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.

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