Monday, February 06, 2006

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.

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