It was only when I realized that I had my foot firmly caught in my koromo and needed to stand up to greet the 430 primary school kids that I thought, “This could go horribly wrong.”
It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I’d been invited to lead a special Buddhist assembly at Moulton Primary School, a medium-sized community primary school in semi-rural Northamptonshire.* A colleague of mine at the university had asked if I’d do this as a favor for his wife, a teacher at the school, and I was happy to oblige. I’d met with sixth-form students before to discuss Buddhism and religion in general, but never primary kids.
The kids were aged 5 to 12. I have a 6-year-old son, so I was pretty sure I could handle the bottom end of the spectrum, but worried that I’d end up speaking down to the older kids, patronizing them. (I can recall from my own school days that grown-ups who patronize are the second lowest form of life – ranked only behind grown-ups who try to be cool).
I settled on a short treatment of the Three Poisons and their antidotes, but wanted to find a way to make them accessible to the entire school. So instead of greed, anger and ignorance (the last one particularly hard to describe to younger kids), I described them as (1) Behaving selfishly or being greedy; (2) Behaving angrily; and (3) Getting confused & frustrated.
I asked the kids themselves to come up with some of the opposites for selfishness and anger, and they didn’t struggle at all. The only struggle was getting them to simmer down with their suggestions!
* Antidotes to selfishness: Sharing things, playing with everyone, spending time with parents, helping friends and family. I summarized this as “being generous”.
* Antidote to anger: Being nice, loving people, calming down, taking deep breaths. My summary: “developing loving-kindness”.
Unsurprisingly, they struggled a bit more with the antidote to confusion & frustration. I suggested:
* Antidote to being confused: Recognizing when we’re about to get upset or are being selfish and deciding we don’t have to live that way
It seemed to go down OK. We talked a bit about compassion and loving-kindness, and I told them that one of the Buddha’s lessons had been an exercise to help us practice loving-kindness. I then lead the school through a very brief meditation, starting with about two minutes of silence (they were so good, even the tiny ones!) and then using a very cut-down Metta meditation, wishing themselves, a loved one, and “everyone” safety, health and peace.
At the end, the kids were allowed to ask questions… wasn’t sure how this would go! They asked really good questions though: my favorites were: “If everyone gets happy and has everything they want, won’t it be kind of boring?” and “Why are you dressed like that?”
Thanks to Moulton Primary for the invitation – what a fantastic bunch of kids. They’ll be making a small donation to the Buddhist Hospice Trust to show their appreciation, which is lovely.
Oh… and I didn’t fall over. Slowly taming the robes…!
Did you know…? British law states that all school children should partake in some form of collective worship on a daily basis (unless parents insist otherwise), and that worship should be “broadly Christian in nature”. It’s fairly non-specific legislation, and in fact some schools simply ignore it entirely. Other schools, though, try to find a way to deliver something faith-based, but more diverse than the law strictly calls for: this means that minority religious groups are often called upon to provide perspectives from other faiths.