The Heart of a Child

What is the heart of a child? Do you have it? The heart of a child is a Buddha’s mind, a mother’s heart, and a saint’s heart. Compassion, honesty, innocence, and benevolence are all contained in the heart of a child.

We have the heart of a child when we witness the suffering of sentient beings and feel anguished at their physical pain. We have the heart of a child when we take in mistreated animals, establish foster homes for abused children, and care for the elderly, the needy, the injured and the handicapped.

Manjusri Bodhisattva is called Manjusri the Child because he has the heart of one. In pursuit of the Dharma, Sudhana went to learn from fifty-three teachers. Similarly, sages such as Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi were all called “child.” Among women, Mulan fought in battle in place of her father. Tiying pled her father’s case of injustice. Sumagadhi spoke the Dharma. They, too, had the heart of children.

Among the emperors in Chinese history, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was noted for having the heart of a child. One day, he was playing with a little bird in his palace when he heard that his minister Wei Zheng wished to see him. He quickly hid the bird in his sleeve. As he tried to calmly hold his conversation with Wei, he was thinking of the little bird, afraid that it would suffocate in his sleeve. He became so anxious that he sweated profusely. His concern was most moving.

Qing Emperor Qianlong also had the heart of a child. One day, he overheard his minister Ji Xiaolan call him the “old head child” behind his back. Qianlong made use of the chance to give Ji a hard time. He asked for an explanation, stating if he was not satisfied with the answer, he would severely punish Ji. The exceptionally wise Ji replied, “Emperors are addressed as ‘ten-thousand-years old’ and are, therefore, ‘old.’ ‘Head’ suggests that an emperor is the head of all the people he rules, and being the son of heaven, he is a ‘child.'” In this way, both the emperor and the minister exhibited the heart of a child.

There are also people with the heart of children in American politics. When Adlai Stevenson was running for president, he often said that children were his priority. In 1952, on election day in 1952 he gave a talk to a group of schoolchildren and asked, “I would like to ask all of you children to indicate, by holding up your hands, how many of you would like to be Governor of Illinois the way I am?”

After the children raised their hands, he said, “Well, that’s almost unanimous. Now, I would like to ask all of the governors if they would like to be one of you kids.” Then he raised his hand, winning the applause and laughter of the parents. Although Stevenson lost the election twice to Eisenhower, his childish heart won the hearts of Americans.

In the Twenty-Four Chinese Stories of Filial Piety, it is recorded that the sixty-year-old Lao Laizi often acted like a child to entertain his aging parents. In Buddhism, there are examples of masters helping their former disciples who had become abbots by serving tea and fruit to guests. They are all expressing their natural kindness.

Humor is the language of the childish heart. This behavior is exemplified when a person of authority acts as a subordinate to others. Those with the heart of a child will be good elders and masters. The heart of a child is what we call the heart of bodhi!