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‘Buddha Walks’ in Inner-City Los Angeles

Performers were abuzz with activity as Shinnyo-en Foundation Program Director Dr. Ineko Tsuchida walked into the auditorium of South Region Elementary School 7 in Watts.  Center stage, a sixth grade student, costumed in the vibrant colors of India, knelt to rehearse his lines as the Wandering Rishi: “Without attachment, there can be no pain.”  Extraordinary as it may seem, the basic tenets of Buddhism were being taught here to some of the most at-risk children in Los Angeles.  Buddha Walks—a one-act Spirit Series play—was about to begin.

Spirit Series—a breakthrough drama-based values and literacy initiative brings the wisdom and inspiration of heroic historical biographies to fourth through eighth grade students. One of Shinnyo-en Foundation’s newest grant partners, the Series seeks to engage our youth at a critical crossroads in their lives with a transformational curriculum that empowers each child to become a caring and civic adult. This June 22nd production marked the culmination of an intensive three-week residency, during which the school’s three sixth grade classes—110 students—studied, co-wrote, staged, and would soon perform the Siddhartha renunciation story.

Once this classroom had donned antique saris, they rehearsed unison spoken word cues designed to emphasize the play’s key moments, with voices echoing thunderously. Towering behind them, an exquisite three-panel theatrical backdrop pictured Siddhartha’s footsteps fading into the distance on his path to Enlightenment.

Over 15 classroom hours during the preceding three weeks, these Latino/Hispanic and African American participants had immersed themselves in the one-act narrative. This rigorous curriculum required that they conduct historical research, master dramatic text and subtext, and contribute original poetry to the play. Participants also executed a fine arts craft: designing masks. But most importantly, students explored the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy through journaling, meditation, and rich classroom discussion.

Spirit Series anticipates a watershed year. Entering its second decade, with 25,000 L.A. area students having successfully met the Spirit Series challenge, the program stands on the threshold of widespread expansion. The organization completed its first out-of–state demonstration project this spring, delivering curricula at two of Boston’s most impacted inner-city middle schools. The Harvard Graduate School of Education conducted an analysis of the program, highlighting its unique aims and superlative outcomes. The study, along with an upcoming documentary about the Series, should propel the program to Northern California…and beyond.

As the curtain neared in Watts, each student selected a necklace beaded with one step on the Eightfold Path. Participants would use these simple instructions, from Right Conduct to Mindfulness, as guides through their performance and lives to come. Moments before the audience arrived, Series founder Richard Strauss led the group in meditation. After each student experienced a moment of personal one-on-one initiation, they were ready to begin.

During the 30-minute production, students demonstrated mastery not only of the story they told, but also of Buddhism’s key tenets. In dialogue and summary discussion, actors addressed the deepest lessons of Prince Siddhartha’s timeless journey: non-attachment, wakefulness, impermanence, and compassion. The audience’s enthusiastic applause at play’s end was matched by the joy on the sixth graders’ faces and their evident feeling of accomplishment. It was an inspirational moment to behold.

For more information about Spirit Series, please visit www.spiritseries.org or contact Richard Strauss at richards@spiritseries.org.