The first time I attended Dharma Youth, I was already a TA. At that time, I was three years out of college and looking for a way to help out in the community. My mom knew that I like to teach, so she very cleverly convinced me that Dharma Youth was the best way for me to utilize my life experience to help others. I didn’t realize then that I would end up learning more from this class than I would be able to teach.
Dharma Youth is a class held by the Zen Center of Sunnyvale to introduce middle and high school students to the Dharma. All the students are good kids, but they’re kids who have a lot of pressure to excel--on the one hand, practicing piano for their recital and on the other hand studying for Chemistry finals next week. And then on top of that they still have friends to see, video games to play, and Facebook posts to read. These kids do not have very much time to be calm and be still.
The Shifus and TAs all know that this is how the world is today. So we split our time between studying the Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters and practicing meditation. Studying the Forty-Two Chapters gives them perspective; practicing meditation gives them time to reflect. But when I first started, I did a half-hearted job on both of these tasks. I was a TA, so my job was to make sure the students were listening to Venerable Abbot JianHu Shifu and behaving themselves during meditation. The teachings and meditation were for the students, not for me. I had already graduated from college, and they were still in high school. I had a deep understanding of myself, cultivated through years of heartache, excitement, and disappointment. The students were the ones who needed to grow.
But in reality, it was I who needed to grow. There was no single moment when I realized this, but slowly my perspective started to change. One time, Venerable Abbot JianHu Shifu talked about the three evil deeds of thought, and upon reflection I realized that I had said some things in anger about a coworker earlier that day. Another time, he taught us loving-kindness meditation, and I realized that though I could generally love those who love me and those who hate me, I never thought about those with whom I have no relation. Step by step, each of these realizations allowed me to understand that studying the Sutra in Dharma Youth is just the same as studying the Sutra in any other context. It doesn’t matter who you study with. Your gain is equal to what you put in. In fact, my prideful heart was wasting a fantastic opportunity for me to grow.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear how naive I was two years ago. Even though I’m almost ten years older than most of the students, I know now that I’m the same as them. I have a lot of pressure to excel, only my pressure comes from my boss instead of my parents. I still have friends to see and games to play, only now they’re friends who live across the country. And even today, I don’t have very much time to be calm and be still. If I am to be qualified to teach the students of Dharma Youth and be a role model for them, I can’t rely only on what I’ve learned so far. I need to put some serious effort into my own cultivation as well.
Little by little, I will grow up. Little by little, the students of Dharma Youth will grow up. And it is my sincere wish that little by little, the Dharma Youth program will grow up as well.