Laurie teaches Ethics, U.S. History, World History and English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Developing Virtue Girls School in Talmage. She also teaches ESL and basic computer skills to Spanish speakers at Mendocino College. She likes to study Spanish and plans to live and teach in Puebla, Mexico. She lives in Ukiah with her husband Raul and son Nathan.
I teach ethics once a week in the high school at Developing Virtue Girls School at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. When I started teaching ethics, I had to figure out what that meant to me. I asked myself who had impressed me in the field of morals when I was a university student in psychology. I came up with Lawrence Kohlberg, who had done a moral study of white males in the 1960s— presenting the same group with different dilemmas: as ten-year-olds, as teenagers and as grown men. From this study, he concluded that moral development could be described in seven stages. At the first level, a person would do the right thing because of the fear of getting caught doing the wrong thing. They would obey the law or institution or authority figure. At a little higher level, they started to do good because they didn't want to harm others. Then at the highest level, people might do what they believed was right, even if that meant breaking the law or risking their own life. Examples might be Cesar Chavez or Mahatma Gandhi.
After we discussed these levels in class, I presented the girls with the Heinz dilemma. This is a hypothetical situation where a man's wife is dying of cancer and the pharmacist who has the only medicine to cure her is charging an inflated price. The husband can't get the money for the medicine no matter what he does. What should he do? There are many ideas about this, but in the higher level of reasoning— even though stealing is wrong— he would steal the medicine to save his wife. We looked at the choices from the perspective of the man and of the pharmacist. Was the pharmacist morally wrong to be greedy?
Another dilemma is called the lifeboat dilemma. A ship sinks and there is only enough room in the lifeboat for a certain number of people. I described some fictitious characters, and the girls had to decide who gets to go on the boat: a single mom and her little girl, a single mom with a disabled daughter, an alcoholic but skilled doctor, a very old woman who is a very good herbalist, and a young man who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio, etc. Some of the girls wanted to throw the doctor overboard but they wanted to save Leonardo. Attractiveness won over usefulness for some. Leonardo had more value than people with problems.
When some of the girls couldn't throw anyone overboard, this brought up the work of another psychologist named Carol Gilligan who realized, years after Kohlberg, that we didn't have any profiles for the moral reasoning of women. She found that when women deal with dilemmas, they think more cooperatively about what is good for the whole group. They think, "There has to be a way for everyone to fit on this lifeboat so we don't have to throw anyone overboard. This isn't an option." Women, as caregivers, have more of a sense of interconnectedness, because traditionally they have family concerns. They aren't into war because they know that a young man who is killed is someone else's kid. This is classic. The girls liked knowing that they responded the way women usually do.
We looked at the lives of certain people who are outstanding and saw the excellent video series on the civil rights movement called "Eyes on the Prize," showing life in the South in the late fifties and early sixties. In addition to discussing the philosophical aspects, I wanted my class to be more active. We had looked at civil disobedience in my U.S. History class earlier and had studied people like Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks.
We had also studied the United Farm Workers and the biography of Caesar Chavez. This was particularly meaningful to a Latino girl in the class whose family had been migrant farmers. Our high school girls explained to the junior high girls the terms "labor unions," "strikes" and "negotiations." The older group wrote down life situations for the younger girls, such as being a woman with three kids, your rent is $350, and so on. We set up three or four fictitious wineries and assigned girls as their owners. The workers went from one to the other trying to get higher wages, and then naturally came together to organize, strike and then negotiate. The role playing got quite heated. During P.E. class after that, one of the girls almost slugged another girl. The P.E. teacher wanted to know what I had done with the girls in the ethics class. We talked about the fact that if people felt like being violent to each other in class, can you imagine how it is in real life? We discussed how difficult nonviolent resistance is.
When we shifted from politics to service, the girls wanted to do service and so we decided to go to Plowshares to cook a meal. I told them, "It is easy to feel compassion toward cute little kids, but you are going to be giving food to heroin addicts and gruff-looking people. Check with yourself. Is that going to change how you feel?" We got to Plowshares too late to cook for that day, but we made a vegetable salad and fruit salad for that afternoon. The vegetarian chili we made was served on another day. Afterwards we cleaned for an hour. This made us realize how much work the regular volunteers do. We were tired when we left, and it is a thankless job.
When the class came back to school, the girls had a flood of emotions to deal with. We found articles on the Internet about poverty in America and myths about the homeless. They had an assignment to write a page summarizing some of this information and another page concerning their feelings about Plowshares. These papers expressed a range of feelings and also the attitudes and feelings of their families. Some thought homeless people are lazy, but the Latino girl brought in the perspective that Mexican people are sometimes homeless, but they are not lazy. Coming over the border, they want to work, but often don't have opportunities. We talked about the civil rights movement and the barriers of race and disabilities. We talked about drugs— methamphetamine and heroin— and alcoholism. We talked about how in Buddhist teachings, we are lucky to be here and to have a precious human life. You are not supposed to abuse your body, because this lessens your opportunity to function here. We still have a lot more to talk about. Maybe we will go and talk to drug rehabilitation professionals.
The girls observed that the people they served at Plowshares didn't seem friendly or grateful. This led us to talk about how the people might have felt to have a group of girls— who are beautiful in heart— serve them food. One of the girls said, "Maybe they were embarrassed." I asked, "Who especially was rude to you?" They said, "The young moms with kids." We talked about how you end up being in poverty as a young woman with children.
This brought up the topic of Abraham Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs. Maslow was a psychologist who had survived the Nazi concentration camps. He talked about how at the most basic survival level, people are only concerned with their basic needs for food and water. If you are a street person concerned with that level of survival, you don't have time to enjoy life and to stimulate yourself intellectually or spiritually— especially if you have children. On the next level, we have a need to develop relationships with family and loved ones and to have a sense of belonging. The theory is that once all your needs are met, you can function better and more as a whole. His last level was self-actualization. These are people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein who can achieve the most and serve others as well because their other needs are met.
After Plowshares, I asked the girls three questions: Who are the poor? How did they get that way? Whose responsibility are they? We even brought in a quote about responsibility from the pop radio psychologist Doctor Laura.
We discussed Laura's proposal that life is more than having fun or acquiring material things. The heart of life has to do with how we conduct ourselves and our relationships with others. What is our responsibility to others? If we want our life to be good, our conduct has to be good.
Our class is also talking about going to the Food Bank to pack and hand out food, to a hospital, and to other service places in the community. On our first field trip, we went to the home of a former Peace Corps volunteer, and packed food and clothing to be taken to Honduras after the hurricane by the woman and her husband. This made everyone feel really good. Dr. Laura's three Cs are Conscience, Courage, and Character.
Some of the girls in this class live in town and some live in dorms at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. They represent many cultures and places of origin— Mexico, Jordan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and the United States. Buddhists believe that we are here because we have karmas to work out. We choose our parents and our life situations according to what we need to learn.
In each lifetime we learn a whole lot, but we also accumulate more karma. What is left over has to be brought to the next life so we come back over and over again. Eventually, we cease to be deluded and become enlightened Buddhas— exhausting our karmas. Then when we die, in our final life, we join the Bodhisattvas who want to help the beings who are still here. It is in our best interest to do this, because we are all in this together. Every day the people at the city of 10,000 Buddhas do the Great Compassion Mantra. They are doing this for everyone on earth and for the sake of all living beings.
One time when there was clear-cutting going on in the county, I told one of the nuns that the protestors were trying to protect the redwoods. She said, "Why don't you call the police?" She thought that the police would protect the protestors. I said, "No, the police arrest the protestors." She couldn't understand that, so that day she did the Great Compassion Mantra for the trees. That week the cutting stopped.
Reprinted from the Spring 1999 Sojourn Magazine
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