I begin a typical day at the temple with a short service chanting in the Hondo. More often than not, I conduct this service by myself. However, for five days at the end of July, I was delighted to be joined by ten young Dharma friends from the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Summer Terakoya Program. Prior to the modernization of the educational system in the late 1800’s, one of the most important functions of Buddhist temples in Japanese towns and villages was to provide primary education for local children. One might say that the first elementary schools in Japan were these temple schools called terakoya. Starting on Monday, July 27, and concluding on Friday, July 31, the Summer Terakoya Program was a new program at our temple this year, in which ten participants from first through ninth grades started each morning at 9:00 a.m. with a short service in the main temple hall.
After forming an orderly line in front of the Dharma School classrooms, we walked mindfully down South Claremont Street, paying close attention to all the sounds around us as we made our way to the main entrance of the temple. Pausing to join our hands in gassho and bow before the statue of Shinran Shonin in the entryway, we entered the main hall, where we offered incense, chanted Juseige and had a Dharma talk about the theme for that day. Each day a theme was chosen based on aspects of the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering that was taught by Sakyamuni Buddha during his first sermon. On Monday our theme was Right View; on Tuesday, Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action; on Wednesday, Right Livelihood; on Thursday, Right Effort; and on Friday, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Following morning service in the Hondo, we embarked on a day of fun and educational activities that included art projects, games, listening to stories read by Sangha volunteers, Japanese tea ceremony, Taiko drumming, outdoor bento lunches, Obon dancing, and a field trip to the Japanese Garden in San Mateo’s Central Park. Each day concluded with a closing circle time in which the students shared their thoughts and feelings about what they had learned that day.
On Friday, our families joined us for a closing ceremony and an art show showcasing participants’ creations from throughout the week. If you had a chance to admire the artworks on display in the Social Hall, perhaps you noticed that each participant’s work was stamped with a traditional Japanese-style seal that was created as their first Summer Terakoya art project.
On Monday morning, we began the week by talking about Right View and how the Buddha’s teachings help us recognize that our lives are deeply connected with the lives of our friends, family and community. If we aspire to practice Right View, we must first think about how we see ourselves. In carving their own personal seal, each student chose a word or image that they felt represented themselves, such as their name or a favorite word written in Japanese. In order to create their seal, they had to carve a mirror image of what they wanted the stamp to look like when it was used. In effect, they had to learn to write their own names backwards in order to create a true expression of themselves.
As the participants in the Terakoya program learned, teachings of the Buddha often challenge us to see our lives from a new perspective. Learning to see from the Buddha’s point of view, we may come to realize that our view of ourselves and our world has been completely backwards. Growing up in an increasingly competitive society, our children may at times feel encouraged to focus on advancing their own interests and to view their peers as rivals. During the five days of the Summer Terakoya program, I saw my young Dharma friends helping each other with art projects and working together to make sure that everyone had an enjoyable and enriching experience. I believe that by the end of their week at our Terakoya, each participant had in some way come to a clearer understanding of themselves. As we begin a new school year, I look forward to the beautiful impression they will leave on their families, friends and schools.
Namo Amida Butsu