Sunday, December 25, 2005

Children's Rohatsu

I intended to give the girls a little talk about their Rohatsu Ceremony at the end of the previous class, but after the flurry of the bean game and making the rainsticks, their frames of mind weren't ready for another lesson. I sent their parents an email, asking them to help their children prepare for the ceremony by thinking of possible questions they could ask.

I'd like to say we planned it, but by coincidence Kim's new instruction for meditation was useful for my plan on this day. Since we only have five minutes in our separate groups before the ceremony, rather than discussing it, I chose to use the guided meditation method to talk a little bit about the ceremony of Questioning the Teacher, and to get the girls to look within and access that meditative mind for their questions. I told them we were celebrating that day when Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and he experienced enlightenment. We were sitting just as he sat, with legs crossed and hands in our lap. I didn't have a script, but interspersed meditation instruction with teaching about the ceremony, pausing regularly to take a few breaths and to let the words sink in. Like the week before, the girls were quiet in this meditation. It seems to me instruction in the form of guided meditation works better for them than pre-meditation instruction.

We sit in meditation with our hands in our lap as if we were holding a bowl of water. We sit very still, as if the water in the bowl were very still, no ripples. I explained that sometimes when we meditate we just sit and let the thoughts go by, and sometimes we grapple with a question. So today we would sit as if with a bowl of water, keeping our body still and letting our mind go still. In that quiet space I asked them to look within and see if there is some question they had that we could ask the teacher. One girl raised her hand. I said we would not ask that question now, but we would keep still, hold it, think about it, and tell no one until we stood in front of the teacher to ask our question. After a minute or so of quiet, the bell rang and we left to participate in the ceremony.

Here is the email I sent to the parents:

During the Rohatsu ceremony, children ask a question of the priest, (Gyokuko) one by one. It is voluntary, but we encourage them to go for it. They can ask anything they want. Older children often ask something about dealing with peers. Sometimes kids ask about God. Or how did the world come to be. Or something that came up for them in Dharma School. For instance we talk about buddha nature, we sing songs about it, but do they understand what that is? We adults who've been Buddhist for awhile have the same sort of question. If you have a chance, I'm hoping you can get your child to consider if they have a question, maybe draw it out with a conversation about your own questions.

Some background: Rohatsu is the time when we celebrate the Buddha's enlightenment. Some Buddhist sects call it "Bodhi Day". Children's Rohatsu is based on a ceremony in our Zen tradition where students ask questions of the teacher in front of all. The teaching (the Dharma) is found in the form as well as the answer from the teacher. The question is a presentation, a public revealing of the deep questions the students are working on. For the children, the teaching is found in their bravery for coming forward and meeting the teacher (the Buddha), and in expressing themselves, as well as hearing the answer. Asking a question is an invitation for our own awakening. Meeting the teacher is an opportunity for the child to experience her own AHA moment.

If you know your child has a question, but is too shy to take that step forward, you are welcome to come forward with her for encouragement. If she decides not to go forward, that is alright too, that is a teaching for her too.

Lotus Sutra: The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs

Dharma Rain

My partner in teaching, Kim, led this class at the end of November. She began the class by introducing a new meditation technique. She had the girls lie down on the floor, arranging themselves so they were not touching each other. She softly guided them to quietude, and drew their attention to parts of their bodies. When the bell sounded the girls were much less restless than usual.

To introduce the lesson, Kim gave each girl a word from the reading, The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs. She asked the girls to help define the words. Once each word was understood, she asked each girl to raise her word in the air when she heard it in the story. She read the verse portion of the chapter. Some of the words I remember she used were beneficent, saturation, secluded, flourishes, dharma.

There are various lessons that can be learned from this parable about Dharma Rain. All children in our Dharma School are familiar with this dharma rain falling everywhere equally, "with a single flavor of liberation." A popular song with the kids, I requested we sing it that day so it would be fresh in their minds. Another emphasis in the lesson can be found in the different sizes of the bushes, herbs, and trees. Each receives the rain according to its ability and need. There's always enough rain for their needs. Each in its own time will grow lush and beautiful. Kim chose to focus on the lesson found in the plants' differences with a little game for the girls.

Kim brought out a jar full of dried beans. Taking handfuls and raining them down over the girls heads, she told them to try catching as many beans as they could, and to gather as many from the floor as they could. The winner would have the most beans. Once the flurry was over and each girl had a little pile of beans in front of her, Kim talked about how their piles were different sizes. She asked them, "So-and-so's is bigger than the other's, is that fair?" She asked them to speculate as to why a pile would be bigger. Maybe one was older, taller? With the dharma, it wouldn't matter how much we get, no one is superior. We may have different abilities, but eventually we all get the same beans.

For our activity, to celebrate the Dharma Rain we made rain sticks using the dried beans from the game. I found a very simple, quick design for a rain stick. Materials: empty cardboard tubes, dried beans, aluminum foil, and stickers. Empty wrapping paper tubes would be best, but I was easily able to use toilet paper tubes by taping three together end to end.

Taking aluminum foil that is at least 1 1/2 times the length of the tube, we crinkled and squeezed it into a snake. We took that snake and made it zigzag to fit in the tube. Our Zen Center has a thrifty and eco-conscious habit of saving used aluminum foil, so we used this for the insides of our rain sticks. We took another piece of foil a half foot longer than the tube, and wrapped it around the tube. Folding over one end to seal the tube, we poured a handful or two of beans into the tube, and then sealed the second end. For stickers we had plenty of animal and plant stickers saved from those non-profit mail solicitations. Rainsticks finished, it sounded as if we had a thunderstorm in the room.

The Lotus Sutra: Prophecies of Buddhahood and Jofukyo

There are so many good stories in the Lotus Sutra that there are more than we have sessions in Dharma School. While I know the best learning happens when there is one lesson at a time, I didn't want to give up some of those stories. For this lesson in early November I covered the Prophecy of Buddhahood in Chapter 6, and the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging in Chapter 20. In order to find that "one lesson" I pulled threads out of the stories that related to each other and told the girls about the stories. I did not read them verbatim.

In Chapter 6, the Buddha makes prophecies for some of his followers, that they will become Buddhas. Others present wished they also could receive prophecies of Buddhahood, and one by one, the Buddha gave them their prophecies. He says of his followers, "In a future existence all will be able to attain Buddhahood." Two lessons can be emphasized here: that we all have buddha nature, and that we also have that natural wish to be recognized for that potential to become Buddhas.

In Chapter 20, the Buddha tells the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. Burton Watson translates the name as "Never Disparaging" but I have learned a more accurate translation would be "Never Despising". In our Zen sect of Buddhism we do not come across this Bodhisattva, but in the Nichiren Shu sect it is very important. Sadāpoaribhūta (known as Jofukyo in Japanese) is literally translated as 'Always Despised'. There were and are 5 practices accepted as useful: keep, read, recite, copy, and expound. Jofukyo did none of these but instead would simply bow to people. He would say, "I respect you deeply. I do not despise you. Why is that? It is because you will be able to practice the Way of Bodhisattvas and become Buddhas." There were some believers who became angry at this, and despised him. They thought the predictions were vain and irresponsible. What Jofukyo knew that they did not was that we all have the potential to become Buddhas…we all have buddha nature.

Tying these two stories together, I emphasized that we all have the potential to become Buddhas, and that we all have buddha nature. Sometimes people have the response of wishing to hear that prophecy for themselves, and sometimes people have the response of not believing it, maybe even getting angry. It can be very difficult to recognize the buddha nature in others when they are mean to us, but somehow Bodhisattva Never Despising was able to do that. According to the Lotus Sutra, this Bodhisattva became Shakyamuni Buddha, the very Buddha that told this story and had these followers.

Even though I tried to keep it simple, telling of two stories was confusing for some of the girls. On top of that, buddha nature is a concept that defies explanation. Rather it needs to be internalized and grappled with. My lesson was learned here too: that I really must stick to one story, one lesson. I was also intrigued to learn that this Bodhisattva is very important to the Nichiren Shu sect of Buddhism. A motivation for respecting others even when it is difficult is this recognition that they too have buddha nature.

For our activity, we made glass refrigerator magnets. Materials: magnet sheet for printers, glue, glass pebbles (flattened glass 'marbles'), light-colored markers. I collected Buddhist clip art and created a word document of little line art pictures that would be no bigger than the glass discs, and printed that out on the ink jet magnet sheet. The clip art I chose were of monks, of Buddha statues, and lotus flowers, the simpler the better. If I'd had more time I would have found and traced more variety of images…there was a distinct lack of female images in the Buddhist clip art I could find. The glass pebbles I found in an aquarium store, but I imagine they will also be in craft stores (and more expensive). My discs were about an inch in diameter. Since the discs varied slightly in size, I used one of the smaller ones to draw my cutting guide around the clip art, and I cut them out before the class to save time during class.

The girls chose the magnet they wanted, and colored in the lines with markers. Lighter colors that contrasted with the black lines of the clip art helped the picture to be more visible underneath the glass. We used a cotton swab to dab white glue on the picture and glue it to the flat side of the disc. I had more than enough pictures, so once each girl finished their magnet, they could choose some more magnets sans glass pebble. They really gravitated toward the lotus pictures. These magnets were simply for decoration, as the sheet magnet is only strong enough to hold the glass and nothing else.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lotus Sutra: the Physician and the Poisoned Children

I thought this story of The Physician and the Poisoned Children (scroll about halfway down in the link) would be a good lead-in to our annual festival, Segaki. During Segaki, we coax the Hungry Ghosts towards the Dharma with sweets, help, and gentle instruction. The Hungry Ghosts are frightened, willful, and not sure how to proceed. Much like the Gakis, the children in this story are frightened and willful. Their physician parent needs to cure them after they drank some poison, but the poison addles their minds. The physician must be creative to get them to take the medicine they need.

My co-teacher, Kim, led this class. Kim quickly established her different teaching style when she prepared to set up the altar. With various items on a tray, she mindfully handed each girl an item to place on the altar. One of the girls asked, "What about the Bodhi tree?" In the first lesson, they liked a particular jade plant next to the Buddha, towering over the statue "like a Bodhi Tree." So we placed the jade plant on the altar too.

Kim began the day's lesson by having the girls draw a picture of something their parents have them do that they don't particularly like to do. She also had them think about those things they like to do. Kim and the girls and I talked about these things we didn't like, but were probably good for us to do anyway, such as washing the dishes, or school work. After the pictures were done, Kim turned to the Lotus Sutra and read them the story of the Physician and the Poisoned Children.

At the end, I had just a couple of minutes to remind them that we would have Segaki at the next dharma school, and compared the Gakis to the poisoned children. I said that while the physician found a way to help the children by pretending she died, we find ways to help the Gakis by helping them, giving them treats, and being kind. Sometimes we need to teach or to learn in different ways.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Lotus Sutra: The Illuminating Light

I used The Illuminating Light of The Lotus Sutra as an introduction to the year's lessons. I am using the Burton Watson translation, and that happens to be the translation I've found on the web. While we were all gathered for the morning songs, I realized that This Little Light of Mine (link is not the exact version) would provide the perfect lead-in to this story. This turned out to be a great song to sing early, because many of the newcomers to Dharma School were unsure about the Buddhist songs. This one they could sing heartily.

I am teaching the grade school girls, and our first lesson was very busy as I needed to explain each segment of our time together.

First, we always "create a zendo space." The girls will find the pieces we need for the altar and put that together, and arrange cushions around the room for meditation. They will share and take turns lighting the incense, keeping time, and snuffing the candle afterward. I told them we would sit for five minutes, and I would keep track this time. When I gave them only three, several knew it!

after we changed the zendo space back into the library, I explained that I would always give a quick introduction to the day's lesson, and then we would do a check-in. The check-in, I explained, was their chance to say their name and something about themselves. It could be something about how they're feeling, or something they'd like us all to know about themselves. They could also use this time to bring up a question they have about something they've learned in Dharma School, or about the introduction I've given.

I told them that this year we would be learning from the Lotus Sutra, that this is a lesson said to be given by the Buddha for us all to learn how to be bodhisattvas. Several of the returning girls were excited to recognize that they remembered Bodhisattvas from last year. When the Buddha was about to teach this sutra, a beam of light came from his forehead and illuminated everybody, like the song "This Little Light of Mine."

After check-in, the day's lesson. Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Buddha was going to give a teaching in a park, because that's what he often did. All kinds of people gathered, and bodhisattvas, eighty thousand of them! The Buddha's mother came, Mahaprajapati. You see, when the Buddha left on his quest to understand things, he left his family behind. But when he became the Buddha, the awakened one, his family decided to follow him. So his mother was there, and she had many followers. He'd also been married, and had a son before he left. His wife, Yashodhara, she was also there, and she had many followers with her.

Among those many bodhisattvas, some were named. Of course, Manjushri was there, you remember Manjushri. He is the Bodhisattva of ......wisdom. And Maitreya was there....he's the Buddha of the future. And you already mentioned the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Who's that? ....Kanzeon....Avelokiteshvara. She's also known as the Perceiver of the World's Sounds.

(I showed them and passed around some images I'd found of the Buddha with the bodhisattvas and other followers gathered around.)

There were also many other beings there. Animals, and mythic creatures. Some of them might be similar to mythic creatures you already know about. There were the gandharvas. These creatures were part horse and part human. Yeah, kind of like a centaur. They were known for making beautiful music.

There were also these creatures called garudas, part bird part human. This bird could travel from one end of the universe to the other with a single flap of its wings. Oh, and here's a picture of an asura king. There were dragon kings there too. All kinds of creatures.

So all these beings were gathered to learn from the Buddha, when the Buddha gave out this illuminating light from a spot between his eyes on his forehead. The Bodhisattva Maitreya wondered what this meant, so he went to ask Manjushri to see if he, (or she, because bodhisattvas can be he's or she's you know) to see if Manjushri knew. Because of course, Manjushri's the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

And Manjushri said it was probably because the Buddha is about to give this great teaching. And that teaching turned out to be the Lotus Sutra. I think the Buddha was illuminating the buddha nature of everyone, and he could do this because he was a buddha. He was showing the buddha nature of all these beings, the mythic creatures, the people, the bodhisattvas. He was showing what was already there, but he was just making it visible. And I think that it's because we all have buddha nature that he could make it visible.

At least one girl asked, "Are we going to draw?" Indeed we were. I told them we were going to draw whatever beings we might like to that could have been at this gathering. It could be the mythic creatures, any of the bodhisattvas, the Buddha, people, animals. I included a cat because I have a cat. This with a white or very light crayon. Now, the drawing didn't need to be perfect, in fact often it's in the mistakes that bodhisattvas are revealed. It will be hard to see, but you can hold it up to the light if you need to. Press hard with the crayon. Then, use the watercolor to splash paint over your crayon drawing, and then your picture will be revealed. Showing them my nearly completed example, I demonstrated painting over it with watercolor. We discovered together that adding more water could help the drawing show up better, and it is possible to use crayon after it is wet, but it is better to press hard with the crayon before applying the watercolor.

2005 1003 illuminating light

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

An Introduction

As Buddhist communities continue to be born and to grow in the West, more of these sanghas are wondering how to teach Dharma to their kids. A dearth of curriculum materials often has them seeking help from other established communities, like Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. DRZC has been conducting a Dharma School since around 1986. Word has it the push came from members who were parents and wanted a Sunday School for their children. Dharma Rain sought help from the long established Jodo Shinshu temple in the area, got their hands on some Buddhist songs for kids, and the Dharma school grew from there.

Almost 20 years later, more songs have been added (some of them written by members) and a 5-6 year curriculum has been established. Efforts have been made for several years to write a book so others could benefit from Dharma Rain's experience, but it seems the best way to capture the curriculum is to get the lessons from the teachers as they create and deliver them. This is our effort to do so.

The history and background of the Dharma School program can be found here at Dharma Rain's website.