How do we learn? How do we grow into mature, loving, wise, competent human beings? Does our vision of our place in the universe actually correspond to the biological realities that shape us? Do our religious and moral aspirations harmonize with our mechanical and energetic interactions with the rest of the world? Where do we find our sense of togetherness? Where do we humans fit? Can we discover a way to become, once again, native to this place, this living world, our home. Can we rediscover our belongingness in life?
Reverencing the great mystery of education
I flex and bend and move
in the flow of your unfolding wisdom.
May all beings realise the blessing of profound aliveness
and dance their lives in the flowering
of wonderment and love.
The practice of buddhadharma and the process of meaningful education, are deeply related. Buddhadharma is more commonly associated with Buddhism which, of course, is viewed by many as a religion. Education is usually associated with secular schooling. Yet each has something to contribute to the other. I’d go so far to say that richly developed, each contains the other.
For readers unfamiliar with the term, the Sanskrit word buddhadharma is made up of buddha plus dharma. The bu in buddha derives from bodhi which means to awaken, to unfold or to flower. It gave rise to our English word bud, as in flower bud. The ha part, is the natural sound of laughter, joy, and surprise, which are often outer indications of inner well being and harmonious good functioning. Buddha therefore means joyful unfolding or awakening or perhaps even the flowering of joy! Dharma has many meanings such as truth, phenomena and natural law but in Buddhism it is often used in the sense of ‘teaching’. Broadly speaking, buddhadharma can refer to any teaching or guidance that supports joyful awakening; the unfolding or flowering of joyful good functioning – both in an individual and simultaneously in their surrounding community.
In it’s widest sense, buddhadharma, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Buddhism! I find it useful to make a distinction between buddhadharma and what I sometimes think of as ‘Buddhism-dharma’. Buddhadharma is universal. It’s all around us and it becomes visible wherever there is skilful encouragement and opportunity to unfold in compassion, wisdom and awareness. It can be lived and realised by Christians and Buddhists, by agnostics and atheists. It has been cultivated by Sufis and scientists, artists and health workers. Buddhadharma is alive and happening in many different types of communities all over the world. What I sometimes call ‘Buddhism-dharma’ refers to the teachings of traditional Buddhism. Hopefully, this Buddhism conveys something of true buddhadharma but sometimes traditions become sidetracked into preserving cultural beliefs and biases that have little to do with cultivating love, freedom and profound understanding, which is surely what good teaching or education should be in
Education is a process of nurturing, or from a utilitarian point of view, training or conditioning an individual so that he or she can function well in the society in which they live. The idea of education sometimes carries a sense of preparing young people so that they can contribute to fulfilling the needs of society. I’m sure many people could agree with these definitions – even the Minister of Education. Where this becomes tragically limited is in situations where we seem to have a very narrow understanding of society and hence its needs. The society we are mostly concerned with today is almost inevitably a human one. The other species we live with barely get a mention. And even narrower, it is often an exclusive group of humans, ones that share a common set of largely unconscious assumptions, biases and beliefs about the nature of reality. Today, the majority of us seem to have fallen into a collective amnesia, forgetting that we are part of an immeasurably larger society called a living world; a world of animals, plants, fungi, micro-organisms, river catchments, mountain ranges and plate tectonics. We are all part of this togetherness, brothers and sisters, neighbours and collaborators, all of us together. Our lives and the activities of our living, interweave, back and forth, over and under and through each other; this living world, this rich diversity of form and understandings that comprise the very substance of our beingness.
Education shapes society but society also shapes the forms of our education. What kind of education do we give our children when daily, we collectively and helplessly bow to the god of market forces? …when massive amounts of human industry are devoted to building and selling weapons designed solely to kill and maim beings? …when we excuse and condone lies and deceit in politicians and business executives as long as they don’t break any laws? …when nearly everything is measured in terms of money and economic performance, and instant gratification is the hallmark of a successful life? What kind of education do we support when justice and unpretentious honesty are often dismissed as naive or sometimes even
The second half of the twentieth century saw a quiet yet significant revolution in the healing professions, with a growing acceptance for the idea of treating ‘the whole person’ instead of trying to deal with a collection of disconnected symptoms. In its more expanded forms, the whole person was seen as something or someone embedded in, or continuous with, their extended family or whanau, with their society, and with the surrounding ecosystem. Ultimately the whole person is intermeshed with the whole existing world and any approach to healing must take this into account. The good functioning of an individual is linked to the good functioning of every other living individual. We desperately need a similar revolution that will expand our understanding and practice of education.
A good starting point would be to recognize that education surely involves much more than just pouring facts and figures into young peoples’ brains. In the so called modern world, we tend to think of facts and figures as ‘hard data’ when, in truth they are more often just palatable prejudices or currently popular understandings or interpretations, that help to ensure a continuity of societal beliefs and action. Recently in a BBC interview, NZ’s Prime Minister John Key was confronted with the results of a detailed scientific study that found that many of the rivers and lakes in NZ were significantly polluted. The interviewer asked why, in the light of this study, NZ was continuing to brand itself as clean and green. Mr. Key said that people were entitled to their opinions but that he rejected those findings as he could find other ‘experts’, that would give a different opinion which would show that NZ is 100% clean and green. This is a case of hard data looking more like a Rorschach ink-blot test!
Good education involves so much more than developing the basic literacy and numeracy skills that spokespersons for the ministry of education seem to value as paramount. Real education, complete education, education in completeness or wholeness, is a process of drawing forth all the qualities that are precious in a human being; for example, the capacity for love and empathy and creative thought, along with courageous straightforwardness. It cultivates our capacity to be curious about all manifestations of life and to consciously participate in the life affirming shaping of this living world in which we find ourselves.
In practical terms, an education system must always serve the needs of society but we need to have the broad mindedness and honesty to recognise that meaningful society is much bigger and more multidimensional than we usually imagine. Serving society (as biologist, writer and lover of life, Aldo Leopold, once put it), requires that we support, ‘the integrity, stability and beauty of the (whole) biotic community’.
Each one of us is born into a vast interweaving of matter, energy and knowing that is already in process. It’s what we are. It’s all through us and around us and it has been going on for 13.5 billion years; as it says in some Buddhist texts, since beginningless time, or for incalculable aeons, or inconceivable kalpas. However expressed, whether with numbers or poetry, there is every indication that the unfolding of life was going on before we as individuals began and will likely continue after we end.
This ‘already happening, ongoing process’ can be seen in two ways. It is the wholeness or totality of nature, unfolding and diversifying in the direction of increased discernment and knowing, thus nourishing a wider and wider range of unique yet totally intermeshed individuals. This is evolution in action. At the same time, this process involves each individual, feeling, with their own particular talents of perception and awareness, towards a lived appreciation of connection, a sense of unity accompanied by an increasing sense of understanding, wonder, devotion, reverence and awe.
Nature diversifying into ever more refined ways of being and knowing, and, individual discernment and knowing intuiting its way into a sense of wholeness and living mystery; this intermingling yin–yang of life is the natural ground from which, and within which, we all emerge and grow. Going by many names, it is sometimes called God, or Totality, or Wholeness or ‘the pattern that connects’. In Buddhism it is known as the dharmadhatu, the basic space of phenomenon, the immeasurable expanse of inter-being, or the total field of all events and meanings. It is also called bodhicitta, often translated as the heart/mind of awakening.
Bodhicitta is a central theme in Mahayana Buddhism and is perhaps something that should be discussed in secular schools. As we saw earlier, bodhi means awakening or unfolding. It is both the impersonal ‘totality of being’ unfolding as a delicate, unique, and transient individual, and, the individual, awakening to the totality. Each movement utterly pervades the other and together they reveal a mysterious whole. This twofold bodhi is playing out in citta, the heart/mind of one’s individual knowing and experience. Heart is God appreciating each detail. Mind is each detail appreciating God. Both movements together reveal a complete mandala, a rich a vibrant human being.
For some people, this two-in-one truth is an inspiring and beautiful thought. For a smaller number, it is a lived experience, a true life of blessing. Most of us though, were brought up by adults who, in the course of their lives, lost touch with the great mystery of living that they are. As if through osmosis, we absorbed and embodied our parents’ hopes, fears and prejudices until, gradually, like the moon eclipsing the sun, these narrowed attitudes and approaches to life restricted our potential for clear seeing and we too lost sight of the interconnected unfolding of life that we are. Shaped by social, economic, political and philosophical views, we drifted into ever more partial ways of experiencing. The universe became a collage of separated bits, sometimes co-operating, often competing and almost always in threat of isolation, guilt and fear of abandonment. Bodhicitta became more and more hidden. Ironically, it can even be hidden through becoming a Buddhist and then naming a concept called ‘bodhicitta’ while not simultaneously realising that bodhicitta is what is doing the naming!
Imagine being born to parents who lived and appreciated this ancient and ongoing dance of life unfolding, who then nourished it by affirming the unique and precious vastness of your being, who encouraged you in a wide ranging investigation of all the myriad details of life, who demonstrated to you, at that early impressionable age, a fundamental approach to living that is deeply imbued with love and wonderment and a sense of fresh, spontaneous curiosity. This is the heart of buddhadharma in action. It also begins to look like the foundations of very good education.
A big step towards meaningful education involves honouring and appreciating the dual mystery that we are; this mutual shaping of inner and outer, of self and other, of body and mind, of subject and object; this seamless dyad of individuality and wholeness. This is the nature of each student. It is the nature of each teacher. Encouraging it to flower and function well is the heart and foundation of good education.
With the economic cutbacks of today we often see schooling and education reduced to a pouring in of facts and figures and experiences. Eventually the student is stuffed. Sometimes this supports a conceited belief that the world we have learned to know, is the way the world really is. Sometimes the weight of the ‘stuff’, crushes everything about us that is truly alive and we survive as automatons, replaceable units in the mechanical workplace market
Rather than force feeding students with facts and experiences that will help them to maintain the world that we, the older generation, have grown accustomed to, education should be primarily engaged in drawing out, or drawing attention to, the qualities of being that can help us creatively meet with each new situation that arises in the journey of our communal living. This includes meeting with earthquakes, environmental degradation, economic collapses and political turmoil.
How can we do this? We need to explore and investigate our bodies, how they work and how they intermesh with others at multiple levels, from micro to macro. We need to understand our feelings and the way we colour experience with values of good and bad, liking and disliking. We need to learn the skills of unravelling tangled emotions and the resultant physical sensations. We need to grapple with how the world of our knowing arises ever-fresh, moment by moment – a weaving of body, speech and mind, self and others. We need to refine and augment our powers of observation through each of our senses. These are our gateways to the world, the potentially sensitive points of meeting with others. We need to cultivate the art of resting at ease and awake, in states of not knowing everything, and not being able to know everything. We need to let go of the fear driven compulsion to freeze reality with the hammers and nails of dogmatism and certainty. We need to cultivate the whole mandala of aliveness, capacities for thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting. We need to value diversity and its vast, creative, ultimately unknowable dance, called living. We need to cultivate the potential that is in each of us to be utterly present for each other. We need to learn the arts of tolerance and forgiveness and occasional apology and restraint.
Buddhadharma and secular education have much to offer each other. Education can offer microscopes, literature, art and cultural history and a tradition of scientific enquiry. This would take Buddhadharma into the 21 century with a relevance that would be felt by all. Buddhadharma can offer ways of cultivating attentiveness, appreciation, forgiveness, mindful presence and healing. These skills would enhance and round out the school curriculums honouring and respecting the deep intelligence and potential that is in each of us. Buddhadharma and education belong together. They augment each other and skilfully joined would help us humans tackle the challenges that will increasingly face us in the times to come.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with teachers from many traditions and backgrounds. Some of them teach in schools; primary, secondary or tertiary. Some teach healing arts; psychotherapy, body work, counselling and various forms of medicine. Some teach meditation and a range of spiritual approaches to living. In these times of tightening budgets and increased anxiety about the state of world and where we are all going, it is more and more vital for our own well being and for the well being of those we teach and interact with, that we live day by day with our feet solid in the ground of here and now wonder and appreciation, in all its vastness. My aspiration is that these thoughts on education and buddhadharma will in some small way serve to strengthen our willingness and ability to do this.
I began this essay on education and buddhadharma a number of years ago. It was originally intended to be part of a reflection on the aspiration and purpose of the Wangapeka Educational Trust, a study and retreat centre in the South Island of New Zealand that I have associated with for many years. Somehow in the flow of circumstances, that early draft fell by the wayside; lost in a pixel cul-de-sac on my hard drive. Recently it popped into view and in the light of momentous geologic events this year in New Zealand, I was inspired to rewrite it, making it, I hope, more broadly relevant. For months, the great taniwha of plate tectonics has been flexing its muscle, hammering Christchurch and the surrounding area with three major earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks. Many people were killed or injured. Thousands of homes were damaged if not destroyed. Hundreds of business have collapsed. Adults and children of all ages have been traumatized. Life as many knew it, and expected it to be, has been turned upside down as parts of the city sink back into a wetland swamp and other parts are entombed under fallen rock. This happened in the same year as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
One friend, living in Christchurch, who runs the administration side of a small school that was badly damaged in the first earthquake, has miraculously found time to write periodic uplifting e-mails to friends and extended family. After the third quake, which really knocked the stuffing out of many people who were already barely coping with the first two, she shared some observations which, in spite of the trauma that is widespread, reveals a breadth of vision and aspiration that is wonderfully uplifting. Describing how parents, teachers and children supported each other emotionally, and physically, adapting to broken plumbing, stuck doors, jammed windows, and cleaning up mud and liquefaction so that the school could continue, she wrote; ‘I hope I am around to see these children as they mature into the business, public and political leaders of the future. I suspect that when that time comes, Christchurch will have been the home of a disproportionate percentage.’
Many schools have been disrupted by closures but deepening the skills of being truly human, the skills of being present and curious and capable of sharing in the very midst of an ever changing and unpredictable world, the gift of knowing what is important and being able to let go of what isn’t; these lessons have continued. The school of life-experience hasn’t closed. The personal maturing that comes with remembering and appreciating the value of friendship and the wisdom of community, for many in Christchurch, these learnings have actually accelerated. Meanwhile, on television, in addition to reports of great courage and human kindness, we see, politicians, bureaucrats, and other officials, sometimes clearly out of their depths, waffling and justifying and red taping the process of recovery in a desperate attempt to fit in with and conform to, an already bankrupt and dysfunctional economic system. These are telling demonstrations of the results of an education system that has done little to prepare them for the reality of being part of an evolving living world; a world with earthquakes, with climate change, a world that is an interweaving of biology, geology, meteorology, sociology and much more, a world that we share with all species, a world that we are awesomely and humbly privileged to be a part of. The coming together of all these occurrences has nudged me towards finishing this essay and for all of that and all of you, I am thankful.