Book Review: In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle Johnson-Weider

Teaching children is a high-level skill at the best of times: A fine balance between gentle guidance and determination to soften the resistances without breaking the spirit. Teaching the Dharma, while challenging even with adults, seems tricky. At least for me, but I “grew up” with the mythology of Buddhism that was troublingly close to the fire and brimstone of Catholicism. Somehow the stories of parents eating their children as a metaphor for the consequences of destroying our future or Angulimala or Gutei chopping off fingers as a dire warning of how we can be misled by the teachings don’t encourage me to convey the beauty of the Buddha’s mind. So, when an author is able to convey these complicated concepts as their true nature – simple, thoughtful, relational – I’m all ears… and eyes.

In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (Blue Moon Aurora) offers a skillful and gentle way to bring the Dharma into the lives of children. Illustrated beautifully by Brian Chen, the book comes alive with vibrant colour in images and language. The stories are rooted in Siddhartha’s journey into his spiritual future and expand into the primary teachings (many are my absolute favourite). Qualities of determination (fighting Mara) and persistence (Mahaprajapait) are showcased through the experiences of Briana and Alex, the narrator’s children.

Alex is a firebrand of emotions; he is, in turns, cynical yet tantalized by new ideas; Briana shines in her curiousity and love for adventure. Mom does seem unendingly patient but perhaps I’m just jealous that she’s gained the fruits of her practice! Dad is easy-going and joins in the story-telling effortlessly. The family’s interaction around everyday chores and relationships are the stage for the Buddhist stories to prompt reperceiving their experiences.

I’ve always wondered how the concepts of death and chopping off fingers as a ritual are conveyed so children are not traumatized. Johnson-Weider does an admirable job of folding these stories into the reality of everyday life. Pets, people, everything in our world dies. Not only do we see people doing things that are harmful, but we are also asked to do things that are harmful. Lessons in Stopping: the story of Angulimala is woven into Alex’s schoolday experience of seeing other children wanting to harm a grasshopper. Briana learns how to stop being disruptive in class even if it’s so hard to do. The Doorway of Death: the story of Kisagotami lovingly speaks to ends and beginnings realistically complete with expected “Ewwws” that Kisagotami would walk around with her dead child.

The book has a useful section Conversations with Children which explains the illustrations of the Eight Auspicious Symbols that head each chapter. It also explains the meditation practice explored in the chapter, In the Gardens of our Mind. In all, highly recommended for parents who want to explore the stories that guide Buddhist practice. Also highly recommended for the child in all of us who want to have a gentle rendition of this challenging inter-relational process we call living with compassion and love.

angulimala and the price of belonging

Every so often, I come back to the story of Angulimala.  There’s a well-written version here and it is one of the most beloved Buddhist stories of salvation.  Angulimala was a brilliant student of a well-known teacher who turned against him when other students became jealous.  The teacher set a task to test Angulimala’s dedication to his teachings: he was to collect a thousand human little fingers.  In some versions, Angulimala was set the task to prove his unquestioning loyalty to the teacher.  In others, the teacher believed Angulimala had slept with his wife and set him up to commit these crimes so that he would be punished by the law, a rather passive-aggressive move on the teacher’s part.

There’s the obvious cautionary message about what teachers can do when caught in their own tangles of desire.  I would say it’s regardless of enlightenment because I don’t believe true enlightenment is a permanent condition anyway.  There’s also the obvious moral call to be one’s own lamp in matters of principled action.   But that’s not really where the power of the story lies.

At its heart, this is a story about the restrictions we place on our vision of others.  We need them be a certain way, to act a certain way, to meet our needs a certain way.  We believe certainty is a scripted safety net which makes life safe within margins.  When that script is challenged it doesn’t matter if the challenge is real or not; the ripples of fear are immediate and cannot be calmed easily.  

It’s also a story about our need to belong and what we are willing to forfeit to have that place where we are accepted as trusted and valued members of a community.  It’s easy to fall into the mind-trap that gives precedence to a felt sense of belonging over principled action because the former “feels” more real, has more “real” correlates with safety than the latter.  We all need something we can hold onto; a dharma name, a robe, a shawl, a jacket.  Nothing wrong with that unless we look away from the coin we’ve used to purchase it.

I don’t claim to know what the teacher and his student should have done or might have done.  I need to spend a bit of time counting the little fingers I’ve collected while thinking I was truly practicing.