A Dharma Doorway

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

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Children have been by far my best teachers.  Jesus said that if we can learn to have the mind of a child, then we will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The child’s mind is open, receptive, and sincerely curious about life.  When sitting zazen, Dai-En Roshi would encourage us to sit with “kindergarten mind,” a phrase she received from her teacher, Aoyama Roshi.

Upon leaving Japan as a teacher of English, I had a plan to enter graduate school and to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theology.  I knew within the first few weeks of study that I was in the wrong place.  I felt the need to be working, earning money, and experiencing life, and not thinking about it.  I dropped out of graduate school and began working as a substitute teacher for the West Contra Costa School District in California.  I was considering becoming a full-time elementary school teacher at that time.

I found substitute teaching exciting because I did not know where I would be going next, or what kind of children I would be teaching.  Some of the classes were wonderful, and others were absolutely dreadful.  I enjoyed the younger kids much more than the adolescent children.

At the beginning of the summer I returned to the east coast to live with my parents in Maryland.  My sister-n-law, Lois, helped me to find full-time work as a teacher in a Catholic school that served children with autism.  The work was not bad, but the opportunity arrived for me to work as a 5th grade teacher at another Catholic school in the area.  Because I had not yet made a signed commitment to the first school, I abruptly left it to teach at the other school.  I later regretted this move because I realized that how I leave one job effects how I enter another job.

I was unprepared to take on two classes of 30 children ten years of age.  As much as children can be looked to as examples for developing curiosity, their egos are in full swing.  I realized the need, personally, when working with kids, to be able to recognize my own ego, my attachments and aversions, and to be able to drop ego identification frequently.  The training in Zen I had done up to that point was not sufficient in addressing this need.  I had, after all, spent little time actually training with a Zen teacher, or living in a monastery.  The intellectual foundation for practice had been laid by my academic training, but it did not address the down-to-earth practice that I needed to do.

For the five months that I taught the Catholic school children, I came home exhausted everyday.  I struggled with holding their attention and getting them to do and behave the way I wanted them to.  Yet I was teaching them material from religion and biology, all things I loved.  I was not able to convey my love for these subjects in a way that justified my continuation in this work.  I spent what I later determined to be too much time disciplining children, and not nearly enough time affirming them.  This lesson came at a great price, and thanks to practicing Vipassana with Tara Brach’s meditation group at a Unitarian Universalist church near Washington DC once a week.  Because I felt so much better, so restored, after practicing with this group, I made it a point, no matter what, to attend her class every week.

One of the weeks that I attended, Tara had us split off into smaller groups to talk about a Dharma subject.  I shared my frustration in working with the children and I received very helpful feedback from my group.  I realized that I might not be doing the kids any favors by my demonstrations of anger towards those who were misbehaving.  I bought a Dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein that addressed the mental component “fear,” and ways of working with it.

I saw a direct connection between my anger towards misbehaving children, and my own fears of being inadequate to actually directing and having compassion toward children.  Determined not to act from a place of anger or fear anymore, I came into the classroom Monday morning with the goal of remaining calm and looking at my own ego attachments in the process of working through my fears. 

This worked well for my first class, albeit in a strange way.  I decided not to say anything to this class until I could be calm and feel at peace.  I waited for their attention without saying a word.  I did not realize that I would be waiting for a full 25 minutes to do this, and probably most teachers would not have this patience.  As I continued to calm myself, looking at my ego, and my desire to control the kids, the children were busy talking amongst themselves waiting for me to “lose it,” as I had usually done at this time.  But I was determined to change, even if that meant losing my job.

I did not care at this point, if I lost my job or not.  I was too exhausted to continue teaching in the way that I had been, and felt that if I can not change, then perhaps I should not be working as a teacher.  I had nothing to lose in remaining silent and, in effect, waiting for their attention. 

After 25 minutes of me standing in front of the class, still, calm, and not speaking, all of the children, to a tee, noticed that I was waiting for them.  They had been expecting me to discipline them as I had been ineffectively doing.  I managed to trick them by not behaving in my usual pattern.  They noticed the change and all of them stopped speaking and began looking at me in wonder.  The silence was palpable.  The kids were wondering, “is he going to reprimand us?”  I could see it on their faces.  They were anticipating my disciplinarian action.

Instead, I began with the lesson, asking them to take out their books and turn to a certain page.  They seemed somewhat disappointed and perplexed not to see more drama on my part.  But they paid marvelous attention during the last part of the period, attending to their work, without complaint or question.  It was beautiful.  I could not have asked for a better outcome.  I had found the secret to working with kids: patience with myself.

I decided to use the same strategy for the next class.  I had high hopes.  Anxiety was running through my veins with the same kind of anticipation that accompanied me before a swim a race.  I did not realize, however, that the previous class would tell the children in the next class about my plans.  This class was a different kind of beast all together.  I waited even longer, almost 45 minutes, without saying a thing, and nothing of note happened other than the kids continuing to talk without giving me an ounce of their attention.  One child, in fact, decided to leave the class at this time to let the principal of the school know what I was doing. 

Upon reflection, I could see how my own karma was ripening.  I had lost the trust of these children long ago.  They had not forgiven or forgotten how I had been treating them, and they seemed determined in making me pay for my mistakes.  I was now beginning to feel like the children I had sent to the principal’s office for punishment.  The only difference was that instead of me going to the principal, the principal was coming to me.

I felt as if I had completely failed in my objectives.  My peace of mind was nowhere to be found as I contemplated what to do next.  What would the principal say about this?  What would he think about me?  How can I explain myself?  I felt very stuck.

The principal entered the classroom and sat down in one of the desks in the middle of the room.  The whole class was quiet.  I picked up on their quiet and began the lesson as if nothing prior had happened.  Somewhat defeated, acting as though I planned all of this, but on another level knowing something was wrong, I walked through the rest of the day wondering what would be the result of all this, and how to explain my actions.

It dawned on me that I needed, rather than punishing the “bad” kids, to reward the “good” kids.  Tuesday of the same week I instituted a reward system where I gave tickets to the kids who were, “caught being good.”  They could cash in the tickets for prizes that were to be determined.  I found, hands down, that this had more consistent results then my experiments with silence.  I was now actively seeking out the children that were behaving, and actively ignoring the kids that were being rude.  This shift of focus was noticed by the children.  They changed.  Even the “bad” kids began to consider how they could be, “caught being good.”

I felt that, thanks to my experiments with silence, I was able to see the need and implementation of a reward system.  I had effectively taken control over this class.  It took me a grueling five months of struggle with myself to come to this place, but I did it.  The one thing that was worrying me, however, was the principal.  Since that fateful day when he had come into my class I had not heard a word from him.

Friday afternoon of that week he called me into his office.  It was during a break before my last class.  The principal asked me to resign.  He told me that he had found my replacement, and that the incident that Monday morning convinced him I was unable to control the class. 

I was speechless.  I did not know how to respond.  I did not want to resign.  Why?!  I tried to explain feebly how I had finally gained control of the class.  It was too late though.  He asked me to tell the kids that I would be leaving after today.  That was the end of it.

Thrust into a maelstrom of confusion and anger I proceeded to return to my class.  I had about 15 minutes before the children would be arriving for their last period with me.  Not knowing exactly how to conduct the class, I hinted at my departure by talking about how all things change, and ended with a sincere prayer straight from my heart saying,  “Sometimes we feel lost and confused in this world.  It’s at these times that we can look to God and cry out, ‘God, help me.  What should I do?  Where should I go?’” 

The children knew what I was talking about.  They could not say it directly, but they knew.  Some looked at me quite seriously and understood that a big change was about to happen.  I did not need nor feel obliged to say more.  The only thought that came to mind after the prayer was to visit that teacher (Dai-En Roshi) up in Pennsylvania who was trying to start a Zen monastery.  What did I have to lose at this point?  I had no job, no girlfriend, and no children to take care of.  If I was going to study and practice Zen for real, this would be the time to do it.  I would learn what I had not learned while practicing by myself.  I would learn how to really practice and teach meditation.

What these children taught me was the importance of not trying to control anyone.  They showed me how controlling I was, they shined back to me my own anger and delusion.  They taught me, too, that I needed to learn how to control myself.  Three years of meditating mostly on my own was insufficient to work through these issues.  I needed a teacher to work with at this point, to show me how to meditate, and to show me how a teacher conducts him/herself in daily activities.  Though the way I was treated by the principal reflected his own weaknesses, what turned out to be a loss in this world enabled me to more fully study, practice and eventually teach the Dharma.  One Dharma gate had closed and another Dharma gate had opened.

Where is my mind?

In our culture there is a major split between mind and body.  Generally speaking, the body gets treated one way and the mind another.  We go to a gym to develop our body.  We go to a classroom to develop our mind.  The body is considered physical: muscle, bones, ligaments, organs.  The mind is generally located in the head, associated with thoughts, and considered superior to the body.  But these two things – mind and body – are not separate, and treating them that way has created a dislocation between our thoughts and reality.

Breath brings body and mind back together so our thoughts are more in alignment with reality.  We can learn a lot about the body and mind from Zen Buddhism.  In Buddhism, breath is referred to as the royal road connecting mind and body.  According to Zen, there is no body separate from mind, and mind is not located only in the head.  When someone from Japan says, “I’m thinking,” they point to their heart.  So where is our mind?

One perspective – the teachings of Totality as found in the Flower Ornament Sutra – states that mind is in every cell of the body.  Every cell of your body carries memory.  This is why therapy that is based only on changing thinking patterns is often not enough for trauma patients or victims of abuse and violence.  The violence to which a person is exposed is carried in the muscles in addition to his or her thoughts and consciousness.  Asanas are powerful because they can, if done with compassion, help someone learn ways to gently hold the pain they are experiencing, rather than repressing it in  a self-destructive way, or expressing it in an other-destructive way.

Filling the body with breath and then releasing the breath through asana practice is a way to touch the pain within us and to acknowledge its presence in a loving way.  It does not guarantee the ending of or releasing of that pain, though much of the pain we hold on to is not caused by the pain itself but by the very fear of having or experiencing that pain.  So in touching the pain with our awareness we greatly reduce its intensity.

In Buddhism we are admonished to practice the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma.  In other words, practice without looking for the benefits – just practice.  Asana practice is also like this.  Just do the asanas without hoping for anything at all.  At the same time, I have found it inspiring to know the great benefits that come from meditating and yoga – reducing stress and chronic pain, boosting the immune system, coping with painful life events, working with negative emotions, improving concentration, etc – and they help me to keep at it.

In Zen practice we first use the breath to regulate mind and body.  We calm the body and mind with the breath.  This is the first half of the practice.  Once calm, we can begin looking into how everything is connected to everything else.  This is the second half of the practice.  The breath is used to calm us down so that we can gain insight into Buddhist teachings on emptiness, the teaching that there is no separate self that exists apart from anything else.