“The Sandy Road”

From my teaching notes of 11 April 2010:

Over 20 children, ages 4 through 11, at the 9:30 session; school vacation week for many kids so we expected low attendance and had all the kids together. I had my doubts about having the preschoolers in the class, but thought it was worth a try. C—, one of the older kids, volunteered to light chalice; turns out he had never lit a match before, so I talked him through it while reviewing fire safety for the benefit of all kids.

Read aloud the story “The Sandy Road,” from Ellen Babbit’s retelling of Jataka tales (Appanna Jataka, or Appanaka Jataka, tale no. 1). The children were completely attentive while I was reading.

Then we acted it out. There were enough major roles for all the older children (gr. 4 & 5) who wanted one: the wicked demon and helpers, the foolish merchant, the wise merchant. The children were very inventive in acting the story out: the smallest children were the oxen, and they dragged chairs as their wagons; they were very focused on dragging their chairs. The children were much less attentive while we were getting ready to act the story out, and I did my usual thing and tried to talk over them — this never works well, but I have a big voice and have gotten into the bad habit of relying on it.

Finally we settled down and actually acted the story out. Still lots of giggling and silliness, more than usual; a general lack of focus. Ch— came in late, and so we had an audience who didn’t know the story; she was able to say when she didn’t understand what was going on, which also helped focus the children.

When we discussed the story, I asked whether it was true or not (consensus: No, it’s a fairy tale). Then I asked what the story meant: Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t throw things away needlessly. Etc. Not surprisingly, none of the children came up with the interpretation that Buddha offers in the framing story, that in the wilderness of life the real refuge is the truths that Buddha teaches (“Those who have refuge in the Buddha / Shall not pass hence to states of suffering”); or, more generally, that religious truths can be a refuge from the vicissitudes of life. There are several layers to this story; and this is one story where it seems wise not to include the framing story where Buddha explains it (see, e.g., The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births vol. 1, ed. E. B. Cowell, trans. Robert Chalmers, pp. 1-4).

After the discussion, I told the children we were going to try meditating (I did not explain to the children that meditation can be one of those real refuges in life). Some of the older children immediately struck exaggerated “mediation poses”: lotus position, hands held palm up on knees, back stiff, head held stiffly back, big grins on faces while saying “Ommm!” So I explained the correct way to sit, showed them a real mudra. I said younger children, four and five year olds, were usually better at meditation than older kids — that of course made the older kids competitive. I asked: How long should we try to meditate, a minute? No no, said older kids, two minutes! Five minutes! We did it for a minute. I processed with kids afterwards: H—, you were really good, at about 20 seconds you started to lose it, but then you settled down, that’s the hardest thing about meditation, to come back to stillness when you start to get squirmy. I also complimented the youngest children who were indeed the best at sitting still.

The children wanted to try meditating again: Two minutes this time! Unwisely, I said we could — but we could all hear the adults coming out of the worship service, so the older kids all lost it at 20 seconds. I did a quick closing reading, and then we all left; some parents were indeed waiting outside.