Raising children can be a challenge. My wife and I have three sons, and there have been times when their behavior has been entertaining for others but exasperating for us as parents. Our third son is still a baby, but before we know it, he will be crawling, then walking, then running, then talking and making animal sounds. If he is anything like his big brothers, he will do all these things in the middle of Sunday service. I once overheard a conversation between a temple member who attended service most Sundays and her daughter, who rarely came to the temple. The temple-going mother said, “You should come to service more often. It’s fun to see what mischief Sensei’s son is going to get into next.” When she noticed me standing within earshot, she hastily added, “I mean you should come to service to hear Sensei’s Dharma talk.”
A few years ago, when one of our older sons was at the height of his “terrific twos,” he was thoroughly enjoying himself crawling around under the pews during the Hanamatsuri Service. He was having so much fun playing cat-and-mouse with my wife, who was desperately trying to contain his antics, that he scurried off under the pews until he popped out from under the first row and stood grinning back at my wife from the floor right in front of the podium where our guest speaker was delivering the Hanamatsuri Dharma Talk. The instant my wife moved to get up from her seat to retrieve him, he gleefully dove under the table upon which the Hanamido floral shrine sat at the front of the Hondo. The table was completely covered from front to back with carefully arranged potted plants to evoke the luxuriant Lumbini’s Garden in which baby Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was born. The front of the table was covered with a large sheet of white paper, so no-one but me could see my son as he sat happily in an enclosed little space beneath the Hanamido.
Our guest speaker that Sunday was a senior retired minister who carried on with his talk unperturbed. When I glanced out at the Sangha hoping no-one had noticed, I could immediately identify which members had seen my son crawl under the Hanamido table because they were intently watching the floral shrine with facial expressions that ranged from seriously concerned to thoroughly amused. I sat in my usual seat dreading catastrophe until my wife saved the day by deftly extracting my son from beneath the Hanamido. It was one of those moments of public embarrassment that, as a parent, one hopes will soon be forgotten. However, in a recent conversation a temple member delightedly recounted the episode in colorful detail. She concluded by saying, “It warmed my heart to see that our temple is a place where children are allowed to be children.”
Last month following our Hanamatsuri service, we enjoyed our usual program of songs and skits by the Dharma School students. Our preschool and kindergarten class contributed a heartwarming rendition of the classic children’s gatha, “Buddha Loves You.” Each verse of the gatha features a cute little animal doing its cute and charming thing, complete with hand motions for little birds flying, pussy cats crying, little pups running and little fish swimming. The verses conclude with the refrain “Buddha loves you little bird/pussy cat/etc.” All the animals in the gatha are docile, well-behaved and endearing.
The preschool and kindergarten class took the stage dressed in adorable costumes, such as little birds and little pups. The little fish costumes struck me as somewhat unusual until we reached the last verse of the gatha and the children joyfully sang out, “Swim, swim, little shark, Buddha loves you little shark”—punctuated not with the sweet puckering mouths of little fish, but rather with the big chomping hand motions of a hungry shark. One of my sons happened to be one of the little sharks, and after the performance he proudly announced to me that he and his classmate had come up with the idea for the little sharks. I was duly impressed with the creativity of the students, but also filled with gratitude to our open-hearted Dharma school teachers who remind us that Amida Buddha’s compassion embraces all the hungry little sharks and even welcomes the sweet little fish.
Namo Amida Butsu