Dharma Rain - Dharma School Manual
Description of Sunday Program
High School Group
By high school, almost all of the dharma school students have been given
the option of not attending by their parents. Nonetheless, the high school
group is thriving, probably for the same reason that youth groups are
popular at churches and temples everywhere. The high schoolers provide
a positive peer group for each other, and dharma school becomes a place
where they feel safe, relaxed and appreciated. Most of the youth agree
that they feel more “like themselves” at dharma school than
almost anywhere else. The importance of this in their often stressful
and confusing lives cannot be overestimated. The youth describe the immense
difference between their school and work environments and the Zen Center
environment: when the kids are at the Zen Center, they know they are unconditionally
accepted. It doesn’t matter how they dress, what sports they play,
how their grades are, or who they hang out with. The rule in the group
is confidentiality except in the cases where health and safety are in
question (when it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to inform
parents or guardians). Because of this, dharma school also provides a
place to rest from and reflect on home life. Though they generally come
from different schools and areas, the high schoolers frequently develop
friendships with each other outside of the dharma school setting.
Providing this positive and supportive environment for the high schoolers
may sound simple, but it is not. Though the youth themselves do much of
the work and provide the primary attractive force for each other, they do
this within a carefully constructed and monitored “container.” The
structural elements of this container include a series of dynamically balanced
opposites: real choices and responsibility balanced with close and personal
adult presence; unconditional acceptance balanced with clear expectations
for moral and respectful behavior while at the Zen Center (or camp); affirmation
for who they are — just as they are — balanced with challenges
and suggestions for higher aspirations; spontaneous and organic discussions
and activities balanced with formal and structured ones; and pure fun balanced
with substance. To make the group thrive, the teachers need to be attentive
and responsive to what is needed in any situation. Left alone, the group
will usually be naturally drawn toward the free, accepting, affirming, unstructured
and fun, but over time the youth miss some of the structure, challenge and
substance and often don’t know how to put these elements back into
the mix. That is what the adults are for. At times, the teacher’s
most important role is to be a drag, a nag, a bore or a preacher. At those
times, the role of the youth is to sigh and resist but to go along and (usually)
be glad they did in the end. At other times, within appropriate boundaries,
the adults relax, goof around and self-disclose. At those times the youth
find it easier to relate to and understand their teachers, and a genuine
affection and mutual respect results.
On a typical dharma school Sunday, the high schoolers meet separately.
Even though they enjoy singing with the other groups, they skip that activity
in the interest of time. The group meditates in the classroom for about
15-20 minutes, seated on cushions and facing the center. One student keeps
time and signals the beginning and end of meditation with a bell. Meditation
is rarely an activity that the youth look forward to, but most admit that
it makes them feel more relaxed and clear. The ritual of meditation not
only creates a habit energy within the youth that may help them later,
sets the tone for the day’s discussion and activity.
After meditation the group typically does some kind of check-in, much
like the middle school group. In fact, many of the high schoolers will
years in the middle school group becoming familiar with this kind of activity,
so they are usually very comfortable with it. Kids and teachers settle in
a circle in armchairs, on the floor and on couches, and have tea, cocoa
and cookies. The level of self-disclosure in these check-ins is generally
fairly superficial, having mostly to do with recent life events in school
and interactions with family and friends. Teachers may ask a few leading
questions, but never put a kid on the spot or try to draw out more information
than what they are freely offering. This is in part because there are other
times and venues where the high schoolers will spontaneously open up more
and discuss issues of serious concern to them. These venues include the
Fusatsu ceremony which is done
in the evening at overnights or at camp, and the peer group without adults
around (again, primarily during overnights and at camp). However, if teachers
manage to select a topic or activity for the day that really engages the
high schoolers, serious and/or personal issues may emerge within the course
of the day’s discussion.
The subject matter of high school group discussions and activities is chosen
on a class-by-class basis. The teachers — always one male and one
female — discuss a plan together and make choices based on the current
flavor and interest of the group. The inclusion of perspectives of the two
genders in this choice is essential, and ensures that topics and activities
address the needs of a range of personality types, energies and learning
styles. Unless one teacher is training or mentoring the other, leadership
alternates between the genders to provide role models for all of the youth.
High school group (smiling and goofing around at the
High school group subject matter is rarely explicitly Buddhist and never
academic. The kids have made it clear that they have very little interest
in “learning about Buddhism” in any formal sense. This is not
due to any marked antipathy toward Buddhism, because most of the students
actually identify themselves as Buddhist even in non-Buddhist settings like
school, despite the fact that it sometimes causes them to stand out or get
faced with difficult questions or stereotypes. Rather, the high schoolers
spend an enormous amount of time every week in school or doing homework,
and the last thing they feel like doing is listening to another lecture
or being required to memorize another list. Subsequently it is almost impossible
to get the youth to do any reading or prep outside of class time, even about
topics that interest them. Our working theory is that the students will
investigate Buddhist teachings and practice later in life if they feel the
need and interest — especially if they had a positive experience in
Dharma school meets only twice a month and individuals will often miss classes,
so it becomes essential that each class become a “stand-alone” experience.
In many ways this is actually a beneficial constraint on the teachers. It
requires them to be less abstract in what they present, and keeps them from
attempts to eagerly communicate to the high schoolers the large amount of
Buddhist material they think would be good for the teens. The 45 minutes
to an hour of formal “class” time with the youth once or twice
a month is precious and needs to get right to the point. Realistically,
volunteer teachers also have limited time to prepare material for class,
so it works well for them to speak from their own experience and try to
engage the youth in meaningful dialogue, minimizing hand-outs and references.
Despite the relatively small amount of explicit Buddhist teaching in the
high school meetings, there are a number of essential and deeply Buddhist
messages that are conveyed. These messages are not lessons or dogmas that
the youth are encouraged to accept. Rather, they are part of a subtle but
pervasive worldview with which the group approaches all topics and activities.
First, teachers emphasize the concept of buddha-nature (usually without
calling it by that name): each and every individual is originally pure and
selfless, and has a vast potential for wisdom, compassion and skillfulness.
The only reason we often don’t have a sense of our own buddha-nature
or that of others (or act like buddhas, who are “awakened” beings)
is because of ignorance and habits patterns that obscure who we really are.
Second, teachers emphasize the concept of the life-long spiritual quest
or process. Shakyamuni is offered as a prime example, but teachers also
actively model this through sharing their own experience and perspectives.
The high schoolers are challenged to deeply question themselves and the
world around them, and to see difficulties as opportunities to grow in generosity,
acceptance, patience, compassion, equanimity and wisdom. To make the process
of questioning and examination real, teachers do not censor disagreements
or skepticism about what Buddhism teaches. Instead, the adults operate with
a sense of trust that as long as a student stays honest with him or herself,
his or her spiritual process will unfold in a beneficial way.
Finally, teachers work with the high schoolers where they are: in the process
of learning about and discovering themselves. Zen master Dogen stated that
to study Buddhism was to study the self, to study the self was to forget
the self, and to forget the self was to be enlightened by the myriad things.
With teenagers we have found it ineffective to introduce the concept of
forgetting or letting go of the “small” self or ego; they are
still avidly studying the self — in one way or another — and
(hopefully) forming a healthy ego. With adults we have found that those
who did not complete this process when they were younger have to finish
it (to the extent that it is ever finished), often with the aid of therapy,
before they can embrace the teachings of letting go of self. Therefore,
teachers do not jeopardize the high schoolers’ process of growth by
throwing out gloomy pronouncements about how they will sooner or later have
to see through the ephemeral and shallow nature of the small self, or recognize
that love and friends and dreams offer no permanent refuge. Nor do they
hold such gloomy perspectives internally while condescendingly encouraging
the youth to enjoy themselves while they still can. The group is led based
on the sincere belief that fully appreciating and understanding the “small” self
is essential to spiritual practice, and wholeheartedly embracing it does
not in any way obstruct the process of letting go.
The actual topics of high school group discussions and activities have
been varied, and generally center around a challenging and open-ended
like, “What does it mean to ‘really’ be yourself?” In
response to that question, for example, the high schoolers pointed out that
we are different selves in different situations, and the less we feel we
have to hide in a given situation, the better and more accepted we feel.
A topic like this can be simply introduced, or flow from a reading, an activity
or a short questionnaire. Once the group started a discussion of attitudes
toward death by having each student bring in a photo of someone they personally
knew who had died and telling the group about them. The teachers also shared
a story, and in the process were able to bring in some of Buddhist perspectives
on death and dying. A newspaper article on the recent death of Pope John
Paul II prompted a discussion about the respect people felt for him and
about how it felt to be Buddhist in a predominantly Christian culture. The
teachers start out with a clear idea of what direction the discussion can
be taken if it starts to falter or get shallow or irrelevant, but we easily
let go of that direction if the students find a different direction that
One year the high school group worked their way through the book Dharma
Punx, Noah Levine’s gritty autobiography describing his descent into
drug addiction and crime as a teenager. It chronicles his eventual return
to a healthy and productive life through working the twelve steps and starting
Buddhist practice. The first part of the book — the part about a kid
their own age that was full of conflict, excitement and swear words — kept
the high schoolers eagerly reading the book outside of class. Some lost
interest after Noah got into recovery (which was the climax of the book),
but reading aloud from the book in class stimulated some juicy discussions.
Noah Levine then came and visited the high school class at the end of the
year and they got to ask him questions and admire his plentiful tattoos.
It is often useful to introduce sensitive topics like drug use, sex, lying,
peer pressure and criminal activity somewhat indirectly — for example,
by discussing the behavior of a character in book or imaginary scenario.
The youth can then state their opinions and listen to their peers and teachers
without having to give details about their own activities (which could later
be reported to parents). J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye promised
to be a similar thread for discussion, but most of the kids were simply
too busy with school work to spend time reading it outside of class.
Vital to the high school program are the monthly overnights and camp.
Meeting for an hour or two twice a month does not give the youth enough
time to get to know each other and build a sense of community.
We added the overnights many years ago, and find that the kids are willing
and able to commit Saturday nights once a month to come to these events.