The Noble Eightfold Path is central to Buddhism, and one of the first teachings offered by the Buddha. It is the last of the Four Noble Truths, and outlines an eightfold path for awakening from suffering (dukkha.) Although different branches of Buddhism interpret each aspect in their own way, it is used as a framework within them all.
What follows is a list of ideas for introducing children to the various aspects of the Eightfold Path in a gentle, exploratory, way. Of course, these suggestions are also good for adults! In fact, modeling is the best way we can introduce children to anything, so our own example trumps anything we say to them, or try to 'teach'.
The eight components are grouped into the three aspects of Wisdom, Ethics and Concentration, as they often are in Mahayana Buddhism.
Right View centers around understanding the core teachings of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence. A full understanding of these is beyond the grasp of most children, but impermanence (annica) is a key theme that connects them all and can be easily explored with children of any age.
One way to do this is to help children understand and appreciate the cycles of nature – everything from the seasons and the moon, to the life cycle of a plant. This can help them to see that they are involved in a constant process of change, and that every ending is also the birth of something new. You can also encourage them to note the cycles of their own body, and the transience of their own physical sensations – an injury or illness eventually heals, fatigue passes with sleep. Older children can be guided to note the impermanence of their own emotions and thoughts – yesterday they were mad at mom, but today that has passed.
Right intention is really about understanding the role of discipline and determination on the path. In some traditions, particularly monastic ones, it is linked to correct renunciation, which isn't relevant or appropriate for young children. But children can be given opportunities to foster their will power, and develop a sense of their ability to control their choices, and work over the long-term to achieve a goal. Everything from hiking up a hill that they didn't think they could climb, to saving money for a cause or purchase can help them to develop and appreciate their own ability to set an intention and follow through.
Right speech includes not lying and abstaining from abusive speech, and of course most parents and teachers already focus on these with the children in their care. But a deeper understanding is fostered by guiding children to focus on the impact of their own words on others, and visa versa. Rather than focusing on punitive measures – "that's not nice, say you are sorry" – we can ask children how they think what they said made the other person feel, and how they themselves would feel if someone said the same thing to them. Then an opportunity to foster empathy is created (although this discussion may need to occur much after an incident, when a child is calmer.) To that end, it's important to separate negative speech from negative feelings – we don't want children to feel it is 'wrong' to feel angry for example, only that they need to find constructive and non-abusive ways to express their anger or other negative feelings.
At it's most basic level, Right Action is about acting morally in the world, and abstaining from harming others, or stealing from them. As with Right Speech (and all three Ethical Aspects) there is an opportunity here to foster empathy by guiding a child to understand how their actions impact others, rather than simply focusing on 'following the rules.' Discussing rules, and the reasons for them (assuming there is a reason – if not, perhaps there shouldn't be a rule) can also help shift the focus from obedience to empathy. As with Right Speech, it's important to help children understand that negative feelings are not the issue, just their actions.
For adults, Right Livelihood centers around work, and making a living through ethical means. For children, the root of this aspect is coming to understand their relationship to the world around them, and the critical part they play in shaping and contributing to it. Children can be guided to understand how their actions impact the environment, their family, their school, and their community at large. Right Livelihood is really an extension of Right Speech and Right Action, and applying these on a larger scale, so that children can begin to see themselves as part of a social fabric, and begin to appreciate how their choices have an impact beyond themselves.
Right Effort is often described as the effort to cultivate thoughts, words and deeds that further one's path, including kindness, gratitude, and compassion. The focus here is traditionally on cultivating 'wholesome' thoughts, and rooting out 'unwholesome' ones, or at the very least, not allowing them to grow. Thus the emphasis is more on self-awareness than action (although of course Right Action is closely related.)
For children, the first step towards this is learning to recognize and express how they are feeling, and what they are thinking. Simply asking children this periodically, and helping them to develop the vocabulary to express thoughts and emotions, is of tremendous value. Helping them to sort through those thoughts and emotions that further their own happiness and the happiness of others, versus those that don't, develops the self-awareness associated with Right Effort. However, as with the Ethical Aspects, the goal is not to teach a child to repress negative feelings. The emphasis should be on noting and honestly expressing what they actually are feeling, rather than on repressing certain feelings and acting 'nice' to gain praise.
Right Mindfulness is closely related to Right Effort, in that it involves honestly noting everything that arises in us without judgment. Right Mindfulness also has to do with our giving our full attention to our current situation and surroundings, and this is something that children naturally excel at. Providing opportunities for children to fully engage in activities they love is the best way to cultivate an appreciation for mindfulness in them. To provide a more guided approach, consider taking a walk in nature and asking children to note everything they sense through each of their five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
Many Buddhist children's books provide other ideas for mindfulness exercises - consider trying some out.
Right Concentration is most closely associated with meditation, and there are an increasing number of Buddhist children's books that offer ways to gently introduce children to meditation. The meditation site here at BellaOnline also offers many suggestions. Simple deep breathing exercises and visualizations are often the most popular.
However well-intentioned we are, it's important for meditation to not feel like a chore to children, or something they 'have to do.' If they are not interested at this time, forcing it may only turn them off meditation for life. In this, as in all the aspects of the path, modeling is more important than talk or teaching. If your child sees you meditating regularly, eventually they will become curious about it and want to try it themselves.
Please visit the forum and share your own thoughts and suggestions on how to introduce children to Buddhism.