You asked me to talk about some of my experiences with the school when it first started, so I'll try. I believe some of you have heard this before, so bear with me. When it first began it was actually this time of year. It was election time and Gold Mountain Monastery invited many local candidates come to the Monastery to speak to us about their platform, why they were running for office, and why we should vote for them. There was Carol Ruth Silver, a woman who was running for District Attorney at that time, and she had a six-year-old adopted son from Taiwan. After the forum was over, she asked us if we would be willing to start a school because she really wanted her son to learn Chinese since he had originally come from Taiwan. We said that, yes, we were interested in starting a school. She helped us get all the papers done since she was a lawyer herself. By March 1, we were ready to start. It really didn't take very long.
We began in the basement of what was the International Translation Institute. It was a very small place, but since we only had eight students, it was big enough. The youngest was four years old, the oldest was eleven.
At that time, I had no experience as an elementary school teacher. I had only taught nursery school, but because I was the one who really liked children, everybody asked me to be the teacher. It was difficult because most of the people at that time were left-home people. Having just left home, they really didn't have any interest in being with children, so they really didn't want to teach. The other problem was that I had another job outside. I taught at the nursery school in the morning. Then I would come home in the afternoon and teach. It was sometimes very difficult for the people who had to watch and teach the children in the morning. They had even less experience than I did.
I remember one time, I came back and they had lost the children in the park. There wasn't anywhere for the children to play, so we had to take them to the local park. I came home and they didn't know where any of the children were. They left them in the park. The kids ran off, and they didn't know what to do. A few weeks later, I came home and all the kids had gone on strike. They didn't like what the teachers were telling them to do, so they sat down on the ground and refused to study. The people who had been helping out and teaching got very disgusted and said that these children were just too naughty, and so they refused to teach anymore and quit. I was still pretty young at the time and I really didn't know what to do. I just went upstairs, sat in the Buddha Hall, and cried.
After a little while, the phone rang. Of course, it was the Venerable Master, wanting to know how things were going. I told him that nothing was going right, nobody wanted to help, and the kids wouldn't behave. I just didn't know what to do anymore. Shifu said to me, "Well, you can't just cry. That's not going to work. You have to think of a method. You've got to find ways to teach the kids." During the evening lecture, he called me up to the high seat. He had a whole bag full of prizes that he had put together. There were little toys for the kids, candy, and all kinds of sweet treats. He said, "You can't cry. You have to think of a method. Here's a method. When they behave, you give them a prize. The one who does the best gets a prize. When they do their lessons, they get a prize. You've got to think of ways to get them to behave well." Very gradually in this way, the Master taught me how to teach. These children were really quite amazing. They had a great deal of joy in studying the Dharma. We didn't force them to do any ceremonies at that point. Although they brought their own lunches, sometimes during their lessons, they would ask if they could go upstairs to do the meal offering with everyone, even though they didn't eat lunch with them. They were very interested in studying meditation and some of them even tried eating one meal a day and sleeping sitting up. They were all quite young. The oldest was only eleven! It was a very small group, but after a while, they got very enthusiastic about the Dharma.
Actually, I believe that first year, all the students took refuge with the Master on their own. They had to get their parents' permission before they were allowed to take refuge. It was very interesting. Shifu gave them Dharma names that were the seven precious gems from the
Amitabha Sutra, so there were Carnelian, Gold, Silver, Lapis Lazuli, etc. There was a little girl with the name Ananda and another little boy whose name was Joshua. In Chinese this sounds like Kashyapa. Shifu was very, very happy to have these young disciples.
When we held our first summer camp at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, originally the entire assembly was going to be moving here during the summer time, so I set up a summer program for the children to come here to study, posting advertisements and everything. At the last minute, everybody decided to stay in San Francisco. It ended up being just me and the children. Actually there was a left-home woman and a laywoman who later did leave the home life with us, but only these three adults and the children. We were missing all of Shifu's lectures which was very difficult for us since we had never missed lectures before. There were a few men at the Tathagata Monastery, but we didn't ever do anything together. We never saw them. There wasn't even an office at that point. There wasn't even the Buddha Hall where we're having lectures now.
We're more used to the hot summer now, but at that time, in the beginning of June of that particular year, it was over 100 degrees and continued that way all summer long. We were not at all used to the heat and we didn't have a car so we also couldn't go anywhere else. We had to think of expedient ways to do things. What we decided to do was to have lectures in the afternoon. We would come inside to have lectures in the afternoon when it was hot and in the evening after ceremony, we would let the children go out and play when it was cool, holding evening activities outside. The Master gave us a job, and that was to feed the birds. Every evening after evening ceremony, we would recite the Great Compassion Mantra over the birdseed and sprinkle it outside. That was the children's job. We would recite the mantra over the birdseed and feed the birds.
When I was really having a difficult time getting people to teach, Shifu came up to visit and said that he had time and he would come and teach the children. When he came into the classroom he wrote two lines on the blackboard in Chinese. They were: "People have two legs. Animals have four." He held a short, very light-hearted discussion with the children about the difference between animals and human beings. His main point was that people should "not do any evil and offer up all good conduct." For children, that boiled down to if you want to be a person you have to be filial to your parents. When he asked if there were any questions, one little girl raised her hand and asked: "What about if mostly you're filial but sometimes you're 'just a little bit' unfilial, can you still get to be a person?" Shifu smiled and replied, "Well yes, you would probably still be a person, but maybe you'd be just a little bit ugly." She sighed in relief and then with a huge grin on his face he continued, "Like perhaps maybe you'd only have one eye..." He laughed at her and she wasn't sure whether he was kidding or not.