Teaching Methodologies

Posted: 22/10/2017 by zandtao in Education, Insight, Meditation, ONE planet


I downloaded an eBook written by Edward Muzika entitled “Awakening and the Descent of Grace as part of my enquiry into awakening experiences, it turned out this guy has an internet presence operating as Edji.

When I started to read his eBook this jumped out at me “The awakening and deepening experiences are closely related to the experiences of the teacher; that is, you will experience awakenings similar to that of the teacher” [p5 of 82]. It is connected with my concerns over 5 Gateways which I reiterate is good stuff. 5 Gateways has a framework that I discussed here, I was worried that the framework creates the type of awakening experiences. This is exactly what is contained in Edji’s quote.

This made me consider teaching methodologies in the spiritual world. In the spiritual world I remember this interaction. At one stage I was close to a monk who was running a useful “Buddhist church”. He regularly delivered Dhamma talks that I used to attend – standard format, meditation, the Dhamma talk where the audience listened in silence, questions at the end – not usually any and if there were they appeared not enquiry but for the sake of having questions – fill the time.

We were close enough that he invited me to interview for a job teaching monks maths, they were attending a monks’ university and would probably end up teaching. Whilst up there he invited me to attend one of his “lessons” on the dhamma to the young monks. I thanked him and suggested that I do a teacher observation and evaluation, something that I had done regularly with good feedback from teacher colleagues in my department; I wanted some value from observing his lesson – watching only had little value. The lecture/lesson was good, the rapport with the students was good, but his reaction to my evaluation was poor. I began with the two positive comments just stated, and then pointed out minor issues (presented as such) in a 6-page report. There were no thanks. Professional teachers are expected to work with such evaluations and accept professional advice in a good interactional environment. With me they always seemed to, with this monk there was no response then.

There was however later. The monk ran a blog for his “church”. As a blog it was excellent, usually informative and well worth doing. However he made a mistake. On his blog he discussed a book by Tony Blair in which Tony had discussed Iraq. His blog bought what Tony had been peddling, and I sent a polite post questioning his stance. There was a polite response in which he made it clear that he did not wish to pursue discussion of Tony and his book – he did not retract the blog or make any personal retraction to me. Within the blog there were slightly bitter references to me as an educationalist. His church was worthwhile, pursuing the matter any further in public would only have been divisive and detrimental to the church, it was clear he was not interested in pursuing the matter privately; I did not attend the church again and he did not contact me to ask why.

To me the reaction contained ego, and also contained a failure to recognise professional teaching experience in the education system as relevant to his work at the monks’ college.

I had a similar interaction with a macrobiotic counsellor but the details are much hazier so I won’t go into them. What I got from the counsellor was that my professional experience as a teacher had no relevance to his counselling.

When I read Edji’s quote I began to think about teaching methodologies in the spiritual world. Professionally, do they stand up?

Here is the person I most consider my teacher, Ajaan Buddhadasa, giving a talk to western students:-

His teaching style is very formal, he gives a dhamma talk in silence following on from meditation (or meditation at the end).

This style would be typical of Theravadin monks in Thailand – he was Thai. Ajaan Buddhadasa is not connected with the Forest Sangha but many western Theravadin monks are connected with the Forest Sangha – as is Harnham Buddhist monastery. I have stayed at Harnham and the style of dhamma talks is typified in this picture. The abbott there introduced Dhammasakkacha in which people connected to the monastery (such as me) wrote a page on a topic such as renunciation – nekhamma that he briefly responded to. These stopped.

Here is Brad Warner, a zen monk that I used to follow, giving a talk:-

There is no doubt that Brad tries respectfully to break through many traditions. My interpretation of his dhamma talks is that they are not traditional but that they are dhamma – I liked that. I have never attended a talk of his nor have I been on a retreat with him but it is my understanding of his methodology that he talks to the group, and he has individual consultations.

Eckhart Tolle sits on stage and gives talks. He did an education thing with Oprah in which he discussed each chapter of his book “The New Earth” answering viewers’ questions and more.

I have attended gatherings with Krishnamurti. His talks appeared interrogatory in that he took a theme and explored it by asking questions and hoped that the gathering would explore themselves by asking the same questions. But he was on stage with an audience of hundreds – the questioning was rhetorical although I genuinely felt he wanted people to come up with answers for themselves.

Now here is Edji reclined in a comfortable chair giving a dhamma talk to a group of “students” connected to him by “video-conferencing” (I assume) – hence the computer on his lap.

Ed also uses the occasional expletive, and in this talk encourages people to be their own gurus.

I have attended talks given by Thich Nhat Hanh. In one his microphone wasn’t working properly and his English could not be heard, the Thai translation was clear. His dhamma is excellent but how could that have happened? How could he not have mechanisms in place to ensure that people could hear him? Something happened on stage, and I interpret it as this – I don’t know how true. Part way through a nun came on stage and tried to do stuff with the mike, I could see her trying to talk to him but she was summarily dismissed. She left with extreme embarrassment.

So a typical dhamma talk is didactic – a lecture in silence.

What am I getting at?

I begin by asking questions. My interaction with the monk makes me question that monk and points to questioning monks in general to accept advice from appropriate professionals, in this case professional advice on teaching methodology.

Where does learning occur? At the dhamma talk only minimally. It occurs when you sit and meditate. Learning is understanding when there is insight, when an idea is internalised. This might happen at a dhamma talk or it might happen in meditation. I described the monk’s group as a church. I attended that church for a while, and as with the catholic church I attended as a child there appeared little enquiry. It was worthwhile that this group met, that was sufficient.

I used to have what might be called dhamma conversations. In a non-silent retreat you might be chatting with a monk or others, and in that conversation you gain insight. Or on the road I have met other aware travellers, and there have been meaningful conversations, insight, learning and moving-on – the wonders of travel broadening the mind. I would describe these conversations as dialogue with the intent to learn or intent leading to a mutual conclusion (most conversations have no such intent).

Here is a non-learning situation that might arise. Sankhara diarrhoea or sankhara block – I think this particularly applies to western students (I have read similar from eastern teachers). Western minds especially fresh from education are so full of this and that, there is no way in for new stuff. I have often discussed this as intellect excluding insight.

You need empty silent minds to learn, not minds full of mental proliferations.

Many of the above giving talks claim to be Buddhist yet my interpretation of the Kalama sutta is that the Buddha said not to believe anything he says learn for yourself. When a talk is given what is expected of the listener, what is it that the listener is expected to learn?

What are the motivations of the listener? Ideally I would say that the motivations are connected with learning and experiencing what the Buddha taught. However as a Christian church wats are not places this happens. It is a social expectation to attend, and some, but few, move beyond. I chose the word church for the Bangkok monk, I did not feel spiritual drive.

The motivations of a learner are different but above I see motivations of a “teacher”. This requires analysis. One of the big problems with teaching is that teachers want to teach and they don’t always have sufficient emphasis on the student’s need to learn – I have met this often. It is not they don’t want the students to learn but the emphasis is on what they do and not what the student learns. Within education teaching methodology on this is changing, but in spiritual circles the main methodology is shut up and listen.

I had a discussion at Harnham. Learning to be a monk took 5 years. Potential learners went to the monastery and worked with the abbot for a while until they could accept that they would be “apprenticed” for 5 years. If they dropped out during the 5 years they were never allowed near the monastery again. There is good learning in this. But the emphasis is on learning to be a monk. This brings in the institutional question, are all monks seeking genuine truth? Are there institutional limitations? Retreats were offered, learning retreats as well as “being there” retreats.

But what is the objective of all these methodologies? And I offer a very dangerous answer – getting the learner to reach the inner guide. As I said this objective is seriously dangerous because it demands an integrity of the inner guide, and whilst a genuine inner guide has that there are so many selves and egos that could get in the way that this is a very dangerous objective.

What usually happens with the above methodologies is that the teachers present a right view (4NT one of the 8-fold path). But how is it received? Does the teacher demand insight, do they demand the necessity of the subjective? No, they can’t so what they are presenting is dogma, the right view of dogma, the safe view of dogma. And when it is dogma, how can there be inner guide?

There is a saying “Give a person a fish, s/he is not hungry that day, teach that person to fish and s/he is not hungry for life”. Dogma is words, words that might rest the “soul” for a day but the inner guide is a path for life. How many of the above teaching methodologies give an inner guide for life?

I have attended a number of dhamma talks and I cannot recall an emphasis on the inner guide – maybe I didn’t hear the emphasis. Some of Buddhism demands a guru. This makes a lot of sense, an inner guide without a guru has the potential to setup all kinds of egos and go in all kinds of wrong directions, but ultimately the guide has to surpass the guru. But for how many gurus is that the objective?

My awareness of inner guide as the teaching methodology came about as part of my recent home retreats – bhavana. But I first experienced my inner guide early in life. Following the path became a “mantra”. However whilst following the path I became a drunk, had dubious sexual encounters and various other selves that were clearly not “spiritual”. Yet I had an inner guide. Reaching the inner guide is not enough, there needs to be processes in place to make sure the inner guide is adhered – mindful processes. One obvious process is a guru promoting the inner guide, for others it is becoming a monk, but for most the inner guide emerges and the individual flounders around – much like I did. Yet reaching the inner guide has to be the objective. I have met recently a number of people whose life has been dominated by seeking. They have found gurus but not the inner guides nor any process that maintains the integrity of the inner guide. Without the guide it is difficult to see where they are going.

When you examine the teaching practices in the world of spirituality there are questions to ask. I contend the objective is to help the seeker find the inner guide but with that help ensure that the seeker has mechanisms that support the inner guide. Is that what is on offer?

Books:- Treatise, Wai Zandtao Scifi, Matriellez Education.

Blogs:- Ginsukapaapdee, Matriellez.

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