Monday, November 27, 2006

Prajna Paramita

We had a full lesson this week on Prajna paramita, which means wisdom, or insight. I hope it wasn't too much information for one lesson, but we will have a chance to review later in the school year.

I was saying to a friend that it is a challenge to my understanding of the dharma to teach dharma to kids. I may have an experiential understanding, or I may have some big-words understanding, but I must study and delve some more so that I can relate it so a kid can understand. My band of girls is not shy about asking the meaning of words, so I don't worry too much about that, but I do worry that I may misrepresent the dharma.

So I cast out a net to find out how other people understand it. With the paramitas, I always remember my friend Yuishin saying that the song says it all. In this case, "Now the sixth paramita is Prajna/ If you think you're wise, you're full of bologna/ But when you experience "I DON'T KNOW"/ then natural wisdom is everywhere you go." When it comes to Zen, this is a strong message of Prajna. Casting my net, I found this is a beloved topic of Tibetan Buddhists.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche said, "This prajna of mindfulness is divided into a three-stage process of development in the path of Buddhism. We have the prajna of listening, the prajna of contemplating, and the prajna of meditation." I didn't realize that when I mentioned, "Tibetan Buddhists" the girls would be reminded of familiar images they've encountered and want to mention them. (Monks who visited one girl's school; that Holiness Dalai guy?) I must remember for future lessons that any little tangential fact might just spark a tangential conversation. Not that there's anything wrong with that...I love it when they're bursting to tell about the things they know...I just need to plan how much I can cover in a lesson.

Judy Lief, teacher and author who studied with Trungpa, said,

"Prajnaparamita is depicted as a beautiful feminine deity with four arms. Two arms are folded on her lap in the classic posture of meditation, and her two other arms hold a sword and a book. Through these gestures, she manifests three aspects of prajna: academic knowledge, cutting through deception, and direct perception of emptiness."

(Here is an image of Prajnaparamita, known as the Mother of the Buddhas.)

Through these three aspects and the connection to the Prajnaparamita Buddha, I had a way into the lesson. I asked the girls to listen for these three kinds of Prajna as I told them the story.

This story is based on Jataka #305. I used Sarah Conover's version in "Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children," changing the characters to girls, and adding a post-climactic ending that helped the story reflect the three stages of Prajna.

Steal for Teacher?

Once upon a time there was a school for girls who wished to lead a spiritual life. It was a small school, and the girls had a wise old teacher who taught them the usual subjects like History and Math and Reading, but she also taught them how to behave and how to understand the world. What are some of the things you think she taught the girls?

(The girls had some good answers. How to be peaceful. How to behave in the world. Breathe! How to meditate. etc...)

So one day this teacher gathered the girls together and told them she was getting old. Could they not see she had grey hair and needed to use a cane? Well, she was finding it more difficult to earn the money to support the school, so she needed their help. "I need you to help find money to keep the school open," she said.

The girls wanted to help. One girl asked, "How can we get money? We only know how to do our chores?"

The teacher told them, "There are riches everywhere you look. When you see a man with a shiny watch and rich suit walking down the street, don't you think he has more than he needs? It wouldn't hurt him to share some with us, don't you think?" The girls looked at each other, nervous and confused.

"Here's what you do," the wise old teacher said. "Go to the city center and find a quiet alley between busy streets. When someone walks by who clearly has a lot of money, with no one watching, I want you to take his wallet, or her purse, or other valuable things. If no one has seen you, I will accept what you bring. We will use the money to pay our bills, and sell other valuables. But if you let yourselves be seen, I will refuse any item, even if it is a diamond ring."

The girls were concerned and frightened at their teacher's request. Wasn't it wrong to take other people's things? They looked at the floor and avoided each other's eyes. "Remember," the teacher said, "I wouldn't ask you to do something I myself wouldn't do. You know I have always told you the truth. Our school could certainly use the money."

As she spoke, the teacher guided the girls to the door. "Return soon," she said. "You will find it very easy when no one is watching." The group gathered shoes and coats, buzzing with some fear, some excitement. When the door closed behind them, there stood a single, quiet girl.

The teacher noticed and approached her. "What is the matter? All the other girls are brave and willing to help me keep the school open. Why didn't you join them?" The voice was soft but with a little bit of a challenge.

The girl looked at the floor, whispered, "Teacher, I cannot do what you asked us to do."

"Oh. Why is that?" The gruffness in her voice disappeared, and the teacher watched the girl with a soft concentrated eye.

"Because there is no secret place where no one watches," answered the girl. "Even if I'm by myself, I will see myself steal."

Hearing this response, the wise teacher hugged the girl joyfully. "Congratulations! Good for you! You understood my true meaning, you really listened to me. I am proud of you!"

The girl's face lit up. "Thank you, teacher!"

Right then the other students came back for the missing girl, and they realized their teacher had tested them, and they were humbled. It was an important lesson for them to learn. First they studied, they listened and they learned. But then they needed to take what they learned and make it their own. They never forgot the girl's words, "Wherever I am, someone watches." They never forgot how important it is to pay attention to one's own understanding and own conscience.

This was not the end of their learning though. That girl eventually became a wise teacher herself. Her understanding became truly wise when she no longer needed to remember 'the one who watches.' She no longer felt separated from that one. When she meditated, when she listened, or spoke, or did something, she did not plan or tick required actions off a list. Rather than having all the answers, she approached each moment as a question, and thus she almost always found the wise response.

We made aluminum ornaments for the activity.

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Use thumbtacks to hold the aluminum (pie tin, roasting pan, or in this case with an unstamped bottom, large loaf pan) to the cardboard, and the imaged to be traced if one is being used. Use a nail to make impressions in the aluminum. Once enough is traced, the nail can be used for further details and molding.

Conversation: "The nail is tearing the paper!"
"Yes, that happens."
"That's how you know you've traced that part!"
Some girls opted to draw their own images.

In my case, I turned the tin over and colored the back, but it didn't matter which side they chose to give color.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Kshanti Paramita

Jyoshin and I decided since our girls are so talkative and full of questions, we'd worry less about story and more about having a conversation. We allowed a little more time for checkin, and I chose a short little story from Zen for an example of kshanti.

I began the lesson with a little review. I figure the more times we talk a little bit about what paramitas are, the more they (and me and Jyoshin) will have an idea of the whole of the idea, rather than the simple definition. When I was looking for ideas on kshanti, I found this web page in which the author says,

If the six paramitas are aspects of Buddha nature or wakefulness, then wouldn't they--like Buddha nature or wakefulness--be always present, if obscured? And if so, wouldn't the best way to cultivate and exhibit any of the paramitas within us be to eliminate that with which we obscure it?

So I shared that idea with the girls, that the paramitas help us uncover our buddha nature. That when we express the paramitas well, we express our buddha nature. One asked what 'obscure' means, sparking a little discussion. That turned out to be a very useful dharma word.

They also remembered the paramita we have already studied, generosity, or dana. I told them kshanti means patience, but I shared with them Robert Aitken's definition from The Practice of Perfection: "Kshanti has three aspects: gentle forbearance, endurance of hardship, and acceptance of truth." They are not shy, and we had a little discussion about what 'forbearance' means. To remember what it means, 'bear' is the important part, as in "bearing up under whatever happens to you." I'm sure I will revisit this paramita, along with dana. As I look up forbearance I realize it captures kshanti better than 'patience,' because of that idea of restraint. Patience can be as simple as waiting something out, but forbearance includes the strength needed in the face of provocation.

By this time the girls were thinking of examples of patience in their lives, and how they themselves are not patient. (it's working! :) I read to them the definition from the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen:

Kshanti includes patience in bearing aggression and injury from other beings, in bearing adversity without being drawn away from the spiritual path, as well as patience in following difficult points of Buddhist doctrine through to comprehension

This was a useful jumping off point to share ways in which kshanti is useful in our lives. One girl listening so attentively to the lesson demonstrated kshanti. Another girl lives with a disease that necessitates her vigilance over the effect food has on her body. She needs and uses kshanti to bear this in her life. Jyoshin and I need kshanti to understand kshanti!

I did have a short story to share, one which allowed for more dialog. "Is That So" about Hakuin. When accused of being the father to the baby being carried by the girl next door, Hakuin simply says, "Is that so?" His reputation was ruined, and when the baby was born it was brought to him. He took care of it for a year. The girl finally told her parents the truth, that the father was a boy who worked in the fishmarket. The grandparents apologized deeply to Hakuin, who said simply, "Is that so?" and gave the baby back. (The story can be found also in Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Paul Reps)

I embellished just a little with thoughts about how Hakuin demonstrated kshanti as I shared a story. The girls had good ideas too, thinking about how scared the girl must have been, and how Hakuin did just what was needed and took care of the baby, the most innocent one in the story. (The girls in my class are all around 9 years old...if I had any that were around 6 or 7 years I would not have chosen this story. As it is I think they appreciated this could be a real life scenario.)

In preparation for our activity I created zig zag cards with foam covers for the girls to draw and color. If we had more time for a craft activity, they could have glued the foam sheets on the card stock as well. I simply found this image of Hakuin, centered 2 of the images in a landscape oriented word document, and cut the card stock printouts in half. They used markers to give Hakuin color and draw other pictures and designs on the rest of the piece.

While they drew, it occurred to me to pose the question, "What if Hakuin hadn't been there?" It would have been harder for the girl, she was so scared. Hard for the baby. It evolved into a conversation about needing people with kshanti in the world. Comments came up like, "We couldn't have peace in the world." "Maybe there would be peace, but it would be harder."

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I also showed the girls printouts of art that Hakuin did, and a couple of quotes:

"The true purpose of zen is to see things as they are, and to let things go as they go."

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dana Paramita

I introduced the lesson on October 15 by talking a little bit about what dana means. It is giving, or generosity, but it is not the kind of giving where you expect some kind of reward. It is a kind of giving where you give because you don't feel separate from the other, it's just the natural action to take. You don't think about yourself, you just give.

I read the story "The Living Kuan Yin" from the book The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales, stories retold by Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn, illustrated by Marie Cameron. This is a traditional tale from China in which a young man gives away all his wealth. He had so much gold he thought he'd never run out, but he did. He decided to travel to the land where the living Kuan Yin lived, and ask her why he was so poor. On the way he meets others who have questions for Kuan Yin. I like this story as a way to demonstrate dana because throughout the story the young man gives without a thought for himself. The one time he does consider himself, he makes his decision based on his promises to others. As happens with folk tales, he got his answer through his giving. Everything came out all right. The others who had questions also got their answers through giving, and love.

The girls had no problem accepting the dragon parts of the story, but expressed doubt that two people could meet and instantly fall in love and get married. We had a little impromptu conversation about folk tales and love. (Savvy kids these girls.)

I chose a simple craft for the girls, a refrigerator magnet that they could color. I happened to have some magnet sheets for the printer.

I chose this illustration from the story:

kwan yin dragon story copy

In adobe photoshop I used the photocopy filter to get a black and white image. (click on filter ->sketch ->photocopy if you want to recreate this technique) After that I simply inserted the jpeg into a word doc, formatted the size, and copied so I would have 4 to a page.

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This coloring works best with lighter colors, so I weeded out my darker markers for this project.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Paramitas

On October 1 we had the first Dharma School of the year. I had a simple lesson planned because I knew the kids would be full of energy and would be busy getting acquainted and re-acquainted. Indeed the girls were quite talkative, so my co-teacher Jyoshin and I decided at the moment to change the sequence and start out with check-in rather than meditation.

I spent a little more time than usual introducing meditation for the new girls, and for a reminder for the returning girls. I told them about sitting as if they were holding a bowl of water, that as they sat still the water would become still. They were still a bit restless, so I softly reminded them to hold their bowl still so the water would be still. After the meditation we talked about what that was like. One or two mentioned being distracted by sounds, and that having instruction during the meditation was a distraction. I told them we could do more instruction about how to meditate with sounds in the future.

I introduced the concept of the paramitas with the song we sing as a whole group about getting to the other shore: "Why don't you try a little paramita/ There's nothin' sweeter than a little paramita/ I know ya wanna git to that other shore/ But don't think about it, just paddle your oar..." I also shared the definitions commonly used: virtues, or perfections. A lot of times it's difficult to translate these ancient Buddhist words like paramita. I didn't want them to think you have to be a perfect person to practice the paramitas. That's why I like the song. It refers to the literal translation: cross over to the other shore, and the song also refers to the idea that we just do that practice, don't worry so much about actually getting to the other side.

Definition from the translation project here:

paramita. 'Perfection'. The paramitas are the framework of the
bodhisattva's religious practice, usually consisting of six categories, sometimes ten. The six are the perfection of charity (dana), virtue (sila), perseverance (kshanti), vigor (virya), meditation (dhyana) and wisdom (prajna). The ten paramitas include the six with the addition of the perfection of skillful means (upaya), vows, powers, and knowledge.

I asked the girls if they have ever been in a canoe, or a small boat. We had a lively discussion that helped me flush out the metaphor of the paramitas as a means to navigate the river of life. All the girls had been on a small boat or canoe, so they knew what they were talking about. One girl grew up on a river and was quite familiar and comfortable with canoes. (skill, practice) Another was afraid during her experience. (unfamiliar territory) It looks different out there on the water. (you have to pay attention, it's uncertain out there, you want to get back to the shore) You have to paddle. You have to drive. White water rafting. (you need to be really skilled for that)

Thinking of the paramitas as a canoe or a boat that helps us to get to the other shore, it helps us navigate the water, the more we do it the more skilled we get, and the less scared we are, it helps us with the whitewater. I mentioned meditation as one they already knew about, and dana, or generosity, would be the one we talked about next time. Also by way of introduction I wanted to share some properties that the paramitas share. I got these from Living Kindness by Don Altman (who turns out to be a Portland resident). I was able to relate these properties back to our discussion of the canoe. (In some ways this book is simple in it's understanding of the paramitas, and at times has more of a prescriptive Theravadan view than a Mahayanan interpretive view, but it's simplicity makes it good for ideas for instructing kids.) The properties shared by the paramitas:

  1. Each ancient principle illuminates and possesses all ten principles.
  2. Each principle purifies and strengthens our spiritual growth.
  3. Each principle awakens us to the way things really are.
  4. Each of the principles transforms and empowers. (they help us navigate toward better choices)
  5. Each ancient principle raises and broadens our conscious view.

For our activity, after all that talk of canoes, I had an easy origami of a canoe for them to make.

canoe origami

Friday, August 18, 2006

Dragon Princess Skit

I've had a busy summer, so was not able to post summaries of our final Dharma School classes. We had our annual Wesak ceremony, and another Sunday, several of the classes walked in meditation to the Nichiren Buddhist Temple for a tour and talk by the temple's minister, Rev. Ryuoh Faulconer. The Lotus Sutra is the foundation of the Nichiren-Shu's teachings. We also had a girls day trip: 2 moms and 6 girls from the grade school and middle school groups went to the Lilac Festival in Woodburn, Washington, then to Horseshoe Lake park nearby. Finally, I reviewed the year with my class and we decided on a skit for the last Dharma School Sunday. Quite naturally, the grade school girls chose the story of the Dragon Princess.

Since we had a year packed full of lessons, we had very little time to rehearse a skit, so I wrote one designed to be easy for the girls to remember or to read their lines, while I narrated. I was inspired by Sallie Jiko Tisdale's recently published book, Women of the Way. Her version gave me new insight into the story (one of the girls commented, "I don't remember the story being like this!") and I also made it my own, our own, as Jiko encouraged her readers to do at one of her book talks.

Interestingly, none of the girls wished to be a boy, the somewhat dimwitted boy in this case, Shariputra. I decided I would recruit one of the adults from the audience, I figured they'd like that. While waiting for our turn, I realized I was seated next to the perfect ham for the part, our newly ordained lay disciple Thomas Koshin Bruner. He readily agreed. When I introduced the skit, I explained that I'd invited a special guest to fill the part of Shariputra, who was a 'doubting Thomas'. (How is it that I manage to create laughs that seem planned when I so totally did not plan them? For those not in the know, Koshin has spoken at times of his doubting Thomas aspects of himself.) He turned out to be perfect for the part, and almost upstaged the girls.

I had a few cloth pieces for costumes. We used them simply as capes to give the suggestion of flowing dragons with tails. I also brought some large "jewels" from a past Halloween costume to suggest the princess and dragons in waiting.

Here is the skit:

It is said that once upon a time, a long time ago, the Buddha taught the Lotus of the Wondrous Law. It was a time when mythical creatures came to hear him speak, as well as Bodhisattvas and human beings. One time the Bodhisattva Manjushri went deep below the ocean to visit the kingdom of the Nagas, the dragons. While there he found many willing students of the Buddha Way, and was particularly impressed with Naga Deva, the Dragon Princess.

After he came back, a bunch of the bodhisattvas and disciples of the Buddha were gathered around, chatting about their travels. Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated asked Manjushri, "Have you ever encountered someone who got it right away?"

Manjushri replied, "Yes, the Dragon Princess understands the Buddha Way." Neither Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated nor Shariputra believed him.

Shariputra said, "But she's a girl! Women can't be Buddhas, much less girls."

Manjushri said, "Well this girl understands and can teach the Buddha Way."

Just then the Dragon Princess appeared and bowed deeply to the gathering. She said, "It is my wish to meet the World Honored One."

Manjushri bowed back. Shariputra and some of the others were hesitant in their bows.

Shariputra said, "You cannot understand the Buddha's teachings. You're a girl!"

The Dragon Princess looked at him quietly and said, "Oh, really?" She could see Shariputra was trying to impress the others.

The Buddha arrived, and invited the daughter of the dragon king to sit beside him. He said, "Naga Deva, you are destined to be a Buddha in an instant."

Shariputra scoffed, "It takes years of practice and determination to understand the Law and reach enlightenment. This girl cannot do that."

Naga Deva looked at the Buddha, then at Shariputra. She could see he did not believe she could be a Buddha because he was afraid that he could not be a Buddha. And if he could not be a Buddha, how could this girl, not even a human, be a Buddha, when all he'd learned in the world told him girls and dragons were inferior beings to human men? The dragon princess could see that as long as he believed these conditions, he could still not realize the Buddha Way, and she felt sad for him. How could she show him that not only she, but he, could be a Buddha?

Now, the beautiful dragon girl had a beautiful priceless gem on her forehead. This gem helped define her as a dragon and a girl. Naga Deva reached up and plucked the gem from her forehead and handed it to the Buddha, bowing deeply.

"Is that quick enough for you?" she asked Shariputra. The Buddha smiled, but said nothing. He knew this girl could teach Shariputra something.

Shariputra said, "Any dragon could do that. You may be wise, but you're not a Buddha. You have none of the marks."

The Dragon Princess could see that this advanced disciple still had a blind spot. He could not see her clearly because he could not see himself clearly. Holding his gaze with love and kindness, she transformed into a Buddha. [the Dragon Princess wraps her cape-tail around herself with narrator's help, so the cloth is now a robe.] Suddenly Shariputra could see she held all the marks of a Buddha, and he could see in her eyes that she was teaching him the Buddha way.

In another instant, Naga Deva became a dragon girl again, and she and Shariputra bowed to each other with a deepened respect. Shariputra now knew that transformation was possible, for girls, for dragons, and even for him.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Perceiver of World's Sounds: the Kanzeon Scripture

Our final lesson from the Lotus Sutra is one that any person at Dharma Rain might encounter. The Universal Gateway Scripture, also known as the Kanzeon Scripture, is important to our Zen sect. We chant this at least a couple of times a month, every other Saturday. Since this was something so central to our practice at the Zen Center, I wanted to give the girls a taste of it. The grade school boys group chants the Fudo Ceremony, and our class often hears them through the walls while we meditate silently. Here was a chance for the girls to experience another form of Buddhist practice.

Long a favorite ceremony of mine, this portion does take about ten minutes to chant, and the pattern of the beats can be unexpected and difficult to chant. I had chosen a challenging lesson for the girls on this first Sunday in April.

Since this would also be the last lesson where we created something, I wanted that to be special as well. I know the kids always love shrinky dinks, and that was something I've wanted to do all year. These take time, another challenge to add to the mix.

Since the chanting would take the place of meditation, we started out the lesson with a quick check-in. After Kim and I demonstrated a stanza, we all practiced the same stanza. I made sure the girls knew about the repeating line "By mindfully invoking Kanzeon's power" so if they got lost, they could join in again at that line. I explained this wasn't easy to chant, and no doubt we would make mistakes, but it would all be okay. We then proceeded to do pretty well, and made it through the ten minute chant without mishap.

At the beginning of the lesson, I explained that with this practice we chant not so much to comprehend every thing at once, but to let bits of the chant arise and catch our attention. Since this would be their first reading of the scripture, what I would do is read it to them after we did the chanting, while they started on the surprise activity.

Kim helped the girls stamp their shrink plastic while I read the scripture again. We encouraged them to draw images that came to mind from the reading. They quietly listened as they chose colored pencils and enhanced the simple picture of Kanzeon. I finished reading about the time the first girl was ready for shrinking. Using an embossing heat tool, I saved our large pieces from curling up on themselves with an Ove Glove. The larger the piece, the harder it is to keep the shrinky dink from getting all buckled and curled. This way I could touch the hot plastic and push it flat.

Stamp and shrink process:

Kanzeon stamp stamp and colored pencil before shrink shrinking stamp w glove shrinking the stamp completed kanzeon shrinky dink

Since we had so much to pack into one lesson, we didn't have a chance to talk about it. We'll have some chances to review in upcoming lessons. Some of the girls remember lessons on the Bodhisattva Kanzeon from last year.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Children's Jukai Ceremony

Every year the children in Dharma School have a chance to renew their commitment to this Buddhist practice they are learning about. The ceremony is simple, but with the help of their teachers and their parents, they understand the gravity of the ceremony. At it's most basic level, becoming a Buddhist means taking refuge in the Three Jewels. This is what the children do in their Jukai Ceremony. On another basic level, Buddhism provides a structure to develop compassion and wisdom, and the children do this through their Two Promises.

We get the Three Treasures and The Two Promises from the Community of Mindful Living, Thich Nhat Hahn's lineage. Like the Community of Mindful Living, we feel it very important that children be allowed to make their own choices in this, and they know they will not be asked to make a lifetime commitment. We give them information, tell them what we have learned, involve them in lessons, but we don't tell them they must believe this or that.

The Three Treasures
  • I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.
  • I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love
  • I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness

The Two Promises

  • I vow to develop my compassion in order to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.
  • I vow to develop understanding in order to live peaceably with people, animals, and plants.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Dragon King's Daughter

In March we had the lesson on the Dragon King's Daughter from the Lotus Sutra. So often in Buddhism, women are seen as inferior, but not in this teaching. Not only is she female, she is a child, and the Dragon King's Daughter is presented to the followers of Buddha as one who is capable of attaining enlightenment.

My co-teacher in this endeavor, Kim, read the story to the girls, then she had another story for them, more contemporary. She read the book, Brave Harriet: The First Woman to Fly the English Channel. In the early days of flight, people were still getting lost when they attempted the English Channel. Brave Harriet Quimby knew she could do it as long as she trusted her compass. Even her best male friend was afraid she would fail. Harriet succeeded well before Amelia Earhart gained fame for flying across the ocean, but Harriet's story was trumped by the sinking of the Titanic. This was a wonderful story of a woman having certainty in herself, even while people around her expected failure because she was a woman. It was a story about confidence, and confidence in our own wisdom and ability was the message Kim wanted to emphasize.

For an activity, Kim had the girls paint a picture of who they wanted to be when they grew up. Paint was a novelty we haven't experienced in a Dharma School class before, but we had some handy acrylic paint pens that prevented a mess.

Nehan Ceremony

During the month of February, we at Dharma Rain Zen Center celebrate Nehan, the anniversary of the Buddha's death. Also known as Parinirvana Day, all the children in Dharma School come together for our ceremony.

One week the children celebrate, and the full sangha celebrates Nehan on an adjoining week. Always on these days a special statue appears on the altar, created by our own co-abbot, Gyokuko Carlson. On Nirvana Day, the Buddha is traditionally depicted lying down. The story comes to us that the Buddha knew he was ill and dying, and he sent for his followers to gather. While lying on his deathbed, he gave his final teaching. Also found in the artwork are the followers, along with many grieving animals and mythical creatures, expressing their deep sorrow over losing their beloved teacher.

Before the ceremony the classes separate. In the girls group, we have just enough time for meditation and a quick check-in. I chose to use the time for a guided meditation, as I did in the past for the Children's Rohatsu Ceremony. I've noticed the girls can get very still as they listen to simple, soft instruction. Giving them some moments of stillness, I then ask them to think about loss that they've experienced, whether someone they knew died, or they lost a pet, or perhaps they lost a friend who moved away. While the children often have already experienced death in some way, it helps to introduce the notion of loss in other ways as well. During check-in, we discussed the topic some more, then it was time for the ceremony.

For the first part of the ceremony all the children gather in front of the altar. Gyokuko sits to the side, waiting expectantly for the kids to become quiet. She directs their attention to the statue, and solicits names of animals depicted on it from the kids. Through this she finds a way into the story of Buddha's death. Every year the storytelling will be a little different, but she will always highlight the grief everyone felt including the animals, and that the Buddha's lesson was for them not to grieve, but to "be a light unto themselves." His followers were so sad because they depended on his wisdom, but the Buddha wanted them to know they had their own wisdom, their own light to draw upon.

After the story of Buddha's death, the children draw pictures of losses they have experienced in the past year or so. After our separate discussion, the girls were quite ready to draw their pictures. While the drawing is going on, a few older kids build a fire. The ceremony begins: children and adults chant the Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo, and one by one the pictures and symbols of loss are put in the fire, an act of letting go and letting those experiences move on to their next life.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Lotus Sutra: The Phantom City

When I come upon mystical or magical parts in stories, while I do like to revel in them, I've discovered I also like to ground them in the real world for the girls. To me, this story is about attitude. (Scroll almost to the bottom of the title link.) When we go on a long, hot, dusty journey, many of us naturally get discouraged. We need something to boost our spirits, and we need to feel like we'll get there in the end.

Since this story is also about the spiritual journey toward experiencing enlightenment, toward becoming a Buddha, I started off with a review. I asked the girls what stories they remembered from the year. I asked if the parents, if the physician, etc were buddhas, and pointed out some traits these buddhas had. That they could see what needed to happen in the various situations, while the children couldn't, and that they could figure out a means to help the children. I also brought up the song "Sit Up Straight," asking the girls what that was about. It took a couple of tries for someone to say "meditation." I reminded them of the phrase, "we all need samadhi to lean on," clarifying it wasn't "somebody" in our song, but "samadhi". I explained samadhi is also a skill a Buddha would have, and that samadhi is a still-pointed centeredness people come upon in meditation. Like the song says, it helps us, and a buddha can access this samadhi.

I asked, "Is everyone a buddha right away?" and I got a prompt answer, "No." This led into my story...

I read from the verse section, starting with "I will cause you to enter the Buddha way..." This long journey is so much like that of European American pioneers, I invoked the Oregon Trail. I'd read a few lines, and then speculate on the experience of the pioneers. They had the long dusty trails, they must have got hot, sick, and discouraged. On the one hand I read of gardens and groves, mansions and pavilions, ponds and lakes, and on the other hand, I asked the girls if they'd ever been to Multnomah Falls...or any waterfall. Think about what that would be like, to be so hot, hungry and tired, and to come upon a waterfall, with the sun making the water drops sparkle like jewels. The settlers could stop at a waterfall, rest, and find food. Then they would have the energy to keep going to the end of their journey.

While the buddha in this tale used magical powers to conjure a city where the people could rest, the pioneers had to rely on the treasures nature had to offer, and their own attitude. Just as a day could look bleak, damp, and dreary, the sun could come out and transform water to sparkling gems. So, to capture that elusive shift from dull and discouraged, to rested and energetic, I had the girls make suncatchers, and I used mine to repeat the lesson. No sun...doesn't look like much, but add a little sun, and the colors shine like colored glass, a shift in perspective.

Very simple, I had them cut shapes out of the inner circle of paper plates. Once finished with cutting, they pasted a circle of tracing paper on the inside of the plate, covering the cutouts. (One could also use white tissue paper.) Then they used markers to give their shapes color. A few girls really liked not having to stay inside the lines. Then, with the tracing paper side facing the window, the girls could see the colors shine through their cutout shapes.

The Lotus Sutra: The Burning House

This was a fairly straightforward lesson to teach. I introduced it by asking in a conspiratorial way if any of the girls had ever gone someplace that wasn't entirely safe, and they knew they shouldn't go there or do that. If they'd ever played somewhere that was just a little scary but that didn't matter because they were having so much fun playing. I got a few enthusiastic nods. So I began to tell them about this house, that they could think of it as very much like a haunted house: big, rambling, lots of creepy crawlies, and broken down walls and stairways.

I gave the girls a paper with an outline of a house. They could draw in more details, like additional wings, people, furniture inside. They could think of a haunted house and add those details they liked.

While the girls drew, I read from the verse portion of chapter 3 (#39 on in the title link), explaining that it was a very rich man that owned this big old neglected house. In some cases I paraphrased, summed up several lines, and read aloud the juicier details. I skipped some of the more gruesome scenes, and the confusing terms. I made sure I covered the basic story of kids so engrossed in having fun that they paid no mind to the dangers.

When I got to the part where the house starts on fire, the girls responded by drawing in flames. The various scary creatures started going crazy, fighting each other. Right around this point, I handed out stickers (clip art I printed out on mailing labels) and scissors for the girls to add to their pictures. Dragons, snakes, lizards, bugs, spiders, all sorts of scary creatures. Wolves, hyenas... Although this took a little more time to prepare over the usual magazine collage, it made it easier to fit the activity into our short time.

Because I'd introduced the idea of getting caught up in play even when it isn't safe, it was very easy to make it believable that the kids wouldn't come outside when mom and dad needed them to leave the dangerous burning house, and the girls naturally seemed to understand that the parents needed to use special means to get them to go outside. Rather than dwell on the difference between three special carts and then getting one big cart, I focused on the parents' need to draw the children outside with more distractions, and that a beautiful ornate cart waited for them outside. I handed out another paper with a cart on it, and more stickers with shells and jewels so the girls could decorate it. Most were more interested in the houses, and didn't do much with the carts...but 1 or 2 really enjoyed decorating their carts fit for a princess.

Lotus Sutra: Jewel in the Robe

Sometimes when I read these stories, the strongest message I get is a political one...the one about the Mahayana school being the best Buddhism of all...and I have to live with it a while and let the other spiritual lessons rise to the surface. This story is interesting, the Jewel in the Robe, because it is not the Buddha telling the story, but the followers. They wish to express their gratitude to the Buddha for giving them a prophecy of Buddhahood, but there's also that political sniping, where they say "we were willing to content ourselves with petty wisdom." (Scroll down near to the bottom of the title link.) So when I tell the stories, I try to gloss over, or change the emphasis of those blatantly political elements. There'll be time enough for the girls to ponder that if they care to when they're older.

For a while I didn't like this story much, because it didn't seem very fair to me that the rich friend would sew a jewel in the poor friend's robe and expect him to know that. But a friend asked me, "Haven't you ever found money in a pocket you forgot you had?" That gave me a way in to the story. I knew for the activity I wanted to do something that would somehow demonstrate the transformation from rags to riches. I found the idea of a flip doll: a flat doll that has two heads, and a very full skirt that when it covers one head it is ugly and ragged, and when flipped upside down and covers the other head, is beautiful. But, that would have been a matter of wood, a jigsaw, a sewing machine, and the time to make them...or to enlist friends to make them....maybe next round. But when looking around for templates, I found...paper dolls. The next best thing for transforming a doll's wardrobe, and those I could print up easily.

To begin the lesson, I had the girls take one item for the altar, and one "jewel" to put on the altar. I asked them to choose the jewel carefully. I brought a handful of large rhinestones and other fake jewelry pieces.

For this lesson I departed wildly from the original text...there wasn't much of the colorfully flamboyant language that would appeal to grade school girls. I asked the girls if they remembered our story about the Buddha telling his followers they had it in them to become Buddhas. I told them the followers told their own parable about how that felt. They said it was like you gave us a jewel that we didn't know we had. It's like we discovered we had this treasure that you hid in our robe. (I gave away the story right up front.)

Then to demonstrate I told a story about two girls who were friends. (And I used my paper dolls for props.) Not so very long ago, these two girls were best friends, and very well off. Their families were rich and influential. You know, if they had lived a long long time ago, you could say they were princesses. So these girls took care of each other, played together, did everything together. But something happened, and one girl's family lost everything. She went from being a rich girl to a very poor girl, and her family had to move away.

But before they left, the rich friend held a going away party, with lots of food and guests and fun things to do. The poor friend stayed overnight, like a sleepover. She was sleeping in the guest room when, in the middle of the night, her friend tiptoed into the room and slipped a precious jewel into the sleeping girl's bag. The sleeping girl stirred about, and the rich girl thought the other saw her, but really, she was still asleep. The jewel slipped down into the bag, but the gift giver didn't notice that somehow it slipped into the lining.

So the next morning the two friends parted and went their separate ways. Years went by, and the poor girl worked hard all those years. She did good work, but it was difficult. Life used to be easier. Finally, the friends met up again, and they had a great reunion.

The rich friend was concerned. Her best friend from childhood was looking so old and tired. She asked, "Why have you been working so hard, when I gave you this precious jewel? You could have used it."

The hard-working friend replied, "I didn't know I had that, where did you put it?" Together the two women found the jewel, still in the bag that the poor woman used all those years. So, the two went out, and celebrated you know, and she got a party dress for herself. (Transformed doll with party dress. One thing I learned, rehearsal would be good! I didn't play with paper dolls as a girl, and they can be awkward. Early in my lesson I got comments like, "You can see her bra!") So, she still worked. It was a good work that she did. But now she had this treasure, she could know she had this safety, this comfort that could make life go a little easier. And well, with a little more money, she could visit her friend more often.

While passing out the dolls (which I cut out to save time) and the clothes for the girls to color and cut out, I repeated the story's lesson at the beginning. "So you might not think you have this understanding to be a buddha, but it turns out you had it in you all the time. It's like you had this precious jewel that's always there, already there. It gives you the wisdom to be a buddha."

At the end of the lesson, each girl took her rhinestone from the altar home, along with her paper dolls. ...except the girl who doesn't like paper dolls.