Be Sure to Read Co-Founder Prajna’s Story Below!
A Message from His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
(Click the image above to enlarge the message)
Prajna’s Story About the Inspiration for The Karuna School
By Lisa Prajna Hallstrom, Co-founder and Board President
In 1997, Ted and I attended a conference entitled, “Peacemaking: the Power of Non-Violence” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The conversations about peace and education that we were witness to at this conference deeply inspired us. We discovered that even a Buddhist teacher like Jack Kornfield, partnering with poet Michael Meade and drummer Malidoma Some, was working on the ground with former gang members to create rites of passages and other rituals to turn their lives around. We attended a workshop run by these young men, weeping as they guided us through a ritual to honor the elements of our interdependent Earth—fire, earth, water, and air—the room filled with four beautiful altars they had created. In other workshops, we experienced among the best diversity trainers we had ever seen as well as many other people who were working as healers of our society. We were staggered by the possibilities of bringing peace into education.
At this time, our youngest son, Nick, was struggling in middle school, often asking, “Why can’t school be more like SAM?”, the outdoor adventure camp where he had spent several summers. He would lament, “At school you keep trying to be ‘popular.’ At SAM everyone can just be themselves, be accepted, and relax.”
When the Columbine tragedy happened in 1999, we were reminded again how the powerful cliques that drive big high schools and the profiling that goes along with them can breed alienation that can have tragic consequences. We realized that it was the educational system that is flawed, not the students. We saw that the Columbine tragedy occurred within a system where positive values were not cultivated and negative ones were watered.
Out of this recognition we began to ask critical questions. What would happen if a high school community was built around an emotionally supportive curriculum? What if everyone in a school community, teachers and students, was trained in self-awareness, compassion, and conflict resolution? What would a community be like that really values diversity? What if students were given the tools of mindfulness and contemplation in order to manage their emotions and cultivate values of patience and generosity towards themselves and others?
Around that same time, we attended our friend, Robert Thurman’s, installation as the Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University at which His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to the assembled faculty and honored guests. In his skillful, direct and compassionate way, His Holiness began by congratulating Columbia that it was doing such a wonderful job of educating the mind. He then added, patiently yet firmly, “Perhaps you could spend some time also educating the heart?” We were deeply moved by this challenge and became more determined than ever to build a school that did just this.
We began to craft a proposal for an intentionally small high school that would support all of its members, making them feel heard and safe. Our vision was of a school that, in addition to encouraging cognitive development, also nurtured emotional, spiritual, and environmental literacy.
In 2000, we asked Bob Thurman to take a one paragraph proposal for a high school for peace to the Dalai Lama on his next visit to see him. Months later, Bob reported “Of course, His Holiness gives you his blessing!” We were never really convinced that this response was anything more than Bob’s support for our venture. At that time we were living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had no trouble imagining a high school for peace flourishing in Santa Fe. When we moved back to Boston, we worried at first that such a vision might not thrive in what we experienced as a heavily intellectual climate. But as we grew to know the community here, to see how many people were committed to a more heart-centered approach to education, one whose curriculum is centered on the reality of our interdependence with all life, we began to believe that such a school would fill an important niche in Boston and perhaps provide a much-needed model for high schools around the country.
We wanted to build a high school where students would develop the skills needed to feel more connected to themselves, to each other, and to their world. We also realized that we didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. Many people were doing the work of teaching peace within schools and we needed to reach out to them and learn from them. We began to research emotional curricula and found the Mysteries Curriculum developed by Rachel Kessler and others for the Crossroads School in the early 80’s, a curriculum that is taught as Passages with great success to this day at many schools across the country. We researched the growing field of teaching conflict resolution in schools pioneered by people like Linda Lantieri as well as the initiative to apply Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in educational settings led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. We were thrilled to find a richness of resources for creating interdisciplinary, integrated curricula that reflect the reality of our interdependence. Our files began to grow.
Our dream began to take more concrete form when, in the fall of 2007, we discovered that an ideal property near our home in Lincoln, MA, was for sale. Having a potential site within our reach galvanized us into action. We chose the only name we really could imagine that would express our values, The Karuna School, a High School for Peace. “Karuna” is the Sanskrit word for “compassion,” the quality around which we so wanted our school to revolve, the quality that is so needed in our world. Although we eventually had to let go of that property for environmental reasons, within a few months we had a Karuna School Board of Directors, a Board of Advisors and our 501c3 status as a non-profit. We began to gather a community of committed, visionary people, some staff and some volunteers, to help us grow into reality. The process of writing our first brochure, also produced that fall, forced us to make concrete our ideals and dreams. We were on our way.
What remained was having in hand a written endorsement from the Dalai Lama. We assumed that we would again have to rely on our friend Robert Thurman to get a more official blessing from His Holiness. In the spring of 2008 we went to visit Bob and Nena and took a packet of materials and a request for His Holiness to write us a written endorsement, knowing that Bob was going to his exclusive teachings in Delhi in early April. In mid-April, to create a Plan B, we jumped at the opportunity to join our friend, Tara Doyle, and her students from the Emory University Tibetan Buddhist Studies Program in a private audience with His Holiness in Dharamsala, India. This entailed our paying quite a bit of money to extend our stay in India one extra day in order to accommodate the time of the audience. But we were determined. His Holiness had helped us give birth to this idea and we felt we needed his official blessing. After the extraordinary audience with His Holiness, the only audience he granted that week, the week after the uprisings in Tibet, we handed our packet to His Holiness’ secretary.
In mid-July, at the end of the first day of the five-day teachings on the Lam Rim by His Holiness at Lehigh University, we ran into Bob Thurman at an Indian restaurant. He told us that he had been unable to deliver our packet to His Holiness, but he asked us for more Karuna School brochures. The next morning in the Lehigh gym filled with 5,000 people, we looked at the giant screens and saw the cameras taking a close up of Bob Thurman sitting at the feet of His Holiness with the Karuna School brochure sticking out of his shirt pocket! When we returned home from the teachings, I wrote an email to His Holiness’ secretary reminding him about the packet we had given His Holiness at the audience in April and asking how our request for an endorsement was going. In late July we received an email saying that His Holiness was very busy and had many, many such requests in the queue and that they would not be able to consider our request.
Ted was determined that we should not give up. He wrote Bob Thurman an email, asking him to do whatever he could to put us back in the queue, even providing him with a sample email that he might send to His Holiness’ secretary, letting him know that we are connected to each other. We waited for Bob’s reply.
In late August, I was sitting at my computer very early one morning, scanning the emails I had received the evening before. My eyes landed on the words in the “From” column, “The Office of HH the Dalai Lama.” I was shaking as I clicked on those words. There was a personal letter of endorsement, a “message of support” as his secretary called it, from His Holiness on his official stationary.
I began to yell for Ted all over the house, crying and laughing at the same time. What a blessing! How did this miracle happen? When we wrote to Bob to say thank you for pushing this through, he replied, “It must have been your own good karma,” implying that he had never sent the email to the secretary. So, the causes and conditions were right. We received our blessings and our imperative at the same time. The Karuna School will, indeed, become a reality!