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.