Meadow School: Teaching with Nature

By Ed Levinson

Sitting in the Meadow Garden on a warm, sun-filled morning, three eight-year-old girls from the neighborhood come running into my meditation.

“What are you doing?” they ask beginning our Japanese conversation.

“Sitting here in nature. I’m praying.” (“I’m listening” or “I’m talking to nature” would have been a better answer.) It seems like a good time to share with them, since they have innocently entered my world.

“What do you feel out here?” I ask them. At first they don’t understand my question. I give an example, “I feel the sun.”

Now their responses are quick: “I feel a tree.”  “I feel the grass.” “Many trees!” they holler all at once.

“I feel sound,” says Mari.

“What sound do you hear?” I ask.

 “Su su,” she says. “I hear the sound of the susuki.”

One girl, Kyoko, looks deeply at an orange tree. “I feel oranges. I feel the orange tree. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Why is the tree beautiful?” I ask.

“Because it has fruit on it,” she answers.

“Why is the fruit so beautiful?” I ask. They become silent, as if they don’t know. Maybe they are afraid they’ll give the wrong answer. “Maybe it’s the orange color. They have the color of the sun in them,” I suggest.

Naturally, they go around under the trees and find four oranges that have fallen on the ground. We then move back a distance to admire this special orange tree with bamboo swaying in the background.

“The tree makes beautiful fruit,” I say. “People are like trees. Their life makes fruit.”

I’m starting to lose them, so I try making it a game. “A person is like a tree. Each person has some fruit.” I point to the four oranges lying on the ground. Picking my favorite themes I say, “This one is peace, this one love, this one harmony, and this one is beauty. Which one are you?”

Kiyoko, who started the conversation about the orange tree, immediately takes the peace orange. “I’m peace. I take this one because I want there to be peace.”    

Mari takes love. Prompted by the peace conversation, she starts talking about a drunken old man they met on the road one day, and how he used vulgar language, while yelling at them to go home. She recalls the television news about the kidnap and killing of a three-year-old child.

“If there was more love in the world those kinds of thing wouldn’t happen,” I say.

The third girl, Yoko, takes beauty. She lives in an old run-down house surrounded by a lot of masculine energy. She senses the need to experience more beauty in her life.

The harmony orange is left for me. I ask them if they know what harmony is, surprisingly they don’t. “You know how in music class there are many different instruments, but everyone plays together so that they can make beautiful music? That’s harmony.”

“Look at the orange tree. How many oranges are on it?” I ask. We all agree there are too many to count. “We have lots of oranges in our life too.”

My two dogs at the time, Happy and Sunny, return from their morning freedom run in the mountains and excitedly come over to be with us. I take a moment to introduce them again.

“This is Happy. Happy’s gift is happiness. This is Sunny. Sunny’s gift is bright sunshine. Kiyoko’s gift is peace. Mari’s gift is love. Yoko’s gift is beauty. My gift is harmony.”

I’m ready to continue to the next step. Our encounter has lasted only about 15 minutes, but seemed beyond time. Suddenly they’re up and moving, getting the dodge ball and setting up a court in the field, using my bamboo garden poles as the boundaries. Class was over.

The four of us play dodge ball for quite a while, working up a sweat. We share team partners fairly. No arguments occur. They take their oranges with them when they head home. I hope they take the qualities as well.

The three girls visited our place often after that to learn, play, and tease me. Their faces and actions continued to show the fruits of our lesson.


Ed 2( © Edward Levinson )

In American English there is a saying that you have to “walk the talk.” It means you need to do in actions what you say with words, but the opposite, the simple act of walking can bring out words, thoughts, and inspirations from deep within. Walk first, the talk comes later.

I used to take groups of Japanese adults out on what I called Nature Walks. I gave simple instructions and meditation suggestions, and then we would walk in silence, occasionally taking time to sit quietly in pleasant spots along the way. Afterwards, we’d come together in a circle to sing, dance, and share. The simple stuff comes out first.                   

Standing under a big tree, one man informs us in a deep voice, “The tree says, ‘I’ve been here for a very long time.’ ”

Another participant joins in, “I smell the wind, and I feel peacefulness.”

A young man climbs to the top of a pyramid-shaped sculpture made of plywood and old tires that we find in a park.

“What do you feel?” I ask.

“I feel I have become mighty,” he says, but without ego.

We gather around a pool of water where birds come to drink. It is a year-end workshop and we are looking for guidance for the New Year. In the Persian poetic tradition of the mystic Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār, we begin imitating his “Conference of the Birds,” philosophizing about life, each in our own way. People bring to this gathering an object they spotted on the walk and share the inspirational message they receive from it.

 I pick up a broken old stick. “This is the broken heart. It too will someday fade away.”

A man in his twenties shows us three brown leaves. “I need to collect money this year,” is his symbolic message; he balances it with, “but money, like leaves, is temporary.”

A quiet forty-something housewife has been shy about opening up to us. She didn’t feel like walking far, but found some four-leaf clovers close by. The clovers seem to remind her of her family.

“I have always been thinking about loving others. Now, I recognize the need to love myself,” she says shyly.

An older gentleman presents his found image of himself. It is a delicate looking dried weed with the seeds still hanging on it. It looks like a miniature Christmas tree.

“I’m almost seventy,” he says, “I want to go on having a fruitful and fulfilling life for a long time to come.”

Next, a high school girl holds a green blade of grass up above her head. All she can say is, “It’s so beautiful, I had to pick it and combine it with the blue sky.” In her other hand, she has a small, delicate, pink wildflower telling her, “It’s okay to be young.” I silently praise the innocent but rich color of youth.

A company employee in his thirties stands quietly awaiting his turn to talk. His hands are cupped as if holding something. He opens them and a ladybug flies out on this late December day.

“Its cold, but I’m still alive,” he beams, as the ladybug flies away.

A dandelion stem with a fragile seed ball is balanced between the fingers of a woman in her thirties. “I can move easily and take root anywhere. I am not limited to one place,” she says. She closes her eyes and blows the seeds into the wind, as we all contemplate the meaning of time and space.

An alert, artistic man produces an old rusty key he found hidden in the leaves of the forest floor. “I found the key to heaven,” he says with an elfish grin. I feel a little jealous and humbled by his discovery.

One young woman goes last. She is bathed in sunlight and manages to bring its ambience to the circle. Standing between the audience and the sun, she talks animatedly about the attraction of its warmth and light. The radiance surrounding her is beautiful and magical, shining upon us all.

These stories of people happened in the ’90s, but the orange trees still bear fruit and the same sun still shines today. Seeds for the imagination (yes, Japanese people can use their imagination) and nature messages simple enough for children, yet deep enough for adults, are here every day waiting to be seen, heard, and played with.

Ed 1

( © Edward Levinson )

From "Whisper of the Land: Visions of Japan", Ed Levinson's memoirs of living
in Japan over 35 years.  Published by Fine Line Press, New Zealand.
For more information on Ed's fine book, please go to: