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The Buddha's Apprentice at Bedtime
»» Introduction

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About This Book

Welcome to this new collection of Buddhist tales to share at bedtime with your children. It was wonderful to hear how many of you read and enjoyed my previous book, Buddha at Bedtime. This collection has also been inspired by the Jātaka Tales - traditional stories offering wisdom and guidance which are believed to have been told by the Buddha himself.

As in Buddha at Bedtime, the tales have been updated to make them both compelling and accessible for today’s young reader.

The stories explore a wide range of characters and settings to help your child engage with the age-old truths they impart. They are focused around explaining the eight great principles that underpin Buddhism, known as the Eightfold Noble Path.

A more detailed guide to these principles is provided later in the introduction, but in essence they give us a code of conduct for our daily lives: acting with kindness and compassion, speaking thoughtfully, earning our livelihoods in an ethical way and using the power of the mind to manage our thoughts.

Each story is based on one of the eight principles and draws out its key ideas. You will find, for example, the story of a nervous young horse who learns to control her anxious thoughts; a young boy who defeats a band of robbers by the power of meditation; a miser who learns that making money does not in itself create a happy life; and a spoilt duke’s son who learns to speak thoughtfully and feel compassion for others.

The book’s approach throughout is to encourage the understanding of an apprentice to the Buddha, a student who’s learning the ways of the master.

The Jataka Tales are based on an ancient oral tradition where elders shared philosophical insights and powerful narratives at the conclusion of the day’s work when their audience was calm, relaxed and ready to reflect on how they might best live their lives. By reading these stories aloud to your child at bedtime, you’ll be drawing on the ancient power and wonder of the storytelling tradition. Taking the time to share the stories, to watch and respond to your child’s reaction, and to encourage their imaginative exploration of characters and events, will help you both to unlock the rich wisdom underpinning each tale and highlight eternal truths for you to share.

You may also like to encourage your child to explore one of the key aspects of Buddhism, meditation. The stories can be a useful starting point in this process, helping to relax and calm your child. The introduction provides advice on incorporating meditation into your child's bedtime routine. You’ll also find guided meditations inspired by the stories that you can do with your child at the back of the book.

Above all, enjoy the opportunity to share with your child the peace and understanding these simple yet profound Buddhist tales can awaken.

The Buddha and Buddhism

The timeless message of the Buddha continues to speak to millions of people around the world. With its emphasis on the reality of change in our lives, the importance of compassion for others, and its focus on the management of the mind to avoid unproductive anxiety and illusion, Buddhism seems in tune with many of the insights of contemporary psychology and education.
For many it offers guidance on ethical and moral behaviour, as well as practical assistance in coping with the stresses of day-to-day living - skills that our children need now more than ever.

Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha. The word “Buddha” means ““enlightened one” and reflects the great wisdom the Buddha achieved in his lifetime. He began life as a privileged Nepalese prince called Siddharta Gautama, born around 566 BC.

The oral traditions surrounding his life record that he grew increasingly troubled by the suffering he saw beyond the palace walls. He abandoned his position to search for an answer to the misery he saw in daily life. The Buddha wandered for years studying with wise men, living simply and learning to meditate, but he was dissatisfied with the answers to life’s problems he encountered.

Finally the Buddha’s enlightenment came as he meditated beneath a bodhi tree. He developed an understanding of life that he came to call “The Four Noble Truths”:

1. Everyone experiences suffering in life no one is exempt.

2. Suffering is caused by our focus on the material world - it is caused by our greediness and constant desire for life to be more rewarding.

3. Suffering can be overcome.

4. The Eightfold Noble Path provides the guidance for overcoming suffering.

These truths formed the basis of the Buddha’s new philosophy and he rapidly gained a group of followers who were inspired by his teachings. After the Buddhas death in around 486 BC these followers continued to develop the ideas he’d initiated. Buddhism began to spread throughout India and then into Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Japan and Tibet.

In Tibet, the spreading of the wisdom of the Buddha was symbolized by the conch shell. The shell could be blown like a trumpet, sending the Buddha’s words throughout the world.

Today Buddhism is one of the fastest-growing spiritual movements in the West. The teachings of Buddhism may seem deceptively simple but in fact are both subtle and complex.

The tales in this collection aim to help the young reader explore how the Buddha's insights can help them in their daily life, just as Buddhism has helped millions of people around the world for thousands of years.

The Eightfold Noble Path

The essential principles of the Buddhist way of life are outlined in the Eightfold Noble Path. The Buddha himself described the Path as the means of overcoming suffering in life. The stories in this collection are based around these principles. Each one highlights ways to help your child understand each principle’s meaning and truth. The eight principles can be grouped together in three main subjects: wisdom, ethics and concentration.


The great wisdom of the Buddha’s ideas is symbolized in Tibetan Buddhism by an endless knot - his eternal wisdom, like the knot, has no beginning or end.

Under the grouping of Wisdom we find two principles of the Path: Right View and Right Intention.

Right View centres on developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. There are two important aspects of Right View you can help your child to explore. Firstly, how everyone in the world experiences suffering, and secondly how suffering can be alleviated. The idea that everyone suffers may seem a harsh lesson, but it’s the basis from which compassion and empathy then flow.

The story of Tim and Grandpa Joe’ illustrates how the kindness ofTim and his grandfather to the strangers they meet, as well as Tim’s own kindness to his grandfather, is rewarded.

Right Intention helps us understand the importance of discipline and determination on the path to self-improvement. It focuses on how we need to make a commitment to self-improvement in order to grow and mature.

The story of The Magic Moonlight Tree’ is about a wise queen who shows another, less enlightened, ruler how to treat his subjects through her determination to save her people.

Similarly, in the story “Danan and the Serpent’, Danan shows discipline and wisdom in order to save the lives of his siblings.


The principles of the path we find under this grouping include Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Right Speech involves thinking about the impact of our speech on others. At a basic level this involves not lying and not speaking harshly or unkindly — and these are ideas most parents already work on with their children. At a deeper level, Right Speech asks us to speak thoughtfully, rather than thoughtlessly.

In the story “Egbert and the Fisherman’, the rude young duke needs to learn to avoid the abusive, insensitive language he uses with his courtiers. Moreover, when he actually lies about the help he received from a poor fisherman, he’s exposed before his people and nearly loses his dukedom. We see that the price of speaking thoughtlessly can be very high indeed.

Right Action asks us to behave morally and ethically with everyone we encounter in our daily lives. We must not harm others or steal from them. In the story of The New Girl' we discover how a bully, Hazel, learns the effect of her behaviour on others when she’s magically turned into a rabbit — the self-same rabbit Hazel herself has hit with a slingshot. As she feels the rabbit’s pain, Hazel vows never to act cruelly again.

Right Livelihood focuses on earning a living in a way that is ethical and doesn’t involve harming other people. Children can be encouraged to think about the path that might inspire them in later life. In the story “Ester and Lucky’ we learn how a baby elephant, adopted by a childless woman, learns that life can be even more rewarding when she works productively, helping villagers cross a flooded river.


The final three principles are Right Mindfulness, Right Effort and Right Concentration.

Right Mindfulness asks us to give our full attention to the present moment, simply observing what arises without judgment. It asks us to develop our concentration so that our mind can rise above the pettiness and distractions of daily life and learn true awareness. In Amrita and the Elephants, a young girl panics an entire village into believing the end of the world is approaching — all through the power of her uncontrolled thoughts. Once her father gently calms her down, Amrita and the village realize that their fear was entirely the work of their overactive imagination.

Right Effort and Right Concentration involve focusing on the thoughts and actions that help us become more enlightened. These include compassion, kindness and gratitude. Right Effort involves the development of self- awareness. Right Concentration asks us to think about our behaviour and actively manage our thoughts so that we avoid thinking negatively about ourselves and others.

The Tibetan Buddhist symbol of the wheel symbolizes the interconnection between things and reminds us that our behaviour effects those around us and in turn, our karma.

For children, the aim is not to ask them to repress negative thoughts. Rather the idea is to get children to reflect on the meaning such thoughts might have. This is an idea explored in The Sheep Stealers’. Hamish may not have listened to his father’s advice but he needed to forgive himself for his mistake.

In this book the moral at the end of each tale helps highlight the stage of the path the story explores. As you read it with your child, you may like to refer back to these pages to consider the implications of that stage of the path and discuss it together.

Working with the Stories

The oral storytelling tradition is rich in every culture. The Jataka Tales that inspire this collection are no different, having been loved by children and adults for thousands of years. Believed to have been created between 300 BC and 400 AD the tales are part of the canon of sacred Buddhist literature. One of the first English translations of the tales was published by Edward Byles Cowell between 1895 and 1907. An illustrated children’s edition was published in 1912 by Ellen C. Babbitt.

The tales comprise 550 anecdotes and fables, each one depicting an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. Sometimes he appears as an animal, sometimes as a human. The finest, most noble character in each story can be identified with the Buddha.

In this new collection, humour is often used to develop the story and captivate today’s young reader. Strong characters and evocative settings will also help to draw your child into the narrative and help them relate to the action. But the essential purpose held by the original tales of developing the moral and ethical behaviour of the reader remains.

In some stories it will be easy to identify the Buddha. For example in The New Girl, the cruel Hazel learns an important lesson in compassion from Rosie, a girl whose very presence makes the school room light up and who has the power to transform Hazel into a rabbit. Clearly here is the Buddha in the form of a young girl.

In The Beautiful White Horse’, the Buddha takes the form of a kindly squirrel who teaches the anxious horse how to calm her unquiet mind, while in “The Magic Moonlight Tree’, the queen of the monkeys is far wiser than the king who tries to capture her. The Buddha, this time in monkey form, explains what it takes to be a truly great ruler.

As you read the stories with your child you may like to explore with them the character that displays the greatest Buddha nature. Ask your child what it is that makes the character so wise and so generous and how the ideas presented might resonate in your child’s daily life. For example, most children will readily relate to the desire for a new toy explored in The Shiny Red Train, but will be drawn to think harder about how important possessions really are by the story’s end. In The Spirit of the Tree’, a child shows his parent how luck is not important - it’s his father’s own hard work that leads to his good fortune at the market. This in turn leads to interesting questions about how we can shape our own world by our attitudes and thoughts.

Enjoy the reading aloud experience with your child. Remember to read with enthusiasm and energy and slow down your pace so that your child has time to process the ideas raised by the stories. You'll reap the reward of a stimulating discussion and the developing awareness of your child.

Taking Buddhism Further

The stories in this collection aim to provide an accessible introduction for children to some of the key ideas of Buddhism. But there are other ways to encourage your child along the Buddhist path.

One possible starting point is to join a Buddhist community or Sangha. The concept of Sangha is considered to be one of the Three Jewels or Three Refuges of Buddhism, together with the Buddha himself and Dharma or the path to enlightenment. Buddhism recognizes that joining a supportive community of like-minded people makes the journey to greater awareness easier, and so all Buddhists are encouraged to join a local group. In your own town or city you are likely to find a meditation group inspired by Buddhist teachings that you and your family will be welcome to join. Such groups are increasingly aware of the needs of children and offer play groups and other activities specifically designed for young people.

Your involvement in the community can take on many forms. You might like to volunteer to help with the cleaning and maintenance of the premises, to join in festivals and celebrations or to attend classes. All forms of participation will be beneficial in helping you develop relationships with others on the same path. There are also traditional Buddhist practices that you and your child might enjoy exploring. For instance, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, prayer flags — rectangular pieces of brightly coloured cloth — are strung around temples. Traditionally the flags are printed with a horse carrying the Three Jewels. They also bear mantras, or sacred chants.
The concept behind the flag is that as it blows in the wind its message of peace and compassion will spread throughout the world.

You might like to develop this idea with your child in your own home. Together, write some messages of peace and love on pieces of cloth and tie them to a tree in your garden. If you don’t have a garden you could tie positive messages to the tail of a kite and fly it with your child in a local park, letting the wind spread your thoughts of love and kindness.

Colouring in mandalas is another practice that you can introduce to your child. Mandalas are symbolic geometric designs. They’re traditionally used in Buddhism to aid concentration and meditation as they provide a focus for the mind. Many people work with stencils of mandalas and colour them in with paints, crayons or pencils. The act of colouring in is powerfully meditative in itself and the end result is a beautiful piece of art that you might like to frame and hang on the wall as a further meditation tool. For your child this will be a fun introduction to meditative techniques. Books of mandala stencils are readily available and you’ll find hundreds of designs from which to choose.

Introducing Meditation

One of the key elements of Buddhism is developing the practice of meditation. Meditation teaches us many important and valuable skills. We learn to calm our minds, we learn to disengage from the dramas and distractions of the day, and we discover a still place from where we can achieve a new level of awareness. Working with the ideas in this book is an easy and enjoyable way to introduce meditation to your child.

You can incorporate meditation into your child’s bedtime routine - either instead of or after reading one of the stories in this book, which have a powerful meditative quality themselves in that they focus your child’s attention and encourage him to visualize settings, characters and events.

Meditation will calm your child before bed. In time he can learn to do the practice by himself whenever he’s feeling anxious, but at first try to set aside five to ten minutes each day in which to do a guided meditation (see pages 120—123). You may also like to try the relaxation exercise on pages 118—9 beforehand.

Initially it’ll be useful to explain the concept of meditation as going on an adventure of discovery. This will encourage your child to be open to and to work with whatever unfolds. But it’s important to ensure that he feels safe and that he knows that he can stop at any time if he becomes uncomfortable or tired.

By teaching your child how to consciously meditate, you’ll bring deep contentment and focus into his everyday life.

The Art of Storytelling

Your child may like to read these stories by herself but as the stories originate from an oral storytelling tradition there will be a great deal of benefit in reading the stories aloud. Reading aloud enables you to share insights with your child, to explore hidden meanings and relate the characters and events to daily life.

Before you begin reading aloud, read through the stories yourself so that you can read with confidence and expression. You don’t need to put yourself under great pressure - just enjoy the experience, reading slowly and allowing time for your child to comment on the characters and events. It’s important that you are relaxed and focused on the reading, so try and spend a few minutes taking some deep breaths and stretching any tense muscles before you start.

Make sure that your child, too, is calm and ready to listen. The stories will in themselves have a calming effect but it’ll be very helpful to also encourage your child to take some deep breaths and to relax her body so that she is comfortable. You might even like to do the relaxation exercise described on pages 118-9 to ensure your child is fully relaxed.

Each story ends with an idea to help your child unravel the meaning of the tale, take time to discuss these with your child and explore her thoughts and feelings about them. There is no better way to ensure a refreshing night’s sleep for your child than to calmly reflect together on the wise insights of the Buddha.

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