How do you teach children about Buddhism? Does Disney’s Encanto movie offer hints and solutions for parents adapt to teaching the Buddhist principles? ion’s Roar Associate Editor Mariana Restrepo reimagines Disney’s latest musical, Encanto, as a way to teach our children about Buddhism.
As a parent and a Buddhist, I often find myself looking for ways to teach my toddler about Buddhism. You’d think that in today’s day and age, where everything is advertised as mindful this or that, I’d be able to find myriad resources. But age-appropriate Buddhist materials for young children are actually hard to find.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can use anything my toddler is interested in to teach him about Buddhist values. So here I am, on my fifth viewing of Disney’s Encanto, the soundtrack on repeat on all my devices, and most of the songs already memorized both in English and Spanish. My husband and I keep catching each other unconsciously singing to ourselves “We don’t talk about Bruno, no no!”
At its core, ‘Encanto’ is a story about human nature and the nature of suffering.
As a born and raised Colombian, when watching the movie, my heart longs for those Colombian landscapes I once walked, the traditional foods I have eaten so many times, the traditional dresses worn by the characters I myself wore to school recitals, the many references to Colombian customs and expressions throughout the movie, which are part of my own personal repertoire. But now, on this fifth viewing, the Buddhist part of me keeps wondering, could I use Encanto to teach my son about Buddhism?
In a Buddhist reimagining of Encanto, we could say that at its core Encanto is a story about human nature and the nature of suffering. And really, what could be a more Buddhist plot than that? Without giving too much away, Encanto tells the story of a family displaced by violence; a mother who after losing her husband, through the power of love and sacrifice is given a miracle. In the darkest moment of her life, when there was nothing else left. This miracle self-manifests, represented by an ever-burning candle, a flame that can never go out. Abuela Madrigal describes this miracle as a refuge. This miracle, as well as the trauma from which it is born, is passed down from one generation to the next, manifesting as a different gift in each family member. The miracle and the gift that each family member embodies is both a source of happiness and suffering. It is as much a gift as it is a burden, and it comes with the pressure of upholding the family values it represents and the responsibility of keeping the family miracle alive.
We quickly learn that even though each family member has an exceptional gift, suffering is at the center of each of their experiences. It does not matter how beautiful and perfect you are, like Isabela, or how powerful and strong, like Luisa, or how much knowledge you have, like Dolores, or whether you can know the future, like Bruno, when our lives are dominated by hope and fear and therefore lead by our attachments, we are bound to suffer. In this manner, the Madrigal family has become defined by their gifts, their attachment to them, their hopes of what they could accomplish through them, and their fear of losing them. Their attachment keeps leading them to make decisions that not only create personal suffering, but perpetuate the suffering of the family as a whole, eventually putting in danger the miracle itself.
Maribel, the main character, is the only member of the family who was not given a gift. However, it is through her genuine concern for the wellbeing of her family and her community, her embodiment of compassion, that she is able to bring back the magic that was seemingly lost. It is only through compassion, for each other and themselves, and through the realization of their interdependence, that the cycle of generational trauma is broken and the light of the miracle can be reborn and the family can return to their source of refuge. Finally, the imagery of yellow butterflies is woven throughout the movie, not only referencing the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also signaling the different transformations the family and each character undergo. Therefore, the yellow butterflies come to symbolize impermanence and change and the letting go of attachments.
So while we wait for more Buddhist materials for children, there you have it, my Buddhist reimagining of Encanto. I encourage you to give it a try, maybe watch that show your kid is obsessed with, or read your toddler that book for the one-thousandth time again, but this time put your Buddhist glasses on and see if you can find a way to teach your child about Buddhism through what they already enjoy…. Because if we all have buddhanature, why can’t a Disney movie have it too?
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