Sunday, September 09, 2012

On Altars: The 11th Ave Buddha

For my first lesson of the year, I like to spend time on setting up an altar, and on meditation instruction and why we might do that.  I thought I might cover only that, as I wouldn't have much time to introduce the theme of the year...if only I could find the right story.

I talked about altars.  Traditionally with altars we usually have some flowers, and we usually have some incense, as well as the statue.  I said we have some unusual things for our altar because I want them to know they can bring anything to their altar.  An altar reflects who we are.  Some people have special rocks.  Together, we've created an altar that reflects who we are as a group.  At home, they can have their own altar that reflects themselves.

For check-in I asked them if there was something they had that was special to them, that they would put on their own altar if they had one. Next I gave instruction on meditation.

The right story did fall right into my lap.  Dharma Rain's newsletter came out, and it included a Dharma Talk by my teacher which refers to a news story about a Buddha statue on a street median in Oakland.  This story had the makings to show just what an altar means deep down to people.  For a craft this day, I simply had Crayola Color Explosion paper and markers.  This paper requires the matching markers which rather than add color, reveal color through a chemical process.  I asked the kids to draw something about the story or what they learned that day.  I also had stencils, many of which could be visitors to the 11th Avenue Buddha.  Just as the presence of a Buddha statue revealed the wish for making offerings and creating an altar, so they too could reveal images with their paper.

I even prepared enough ahead to create a felt board story for it.  If you haven't created such a thing, it's easy enough.  If you don't have images from a story, you can search for clip art that fits your story, print and cut.  Quick and dirty: put double-sided tape on the back of your pieces.  Little more time: cut felt and glue it to the back of your pieces, and/or cut and color felt pieces to show your image.

Here is the story as I wrote it up.  I didn't read this verbatim, but ad-libbed according to things we'd said earlier, and comments the kids had.  I put words in red for my cues for the felt board.  When it came to adding offerings, I made a bunch so the kids could put their own offerings up on the felt board.

The 11th Avenue Buddha 

Who here has heard of Oakland, California? I have a true story to tell you about something that happened on 11th Avenue in Oakland, California.

 You see, there was this couple, Dan and Lu, who lived on this street and saw how dirty and trashed the space was across from them. Now, not everyone behaves like they should. People would use it almost like a garbage dump. Sometimes they even left battered old mattresses. People would pee there. People would spray graffiti. Sure the city would come along and clear out the trash, but soon more trash and graffiti would take its place. Dan and Lu decided to try something.

They want to a hardware store and found a concrete statue of a Buddha. Dan thought about this. What would work best so the Buddha would not get up and walk away? Once he figured that out, how to anchor the Buddha in place, he and Lu put the Buddha in the median space. Now, Dan and Lu are not Buddhists. They picked the Buddha because they thought he represents compassion and brotherhood and peace.

At first not much seemed to happen. People still dumped their garbage. But there was a little bit of change: the trash was left at the other end of the median. “Buddha just sat there and never said a word.”

After a year, there was half as much graffiti. There were less people hanging out using drugs and urinating there. “And all the Buddha did was sit there.”

During the second year, someone painted the Buddha a beautiful soft white. 

You’ll never guess what happened then. What do you think?

People started leaving offerings. First there were oranges and pears. Then flowers and candy. And then larger flower arrangements and bowls of fruit. Finally, people left candles and incense.

For a long time Dan didn’t see the actual people leaving the offerings. They just appeared like magic. Almost all of the garbage dumping disappeared. More neighbors started keeping the area clean, and with more visitors, people stopped using the space like a toilet. “Buddha just sat there not saying a word.”

In the third year, a man approached Dan with a question. Could he build a little house for the Buddha? Dan said the man didn’t need his permission because this was a civic Buddha and didn’t belong to him alone but to the community. After that people came to visit the Buddha in large numbers throughout the day. They tend the offerings and sweep daily. Neighbors feel safer because there are always good people nearby. “And to think that this Buddha just sat there all [that] time and never said one word.”
Not shown: I flipped the Buddha and photoshopped it to be white.
[optional continuing ending]

One day Dan got a call from a neighbor. A city employee [truck] was in the neighborhood looking for information about the Buddha. Dan talked to the employee. Someone made and anonymous complaint about the Buddha. Just like any garbage, the city would have to remove the Buddha. The employee wanted to give whoever installed it a chance to remove it so it wouldn’t have to be thrown away. The city employee assured Dan that if garbage got dumped again, the city would pick it up. “The Buddha just sat there across the street … and said not a word.”

Dan immediately contacted all the people he could to help save the Buddha. They sent letters and made phone calls. The city department and a councilwoman postponed the dismantling of the Buddha in order to study the situation. The Buddha sat there and didn’t say a word.

Happily, about a month later, the Councilwoman called Dan and told him the city has no plans to remove the 11th Avenue Buddha. Dan wrote, “Being a cynic this news has set into question my view of the world as I see it. … As Buddha just sat there and said nothing, [the community] filled his silence with support and the City of Oakland heard [them].”


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