The Cunning Wolf: Keeping Promises to Yourself and Others

Recently we've been forming our class lessons and discussions around Demi's book Buddha Stories.

In today's story a cunning wolf decides to make pious promises when it seems convenient.  We learn that it's much easier to make a promise than to keep one.

I asked my youngest students to tell me what they knew about wolves.  It's helpful for the children to understand that wolves eat only meat and are very smart about catching their prey.  We looked at some pictures of wolves.

Before the story I asked, "Have you ever made a promise to yourself or to someone else that was very hard to keep?  This is a story about a wolf who had trouble keeping a promise."

To be sure the little ones followed the plot I asked the following questions:
  • Why wasn't the wolf able to get food?
  • What did he decide to do when he couldn't reach any prey?
  • What happened when he saw the goat?
  • Was he able to catch the goat?
  • The wolf decided that since the goat got away, he had kept his promise after all.  Did he really?
  • What did the Buddha tell him?
With each lesson based on a Jataka Tale, I try to remind my students that the Buddha's concern was to end suffering.  I used some examples from a child's life to encourage them to consider how this particular story can help us prevent suffering for both ourselves and others.

Example 1: You promise your mom or dad that you will clean your room.  Then you push all your toys under bed and shove all your dirty clothes in the closet.  Have you kept your promise?

Example 2:  You say to yourself, "I'm going to be generous and share my toys when my friend visits."  You only offer them the things you least enjoy playing with.  Have you kept your promise to yourself? 

Then I asked:
  • How does breaking a promise hurt ourselves? (We feel bad, frustrated, disappointed, ashamed.  We lose other's trust...)
  • How does breaking a promise hurt others?  (They feel disappointed, angry, no longer trust us...)
  • How do we feel about ourselves when we keep our promises? (good, proud, happy, trusted...)
  • How do others feel when we keep our promises? (Happy, relieved, proud)
  • Is it good to make lots and lots of promises? 
  • What can we do instead of making promises to keep ourselves more honest and dependable?  (We can say I'll try. We can save promises for the most important commitments.)
The younger children colored in a picture I made with a coloring page and a simple quote.  You can download a copy of it here.  We laminated the pictures and threaded them with yarn to make little bookmarks to take home.  If you don't have a laminator, just paste the picture on colored paper or cardstock. 

I used this lesson with my older children too.  Rather than read from the book, I combined the text of the story, along with an article from Psychology Today about keeping promises.  We read it aloud.  You can print out the story and article together here.

Afterwards I asked the following questions to create a discussion:
  • What distracted the wolf from his promise?
  • What could he have done differently when he saw the goat?
  • Do you think that deciding that he kept his promise will help him in the future?
  • Was it realistic of him to make such a promise?  
  • Did he make his promise for the right reason?  
  • What can we learn from this story about making promises in our own lives?
My older students never like to be left out of a craft or project opportunity.  I encouraged them to make their own bookmarks using this template.  The Psychology Today article recommended three questions to consider before making a promise:
  1. What's my motivation?
  2. Is this realistic?
  3. Is this crucial? 
Their bookmarks included these questions along with the quote, "It's easier to make a promise than to keep it."  

I love the empowerment this lesson gives us.  There are tools here for building trust, confidence, and honesty with ourselves and others.  What a gift for our children and everyone they encounter.

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

The Beautiful Parrots: Riches & Fame Come and Go Like the Wind

This lesson was shared with both my elementary and middle school students.

Buddha Stories by Demi beautifully illustrates 11 Jataka Tales. Most local libraries have a copy to lend.  It can also be purchased from bookstores in the US.  I chose this week's story from it's pages.

In this Jataka Tale, two lovely parrots are treasured as the king's favorite pets, at least until an entertaining little monkey arrives.  Suddenly the parrots are forgotten in the shadow of the new pet's funny faces.  An important lesson is learned about how quickly circumstances in our lives change and how difficult these changes become when we are too attached to things staying the same.

Before the tale I asked the children, "Have you ever felt replaced?  Maybe by a friend or sibling...Maybe you were the best at a sport and then someone joined the team who was even better than you... At school?  This is the story of two parrots who experienced the same feeling."

After the story I asked the younger children the following questions:

This is a lesson about expecting things to change.  We suffer less when we remember that things always change. 

I asked the children to offer examples of things that change.  They shared ideas about seasons, friendships, ages, jobs, homes... This lesson can open the door for young people to examine their thoughts and feelings about life events like the birth of a sibling, the loss of friendship, popularity, success and failures in sports and academics... Invite your students to visualize both the best and worst case scenarios in the things that matter most to them, making peace with both outcomes.  The ability to anticipate and accept change is a priceless tool.  Let's give it to our children as early as possible.

I found a cool parrot craft on Pinterest that I used with my younger students.

We added a quote from the story to our project.

We applied the words of the wise parrot to the folk song, Down By the Riverside:

Gain and loss and praise and blame
Pleasure, pain, dishonor, fame
Come and go like the spring.
                            (sing 2x's)
Why should a little parrot grieve?
                             ( 3x's)
Why should a little parrot sing?
                             ( 3x's)

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

When I Make Silence

 This lesson can be shared with our youngest children, ages 4 - 7.

Jennifer Howard created this simple, peaceful book for her Montessori classroom.  She writes on her blog, " I wrote this book years ago to assist my 3-6 class with the Silence game. I found that providing examples of ways to make silence, especially for young children, assisted them with centering themselves and finding peace."  It is now a staple in most Montessori schools and Atriums.

Jennifer uses imagery like ocean waves, candles, and snowflakes to create mental images for our children of what silence looks and feels and sounds like.

You can order the book for $6 plus shipping through ParentChildPress or The Center for Children and Theology .  You can also email Jennifer through her blog if you would like to order a signed copy from her. 

For this lesson I used the following materials:
  • book: When I Make Silence
  • chime or gong ( I got mine here.)
  • a face clock
  • plain, white candle
  • candle snuffer (optional)

We sat in a circle on the floor.
Very quietly and calmly, I lit a candle.  They immediately grew calmer.
 First, we discussed the word silence.  I asked, "What is silence?  What does it mean?"
A few guesses came.  No noise...Not bothering your parents...Not talking
"Silence means not a sound."

Then we read the book together, taking time to talk about each image, connecting our own experiences to them.  Most of the kids will want to tell you about their summer vacations to the beach and the snow days.  Invite them to share and steer them back to the theme by asking questions like, "What did the waves do on the beach?  Can you imagine the waves as your belly goes in and out with each breath?" "How did the snow sound when it fell?" and so on.

Then very deliberately and rather ceremoniously I unwrapped my chime and placed it in front of me for all of them to see. "This is a chime.  I make it ring when I hit it with this striker. The special thing about this chime is that when I strike it, at first it makes a loud sound, but then it gets quieter and quieter.  It gets so quiet that sometimes it's hard to tell when the sound has actually stopped.  Let's sit very quietly and see if we can hear when the sound stops.  Close your eyes.  Don't open them until you can't hear the sound anymore."

They loved it.  They enjoyed it so much that I allowed each child to take a turn striking the chime while the others listened for the silence.

Then we listened for the clock.  With our eyes closed, we'd wait while someone struck the chime.  When the chime grew silent, we'd listen for the tick-tock of the clock.

Next we changed our focus to feeling our own heartbeats in silence.

Finally, I told the children that this time, after the chime went silent I was going to put out the candle.  Their job was to listen silently and keep their eyes closed until they could smell the smoke from the extinguished light.  Peace. Calm.  Stillness.  You could feel it in our little circle.

To end our session, the children were invited to choose one of the images from the book or an image of their own to create a picture titled, "When I Make Silence."
Once this lesson is introduced, this practice can be used on a regular basis, weekly even.  If your space allows, it would be nice to create a small area - a little table, mat, or spot on a low shelf with the book, chime, and images of peace.  This could be an area for children to visit individually or in small groups whenever they want to make silence.

And for goodness' sake, let's not worry about whether they are perfectly still and focused.  They're children.  Some will embrace this exercise from the first time it's presented.  Others will fidget, wander, play with lint balls from their pockets.  That's ok.  Few people cozy up to someone they've just met.  Let's let them get to know silence a little.  As they become more familiar, many will become friendly with it.  We're planting seeds, not necessarily reaping the harvest.

When I presented this lesson to my munchkins, one little guy in particular seemed to be missing the whole activity.  While his classmates sat with their eyes closed, smiling, waiting for the chime, he was bent over doodling.  "Oh, well," I thought, "Nothing's sinking in for him today..."  At the end of class he gave me the picture he was drawing.  He captured the chime and the candle and his classmates and his teacher sitting in a circle making silence.  A gentle reminder that my job is to share the teaching without judgment or assumptions about how it's received.

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

The Noble Eightfold Path

This is the second half of a two part series inspired by the book Teach Me Buddhism by Asoka Ganhewa,
Souksomboun Sayasithsena, and Margaret Lisa Buschmann.  In this second lesson, the children will learn how to remember the Noble Eightfold Path with the help of MUSIC, GESTURES, and ART.

Mr. Sayasithsena created clever, simple hand motions to help children (and adults) remember the basic teachings of the Buddha.  My students enjoyed practicing them over and over.

1. Right View (or Understanding)

Point to the eye, looking for good things to do to help end suffering.
2. Right Thought
Put your hand over your heart because our thoughts should be loving and kind.
 3. Right Speech
Point to your mouth.

 4. Right Action
Look at your hands that do only good things.

 5. Right Livelihood (or Occupation)
Put your hand to your side as if your holding your lunch bag or briefcase.
 6. Right Effort
Make one hand push away the bad things and the other looking forward for good things to do.
7. Right Mindfulness
Point to your head.
8. Right Concentration
Lay one hand on top of the other, palms facing up as we do when we meditate.
Music is another wonderful tool for memorizing.  I arranged the ways of the path to the melody of Pachalbel's Canon.  I chose this piece for three reasons.  First, its tune is simple and peaceful.  Second, most children are familiar with the work already which makes it easier for them to focus on learning the lyrics.  And finally, Pachalbel's Canon is one of the world's most famous compositions.  It's frequently played at weddings, concerts, and other occasions.  Each time I hear this canon now, I'm reminded of the Noble Eightfold Path.  My students will be too.  Sneaky, eh?
You can learn the song by clicking here.

Last, we considered the path through art.  The children recognize this Buddhist symbol as the Dhamma Chakra.  Some of them had not realized that each spoke of the wheel represented part of the Noble Eightfold Path.  The children made their own Dhamma Chakras, labeling each spoke.  

Together, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are the heart of the Buddha's teachings.  I plan to return to these lessons again and again, incorporating games and songs to help my students remember what it means to be a Buddhist.

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

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths

I'm excited to share this wonderful lesson that began with an idea from Mr. Souksomboun Sayasithsena!  He created clever, simple hand motions to help children (and adults) remember the basic teachings of the Buddha.

Together with his friends, Asoka Ganhewa and Margaret Lisa Buschmann, they created a book titled Teach Me Buddhism.  You can find a pdf of the book by clicking here.

Real life illustrations and simple texts are used to share the heart of Buddhism with young children.  I broke the book up into two lessons: The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path.

On a personal note, I first discovered Buddhism in a little book written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama titled The Way to Freedom.  While preparing to teach this lesson to my kids I decided to reread the section devoted to the Four Noble Truths.  If you'd like to read it too, you can find a free pdf of the book by clicking here.

My students really enjoyed expressing the Four Noble Truths in the gestures taught in the book:

1.  Life is full of suffering.
Place hands on your head like someone who is unhappy.

2. The Causes of Suffering:
They stem from wanting what we cannot have and having what we do not want.
Roll arms around and around each other like our thoughts of want going around and around.

3. There Is An End to Suffering.
Put hands on your heart and show happiness.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path Leads Us Away from Suffering.
Hold up eight fingers for the eightfold path.
Once we finished reading the book and learning the signs, we made games to memorize them.  You could pass a ball or beanbag or call out a name at random.  At each turn the child must show the correct sign.

Try a dancing game where the children must freeze when the music stops and make the sign as you call out,  "SHOW ME THE FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH!"

To reinforce the lesson I invited the younger children to make "Butterflies of Truth".
We kept it simple, using cardstock, crayons, and popsicle sticks.
Once again, my older students were disappointed that they couldn't make the butterflies as well.  You'd think by now I'd learn to ALWAYS assume that they'll want to do the crafts (even when they seem better suited for the munchkins) and bring enough supplies.    I'm a s-l-l-l-ow learner. 

So I promised my upper elementary and middle school students that next week their lesson would definitely include a project on the Noble Eightfold Path.

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

Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem

Each Sunday our Dharma Class begins with chanting in Pali, the language of the Buddha.  After giving honor to him, we chant the following:

Buddham saranam gacchami  ( I go to the Buddha for refuge)
Dhamma saranam gacchami ( I go to the Dhamma for refuge)
Sangha saranam gacchami  ( I go to the Sangha for refuge)

It's important for our children to understand what they are chanting and what it means.  What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha?

I created a slideshow for the children to watch - 20 images of refuge.  As we watched the slideshow, they were invited to silently look for a theme or similarity that connected all the pictures together.  You can view the slideshow by clicking here.

Some of my students were quicker to pick up on the theme than others, but they all got there in the end.

A refuge is a shelter or protection from danger or trouble.  I asked my youngest children:

  • From what did the different people and animals in the pictures need protection?
  • When we take refuge in the Buddha, is that what we're doing?  Are we hiding under his statue so we don't get wet or caught by predators?  
  • No?  Hmmm.... then why do we take refuge in the Buddha?  What does it mean?

Taking refuge in the Buddha means that we understand that life has suffering and we have confidence, or trust that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can help us.  By following the Buddha's path we can begin to understand our suffering and eventually end all of our suffering.

So how do we take refuge?
I used a whiteboard to map out the following with my older students:

This is what we mean when we say we are taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.  

We decided to create a piece of art that each child could take home to help them remember this lesson.
Inspired by the images in the slideshow, the kids drew pictures with the words "I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha."  A simple reminder.

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

The Proud Peacock and the Mallard: The Price of Getting Cocky

The Proud Peacock is one in a series of Jataka Tales from Dharma Publishing. They describe the book this way:
A golden mallard, chosen by the birds to be their king, grants his daughter's wish to select her own mate.  From all available candidates, the princess chooses an elegant peacock.  Delighted, the peacock shows off his beauty.  Realizing his prideful nature, the mallard princess rejects the peacock and chooses a more modest mate.  Deeply ashamed, the peacock utters a hoarse cry of dismay.  To this day, peacocks still make this same sound.

 I used this story with both my primary and upper elementary aged students.
With my primary children, I raised the following questions for discussion:

  • Why did the king summon (call) all the birds of the world together?
  • Who did the princess choose first?   Why did she choose him?
  • Why did the princess change her mind about the peacock?
  • Who did the princess choose instead of the peacock? Why did she choose him?
  • Who was the Buddha in this story? How is the mallard like the Buddha?
  • What would have been a better way for the peacock to behave when he was chosen?
  • What does this story teach us about how we should act when someone notices our good qualities?
After our discussion, my little ones colored pictures of both a mallard and peacock. They can be pasted on construction paper with the quote, "Modesty is more beautiful than pride."

This lesson lends itself to fun arts and crafts activities.  It's also a great story to be told with a flannel board and simple felt pieces or acted out in a mini-play.  The only limit is your own creativity with whatever resources and funds you have available.

Here are the pictures I used for the kids to color:

My older students discussed these questions:
  • Why would the Buddha share this story?  What is the moral?
  • The Buddha is concerned with ending our suffering.  What dangers and suffering does this story help us avoid for ourselves?  for others?
  • Can you think of everyday examples of the peacock's behavior?  (Couldn't help but giggle when Justin Beiber's name popped up)
  • Can you think of everyday examples of the mallard duck?
  • Compare the mallard with our faithful monks.  What are the similarities?
  • Initially the princess chose the peacock.  What does this tell us about beauty and charm?  Are they intrinsically bad?  
  • Can you think of someone who seemed very attractive to you when you first met, but as you got to see their true character, their vices affected your view of them?  What about the reverse.  Have you ever met someone who seemed rather plain until you got to know them better?  Did it change the way you viewed them physically?
I closed this lesson with a brief meditation.  Towards the end of it I asked the students to ask themselves: Are there areas of my life where I may be in danger of behaving like a peacock?  What can I do to prevent this from happening?

This lesson surprised me.  I've had the book for a few years now but it seemed almost too simplistic to use.  Boy was I wrong.  This simple story stirred up an engaging discussion with my middle school students. Sharing the Buddha's message of humility and inner beauty can lighten the burden our children carry, growing up in a culture that values physical beauty and self-promotion over simplicity and modesty.  

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