But how do you tell six years olds about Buddhism? It’s not an easy thing to explain to an adult. The “four sights” are the easy enough, but Dukkha is a tricky thing to explain well; and I remember my sister telling me how appalled my nieces were at a young age when, as they heard her read a life of the Buddha to them (which, incidentally, had been specially written for children!), she got to the part where the Buddha decides to leave his wife and baby son in the middle of the night and “go forth”. From the perspective of children many a stable home has been traumatised by one parent’s decision to “go forth”. Even if I could talk my way out of that one, how I wondered would I explain the noble truths in a way that would make sense?
I talked over my problem with the London StoneWater group on a Saturday after zazen. Part of my difficulty, we agreed, was that children don’t really need Buddhism; but then Chikan suggested telling the children the simile of the four blind men and the elephant, and that was an idea I liked.
Of course, I realised that in talking with what turned out to be two groups of about twenty excitable and curious six year olds for 15 minutes each, there would be little point in planning long explanations. I decided that a very lose and interactive approach would be my best hope for doing anything vaguely entertaining or interesting for the children. I also thought visual stimulation would engage them more than just chat, so I decided to wear my robes and kesa, take along a bell and sit on a zafu, with everyone sitting in a circle with me.
I began each class by introducing myself with a gassho, and telling the children that, in Buddhism, we do a lot of bowing. Immediately and quite spontaneously I then found that my gassho was reciprocated (repeatedly, in fact!). I next showed the children my robes, and explained that Buddhists from different countries have different coloured robes: mine were black, I said, because I practised a Japanese kind of Buddhism, called Zen. When one of the boys said that I looked like a Jedi we went off on a tangent about Star Wars (not least because one of his class friends was sitting there in a full Darth Vadar face mask!) and the reason that Yoda was modelled on Maezumi Roshi (Tenshin Roshi has since told me that Yoda was modelled on Sasaki Roshi), before I could bring everyone back to the point that all schools of Buddhism (whether they wear red, yellow, orange, brown or black) originate in India with the Buddha. We were then taken away at a tangent about how many of the children had been to India, or been born there. In fact, this was my experience with both classes: the children were all really interested to meet me, and to ask lots of questions; but they also wanted simply to reply to what I said, and tell me lots of things – however hilariously unconnected to the reason I was invited to be there! The trick, if there was one, was to listen and then link what they told me back to what I wanted to tell them – which was easy in the end, because I’d already decided that there was only one thing I really wanted to tell them! That was the simile of the four blind men and the elephant!
I asked the children to put up their hands if they’d ever had an argument. Of course, they all had and they all did. I then asked whether, when they argued, they thought they were “right”. They all agreed enthusiastically about that; just as they did that the person with whom they argued had to be “wrong”! I then asked whether they’d ever considered that the people they argued with might think that they were “right” too. The children weren’t so sure about the answer to that question. So, I said that one of the things the Buddha taught was that we see only a bit of the truth, and that truth looks different when you look at it from other peoples’ point of view. We then went through the simile, and I acted out for them four blind men each feeling a part of an elephant they had never seen and describing what they felt. The children were quick to catch onto this, and were soon hooting and snorting as they pointed out that I was describing a tree trunk but feeling the shape of an elephant’s leg, or describing a rope but feeling an elephant’s tail! The most interesting moment came towards the end, when I asked which of the four blind men was “right”: the one who described a tree, the one who described a rope, the one who described a sheet of leather or the one who described a spear point? At this point I left them to it! Some of the explanations were so off-the-wall that I could not possibly do them justice now! Eventually, though, someone in both classes said “none of them!” There was even a wise one who said “All of them!” That, I suggested, was what the Buddha wanted everyone to understand.
I must say that doing this was great fun, and I do recommend it. The children’s enthusiasm and gratitude stayed with me with a long time afterwards. I ended both sessions with the inkin (this was Choon’s idea). I asked the children how they might begin to understand that there is more than one way to understand something, which caused more hilarity, and then I struck the bell a few times and told them to listen to the sound and ask themselves where it went. The form teachers were very taken with this; the calming effect on the classes was dramatic! Finally, though, there was lots of wild gesticulations indicating where the sound had gone, before one little girl said, “everywhere”. We all bowed and I picked up my zafu and beat a retreat under a barrage of further questions at the beginning of playtime.