Looking for ways to teach her toddler about Buddhism, Mariana Restrepo finds valuable lessons about compassion and the causes of suffering in Disney’s Encanto.
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, when 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 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!”
I was born and raised Colombian, and when I watch Encanto my heart longs for those Colombian landscapes I once walked, the traditional foods I have eaten so many times, the traditional dresses the characters wear that I myself wore to school recitals, the many references to Colombian customs and expressions that are part of my own personal repertoire.
All that makes the movie meaningful and evocative for me. But now, on my fifth viewing, the Buddhist part of me also wonders, could I use Encanto to teach my son about Buddhism?
In a Buddhist reimagining of Encanto, we could say that at its core it’s 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 Colombian family displaced by violence. A young mother loses her husband, but through the power of her love and sacrifice is given a miracle in this, the darkest moment of her life. This miracle is represented as an ever-burning candle, a flame that can never go out.
The miracle, as well as the trauma from which it is born, is then passed down from generation to generation, manifesting as a different gift in each member of the Madrigal family. The miracle, and the gift that each family member embodies, is a source of both happiness and suffering. It is as much a burden as it is a gift, as 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 though each family member has an exceptional gift, suffering is at the center 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 are led 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 for what they can 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. But through her genuine concern for the well-being of her family and her community, she is able to bring back the magic that is seemingly lost. The lesson is that it’s only through compassion, for each other and themselves, and through the realization of our interdependence, that the cycle of generational trauma is broken and the light of the miracle reborn.
The imagery of yellow butterflies is woven throughout the movie, not only referencing the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also signaling the transformations the family and each character undergo. The yellow butterflies come to symbolize impermanence, change, and the letting go of attachments.
So while we wait for more Buddhist materials for children, I encourage you to give my Buddhist reimagining of Encanto a try. Or watch whatever show your kid is obsessed with, or read your toddler that book for the one-thousandth time. But now, 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?