A Buddhist in the Classroom
reviewed by Jason Goulah - March 31, 2009
Ever since I began to study the Law handed down from Shakyamuni Buddha and undertook the practice of the Buddhist teachings, I have believed it is most important to understand ones obligations to others, and made it my first duty to repay such debts of kindness. In this world, we owe four debts of gratitude. One who understands this is worthy to be called human, while one who does not is no more than an animal.
Nichiren (Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, 1999, p. 122)
Sid Browns A Buddhist in the Classroom is first and foremost an expression of Browns attempt to repay what Nichiren calls debts of gratitude not only to Buddhism itself, but also to his students, friends, colleagues and teachers with whom he shares and shared his life and who guide(d) him to be a better teacher and a better Buddhist. We see this in his opening with explicit appreciation of 64 people who have impacted his life as a student and teacher, and we feel it in his continuous reflections of his own teaching and learning viewed through the lens of Theravada Buddhisms concepts of loving-kindness, compassion, release, mindfulness, and meditation, as well as others. Brown, like most deeply reflective practitioners, understands that as teacher he often learns more than he teaches: No matter how much I know, I always learn more from my students (p. 2). He strengthens such sentiments by continuously locating his learning, as well as students learning and his teaching, in Buddhisms rich resources. For example, Brown closes by framing the Buddhas perseverance in teaching the Law as akin to that of teachers who refine their practice and deepen reflection: He took joy in the accomplishments of his students. He was able to refine his teaching, his knowledge, his art. These are the important elements of a teaching and learning life that can help any instructor flourish (p. 116).
The bulk of A Buddhist in the Classrooms 116 pages is a series of vignettes for practitioners (followed by 33 pages of appendices of handouts and nifty assignments). Each vignette explores Buddhist wisdom in the tricky day-to-day of Browns own teaching and practice; for Browns tricky day-to-day is like that of all teachers. Each of us can relate to Browns realizations of judging students, uncertainty in creating assignments, self-doubt under student criticism, and frustration with certain students and pure joy with others. In such instances and through Theravada Buddhist parables, Brown identifies means of understanding the situation to move oneself beyond what Buddhism calls the lesser self consumed by anger, despair, revenge, ill-will and contempt toward the productive, enlightened realms of compassion, mindfulness and loving-kindness employed by the greater self. For it is when we inhabit realms of the greater self that we effect the betterment of the self and the student. In such vignettes Browns arguments remain broad and accessible, but the messages are deep, necessary and timeless. Throughout, Browns narratives are engaging and so easily accessible they leave one wondering whether his Buddhist gleanings in the context of students and classes are really the stuff of ancient Asian wisdom or merely the practices of a reflective practitioner. Alas, this is one of the gems A Buddhist in the Classroom offers: that Buddhist teachings are so accessible, familiar and applicable they somehow do not seem foreign to the uninitiated Western reader. Brown illustrates one example of this by applying Buddhist mindfulness and the philosophy of karma to teachers and students rehabitualizing destructive tendencies in the classroom:
Your intentional actions, thoughts, and speech in the past have helped create your situations, your view of the situation, and your likely response to that situation. But, and this is an aspect of karmic theory that even Buddhists often misunderstand, the liberating aspect of karmic theory is this: that while karmic results determine your situation and your likely response, they dont determine you response. At every single moment, blinded by anger, fear, or desire, you can choose to pause and cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, clarity, and understanding. Each moment you choose to cultivate these qualities, you ingrain a new habitual response. (p. 54)
A Buddhist in the Classrooms most interesting and lively sections were those in which Brown discusses his Buddhism and Environment class (all the students of which were among the 64 he thanks in the beginning). In one example, Brown recounts how he encouraged students to practice loving-kindness in their Council of All Beings activity for which they take on the role of inanimate and non-human animate objects to explore humanitys destructive, unsustainable effects on the environment. Brown states he took a risk in self-consciously organizing the Buddhism and Environment class in response to practical, environmental concerns (p. 5). He continues,
We in the United States damage the environment most significantly by how we transport ourselves and what we eat, so I organized the class to allow students a lot of time to consider these particular problems and how Buddhists and those committed to sustainability approach them. (p. 5, italics added)
By his own admission Brown is a practicing Theravada Buddhist professor who engages students in Theravada Buddhist meditation, breathing and mindfulness in teaching what seem to be general Buddhism courses. Just as his Buddhism courses provide him an avenue to engage students in his own Buddhist practice, the Buddhism and Environment course similarly satisfies Browns own environmental interests and agendano doubt informed by his Buddhist practiceof cultivating students ecological selfhood. But one wonders as Brown explicitly questions the validity of such a course by abandoning even the veil of objectivity as we responded to the particular environmental problems each of us in the class contributed to every day (p. 5), why he fails to consider the rich resources of Mahayana Buddhism or the work of other Buddhists in the classroom who preceded him in examining the intersection of Buddhism and environment such as, among others, Brian Brown (1994), Daisaku Ikeda ([e.g., ]2004, with Hazel Henderson), Stephanie Kaza (1999), Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1981-88) or Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams (1997). It is especially curious considering that although Browns narratives of the Buddhism and Environment class are the most lively of his vignettes (assuredly because of Browns invested personal interest), they lack the deep application of Buddhist philosophy provided elsewhere in the book. In this sense, Brown misses an opportunity to further repay debts of gratitude for the work of the abovementioned preceding Buddhists in the classroom; he misses an opportunity to appreciate the work of all Buddhists, not just those aligned with his preferred practice.
But this is a small critique. The complete scope of Buddhism is not Browns agenda here. Instead, Brown stays with his familiarities to convey accessibility and applicability. In that, Browns Buddhism (and environment) courses, vignettes and appendices are offered to make his readers, students and himself more reflective, more aware, more mindful, more compassionate and, thereby, happier. While he does not reference certain Buddhists in the classroom who have come before him, we can almost hear him encouraging himself and practitioners in agreement with Ikedas (2004) lyric,
must be to enable
efforts and struggles
to blossom in happiness.
It must be to create
the peaceful stage
on which they may enjoy
the dance of life. (p. 112)
Brown, B. (1994). Toward a Buddhist ecological cosmology, In M.E. Tucker & J.A. Grim (Eds.), Worldviews and ecology: Religion, philosophy, and the environment (pp. 124-37). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Ikeda, D. (2004). Fighting for peace: Poems by Daisaku Ikeda. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Books.
Henderson, H., & Ikeda, D. (2004). Planetary citizenship: Your values, beliefs and actions can shape a sustainable world. Santa Monica, CA: Middleway Press.
Kaza, S. (1999). Keeping peace with nature. In D. W. Chappell (Ed.). Buddhist peacework: Creating cultures of peace (pp. 81-91). Somerville, MA: Wisdom.
Makiguchi, T. (1981-88). Makiguchi Tsunesaburo zenshu [The complete works of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi]. Tokyo: Daisan Bunemeisha.
The writings of Nichiren Daishonin. (1999). Tokyo: Soka Gakkai.
Tucker, M. E., & Williams, R. W. (Eds.). (1997). Buddhism and ecology: The interconnectedness of Dharma and deeds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.