Thursday, April 06, 2006

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.

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