21 Jan 2009
Students in my undergraduate journalism class at Carleton College would never imagine, I’ll bet, that I sincerely regard each one of them as being ethically spotless, all-knowing, absolutely perfect human beings who at one point in the cosmic past was my dear mother.
Being a Buddhist carries along with it lots of interesting implications for classroom teaching. One of the more famous Zen adages says “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” That’s a handy reminder how to handle pet theories and received wisdom of all kinds. The Buddha’s prescription for ethical speech – that it be truthful, gentle, timely and tending to harmonize not divide – is another constant and helpful Buddhist teaching guide. But my favorite Buddhist maxim with virtually endless classroom applications is a Tibetan saying that resolves discordant situations in a flash: “Regard all sentient beings as equal to your dear mother.”
I’ve been meditating for 25 years. For the last ten or so, I’ve also studied a branch of Buddhism called Theravada, which is based in Southeast Asia and uses Buddhism’s primary text – the Pali Canon – as its main source. The Pali Canon comprises the closest existing record of the Buddha’s actual sermons, stories, discourses on psychology, and rules for monks. I run a weekly meditation group at my home and practice “vipassana” or “insight meditation” every day. The aim of insight meditation is to investigate reality as it is experienced in the body and mind in the present moment.
Aside from regarding students as my dear mother, Buddhism influences my teaching in three main ways. The first is that I consciously try to learn good teaching techniques from the Buddha, who is sometimes called “The Great Teacher.” He is certainly the best teacher I’ve ever had. Second, I apply in my classrooms an approach to truth-finding that I’ve learned in meditation and Buddhist scriptural study. Third, as a result of my Buddhist experience, I treat my classroom as a laboratory for an applied ethics of compassion. By compassion, I don’t refer to the “sorrow and sympathy” dictionary definition. Rather, the Buddhist tradition of compassion, or “karuna,” defines compassion as a virtuous mental state that is capable of nurture and cultivation, and which is the root of all morality and ethical action.
In seeing the Buddha as a model teacher, I join an ancient tradition. The Buddha often stressed that he was not a God or any kind of divine being, but rather was a human being who discovered a set of cosmic truths which he then taught to others. He saw himself as a teacher above all. Records and commentaries on the Buddha’s life are rich in descriptions of his ability to teach the dharma in many ways – by stories, parables, allegories, discourses, sermons, logic, argument and analysis – always choosing one or another form depending on the circumstance and the capacity of his student.
The Buddha’s having chosen the life of a teacher is itself an inspiration to me as an aspiring teacher. It speaks to teaching as a vital activity connecting many dimensions – personal, civic, spiritual, ethical, practical. Through the Buddha’s personal example I understand how skilful teaching facilitates harmony across all these spheres. Seen this way, teaching is not simply about the education of individuals in areas of expertise. More fundamentally, it’s about the making and healing of communities, the forging of trust and friendships, and the support of the poor, the weak, and all of those who suffer.
An often-quoted Buddhist scripture, the Kalama Sutta, forms the second main source of Buddhist inspiration for my teaching. Sometimes called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, it tells the story of a group of villagers who belong to the Kalama tribe. The Kalamas are vexed by a constant procession of monks, priests, and yogis who traipse through their town, each espousing a universal doctrine while disparaging all the others.
“Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them,” the Kalamas tell the Buddha. “Which of these reverend monks and Brahmins spoke the truth and which falsehood?”
To which the Buddha responds:
"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”
Scholars love to cite the Kalama Sutta for its foreshadowing of the Enlightenment and scientific method – skeptical, empirical, rational inquiry.
As a teacher, I take a simpler lesson from the Kalama Sutta. To me it says that learning occurs only once students have verified the truth for themselves – within themselves and by themselves. It’s not really my job, in other words, to teach students what I know. Instead, it’s to create the conditions in which a very particular sort of magic – more an act of self-teaching than of teaching — is given the very highest probability to occur.
Finally, a vigorous dispute in modern Buddhist circles gives me the fuel to teach my classes in a Buddhist-inspired way. The dispute is rooted in the interpretation of the basic Buddhist teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path – the path to enlightenment. Its name notwithstanding, the path actually divides into three main activities – meditation, morality, and wisdom. For some Buddhist teachers, Buddhism in Western countries focuses too much on meditation, as if enlightening wisdom is gained primarily by sitting on a meditation cushion for years on end. These critics of the “mainly-meditation” path to enlightenment – and I’m in this camp – insist that a full one-third of the Buddhist path to enlightenment consists of acting morally in the world through virtuous speech, virtuous action, and virtuous livelihood.
A famous scripture quoting the Buddha begins with the lines: “Virtue has non-remorse as its benefit and reward; Non-remorse has gladness as its benefit and reward.” The verse continues upwards, linking higher and higher states of being –gladness leading to joy, joy leading to serenity, serenity leading to happiness, happiness leading to concentration, concentration leading to insight, insight leading to non-attachment, and non-attachment leading to final liberation – nirvana, enlightenment.
The verse concludes: “In this way, virtue leads step by step to the highest.”
There you have it: virtue leads to enlightenment. I see the classroom as a place to practice virtue in this Buddhist sense – to try to speak, to act, and to practice livelihood ethically. I know that I can’t teach my way to enlightenment. But according to the Buddha, it’s a good place to start.