Tag Archives: Buddhism

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

Visakha’s Sorrow

Another children’s story from a work-in-progress of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Udana, viii.8. I used Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, pp. 107-108; as well as The Udana: or the Solemn Utterances of the Buddha, trans. from the Pali by Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong (Luzac/ India Company: London, 1902), pp. 126-127. I’m not sure what I think about this story; not sure I much like it. But it does seem to get at something central to Buddhism. (Update: a few typos fixed.)

Once upon a time, the Buddha was staying in the city of Savatthi, in the Eastern Grove. He was staying as a guest in the mansion owned by Visakha. Now Visakha had a granddaughter whom she loved very much; this granddaughter was her darling and her delight. While Buddha was staying in her mansion, Visakha’s granddaughter died after a long illness. When Visakha heard that her granddaughter had at long last died, it was very early in the morning. Visakha was overwhelmed with grief when she heard the news. Even though it was very early in the morning, she went to see the Buddha.

She approached the Buddha, greeted him politely, and went to sit down at his side. The Buddha looked at her, and could see she had been crying. He said quietly, “Well, Visakha, what is it that brings you here at a very early hour, with your hands and hair all wet from tears?” Continue reading

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

Miracle birth of Buddha

In an old Unitarian Universalist Sunday school curriculum called From Long Ago and Many Lands, religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote out three miracle birth stories for upper elementary children: the wonder stories of the birth of Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. I like to present these stories during the worship services leading up to Christmas, during the “story for all ages” (or “children’s sermon” or whatever your church calls it). Each of these stories tells of miraculous events that happen before the birth of these three great religious teachers. Children pick up on the parallels between the stories — angels and prophecies and miraculous animals — and it helps them to better understand the wondrous aspects of the two familiar birth stories of Jesus from the books of Matthew and Luke.

Problem is that Sophia Fahs’s stories are really too long to tell in a worship service — as written, they can last a good ten minutes. Each year, I edit them down by sticking little bits of Post-It notes over the parts I don’t want to read, and then I take the bits of Post-It notes out and forget about it until next Advent season, until I have to do it all over again. This year, I got smart and decided to write out a condensed version of Fahs’s “Birth of Buddha” story and keep it in my files. Then I also took out my copy of The Story of Gotama Buddha: Jataka-nidana, and from that I pieced together a short and fairly coherent narrative of Buddha’s birth.

And as long as I had done all this work, I figured I’d post both stories here, in case someone else might find them useful. Both stories should last a little over five minutes when read aloud. You’ll find the condensed Fahs story at the very end of this post, and my own version immediately below…. Continue reading

Spring watch

The intermittent rain has been working on melting the last of the snow: snow piles left by shoveling and plowing, snow protected from the sun on the north side of buildings, and the snow left in the courtyard of the Whaling Museum across from our front windows.

Two days ago, a woman started working in that courtyard, pushing the snow up towards the main entrance of the museum. As I sat eating my lunch and drinking my tea, I couldn’t figure out what she was doing at first: why bother clearing away all that snow when it was going to melt in a few days anyway? But gradually she piled it up into a definite shape, and when I came back in the late afternoon the woman was gone, but she had left behind a sperm whale fashioned out of snow, with a black beady eye and a jaunty tail that, due to the limitations of the medium in which she worked, had to be a little too small.

This morning I sat at my desk, working my way through the Dhamma-kakka-ppavattana-sutta in preparation for this week’s sermon. I vaguely heard rain begin to patter on the roof and skylights. Barely conscious of it, I thought only that perhaps I’d get wet when I went for a walk today. I read on:

That this was the noble truth concerning sorrow, was not, O Bhikkus, among the doctrines handed down, but there arose within me the eye (to perceive it), there arose the knowledge (of its nature), there arose the understanding (of its cause), there arose the wisdom (to guide in the path of tranquility), there arose the light (to dispel darkness from it).

At last I had to get up and stretch. I wandered around, and looked out our front window to watch the rain coming down. The poor snow whale was being melted by the rain; its tail lay shattered on the ground behind it. Above it, tiny crimson flowers begin to open on the maple just across from our windows. The gray stone of street and courtyard reflect the gray sky. A woman walks by, clutching the hood of her blue coat so it will stay on her head.

The Shattered Tea Cup

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and have already posted two on this blog here and here. Yet another story from this work-in-progress:

The Shattered Tea Cup

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land called Japan, there lived a Zen Master. This Zen Master was very, very wise. People said that perhaps he was the wisest person in all of Japan.

The Zen Master was small and quiet, with gray hair and many lines on his face. He often smiled. He lived in a monastery that stood near the banks of a rushing river. There, he watched over all the monks who lived at the monastery, teaching them how to be good Zen Buddhist monks.

The monks chopped wood for the fireplace. They hauled buckets of water from the well to use in the kitchen. They listened to the teaching of the Zen Master, sitting in the great hall while the Zen Master gave Dharma Talks. Sometimes the best monks would challenge the teaching of the Zen Master in a tradition called Dharma Combat. Only monks who were truly enlightened could match the wit and wisdom of the Zen Master in Dharma Combat. And if one of the monks ever got the better of him in Dharma Combat, the Zen Master laughed out loud in pleasure.

But the most important thing that the monks did was to meditate. Every day, they sat on the floor of the great hall of the monastery, meditating in silence. No one said a word all day long. All you could hear in the great meditation hall was the sound of the rushing river, and the wind in the trees.

It was hard for the young monks to sit in silence for such long periods of time, but the Zen Master could sit for days on end, meditating in silence.

One of the younger monks asked him, “How can you sit for so long in silence?”

The Zen Master replied, “Stop worrying so much. Just sit.”


At that time in Japan, a very wise scholar lived far, far away from the monastery at a great University. This wise Scholar had written many books about Zen Buddhism, and in fact he had even lived as a Zen monk for a number of years. But while he was a monk he had never achieved enlightenment, and at last he had left the monastery to become a scholar. In fact, for all his wisdom and learning he had to admit to himself that, having never experienced enlightenment, he had never quite understood what enlightenment was.

One day, the Scholar heard about the wise Zen Master, who was perhaps the wisest person in all of Japan. “Ah!” said the Scholar to himself. “Someone who is as wise as that might be able to tell me what enlightenment is. I will go and visit this Zen Master.”

He called to his servants, “Get my donkey! I will ride to meet this wise man.”

His servants brought his little donkey, and off they trotted. After days and days and days and days of traveling, the Scholar got to the monastery. He and his servants were welcomed in silence by some monks. The Scholar stated his business, and he was led in alone to see the Zen Master.

While the Zen Master prepared tea, the Scholar said, “Zen Master, I have been trying to determine what Enlightenment is.”

“Do you think I can tell you?” said the Zen Master.

“They do say you are the wisest person in all of Japan,” said the Scholar. “Now, I have not myself reached the state of enlightenment, but I do know something about it. When I was a Zen monk, I sat and meditated for many hours. I have read the poems of the monk Ryokan, I have read what Boddhidharma said, I have read what Master Sheng-yen says, and many other writers and scholars. It seems that enlightenment is not a state where you know the oneness of the universe, but rather a state of empty mind. On the other hand….”

The Scholar talked on and on and on and on. He told the Zen Master what he, the Scholar, thought enlightenment might be. The Zen Master finished preparing tea. The Scholar kept on talking. The Zen Master handed the Scholar a delicate porcelain cup. The Scholar took the cup, paused to mention how beautiful the cup was, held it in both his hands — but he kept on talking.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept pouring. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept on pouring, and the delicate cup grew uncomfortably hot. Then the cup overflowed, and some scalding water flowed onto the Scholar’s hands.

The Scholar started in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the Scholar experienced enlightenment.

The Zen Master took all this calmly. “Here’s another cup,” he said. “Let’s have some tea.”


Notes on the story: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps), you can find a story where a scholar visits the Japanese Zen master Nan-in (1868-1912). The Scholar talks too much, and Nan-in pours hot tea over the Scholar’s hands as a vivid demonstration of the necessity of keeping your mind open to new ideas. This story has taken on the status of a folk tale in contemporary American culture, and it is often used to tell people that they should shut up and listen to what the speaker has to say.

I have told variations of the Nan-in story a number of times in worship services, but I became uncomfortable with the way adults interpreted the story. Adults wanted the story to mean that children should be quiet and listen to authority figures. I tried to frame the story so that it became clear that it applied to adults as well: I would make the Scholar be the same age as I, and at the end of the story I would say that I felt more like the Scholar than the Zen Master. I began to tell the story as way to demonstrate the importance of meditation and of emptying one’s mind. But no matter how I told the story, the Scholar always came off looking like an idiot, and adults kept interpreting it as a story that was meant to tell children to be quiet and listen.

Then I read a dharma talk by Master Sheng-yen (1931- ), who tells the story of how one of his Zen masters, Xu Yun, acheived enlightenment. Xu Yun was holding a cup into which someone else was pouring tea. By mistake, the other person spilled some tea onto Xu Yun’s hand, he dropped the cup, and upon hearing it shatter he acheived enlightenment. Master Sheng-yen says that just as the cup shatters, the mind must shatter to become no-mind. By the way, Master Sheng-yen is a university professor and scholar as well as a Zen master, demonstrating that enlightenment and learning are not mutually exclusive.

Having the cup shatter seemed a much better ending to the story, so I retold the Nan-in story with this new ending. Of course, now it is no longer a Zen story, it is my story with Zen trappings.