The family depicted in In the Garden of our Minds has two boisterous elementary school-aged children, Briana and Alex. Their parents try to incorporate Buddhist teachings and practices into everyday family life, whether discussing problems that have arisen at school or answering hard questions about life and death. Even though the family is Western, they practice a religion that has its origins in Asia. On this page, I’ve assembled some of our favorite children’s books and movies with themes relating either to Buddhism or the cultures of Buddhist Asian countries.
If you are looking for books to help parents and Dharma teachers share Buddhist practice and mindfulness with children, check out the resources listed at the bottom of the Practicing with Children page. I’ve also described some possible art and other family activities for celebrating the Lunar New Year on the Celebrating the Lunar New Year page. Enjoy trying everything out with your own family and if you have suggestions, please list them in the comments below!
Here are some of our favorite children’s books with Buddhist themes:
Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha by Jonathan Landaw is a wonderful children’s book about the life of the historical Buddha. It is told in simple chapters with beautiful pictures and covers the major events in the life of the Buddha.
Tales of the Golden Corpse by Sandra Benson is my favorite collection of traditional Tibetan folk tales. These are best suited for reading aloud or being read by older kids as the tales are presented in a chapter format without a lot of illustrations. These folk tales really capture Tibetan culture.
The Monkey King: A Superhero Tale of China, Retold from The Journey to the West (Ancient Fantasy) by Aaron Shepard. The Monkey King is sort of like the original Chinese superhero trickster, part of Chinese storytelling for more than 500 years. He’s always getting into trouble, but he’s got a great heart, and the Buddha knows just the way to teach him humility.
Basho and the Fox by Tim Myers. This is beautifully written and illustrated fairy tale starring the famous Japanese haiku master, Basho. The book both looks beautiful and tells a very clever story. Basho and the River Stones by the same author is also quite good and presents an excellent lesson about what has true value.
Demi has written several children’s picture books with Buddhist themes that we like, in particular The Empty Pot, which tells a story about an honest little boy who loves to grow flowers and an Emperor who values truth above all else.
The Three Questions by Jon Muth is not specifically Buddhist but has a very Buddhist feeling to it. It’s based on a story by Leo Tolstoy and answers 3 fundamental questions (“When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”) in a very Buddhist way: “There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”
Old Path, White Clouds: Walking the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh is not a children’s book, but it is a wonderful retelling of the life of the historical Buddha by a living Buddhist master. I highly recommend this book for any adult reader who wants a very deep and moving book about the Buddha of our age. I am also very pleased to report that a new book by Thich Nhat Hanh is now available called Path of Compassion: Stories from the Buddha’s Life, which consists of key stories from Old Path, White Clouds, but in a shorter format that is more suitable for use with (late elementary/middle school-aged) children.
Kindness: a Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents by Sarah Conover is a nice collection of Buddhist stories and fables for reading aloud and discussing as part of Dharma studies.
The Robber Chief: A Tale of Vengeance and Compassion by W.W. Rowe is a somewhat bloody adventure tale that shows how karma intertwines people and one’s actions can yield consequences much later in time.
The following books have more of an overall “Asian” theme than anything particularly Buddhist or didactic, but they are very enjoyable:
Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories by Mingmei Yip
Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade
The Adventure of Momotaro, the Peach Boy (Kodansha Bilingual Children’s Classics) by Ralph F. McCarthy
Favorite Children’s Stories from China & Tibet by Lotta Carswell Hume
The Painter and the Wild Swans by Claude Clement
The Boy Who Drew Cats: A Japanese Folktale by Arthur A. Levine
And here are two Buddhist-themed movies that are suitable for children to watch:
Little Buddha, 1994 movie starring Keanu Reeves and Bridget Fonda. Despite the fact that Keanu Reeves plays the historical Buddha, that this really is a great movie! It tells the story of a Tibetan lama who believes that he has found the reincarnation of his teacher in a boy living in Seattle. The boy and his father travel to Nepal to visit the deceased teacher’s monastery and to meet the other “candidates” . It is a very beautiful movie.
Unmistaken Child, 2008 documentary, reviewed in the New York Times here. A very beautiful and sparsely narrated documentary that shows how the young monk Tenzin Zopa, bereft at the death of his master Geshe Lama Konchog is tasked with finding, and eventually does find, the reincarnation of his master. A beautiful and moving story that follows every step of the process from the cremation of the old Rinpoche, to the monk’s long travels through the high valleys of northern Nepal looking for the child in accordance with divinations, to the finding, testing, recognition, enthronement, and training of the young new Rinpoche. It is very moving and so much better to actually see than simply to explain. The movie is in English and Tibetan with English subtitles, which might need read aloud to smaller children.