With two years of stories from the life of Lord Buddha under their belts, I believe the children are ready to dive into the teachings of the Buddha and what it means to practice Theravada Buddhism.

For guidance I've chosen a booklet compiled by three authors titled Ten Ways to Make Merit.  You can find the booklet by clicking here.  The authors, Dr. Amerasekera, Dr. Wijesuriya, and Mahinda Wijesinghe wrote this booklet for adults, however it can easily be adapted for Middle School kids as well as very young children.

Over the next several weeks we will be discussing what merit is and different ways to obtain and share it.

I've asked for permission to share my adapted versions of this booklet from the authors.  If permitted, I'll share it here.  However, you could easily begin sharing this lesson without the adaptation by simply reading the booklet to yourself and then opening up a discussion with your youngest children.

Here's how I presented the lesson to my youngest children:

To understand the meaning of sensual pleasure we discussed the 5 senses.  Things that are sensual are experienced through these senses - our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and touch or the way things feel to our bodies.  Sensual pleasures are simply things we enjoy experiencing through our 5 senses.

The children were invited to share examples of sensual pleasures.  They talked about ice-cream and cookies, the softness of a stuffed animal, the fun of watching a cartoon or playing a video game, the smell of roses, the sound of rain...

Then using one of the the children's examples of sensual pleasure, we discussed how pleasures eventually end.  You have to turn off the tv to do your homework.  Once the cookies are eaten, they're gone.  It stops raining and so on.  I asked them to consider how they feel after the pleasure ends.  This helped us conclude that eventually sorrow, missing, and suffering replace our sensual pleasures.

Then I introduced the word MERIT. Merit is any action that improves the quality of our mind.  It makes our minds better.  It helps remove greediness, hatred, and misunderstandings.  It helps us live more peacefully with ourselves and with others.  Merit helps us do the things we want to do well and with greater success.

The most important thing I wanted the children to take away was this:  Merit cannot ever be taken away and it can be shared with everyone.  To help them appreciate this, we discussed the ways that doing something good gives us pleasure now and later.  After we do something that improves our mind, we can think about it forever afterward and share the good qualities that come from our actions with everyone.

To give them a visual image of this you can do the following:
  • Bring out a treat to share.  You could use M&M's or cookies, something simple.  
  • Show the children your pile of goodies and offer to share them.  
  • Invite the children to count how many treats you have before you share.  
  • As you pass out the treats, encourage them to keep track of how many treats you have left.
  • By the end, there should be no treats left.

  • Then give each child a tea light candle.  These can be safely used by even the youngest children if you place each candle in a clear, plastic cup and instruct them to look at it in front of them but not to touch the candle.  
  • Present to them a tall, taper candle and light it.
  • Now offer to share your light.
  • As you pass the flame to each child's candle, ask them to observe how much fire is left on your taper.  
IT IS THE SAME WAY WITH MERIT!  You can share it with everyone you know without having less for yourself.

I think this is enough of a lesson for young children.  I explained that there are many ways to obtain merit that will help themselves and everyone with whom they choose to share their merit.  We'll discuss many of these different ways in the coming weeks.


My older students took turns reading the Introduction aloud.Then I used these questions to create a discussion:

What is pleasure?

What does it mean when we read that sensual pleasures only bring happiness in the short term?

How do sensual pleasures eventually bring suffering?
What are some examples of ways that sensual pleasures can end or be taken away?

Why will neither indulgence nor abstinence of sensual pleasure bring true happiness?

What does merit do for the mind?

Now, you can't give candy and candles to the little ones without sharing a similar activity with their older siblings.  The activity used with the younger children can certainly be used with the older children as well.  Like many simple lessons, it will take on deeper meanings for the older students.

Next time we'll discuss the first of these ways of merit: Generosity

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!

A Montessori Approach to Dharma Class

Our Sunday Dharma Class breaks for the summer.  I've been spending this free time on Sunday afternoons to prepare for our Fall classes.

One of the things I'm most excited about is creating a more Montessori based primary class.
"The Montessori Method of education emphasizes the importance of the child's learning environment.  "Montessori philosophy is ...a method of seeing children as they really are and of creating environments which foster the fulfillment of their highest potential - spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual - as members of a family, the world community and the Cosmos."
- International Montessori

In my experience with Montessori education, the children are taught mindfulness in their daily, practical life.  From the way they roll out a mat for their work to the way they methodically polish a brass candle snuffer, the children are encouraged to work carefully and mindfully, fully involved in the task they are performing.  Children are also observed individually and able to learn at their own pace.  I plan to bring more of this philosophy to my youngest students' Dharma class this year.   This is only an hour long class.  I'm not trying to incorporate all the sections of Montessori education here.  But I will be thinking more like a Montessori teacher when I consider the children's lessons and environment.  I want the place where they come to learn about the Buddha's life and teachings to be beautiful, inviting, and purposeful.    I'll be introducing some practical life lessons that can be used to practice mindfulness.  I'll be introducing more lessons for the children to choose from during their hour-long class.  I want the children to be able to learn and grow at a more individual pace.

I must share here that my inspiration for this Montessori Dharma Class came from the work of a dear friend named Catherine Maresca.  As the director of The Center for Children and Theology, Catherine has helped Christian Sunday School teachers across the country apply the Montessori Method to their catechist programs.  While working at a school that she co-founded, I was touched by the way the children's unique approach to spiritual matters was respected in their lessons.  Catechists presented lessons to the children about their faith in a way that acknowledged the child's intellectual, physical, and spiritual development.  I want to approach my Dharma students with the same respect.

I'll do my best to share some of the practical ways I'm preparing for the Fall lessons.

What are you doing to prepare?

"May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem"

Generosity First

Our most recent Sunday Dhamma Classes have been used to prepare for a Vesak Festival.  It's a celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.  The children have been making beautiful lanterns and cards.  I'll share more about our crafts next week.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share a meditation I read this morning from Thanissaro Bhikkhu on generosity.  This talk was not intended specifically for parents and dharma teachers.  Still, he uses as illustration the way in which buddhist children are trained in the ways of generosity to prepare for meditation as they grow older.

I plan to spend a lot of time reflecting on his teachings here and how I can incorporate his lesson more into my personal practice as well as my Dhamma Class for the children.

The following is from Chapter 1 of Meditations 1 by Thanissaro Bhikku.  It is copied here with permission.  You can download other chapters or the entire book by clicking here.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!

Generosity First
(Copyright Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2003)

March, 2003

Several years ago, when Ajaan Suwat was teaching a retreat at IMS, I was his
interpreter. After the second or third day of the retreat he turned to me and said,
“I notice that when these people meditate they’re awfully grim.” You’d look out
across  the  room  and  all  the  people  were  sitting  there  very  seriously,  their faces tense, their eyes closed tight. It was almost as if they had Nirvana or Bust written across their foreheads.
He attributed their grimness to the fact that most people here in the West
come to Buddhist meditation without any preparation in other Buddhist
teachings. They haven’t had any experience in being generous in line with the
Buddha’s teachings on giving. They haven’t had any experience in developing
virtue in line with the Buddhist precepts. They come to the Buddha’s teachings
without having tested them in daily life, so they don’t have the sense of confidence they need to get them through the hard parts of the meditation. They
feel they have to rely on sheer determination instead.  

If you look at the way meditation, virtue, and generosity are taught here, it’s
the exact opposite of the order in which they’re taught in Asia. Here, people sign
up for a retreat to learn some meditation, and only when they show up at the
retreat center do they learn they’re going to have to observe some precepts
during the retreat. And then at the very end of the retreat they learn that before
they’ll be allowed to go home they’re going to have to be generous. It’s all
Over in Thailand, children’s first exposure to Buddhism, after they’ve learned
the gesture of respect, is in giving. You see parents taking their children by the
hand as a monk comes past on his alms round, lifting them up, and helping them
put a spoonful of rice into the monk’s bowl. Over time, as the children start
doing it themselves, the process becomes less and less mechanical, and after a
while they begin to take pleasure in giving. 
At first this pleasure may seem counterintuitive. The idea that you gain
happiness by giving things away doesn’t come automatically to a young child’s
mind. But with practice you find that it’s true. After all, when you give, you put
yourself in a position of wealth. The gift is proof that you have more than
enough. At the same time it gives you a sense of your worth as a person. You’re
able to help other people. The act of giving also creates a sense of spaciousness in the mind, because the world we live in is created by our actions, and the act of giving creates a spacious world: a world where generosity is an operating
principle, a world where people have more than enough, enough to share. And it
creates a good feeling in the mind. 

From there, the children are exposed to virtue: the practice of the precepts.
And again, from a child’s point of view it’s counterintuitive that you’re going to
be happy by not doing certain things you want to do—as when you want to take
something, or when you want to lie to cover up your embarrassment or to
protect yourself from criticism and punishment. But over time you begin to
discover that, yes, there is a sense of happiness, there is a sense of wellbeing that comes from being principled, from not having to cover up for any lies, from
avoiding unskillful actions, from having a sense that unskillful actions are
beneath you.  So by the time you come to meditation through the route of giving and being virtuous, you’ve already had experience in learning that there are
counterintuitive forms of happiness in the world. When you’ve been trained
through exposure to the Buddha’s teachings, you’ve learned the deeper
happiness that comes from giving, the deeper happiness that comes from
restraining yourself from unskillful actions, no matter how much you might
want to do them. By the time you come to the meditation you’ve developed a
certain sense of confidence that so far the Buddha has been right, so you give him the benefit of the doubt on meditation.  

This confidence is what allows you to overcome a lot of the initial difficulties:
the distractions, the pain. At the same time, the spaciousness that comes from
generosity gives you the right mindset for the concentration practice, gives you
the right mindset for insight practice—because when you sit down and focus on
the breath, what kind of mind do you have? The mind you’ve been creating
through your generous and virtuous actions. A spacious mind, not the narrow
mind of a person who doesn’t have enough. It’s the spacious mind of a person
who has more than enough to share, the mind of a person who has no regrets or
denial over past actions. In short, it’s the mind of a person who realizes that true
happiness doesn’t see a sharp dichotomy between your own wellbeing and the
wellbeing of others.  

The whole idea that happiness has to consist either in doing things only for
your own selfish motives or for other people to the sacrifice of yourself—the
dichotomy between the two—is something very Western, but it’s antithetical to
the Buddha’s teachings. According to the Buddha’s teachings, true happiness is
something that, by its nature, gets spread around. By working for your own true
benefit, you’re working for the benefit of others. And by working for the benefit
of others, you’re working for your own. In the act of giving to others you gain
rewards. In the act of holding fast to the precepts, holding fast to your principles, protecting others from your unskillful behavior, you gain as well. You gain in mindfulness; you gain in your own sense of worth as a person, your own self‐esteem. You protect yourself.
So you come to the meditation ready to apply the same principles to training
in tranquility and insight. You realize that the meditation is not a selfish project.
You’re sitting here trying to understand your greed, anger, and delusion, trying
to bring them under control—which means that you’re not the only person who’s
going to benefit from the meditation. Other people will benefit—are benefiting—
as well. As you become more mindful, more alert, more skillful in undercutting
the hindrances in your mind, other people are less subject to those hindrances as
well. Less greed, anger, and delusion come out in your actions, and so the people
around you suffer less. Your meditating is a gift to them. 

The quality of generosity, what they call caga in Pali, is included in many sets
of Dhamma teachings. One is the set of practices leading to a fortunate rebirth.
This doesn’t apply only to the rebirth that comes after death, but also to the states of being, the states of mind you create for yourself moment to moment, that you move into with each moment. You create the world in which you live through your actions. By being generous—not only with material things but also with your time, your energy, your forgiveness, your willingness to be fair and just with other people—you create a good world in which to live. If your habits tend more toward being stingy, they create a very confining world, because there’s never enough. There’s always a lack of this, or a lack of that, or a fear that something is going to slip away or get taken away from you. So it’s a narrow, fearful world you create when you’re not generous, as opposed to the confident and wide‐open world you create through acts of generosity.  

Generosity also counts as one of the forms of Noble Wealth, because what is
wealth aside from a sense of having more than enough? Many people who are
materially poor are, in terms of their attitude, very wealthy. And many people
with a lot of material wealth are extremely poor. The ones who never have
enough: They’re the ones who always need more security, always need more to
stash away. Those are the people who have to build walls around their houses,
who have to live in gated communities for fear that other people will take away
what they’ve got. That’s a very poor kind of life, a confined kind of life. But as
you practice generosity, you realize that you can get by on less, and that there’s a pleasure that comes with giving to people. Right there is a sense of wealth. You
have more than enough. 

At the same time you break down barriers. Monetary transactions create
barriers. Somebody hands you something, you have to hand them money back,
so there’s a barrier right there. Otherwise, if you didn’t pay, the object wouldn’t
come to you over the barrier. But if something is freely given, it breaks down a
barrier. You become part of that person’s extended family. In Thailand the terms
of address that monks use with their lay supporters are the same they use with
relatives. The gift of support creates a sense of relatedness. The monastery where I stayed—and this includes the lay supporters as well as the monks—was like a large extended family. This is true of many of the monasteries in Thailand.
There’s a sense of relatedness, a lack of boundary.  

We hear so much talk on “interconnectedness.” Many times it’s explained in
terms of the teaching on dependent co‐arising, which is really an inappropriate
use of the teaching. Dependent co‐arising teaches the connectedness of ignorance to suffering, the connectedness of craving to suffering. That’s a connectedness within the mind, and it’s a connectedness that we need to cut, because it keeps suffering going on and on and on, over and over again, in many, many cycles.

But there’s another kind of connectedness, an intentional connectedness, that
comes through our actions. These are kamma connections. Now, we in the West
often have problems with the teachings on kamma, which may be why we want
the teachings on connectedness without the kamma. So we go looking elsewhere
in the Buddha’s teachings to find a rationale or a basis for a teaching on
connectedness, but the real basis for a sense of connectedness comes through
kamma. When you interact with another person, a connection is made.  Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection, depending on the intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth. If it’s unskillful kamma, you’re creating a connection, you’re creating an opening that sooner or later you’re going to regret. 

There’s a saying in the Dhammapada that a hand without a wound can hold
poison and not be harmed. In other words, if you don’t have any bad kamma, the
results of bad kamma won’t come to you. But if you have a wound on your hand,
then if you hold poison it will seep through the wound and kill you. Unskillful
kamma is just that, a wound. It’s an opening for poisonous things to come in. 
The opposite principle also works. If there’s a connection of skillful behavior,
a good connection is formed. This sort of positive connection starts with
generosity, and grows with the gift of virtue. As the Buddha said, when you hold
to your precepts no matter what, with no exceptions, it’s a gift of security to all
beings. You give unlimited security to everyone, and so you have a share in that
unlimited security as well. With the gift of meditation, you protect other people
from the effects of your greed, anger, and delusion. And you get protected as

So this is what generosity does: It makes your mind more spacious and
creates good connections with the people around you. It dissolves the boundaries that otherwise would keep the happiness from spreading around. 
When you come to the meditation with that state of mind, it totally changes
the way you approach meditating. So many people come to meditation with the
question, “What am I going to get out of this time I spend meditating?”
Particularly in the modern world, time is something we’re very poor in. So the
question of getting, getting, getting out of the mediation is always there in the
background. We’re advised to erase this idea of getting, yet you can’t erase it if
you’ve been cultivating it as a habitual part of your mind. But if you come to the
meditation with experience in being generous, the question becomes “What do I
give to the meditation?” You give it your full attention. You give it the effort,
you’re happy to put in the effort, because you’ve learned from experience that
good effort put into the practice of the Dhamma brings good results. And so that
internal poverty of “What am I getting out of this meditation?” gets erased. You
come to the meditation with a sense of wealth: “What can I give to this practice?” 

You find, of course, that you end up getting a lot more if you start with the
attitude of giving. The mind is more up for challenges: “How about if I give it
more time? How about meditating later into the night than I usually do? How
about getting up earlier in the morning? How about giving more constant
attention to what I’m doing? How about sitting longer through pain?” The
meditation then becomes a process of giving, and of course you still get the
results. When you’re not so grudging of your efforts or time, you place fewer and fewer limitations on the process of meditation. That way the results are sure to be less grudging, more unlimited, as well. So it’s important that we develop the Noble Wealth of generosity to bring to our meditation.  

The texts mention that when you get discouraged in your meditation, when
the meditation gets dry, you should look back on past generosity. This gives you
a sense of self‐esteem, a sense of encouragement. Of course, what generosity are you going to look back on if there is none? This is why it’s important that you approach the meditation having practiced generosity very consciously. 
Many times we ask, “How do I take the meditation back into the world?” But
it’s also important that you bring good qualities of the world into your
meditation, good qualities of your day‐to‐day life, and that you develop them
regularly. Thinking back on past acts of generosity gets dry after a while if
there’s only been one act of generosity that happened a long time ago. You need
fresh generosity to give you encouragement. 

So this is why, when the Buddha talked about the forms of merit, he said,
“Don’t be afraid of merit, for merit is another word for happiness.” The first of
the three main forms of merit is dana, giving, which is the expression of
generosity. The gift of being virtuous builds on the simple act of giving, and the
gift of meditation builds on both. 

Of course, a large part of the meditation is letting go: letting go of
distractions, letting go of unskillful thoughts. If you’re used to letting go of
material things, it comes a lot easier to begin experimenting with letting go of
unskillful mental attitudes—things that you’ve held on to for so long that you
think you need them, but when you really look at them you find you don’t. In
fact, you see that they’re an unnecessary burden that causes suffering. When you
see the suffering, and the fact that it’s needless, you can let go. In this way, the
momentum of giving carries all the way through the practice, and you realize
that it’s not depriving you of anything. It’s more like a trade. You give away a
material object and you gain in generous qualities of mind. You give away your
defilements, and you gain freedom.

A Birthday Puja: Offering Lights

This past Sunday we celebrated the 58th birthday of Bhante Uparatana.  He is the chief monk at our Buddhist Center.  The children love him dearly.  He has a kind and gentle way of speaking to the children.

We held a birthday puja for him.  In this special blessing ceremony, we make symbolic offerings in the name of the Buddha.  An especially beautiful offering of candles was made in honor of Bhante.
During the puja, Bhante's friend, Rev. Maithree spoke to the children about the benefits of offering lights.  He shared the following teaching from the Brahma Sutta.
One who offers lights:
 - becomes like light for the world
 - gains clairvoyance as a human (the ability to see truth beyond the senses)
 - achieves the devas' eye 
 - acquires the wisdom to discern virtue from evil
 - eliminates the ego
 - finds the illumination of wisdom 
 - will be reborn as a deva or human
 - experiences the wealth of great joy
 - quickly becomes liberated
 - quickly attains enlightenment 
I loved the idea of sharing the value of offering lights with children.  As a child, lighting candles with a prayer was always a special experience for me.  Since this puja, I've been thinking a lot about the kids I've worked with over the years - youth of different faiths.   All of them have responded on a spiritual level to simple ceremonies involving candles.  I believe these benefits extend to all children and all people who use candles to offer heartfelt intentions.  Why not use this wonderful practice more often with our kids?

After the ceremony, the kids took turns signing a card for Bhante.  
Then we had cake. 
It's a fun Sinhalese tradition for the children to be hand-fed cake by their parents, elders, and older siblings.  I've seen this happen every time we've celebrated a birthday at the Buddhist Center.
After Bhante blew out the candles, I jokingly said to a friend, "Now, WHO is going to feed Bhante the cake?"  Imagine my delight when the eldest monk there lovingly and playfully fed Bhante the first bite of cake.  It was such a sweet, fun moment to witness!  
Happy Birthday, Bhante Uparatana!  
May you be free from all suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!   

Kassapa and the Fire Worshipers

This lesson was shared with children between the ages of 4 and 7.  However, I plan to use this again with upper elementary students.  Some of my older kids have been asking for more lessons that include art and projects.

Kassapa was the chief of a group of Brahmin hermits who worshiped fire.  In a sacred room they kept a fire burning.  The room also housed a great serpent that was rumored to be a monstrous fire dragon.

The Buddha visited the hermits.  He told Kassapa that he would like to sleep in the room of the sacred fire.  This concerned Kassapa.  He was certain that the serpent would harm the Buddha.  That night the Buddha sat erect in perfect mindfulness.  The fire serpent tried to attack the Buddha.  It spewed it's poison all over, but the Buddha was protected by his special powers.  The serpent was consumed in it's fiery rage.

In the morning, Kassapa entered the fire room, expecting to find the Buddha consumed by the serpent.  He was amazed to find the Buddha alive and the serpent destroyed.  The Buddha said to Kassapa, "His fire has been conquered by my fire."  Kassapa realized that the Buddha was an extraordinary man.  He decided to shave his head, put on robes and follow the Buddha's teaching.

When the other fire worshipers learned that Kassapa had become a disciple of the Buddha, they too decided to become monks.  The Buddha gave a sermon to the men who had worshiped fire.  He said, "The three most powerful fires are greed, ingorance, and hatred.  One must put out these fires to end suffering."

Keep it simple.
I wanted the children to  remember what the Buddha said about the three fires.  Our lesson activities centered around this theme.

Use what you have.
This story is an exciting one for the children.  Rather than reading it from a book, I recommend using props.  Using felt or paper images of the characters and the snake, or dolls and a toy snake would be a nice way to keep their attention.  I'd love to give a few of my son's Lego action figures a bit of a "make-over" for this lesson next year.

After the story I laid out a felt cloth and placed three felt images of fire on it.  These were made by cutting brown felt into 6 strips.  Then I cut red or orange felt into the shapes of three flames.  You could use construction paper instead.
The children were asked to recall the three greatest fires.  As they called them out I placed an index card with the word underneath one of the flames.  My stepson is great at making "burning letters".  He made the index cards with the words GREED, IGNORANCE, and HATRED in fancy, flaming letters.

Then I asked, "What did the Buddha say we must do to these fires to end our suffering?  Do we have to make the fires bigger?"  The children all knew that my suggestion was silly.  "You have to put it out!"   Our group was small enough, that we had time for each child to take a turn labeling the three flames and then putting out the fires, by removing the flames from the wood.

We talked about each word in simple terms.
Greed is wanting more and more.  It's wanting things so badly that you are angry when you can't get them.  It's wanting things so badly that you're willing to hurt yourself or others for it.  

Ignorance means to not know about something.  When the Buddha speaks of ignorance he is talking about not understanding the Dharma, his teachings.

Hatred is being so angry that you want to hurt others or yourself.

To help the children remember these three dangerous fires we also did a little pasting project.
They were each given a paper with the words Put out the fires of: at the top.
At the bottom of the paper were the words A
nger, Greed, Ignorance. 
 Each child was also given 3 pre-cut paper flames and 6 pre-cut paper logs. 
  They pasted the logs and fire above each word.  The final product looked like this:
When I do this project with my older students I will make a few changes to the presentation.  First, we will read the story aloud together.  Second, instead of a felt board, the three fires will be introduced with three actual candles.  The children will have a chance to label and light the candle.  Other children will then use a snuffer to put out the flames.  Also, when it is time to create the art, I'll give them the paper and scissors and let them create their own interpretation of the fires however they like.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!

Yasa's Parents & The Triple Gem

This lesson was shared with children between the ages of 5 and 8.

In the previous lesson, the children learned about Yasa, a wealthy young man who decided to follow the Buddha.  In this lesson the children learned about his father.

The following account is from Buddhism Key Stage II, page 35.  (You can download it here.) :

Yasa’s father had been searching for Yasa after he had
left home and entered the Sangha. Eventually, he came
upon the Buddha who explained Dharma to him. He
listened with growing enthusiasm and became the first lay
follower to take the Threefold Refuge in the Buddha, the
Dharma and the Sangha.

At the invitation of Yasa’s father, the Buddha and Yasa
went for a meal at his house. The Buddha talked about
Dharma after the meal and Yasa’s mother was also listening.
She was so impressed that she took the Threefold Refuge
and became the Buddha’s first woman lay follower.      

Keep it simple.
There were two main points I wanted the children to take away from this lesson:
1. Yasa's parents became the first lay followers of the Buddha.
2. As layfollowers, we take refuge in the Triple Gem.

I asked the children, "What is a gem?"  It was important for them to understand how precious a gem is.  We used examples of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, crystals...  I held up my ring.  "My husband gave this to me when he promised to marry me.  The stone is special because it is rare and beautiful and it has a special meaning for me.  It is a GEM."

In Buddhism, we have three special gems:  The Buddha, The Dharma (the Buddha's Teachings), and The Sangha (the monks and nuns who follow the Buddha in a special way).  We call these three the Triple Gem.

I asked, "What does it mean to take refuge?"  They weren't sure.  "A refuge is a place you go to be safe.  If a tornado is coming, we are told to take refuge.  We have to find a safe place that will protect us.  When animals want to be safe from predators, they look for a good hiding spot.  This is their refuge."  In Buddhism we have special, safe, protective places to take refuge as well.  They are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  So when we say that we are taking refuge in the Triple Gem this is what we mean.  When we have problems or worries or fears in our life, this is where we go for refuge.

Use what you have.
The children were encouraged to find symbols of the triple gem in our shrine room.  They enjoyed finding them.  Then I showed them this picture of the three jewels:

In front of them I colored each gem to represent the Buddha (blue), the Dharma (yellow), and the Sangha (red).  One of the kids noticed right away that the three jewels were placed in the shape of a bodhi leaf.  
Each of the children were given their own to color.

If time and resources permit, there are a lot of fun activities you could come up with for this symbol.  I considered having the children color foil with markers to make the gems shiny.  You could use glitter or sticker gems too.  Think about ways to make this a beautiful presentation.  Next year, I plan to do a lot more with this lesson, craftwise.

Any readers who'd like to share their pictures are welcomed!  I'd love to see and share your work here.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!  


Yasa & The First 60 Monks

This lesson was shared with children ages 5-8.
You can find a simple retelling of the story here.

Yasa was the son of a rich merchant.  Like Siddhartha, Yasa had plenty of material possessions.  Also like Siddhartha, Yasa was not satisfied by his life of luxury.  He felt he was missing something more important.  When he heard the Buddha explain the Four Noble Truths, Yasa felt as if he were awakened from a dream.  He decided to stay with the Buddha and follow his teachings.  54 of Yasa's friends decided to follow the Buddha as well.

Now the Buddha's followers numbered 60.  The Buddha sent his followers out to share his teachings.  His followers returned with even more people who wished to follow the Buddha.

This is a good lesson for emphasizing that material goods and an easy life won't ultimately bring you peace and eternal happiness.  Ask the children to tell you about things they have and enjoy.  You'll get fun answers about toy cars, video games, ice-cream, etc.  It is important that the children understand that it is not wrong to like and enjoy these things.  Then ask how these things might disappoint them someday.  Maybe the toy will break.  The game system won't play newer games.  Too many sweets can give you a tummy ache.  Reflecting back to the lesson on Samsura, we can remind the children that all things eventually die or go to ruin.  So while it is nice to enjoy them, we have to try to not be so attached to these things that we become angry and sad when they are gone.

Keep it simple.
My fellow Sunday School teacher read this story from a book in The Buddhist Series: Life of Buddha.  You can find more information about these books in the Resource Section or by clicking here.

Use what you have.
The children colored pictures of Yasa pictures of the Buddha commissioning his followers to spread his teachings.  You can find simple coloring pages for these stories on pages 43 and 44 of buddha.nets book here.

This lesson was kept short and simple.  We followed it with the story of Yasa's Father.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem! 

Children's Meditation

Here's a simple guided meditation that can be read to children as they sit quietly.

Our monks encourage the children to sit with their legs crossed, hands on their laps, with open right hand over open left hand.  A gong, bell, or chime can be used to begin the quiet.

The children take a deep breathe in and then out. They're encouraged to concentrate on their tummies moving out and in as they breathe in and out.    

Then the leader can peacefully recite the following for the children to hear as they breathe:
May I be free from suffering.
May I be free from anger.
May I be cured from illness.
May I be free from fear.   
May I be free from hatred. 
May I reach peace and tranquility.

For older children this can be extended universally:
May my parents be free from suffering.
May they be free from anger.
May they be cured from illness.
May they be free from fear.   
May they be free from hatred. 
May they reach peace and tranquility.

May (my teachers, relatives, friends, enemies, all living beings) be free from suffering...

Keep the silent meditation time short.  Maybe one or two minutes at most.  That's a long time for little wiggle worms.  A gong, chime, or bell can be rung again to end the meditation.  We usually begin our Dharma Sunday School this way.

Keep it simple.
Lighting a plain candle, burning some incense or offering flowers before an image of the Buddha is nice.  But don't go overboard.  The less pomp and circumstance surrounding meditation with young people, the easier it will be for them to turn to meditation for peace throughout their day, where ever they are.  This can become a wonderful tool for parents to help their children during challenging times.

Use what you have.
I've found some very nice, simple chants and meditations for children on the net.  Here are a few of them:

Buddhanet has The Loving Kindness Chant broken up in simple lines in both English and Pali here.

Gregory Kramer has a beautiful version of this chant for children here.

May I Be Well, Happy and Peaceful chant can be found here. (

If you're looking for a simple book to introduce meditation to children, I would recommend Each Breath A Smile, by Sister Susan, based on Thich Nhat Hahn's teachings.  It's beautifully illustrated.  The text is simple enough for 3 year olds but rich enough for older children.

Savor this experience.  There is something very special about meditating with kids.  Perhaps, if we as adults approached meditation with the same simplicity as our children, we would move more quickly to emancipation.      

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem!

The First Sangha

Do you remember, that before the Buddha became enlightened he fasted and meditated with five friends?  Well after his enlightenment he returned to these men.  How do you think they reacted to his visit?  Do you think they were happy to see him?  

I read to the children an account of this story from the book titled Prince Siddhartha: The Story of the Buddha by Jonathan Landaw & Janet Brooke.  A simple retelling of the story can also be found here.

This story chronicles the beginning of the Sangha.   The Sangha is a group of monks or nuns.  They have dedicated their lives in a special way to following the teachings of the Buddha.  
The names of these first five monks are:

We wanted the children to become familiar with these five monks for future stories so we had them write the names on paper while we spoke the pronunciation over and over again.  I am very thankful to have a teacher with me who speaks Sinhalese.  I would be at a loss for knowing how to say these names without her.

The five monks were not thrilled to see the Buddha at first.  They thought he had given up his quest for enlightenment.  They planned to not even speak to him.  But as the Buddha came closer to them a radiant light shone around him and the monks completely forgot their plans to ignore him.   They were so impressed by his mere presence that they took his bowl, prepared a seat and washed his feet.  The Buddha told them to no longer call him Gautama.  From now on he was to be known as the Buddha.  The monks asked for forgiveness for thinking badly of him.  Then the Buddha began to teach them.  Once they understood his teachings they shaved their heads, put on robes and formed the Sangha.

Keep it Simple.
This was the Buddha's first teaching.  It is often referred to as The Turning of the Wheel of Truth or The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.  There is A LOT of rich teaching in this first discourse, far too much to address individually in one lesson for children.  Rather than addressing the details of the Buddha's first discourse, we wanted to expose them to the basic story.  The points of this important discourse will be explained to the kids in smaller bites in lessons throughout the year.

There were two main points we wanted the children to take away from this lesson.  First, in this first teaching, the Buddha explained that many problems come from wanting things in a selfish way.  We can become wiser and happier if we stop wanting things so badly that we become attached to them.  Second, there is a symbol we use for The Turning of the Wheel of Truth.  It usually looks like this:
Once the Buddha began teaching the Dharma, the wheel of truth was set in motion.

Use what you have.
The children were given a picture of the Wheel of Truth to color.  Some chose to color it gold.  Others colored it one or all of the colors of the Buddhist flag.
The older children will be learning more about the Buddha's first discourse and the meaning of the Wheel in weeks to come.

Next time:
Yasa, His Father, and the Triple Gem

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem! 

The Buddhist Flag

The children have been very interested in the colors coming from Buddha's aura upon his enlightenment.  They quickly connected these colors to those on the Buddhist flag.  I decided that this would be a good time to teach them a little more about the Buddhist flag.

Each of the colors represent a quality of the Buddha or the Buddha's teaching.

Blue: Compassion - having loving kindness for all living beings and wishing that no being should suffer
Yellow: The Middle Path - avoiding extremes
Red: Blessings - following the teachings of the Buddha bring good things to our lives
White: Purity - the teachings of the Buddha are clean, without any flaws
Orange: Wisdom - the teachings of the Buddha are wise 
Blend of all five colors: UNITY - the teachings of the Buddha are good for everyone, everywhere and unite us together

Keep it simple.
After we introduced the flag, its colors and their symbols, the children used crayons to color a picture of the Buddhist Flag.  They used small cards to make theirs, but you could also use a print out like the one here.
Use what you have.
I made a simple matching game for the kids with index cards and coiled pipe cleaners.  You could use painted rocks, legos, bean bags, anything really in the flag's colors.

For very young children (five or younger) I would recommend matching the colored coil to an index card with the word the color symbolizes written in the same color ink like this:
For our class, the children took turns matching a colored coil to an index card with the word the color symbolizes written in black or brown ink like this:
Then we made a game out of it.  We laid the index cards out in a row on the floor.  The children lined up for a relay race against the clock.  One at a time, the kids were handed a coil to take to the floor and match with the proper card.  We timed ourselves.  Then we tried to match them faster, and faster.  By the end of the game, all the kids had memorized each of the colors of the flag and the word it symbolized.

The children were encouraged to think about what the flag represents whenever they see it.
Simple lessons seems to stick.

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem.

The Seven Weeks After Enlightenment

This lesson was shared with children between the ages of five and seven.

The book we used is not available online and I can't remember the title.  (Sorry.  It belonged to another Sunday School teacher.  I'll try to write it down next time.)  Buddhanet has a simple retelling of what happened.  Here is a synopsis of what occurred.  

Week 1: The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, meditating and enjoying the perfect peace and happiness of enlightenment.

Week 2: The Buddha stood and meditated with perfect, unblinking focus on the Bodhi tree with thankfulness for its shade and protection.

Week 3: The Buddha built a golden bridge in the air to walk across, proving to the devas that he was truly enlightened. 

Week 4: The Buddha built a jeweled throne. As he sat upon it, six rays of color radiated from him - blue, yellow, red, white, orange and a rainbow of all five colors.  
(We will devote the next lesson to these colors)

Week 5: The Buddha meditated under a banyan tree.  Evil Mara sent his three daughters to dance before him and destract him.  The Buddha remained undisturbed.

Week 6: The Buddha meditated under the mucalinda tree.  As it began to rain heavily, a serpent winded itself around him to protect him from the storm.  When the rain stopped, the snake turned into a young man who learned from the Buddha.

Week 7: The Buddha meditated under the rajayatana tree.  Two merchants approached him and offered him food.  This is the first food the Buddha had eaten since his enlightenment.  These merchants became the first lay followers of the Buddha.

Keep it simple.
This is a lot of information for young children.  Rather than expecting them to memorize what happened and when, I just wanted them to become familiar with the story.  First it was read.  Then it was retold by asking the children to fill in the blanks.  "On the first week, the Buddha sat under the....." (Bodhi tree) and did what?  (meditated)  

If time permits the children could also act this out while someone narrated the story.

Use what you have.
I have to admit, our project to reinforce the story this week was a bit of a failure.  My idea was to use clay.  After showing the children pictures of many different paintings, statues and sculptures of Mucalinda protecting the Buddha, I wanted to encourage them to sculpt an image to represent one of the seven weeks.  The children were very excited about the project and had some great ideas.

Unfortunately, the clay I brought was awful.  It was very hard and no amount of pounding and pushing seemed to soften it.  Some of it actually crumbled and fell apart.  They had more success with the soft play-doh I brought for two, tiny tots (3 and 4 years old) who sit in on the class occasionally.      

Lesson learned.  My advice is to always try use what you already have.  I didn't.  To save time, I bought very cheap clay from the dollar store.  It was useless.  Any nice, homemade play-doh would have worked better.  

Here are a few pics of the more successful attempts at working with awful clay.
Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree
(This one melted my heart a bit)  

She's making the colorful rays that beamed from the Buddha.  
Buddha under the tree

The "golden bridge" (Picasso had a blue period too...)   
Rev. Sirithana tries to soften the clay for the children to no avail.  
Some of the kids gave up trying to sculpt the clay and chose to line up the Buddhist colors instead.  
Next time: The colors of the Buddhist flag and what they represent.  No cheap clay involved.  : )

May all be free from suffering by the power of the Triple Gem.  

The Enlightenment

This lesson was shared with children between the ages of 5 and 8.  I read the story from pages 15-17 of Buddhism Key Stage 2.  You can download it for free by clicking here.

Keep it simple.
There were three main points I wanted the children to remember:
1. The middle path
2. The causes of suffering
3. All  beings can become enlightened

I took breaks in the story to discuss each point, asking questions like these:

The Middle Path
Could Gautama find the way of truth when he was super comfy and living in the palace?  (No.)
Could Gautama find the way of truth when he was torturing himself and weak with hunger?  (No.)
When did Gautama find the way of truth?  (When he meditated but had a little food too.  When he wasn't trying to be too comfortable or too uncomfortable.)  

The Cause of Suffering
What did Gautama realize were the causes of our suffering?  (Greed, selfishness, stupidity/ignorance)
What is greed?  Selfishness?  Ignorance?  (Accept any reasonable answers)
What will make people happy?  (Getting rid of greed, selfishness and ignorance) 

Buddha Potential
Who can become enlightened?  (All beings)
Can we become enlighetend? (Yes.)
Can the people we know become enlightened?  (Yes.)
YES!  Everyone has the potential to become a buddha!  Potential means it's possible, we have the ability. 

To celebrate the story of Gautama's enlightenment I wanted the children to make something special.
We made paper images of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree inspired by a project I found here.     
Use what you have.
Instead of paper towel rolls, we simply rolled and pasted brown construction paper into a cylinder.
I cut the brown paper and leaves out ahead of time.
I traced and copied a picture of the Buddha that I liked.  The kids colored and pasted it onto the bottom of the  paper tree.  You could also have the kids draw their own pictures or print out a picture or coloring page from the web.  (Just Google Buddha coloring pages and you'll find plenty of choices.)
The children then pasted leaves at the top of the tree.
We set them on a shelf to dry and stabilize before the children took them home.

This project was simple enough for the youngest children to do with very little help and nice enough that the oldest of the children still enjoyed making it.

Next week:  Buddha's meditation and Mucalinda's protection

May all be free from suffering by the power of the triple gem.