Led by vipassana teacher Christina Feldman, children and adults have met at the Insight Meditation Society every summer for the last thirteen years for a week of exploring family dharma. Over time a unique sangha has developed, with many children literally growing up in the program. This year I was sent out to IMS to learn what I could for use in an emerging children’s program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
From the moment I walked into the IMS meditation hall and saw the children’s altar set up especially for the Family Course, I regretted that I hadn’t taken Teddy with me. But at the last moment I’d left him behind, self-conscious about traveling cross-continent with a teddy bear in my bag. Too bad: he would have been in his element.
On the center of the children’s altar, in the middle of the meditation hall, sat Shakyamuni Buddha and Curious George. George was dressed in a monk’s brown robe, his soft arm around Shakyamuni’s shoulder; his broad red mouth and mischievous twinkle seemed a perfect counterpoint to Shakyamuni’s serenity. Together George and Shakyamuni were ready to play. And play they did for the next week, with the fifty children and seventy adults who attended the course.
When I returned home, buoyed from my experience at IMS, Teddy asked me with his sad, dark eyes to tell him about what he’d missed. Here’s what I said:
Picture several dozen children of all ages crowded around a low table. Christina is walking among them, bending to light one candle after another, speaking a lovingkindness meditation as she goes: “Think of the many people in the world who need food, just as you do, who need shelter, and clothes. Think of the homeless people on the streets of the United States. Think of the children who’ve lost their parents in wars. Think of those who need to be loved, just as you are loved. With the light from these candles let’s send our good wishes out to them.” And then, with the last candle lit, she says, “May all beings be at peace with themselves. May all beings be at peace with each other. May all beings be at peace.” Listen: can you hear the children repeating after her, sending their voices out into the universe?
Now, Teddy, look at the same scene for a moment from Curious George’s point of view. You know how wiggly he is, how impatient with stillness and sanctity. As he looks with his button eyes at the children crowding around him, he sees in their hearts the last lingering waves of an afternoon of swimming at Queen Lake; he sees their thoughts of supper and tofu burgers, and, as the sun sinks low, the promise of a sandpile or a baseball game on the front lawn. He looks into their moods, swinging from mad to sad to glad, all in the lighting of a candle.
Now look through the eyes of Shakyamuni. Gazing into the hearts of the children, he sees their capacity for magic. He sees how for them a candle is a bright light in a universe of hunger and cold, anger, fear and loss. And he sees how they believe that their well-wishing may truly bring wellbeing for others.
From the way Teddy looked at me, his head to one side, his paws folded, I could tell that this secondhand report just didn’t cut it. He wanted to be at the Family Course himself. “OK, OK, I’ll take you next year.” But Teddy, like any child of the present, wouldn’t be put off to future time. He wanted to be there now. Nothing other than a good story would do.
One night next summer you and Curious George and Shakyamuni sit up late after everyone has gone to bed. Pooling together your superpowers, you relive the many lives of the day, as Buddhas remember their many lives over the eons. You chase after softballs and footballs, bounce basketballs and volleyballs. You walk around ponds, spying the eyes of frogs peeking out from under lily pads. You eat peanut butter and apple snacks. You weave baskets, make altars in the woods with pine cones and pebbles. You listen to stories, some of which you understand and some of which pass over you like clouds in the sky. You watch a group of kids playing, and wish you could join them.
The next moment, your loneliness forgotten, you are caught in a game of “Coyotes and Rabbits,” with everyone running every which way. In that same game of tag, you are now twelve years old, a lover in training, trying your legs in the chase. You are a parent watching her toddler run off with “uncles” and “aunts” and “grandparents,” older “brothers” and “sisters,” and your heart is torn between protectiveness and letting go. Finally, you are a yogi, pausing in her walking meditation to hear the sounds of laughter and tears filter in through the walls of her room, and the clear eye of your witnessing is clouded with longing.
Now you come back to the moonlit room, blankets and cushions and meditation benches left in disarray. You put your paw around one shoulder of Shakyamuni, George puts his around the other, and together you pass into sleep in the compassionate lap of the Buddha.