In the full bloom of spring, in a beautiful garden,
in a place called Lumbini, a prince was born . . .
I’m not certain how many books have been written, or in how many languages, about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni Buddha, but surely none are so engaging, so charming, and so accessible as The Life of the Buddha, a delightful and exquisitely illustrated new volume for children by Buddhist writer and early childhood educator and teacher trainer Heather Sanche and thangka artist Tara di Gesu.
In The Life of the Buddha, Heather’s warm, gentle, succinct narrative provides an enchanting introduction to a captivating tale of truth-seeking and awakening that has been transmitted across millennia. A tale that is brought to vivid life by Tara’s elegant watercolor paintings, which combine with the prose to create a whole of profound depth and beauty.
Yet while the author’s approach to framing this classic tale for children feels as if gently bathed in the warming glow of summer afternoon, it still succeeds in communicating the deep and difficult themes—even for adults—of old age, sickness, death, and transcendence that lie at the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching, as well as the lessons in kindness and compassion that infuse them.
Heather focuses her account on the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, in particular the rebellious Prince Siddhartha’s series of forays out of his sheltered life of abundance and decadence in his father’s palace. From his life-altering encounters with the cruel realities of samsara to his ultimate awakening and revelation of the Four Noble Truths. It’s a story that is at once poignant and inspiring, yet sobering and bound to provoke reflection and conversation—parents might want to prepare themselves in advance to field questions and offer reassurance on subjects that may evoke deep emotional responses in children as much as they can inspire introspection. As the Buddha notes in his final teaching on the cusp of his parinirvana:
All that is born dies.
Apply yourself wholeheartedly to the path of freedom.
While intimately familiar with the foundational importance of a complete and holistic education for young children, Heather cites her own Buddhist practice, first and foremost, as the incentive and inspiration for writing this book in a manner both welcoming to young readers yet still honest and true to the spirit of the Dharma.
“I think, fundamentally, the inspiration for writing The Life of the Buddha for young children comes down to the fact that I’m a follower of the Buddha, a contemplative early childhood educator, and a mother,” Heather explains. “I wanted to be able to share with my own children and my students the story of the Buddha that would give them a distilled version of his life story that still conveys the real substance of why we practice and what it was that the Buddha discovered.
A practicing Buddhist since 1994, Canada-based Heather became a student of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in 1996. She was temporarily ordained in the Pau Auk Theravada tradition at a forest monastery near Mawlamyine in Myanmar in 2007, and in 2008–12 undertook a traditional three-year meditation retreat.
“For me the practice of meditation is profoundly important and I wanted to write a story about the Buddha’s life that would inspire my own children and hopefully many other children and adults to follow in his footsteps,” she observes. “Especially right now, when there is so much fear and uncertainty in the world, the Four Noble Truths are such helpful and honest teachings that have the potential to really transform our lived experiences.”
Accompanying and complementing Heather’s unique written expression of this timeless tale, the softly detailed and intimately evocative images by accomplished illustrator Tara di Gesu are equally essential in communicating the journey to spiritual discovery contained between the covers of this slim volume. A series of dynamic and vibrant double-page spreads offers an achingly resonant portrayal of the spiritual discovery and insights of The Awakened One that became the Buddhist tradition.
“The paintings by Tara are all hand-painted watercolors,” Heather notes. “She is a highly trained and respected thanka painter. I feel so incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to collaborate with her on this project as she is just so talented, as you can see from her images.”
With more than 25 years of exposure to the field of education, Heather has experience in mainstream, Waldorf, and Montessori pedagogical approaches. She has clearly brought this wealth of understanding to bear in bringing this book to life, informing her approach to writing for children.
“This is my first children’s book, and it’s a big story to distill down into 21 spreads. I was really nervous yet I was also excited and felt it was such a blessing to have the opportunity—I have always wanted to write children’s books,” Heather relates. “I lived in Taipei from 2001–07 and I spent so much time at the public library, where they have an excellent collection of children’s books, and I read tonnes of them and really tried to learn what worked and what didn’t work in terms of story and content.
“As an educator I have a deep appreciation for the reality that we as humans come into this world underdeveloped and eager to develop and grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” says Heather. “For me, this is what makes being human so extraordinary—we can actually choose how we educate our children. I wanted to write a story about who the Buddha was and what he discovered because, as humans, we are all capable of the same discovery. His example is our human inheritance.”
Published in 2020 by Bala Kids, a new children’s imprint from Shambhala Publications, The Life of the Buddha is 44 pages of beauty, wonder, innocence, and profound inspiration founded in the Buddhadharma. Although the book is graded for ages 4–8, I believe that all children up to the age of 80 and beyond, who retain a sense of wonder and the ability to marvel, will delight in this charming rendering of the ultimate quest for truth. A touching tale of compassion and insight and a beautiful retelling of an age-old wisdom teaching that will be at home—and within easy reach!—on any child’s bookcase.