The escalating enrollment in the Sunday Dharma classes brought forth a vision of a regular day Buddhist kindergarten. The wooden hut that housed the Sunday kindergarten Dharma class and store was spruced up and given a face-lift. By the time the renovations were completed, a bright, cheery, cozy kindergarten, the Young Learners’ Meadow, stood ready to receive the students.
On the clear sunny morning of January 5, 2003, the Young Learners’ Meadow began its first day of school. The Dharma Masters and the three teachers stood in the Young Learners’ Meadow office to greet the pioneer batch of a dozen students, who were clad in pink sailor-collared tops and matching shorts.
The three to six-year-olds were introduced to the daily routine, beginning with bowing to the Buddhas. It was quite hilarious at the beginning, as their idea of bowing was to either flop or dive down onto the cushions. Now they are able to bow in the proper fashion.
In the meditation period that follows, certain students who were very hyperactive and scattered before are now more disciplined. The students found it very difficult to hold the lotus position in the beginning. They spent a lot of time squirming around. However, with lots of encouragement, they are now able to sit silently for 15 minutes. A few of them can amazingly sit very, very, still!
Instead of the nursery rhymes normally taught in kindergarten, they are taught sutra and mantra recitations, Buddhist studies and Chinese Classics, including the
Standards for Students, the Book of Common Essential Manners, the Four Books and Five Classics. It is truly wonderful that they can be educated and thereby shaped by the ancient classics at such a tender age. For example, whenever they get into an argument, instead of them screaming at each other, we hear sharp repartees between them, as quotations fly around, much to our amusement.
When it comes to common manners, they seem to have more or less mastered them, as they remind one another not to be sloppy or talk during mealtimes. It is also clear that the little ones have their own interpretations of the teachings, which can be quite hilarious. A case in point: One of the girls was showing off her new sweater to her classmates when another girl remarked that in the
Book of Common Essential Manners, it is stated that clothes need only be neat and tidy and not flashy. Another boy added that as long as the clothes did not smell, even after a couple of days, it was perfectly alright to keep wearing them! Parents too proudly report that their little ones’ good manners have left deep impressions upon friends and relatives.
In Buddhist studies, the children are taught the life story of Lord Buddha and his teachings. Their staunch favorite remains that of Youth Good Wealth (Sudhana) of Avatamsaka Sutra fame. It has been close to a year now and they can recite from memory the Standards for Students, the
Book of Common Essential Manners, the Great Compassion Mantra, the Heart Sutra, Universal Worthy’s Bodhisattvas Ten Great Vows as well as the Meal Offering Ceremony, in both Mandarin and English. One boy even asked if there was a Malay version of the Meal Offering Ceremony! They are now making steady progress in the Shurangama Mantra too.
Children are not shy about placing orders for their favorite foods from their doting tea lady who cooks for them. She has captured their young hearts with her simple vegetarian meals. So much so that many of those picky eaters have now grown very big and tall for their age, and their parents proudly proclaim that their children are more partial to vegetables now, and would cheerfully eat any greens served to them!
After lunch, the children are allowed to go to the library to read. The library has a fair collection of books in Mandarin, English and Malay…courtesy of generous parents and others from the monastery. Students are encouraged to borrow the books and to keep a simple record of the books they have read. At the end of the day, there is great reluctance to go home. They feel that they are being punished if they have to leave early. In conclusion, we feel that the children have grown very fond of the kindergarten, as parents complain that the children keep harping that they do not want to have vacations and would rather go back to school.
We hope this love for studies will be carried forward when they enter mainstream education. Amitabha!