"One of the kids at school asked today whether we believe in God," our 12-year-old announced at dinner one evening.

"And what did you tell her?" I asked.

"I told her we do...sort of." Most Buddhist practitioners will recognize the expediency of the reply.

"Good answer."

"But I thought you said gods were spirits, like invisible friends," our 6-year-old challenged.

For the thousandth time, I thought, "If only there were a book."

Questions that have pretty simple answers in a Judeo-Christian household become a little more complicated when Mom and Dad are Buddhists.

These days, the shelves of American bookstores are crammed with works by Buddhist teachers of all stripes, offering everything from entry-level primers like "Buddhism for Beginners" to advanced commentaries on tantric practices. But for the kids of the many thousands of Western Buddhist parents, it's slim pickins.

Who created the earth? Where do we go when we die? Is there a God? Questions that have pretty simple answers in a Judeo-Christian household become a little more complicated when Mom and Dad are Buddhists who reject the idea of a Supreme Being and, essentially, view existence as a creation of our own minds. Yet it's virtually impossible to find books that teach those lessons or help them understand why they ended up with this particular Mom and this particular Dad.

Mountains of Tibet
By Mordicai Gerstein

One glowing exception is a slim volume entitled "The Mountains of Tibet" (Harper Trophy, 1987). It would be difficult to portray the concepts of reincarnation and karma in a more elegant and child-like manner than in this lovely little book. Author Mordicai Gerstein introduces children to the cycle of rebirth through the tale of a Tibetan boy who lives in a beautiful valley and loves to fly kites. After a long life, the boy dies and is faced with the choice of becoming "part of the endless universe some call heaven" or being reborn somewhere among "the hundreds of millions of worlds."

Through the force of karma, or unfinished business, he finds himself inexorably drawn back to that same valley, where, this time, he is born as a girl, reminding us of the Buddhist notion that we have all filled many roles in our countless rebirths. But, Buddhists teach, we take with us from lifetime to lifetime certain habits, which is why, on the final page, we see the little girl standing on a hillside once again flying a kite.

A must-have on the list of any parent interested in exposing a child to the basics of Buddhism is "Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha" (Wisdom 1987). This recently republished work is a movingly simple retelling of the story of the Buddha's birth and enlightenment. Written by Buddhist scholar Jonathan Landaw, with vivid watercolors by artist Janet Brooke, the book is written in language preschoolers can easily absorb, laid out in short chapters perfect for bedtime reading. A companion coloring book includes line drawings of each of the images.

Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents
By Sarah Conover & Valerie Wahl

A number of books convey the broad Buddhist themes of compassion, patience, and tolerance. "Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents" (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001) is, indeed, a treasure. This collection contains more than 30 stories drawn from across Buddhist Asia, accompanied by sepia-toned illustrations. Many chapters in the book are based on the Jataka Tales, stories that the Buddha is said to have related to children. These classics contain lessons on compassion and selflessness and, intrinsically, teach kids about the concept of rebirth in forms other than human, since the tales tell of the Buddha's past lives in the animal and spirit realms. Unfortunately, the language and length of the stories mean this is really a book for older children.

Versions of the Jataka tales, in fact, dominate much of the Buddhist literature for children. The little ones will be entranced by the captivatingly illustrated "Golden Goose King" (Parvardigar Press, 1995). This hardcover volume recounts the story of one of several past lives in which the Buddha's closest disciple, Ananda, offered to sacrifice himself to protect his master. Ananda also features in "The Gift" (Wisdom, 1996), a story by author/illustrator Isia Osuchowska that teaches the importance of sharing and wisely using the earth's resources.

The Rabbit Who Overcame Fear
By Eric Meller

There are 20 separate books in Dharma Publishing's Jataka Tales series aimed at grades one to six, including a boxed set of 12 that includes a teacher's guide. Written and illustrated by a variety of different authors, the series is a bit uneven in presentation, but the guide, with suggestions for discussion topics and activities--from arts and crafts to community volunteer work--is a wonderful resource. Also worth checking out is their series on Tibet's legendary King Gesar.

"I Was Once a Monkey" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) is another excellent collection of six Jataka Tales, while "Wisdom of the Crows" (Tricycle Press, 1998) gathers together an assortment of enchanting Asian stories, though none are strictly Buddhist.

[The Jataka tales about the Buddha's previous lives] contain lessons on compassion and selflessness and teach kids about the concept of rebirth.

One problematic take on a Jataka tale is "The Buddha's Question" (Snow Lion, 1994). In this American adaptation of a well-known story about a plum tree, the Buddha tells a group of children, "We have been animals and plants; fish, lizards, birds and even ants." While that may rhyme, it contradicts the mainstream doctrine of all the major schools of Buddhism, which teach that plants are not sentient beings and, therefore, not a life form through which we are incarnated.

In this retelling, the Buddha says of the plum tree, "I was that tree." In the original Jataka Tale upon which it is based, No. 38, the Buddha explains that he was a spirit living in the tree--a significant difference. While some may argue that the principle of upaya--skillful means or expedience--implies that the teachings can be shaped to fit the audience, this book is likely to lead many children
--and some of their parents--to believe they might return as a rutabaga. A strange notion coming from a major dharma publisher.

Many tales of Buddhist morality are drawn from the folk traditions of Tibet. The hand of artist Janet Brooke (Prince Siddartha) can be seen in "Her Father's Garden" (Wisdom, 1996). The book recounts a Tibetan folktale about a little girl who, even as she tends to a frozen garden everyone says would not grow, awakens the seeds of goodness in the cold hearts of the people of her remote village. And as the dream in her heart blossoms on the mountain slopes, the villagers realize that, like the flowers and plants, they each have a special role to play.

Another Tibetan folktale, "The Three Silver Coins" (Snow Lion, 1995), carries strong echoes of Jack and the Beanstalk (though, mercifully, without the glorification of theft and murder). A young Tibetan boy is dispatched by his widowed mother to invest their earnings and "wastes" it by saving three animals. In the end, his compassion is rewarded.

Aside from "Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom," the only work I came across aimed at the middle- to high school age range is a new book from Daisaku Ikeda, leader of Soka Gakkai International, a group that represents the Japanese Nichiren school of Buddhism. "The Way of Youth" (Middleway Press, 2000) is the Buddhist answer to all those advice books for Christian youth. In fact, with its pictures of clean-cut, smiling American kids on the cover, it's almost jarring to see the subhead: "Buddhist Common Sense for Handling Life's Questions." There is little overtly Buddhist content in the book, but it does contain plenty of straightforward advice on living a balanced life, even as it largely avoids a lecturing tone.

A question about what to do when you can't get along with people prompts a reminder about the Buddhist concept that all things are interrelated. A concern about a boyfriend who wants sex is met with a reminder that the "seed for future happiness lies in your behavior today." A youth who feels he does not measure up to his friends is reminded that every individual contains an "inherent potential." In other words, light on the dogma of dharma and long on gentle doses of common sense.

The Way of Youth: Buddhist Common Sense for Handling Life's Questions
By Daisaku Ikeda, Duncan Sheik

And finally, there is the simply titled "Tara's Colouring Book" (Wisdom, 1979), a collaboration between artists Andy Weber and Nigel Wellings and author Jonathan Landaw. The book is essentially an artist's sketch pad containing line drawings of 12 traditional Tibetan thangka representations of Buddhas, teachers, and guardian deities. The text gives the background and history of the figure represented, as well as recommendations on colors to be used. Tibetan Buddhists believe that thangka painting is an activity that generates much merit, so you might want to consider photocopying the images so that the kids don't hog all the merit for themselves.

Or perhaps you'll choose to generate some real merit and write that sorely needed book that explains just who did create the earth, if not God or Mother Nature.
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