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The Story of the Chocolate Buddha

Image of a laughing Buddha statue made out of chocolate
Vegan Chocolate Woodstock Buddha from Oliver Kita Chocolates. Image from

Winter break was approaching at the school where I was teaching the Dharma to elementary students, and parents were kindly prepping gifts for teachers and staff. When one of these gifts—a 200-gram hunk of chocolate (almost half a pound!) in the shape of a “laughing buddha”—was presented to me, I had some thoughts and feelings.

Was this meant to be the Buddha?

And if so, are we teachers expected to eat his head?

The fifth-grade students were the oldest at the school, the vanguards. I was constantly having to innovate with them, which meant tossing ideas at them to see what would stick. Around December I’d decided to explore the Noble Eightfold Path with them. It should be noted that, for the most part, these students did not come from families that identify as Buddhist, so I had to be cautious with the dogma. But it felt like it was time for them to be able to recite some of the threes, fours, and fives of the Dharma—e.g., jewels, noble truths, precepts.

I introduced the students to the Noble Eightfold Path with a slideshow, inspired by something I found on the Twinkle platform. They reviewed examples of each element, or samma, of the Noble Eightfold Path, and then they used compasses to draw their own eight-spoked wheel—each spoke labeled with a pathway. A quick check of adult practitioners proved that even long-time students have trouble listing these: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Attention, and Right Samadhi–or variations of those terms.

“Right” is a pretty terrible translation of the Sanskrit word samma, which could be considered more like being in harmony. Saying something is harmonious sounds less judgy than saying it’s right, and when tweens think they are being judged, you can almost see a switch flip and they begin to rebel, shut down, or over-perform out of competitiveness. So we spent some time talking about what being in harmony means. They suggested wise alternatives to “right” like “being in the flow,” “being at peace,” “not fighting.”

We’d only had two classes for these conversations when the chocolate buddha gift appeared. You’ve seen this guy—the laughing buddha—next to cash registers at restaurants and sitting beside potted plants at hair salons. Rolls of abundant flesh, mala swinging, head tilted back in laughter. Produced by a local chocolatier, the “Chocolate Buddha” was packaged with a “chocolate meditation to practice becoming aware of following the eightfold path of least resistance to life and chocolate.”

I brought it with me to Dharma class and placed it in the center of the table. Not surprisingly, the children went a little bananas, pantomiming as if they were in late-stage starvation. But when they finally composed themselves, I asked, “Who is this?” One quickly said, “The Buddha!” I shot a skeptical look around the room. After a moment of taking a closer look, Leo said, “It’s not the Buddha. It doesn’t have an ushnisha and it’s bald. The Buddha had hair.” My heart fluttered.

They had learned this from a very well-done 45-minute online course we’d subscribed to from Symphony Space Education that explored the signs and symbols of the Buddha.

“You’re right, it’s not the Buddha.”

“Then who is it?”

I explained that he was Budai, a wandering Chinese poet-monk from the 10th century. “I’m sure he was delightful and wise, and he was a buddha the way that you and I are buddhas, but he wasn’t the historical Buddha. What else do you notice? Use your awareness.”

The students inspected the box and Charlotte read aloud the line about the Eightfold Path being the path of least resistance. “That’s not true,” said Izzy, “The Eightfold Path takes effort.” Again, a flutter. While of course there is a sense of flow when one follows the Noble Eightfold Path, taking it requires intentional action. It’s not the easy way out, although it leads to ease. It does not historically lead to consuming large blocks of chocolate.

Quinn then read the meditation instruction. It was something about tasting the chocolate and appreciating it with all your senses. Now, at this point the students were primed to reject anything about this object, so I was extra impressed when Ronan piped up and said, “That’s not bad.” So true: it was a pretty standard sensory meditation, not bad at all.

“OK, so this could be an example of right samadhi?” They nodded.

I turned the inquiry to the motivation of the parent who gave one of these characters to each of the teachers. “That seems like Right Motivation because they wanted to be generous and show appreciation,” said Amara. Then I asked if Right Livelihood came into this picture. I was floored by the response given by our eldest student, Bella. She explained that using the image of the Buddha to sell a product wasn’t really Right Livelihood, especially since it wasn’t accurate. She went on to talk about cosmetics companies that test their products on animals and sell poor-quality products using marketing that makes women feel bad about themselves.

OK, job done, good night. Yes, Bella!

And this is my conclusion: the students’ insights had very little to do with how I introduced these topics. The Dharma is just so good, it’s so natural, that when an inquisitive and open mind is exposed to it, it finds a place to live. It made perfect sense to these young students.

“OK, friends, so what would be the Right Action to take?”

You can imagine what a group of 10- and 11-year-olds did to 200 grams of pure milk chocolate. I was happy to sacrifice Budai to their feeding frenzy.

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