one with red, one with white and one with blue lotuses). The palaces were furnished with furniture made of gold, silver and precious stones. All in all, he is portrayed as a mythological superhero.

The surroundings were spectacular but artificial, aimed at keeping the Buddha away from the influences of the outside world and avoiding the prophecy becoming true that he would become the spiritual leader instead of a ruler. Also, the stories of splendour and wealth and valour served ‘the function of stressing how great was the turning-away that prompted him to give all up’ (Strong 2009, p.61).

In summary, this is the mythological story of the Buddha’s childhood which can be seen as representing a ‘divine child’ in the sense of Jung’s archetypes (Strong 2009, pp.16 and 51ff.). The Buddha’s hagiography is lively, appealing, entertaining and full of suspense. Especially the story of his infancy reflects the paradox of the ‘divine child’ of helplessness and immense potency. This is not a normal infant, but a supernatural baby with unusual strengths from the beginning onwards. According to Jung, archetypes are organs of the soul, which show themselves in archetypal images. As we shall see later, the ‘divine child’ is an archetype of futurity, potentiality, solace and hope. As an archetype, the stories of the mythological Buddha have been kept alive and have fulfilled deep human psychological needs – just like other ‘divine children’ such as baby Jesus, Krishna and others. 

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