I’ve been busy for a while finishing a book which I hope to soon publish. In the meantime, I thought it would be good to return with a wild title. However, beneath the attention getting headline there is a genuine desire to try and explain the link between our ignorance and the suffering of our children.
Just over two years ago I became a grand parent for the first time, and since then my family has extended rapidly to include four beautiful children. It’s been an incredible experience to see their constant wonder at the world. The first time I held one of them I felt so awkward and ungainly, and now it feels second nature to stand around bouncing them on my arm while they pull at my ears, nose and spectacles. I could go on like any doting granddad, but I’ll spare you.
A friend of mine once wrote of something called “red Toyota syndrome”. His father had recently acquired a new red Toyota, and afterwards my friend began noticing every red Toyota he passed whilst driving. I think I’m suffering the same with babies and children. Actually, I’m unsure whether it’s because I’ve become a granddad or whether my practice is influencing the way I look at other parents and their children – perhaps a bit of both.
The Pali cannon includes the Puttamansa Sutta1, in English A Son’s Flesh. The sutta (sutta is the Pali translation of the Sanskrit Sutra) speaks of the four nutriments required for our coming into being and the maintenance of our lives. They are described as food, contact, intellectual intention and consciousness. Food in the context of this sutta refers to what we consume in order to survive.
In this sutta, the Buddha provides a simile in which a man and woman, accompanied by their baby son, are enduring a journey across a great desert. When they are barely half way through their journey they expend the last of the their provisions. To cut a long story short, the child is sacrificed to feed the parents so they can continue. However, this was obviously torture for them. With every bite of their son’s flesh they would cry out, “Where have you gone, our only baby son?”.
The Buddha then asks the monks listening to this story if they thought the parents ate the flesh of their son playfully, for intoxication or for putting on bulk. “No, lord.”, replied the monks.
The Buddha then asks the monks, “Do they eat that food simply to make it through the desert?”. “Yes, lord.”, replied the monks.
When you look at a child, she is like a flower. She came from the same four elements as a flower. She grew from a seed in her mother’s belly. She is nourished by the elements of earth and water. She requires air to breath so she can maintain the fire burning within every cell of her growing body.
During pregnancy a child physically consumes nutrients passed through the umbilical chord, including beneficial and harmful substances and intoxicants. She also consumes through various means the emotional state of the mother. She is highly dependent upon the mother from her very conception, not just for survival but also for her future happiness and well-being.
So, how does this dependency of a child on her mother relate to the baby eating parents in the Puttamansa Sutta?
The second of the three dharma seals (that mark authentic teachings of the Buddha) is non-self. When the Buddha looked deeply into the nature of self and all physical phenomenon he saw that they were empty of independent existence. Everything exists as an effect of countless causes and conditions. Everything depends on everything else and nothing has a self that is wholly separate from everything else – thus, non-self.
In the sutta, the Buddha is using the severe and painful simile of canibalism to explain why we should be mindful of the way in which we consume the resources we have at hand. The hot desert he speaks of is nothing other than our lifespan, the one we conventionally experience, spanning from birth to death. Throughout our life we must receive food and other material facilities (clothing, shelter etc.) in order to exist. However, by consuming mindlessly we threaten our children’s future happiness.
When the Buddha asked the monks if the parents ate of their children’s flesh playfully, for intoxication or for putting on bulk, we was admonishing us to consume mindfully – or as native American’s might say, “Tread softly upon the earth.” When we consume things for no good reason, then we are consuming our future and, importantly, that of our children.
On a physical level, the earth has only finite resources and like the parents that set off across the desert with their limited provisions, if we continue consuming without a thought to the consequences, then we are eating into our children’s future. When we choose to fill our car with bio-fuel we might feel we are doing something for the environment. How can this be when so many children are still starving because crops that could feed them are being used to make petrol? Alcohol and tobacco industries use up valuable food crops to cloud the judgement and quell the intense unhappiness of the relatively wealthy – the selfishness is hard to imagine. While children are still sitting on the bones of their arses around the world, many people living on benefits in the UK still choose to spend money on alcohol and tobacco, and would happily tell me where to get off for suggesting they might consider a different point of view.
Another example of mindless consumption is the vast quantity of meat eaten in the West which requires massive input of food crops to feed the animals, and releases untold amounts of greenhouse gasses2. When we consume without a thought to the result, or by blithely assuming scientists will fix everything, we eat the flesh of our children, make no mistake.
There are also less obvious effects of mindless consumption on our children. When we place our children in an environment where alcohol, tobacco and intoxicants are available, or too much food is consumed then again we cause harm. Through planting harmful seeds within their store consciousness that can later flower, it is likely they will also smoke, drink or become obese in order to take their minds off their unhappiness. Mindless consumption also damages ourselves, making it more likely that we will leave our children alone in the world sooner than we might otherwise have done so.
When we use foul language; when we expose children to violence or hatred at home, on TV, or computer games; when they see us lose our temper or blame others for our unhappiness then the “food” being consumed are the sense impressions of sight and sound. All of these events plant harmful seeds within our children that have the capacity to later grow and cause suffering.
When I see a woman bundling her kids into a car, and lighting up a cigarette while harshly shouting at them, I wonder what will become of them. When I see a small child sat between two obese parents in a fast food restaurant, I wonder what will become of him. Nobody would like to be told they are eating the flesh of their children, but how many truly consider the impact of their thoughts, words and actions on their children? When we consume the objects of our sense impressions, be that touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, or mind and mental formations, let’s aim to do it mindfully.