(Five and six year olds meditating. Not the ones who feature in this piece.)
Over the past three weeks a lot of my time has been spent teaching Buddhism to school children. Sometimes I go to see them; sometimes they come to the monastery. Sometimes they’re rich; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re your regular snotty-nosed, bruised-knee whippersnappers; sometimes they’re autistic, but with equally snotty noses and bruised knees. And very often you end up with some very memorable, and sometimes moving, stories to tell…
You learn many things through teaching the Dhamma, and some things especially so when teaching it to children. As any teacher will testify teaching is one of the best ways for you to understand your subject. In the case of Buddhism, to teach it you must understand it. To understand it you must practise it. And so in order to teach it well you must practise it well. This is how the teaching of the Dhamma is of benefit.
Now, when it comes to children clarity is the key. They force you to be clear. Because if you’re not they punish you with the worst things that they can: wandering eyes, yawns, nose-picking and general rowdiness – in short: lack of attention. So you learn to get straight to the point. You don’t waste a word, you don’t ramble, you aren’t vague. You distil the fundamental themes that underpin Buddhism in order create an easily digestible package, where every word counts but where you don’t skimp the crucial points. Repeatedly doing this leaves you with a clear vision of what Buddhism actually is: avoiding that which is wrong, cultivating that which is right, and purifying the mind; the path that deals with the pursuit of true happiness.
And so it was that on the Wednesday before last I found myself in a Mercedes being driven through the maze of derelict industrial areas and shoddy estates to a primary school nestled somewhere in the sprawling metropolis of Coventry. My driver, the husband of a woman who works at the school, and a very nice man, gave me a little priming: most of the children had troubled home lives. Many were from broken homes – a child’s mother living with two men was not unusual. Some fifty percent or so were Polish, from families who had fled their home country as a matter of survival. I asked if the children wore uniforms. “Some do.” He replied – “It’s not compulsory.” This is because some families couldn’t afford them. In short, this school was no Eton.
First up were the four to six year-olds. There were about sixty of them – some in uniform, some not. As they plonked themselves down it took me about two seconds to realise that these rambunctious ankle-snappers were not going to be taught without a fight. Then about a quarter of a second after that thought came another thought: ‘If these toddlers are like this, what the hell are the older ones going to be like?’! I could see the headlines: ‘Monk Mauled in Primary School Punch-up’.
Now these very young children had a certain unnatural maturity to them; you felt it wasn’t one that they should have had. I suppose that’s what comes from having two men living with your mother. Added to that they had the freedom from inhibition that’s the right of every six year-old. These two qualities made them quite formidable, and teaching them rather a challenge. But I kept things clear and simple and survived to tell the tale.
Now, as a general rule, I usually begin by briefly telling the kids about myself; not because I want to but because I understand that before they hear about someone who lived two and half thousand years ago they want to know who I am! After that I tell them the story of the Buddha’s life, how on seeing the four sights he left his palace in order to find true happiness, and how after finding it he spent forty-five years teaching others how to find it too.
“Do you want to know how to be happy?“ I ask them. “YES!” They reply. “Well, the Buddha taught that we must do three things to be happy. Do you want to know what they are?” “YES!” “Right. The Buddha taught that we should be kind, that we should be harmless, and that we should meditate and be wise.”
How many of you share your sweets?” — “MEEEE!!!” x 20. “Good!” “Now when you don’t share your sweets how do you feel?” “Unhappy… Not very good…. Miserable” “That’s right.” I say. “What does one + one equals?” “TWO!” “What does being selfish equals?” “SUFFERING!” “What does being kind equals?” “HAPPINESS!” Then I invariably tell them the story of me refusing to let my brother have a go on my surfboard when I was about ten, and how it still makes me feel a little bad eighteen years later.
“But there is another way to be kind as well.” I say. “That is being kind, not only to each other, but to all animals and creatures. How are we unkind to the little creatures like ants?” “We kill them.” They reply. “Yes. So the Buddha taught that to be happy we must also be harmless.” Then I teach them the five precepts. “And what kind of world do you think we’d live in if everyone kept those precepts?” I ask. “A HAPPY ONE!” They reply.
I then tell them that to be truly happy there’s a third thing we have to do and that is to meditate and develop wisdom.
Back to the four to six year-olds. I didn’t manage to squeeze all that in, but I think a good number of them were left with a taste for being kind, and hopefully for being harmless.
Then it was time to finish with them. And that meant the staff room and a glass of water. And, of course, the two groups of nine, ten and eleven year-olds, presumably at that very moment sharpening their knives and loading up their Oozies. I hadn’t brought my bullet-proof robe. Was my metta up to the test?
But they were great. In fact, they were two of the best groups I’ve ever had. Both were very quiet. They listened extremely well. They were mature. They were ready to hear some Dhamma. So I taught them about the Buddha and what we have to do to be happy. And after that we meditated and had questions. It was incredible.
During the questions at the end of my last session a young boy asked me something and I answered. I thought nothing of it at the time – there appeared to be no reason to. Then, as I emerged out of the classroom into a swarm of children in the corridor, a teacher from the class I was leaving rushed up from behind and stopped me. She was clearly very moved by something. That boy, she said, whose question I had thought nothing of, was a very troubled Polish boy. And she wanted to thank me. Because it was the first time he had spoken since he had arrived at that school.
The Next Teaching will be on:
The Full Moon Day, Tuesday 7th July
Which is Asalha Puja – when we celebrate the anniversary of
the Buddha’s First Sermon – the Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth,
and the beginning of the annual monastic Rains Retreat