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.