Basic Elements of Buddhist Education: Selected extracts from teachings given by Ajahn Jayasaro to Thawsi and Panyaprateep Schools
1. On Buddhist Wisdom
Meaning of wisdom in Buddhist education
Rather than an education system which is geared to testing and to competition and to preparing people for a particular livelihood, the emphasis of Buddhist education is on teaching children how to learn, how to enjoy learning, to love wisdom for its own sake. It teaches them the emotional maturity enabling them to make use of their knowledge to create a happy life for themselves and their family and to contribute positively to the society in which they live. It in no way compromises on the work of preparing children to make a good livelihood, but it lets them see that life is deeper and richer than working in order to consume.
It seems that these days more and more employers are not looking so much for people with proficiency in a particular area as much as smart, intellectually flexible people who know how to learn new things and can adapt to the changes in new technologies and changes in society. This is because many of the things people learn in schools are out of date by the time they start working, and because in a knowledge-based economy freshness of vision, creativity and innovation are given the highest value.
In order to flourish in the world it’s not then a matter of merely accumulating a body of knowledge, so much as cultivating a strong but supple mind and the ability to develop life skills such as skillful communication, the ability to work in a team, patience, resilience (the ability to bounce back after disappointments), the ability to manage one’s moods, and to protect the mind from pride, arrogance, greed, hatred, depression, anxiety, and panic. These abilities are being increasingly recognized as being more useful and necessary in the long run to a successful working life rather than having a particular degree under your belt. It’s becoming clear to what extent a lack of emotional maturity and self-knowledge amongst people in positions of authority undermines the advantages that they should derive from a cultivated intellect.
This is why Buddhist education is not at all idealistic. It is not meant to produce unworldly people, virtuous but unable to cope in the so-called ‘real world’. It is rather based on the conviction that the Buddhist developmental process which can in its fullness take someone all the way to enlightenment, on a scaled-down level provides the best possible kind of education for ordinary people.
2. What are the Four Elements of Bhavana or the so-called Education in four areas ?
The first two are external:
The first area of education entails learning about the physical world in which we live and developing a wise and balanced relationship towards it. The physical world in this context begins with the physical body. Students learn about the body, and how to take care of it. They learn the importance of nutrition, exercise and moderation, how to deal with physical needs and wise cultivation of the senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching
The second level concerns those elements of the physical world that students have to deal with every day and directly influence their well-being. It includes their relationship to money, personal possessions such as toys, clothes, mobile phones, computers and the internet.
The third level concerns the relationship with the environment and responsibility to the well-being of the planet on which we live.
This area of education would thus encompass such subjects as nutrition, physical exercise, sport, biology, time management, computer studies, maths, art, physical sciences, geography, environmental studies etc.
The second area entails learning about developing a wise and balanced relationship to the social world. It includes teaching the foundations of Buddhist morality as a scheme for living together wisely with trust and integrity, communication skills, language skills, sociology, history, community service etc.
The second two areas of education are internal:
This third area deals with emotional development: developing skillful means to reduce and abandon negative emotions, and to bring forth and cultivate positive emotions. It includes strengthening the ability to restrain negative impulses, promotion of the wholesome desire for truth and goodness, patient endurance, resilience and good humour, meditation practices to enhance mindfulness, inner peace and clarity of mind, the promotion of loving kindness and compassion.
The fourth and the last area concerns the development of the wisdom faculty itself, the gem of the Buddhist tradition. It includes training the ability to think with reason and without bias, to think creatively and freshly, to think constructively about one’s thinking, to be able to reflect on experience and learn from it. Ultimately, it means developing the ability to look directly at the way things are free from conceptual proliferation.
These four types of cultivation carried to the highest level result in enlightenment—the attainment of the ultimate peace, unlimited wisdom and compassion. In a conventional educational system, the effort is to create an atmosphere, an environment, a curriculum which are in harmony with the Buddhist path to enlightenment, but adapted appropriately to the needs and capacity of school students.
3. On rote learning versus memorization
First of all, rote learning must be separated from memorization. It’s been recognized for thousands of years that memorization of texts is a very useful element in an education system for a number of reasons.
The first one is that it is a very good mental exercise. You have to be very patient. You have to apply yourself, and memorizing things is a good work-out for your brain. It helps to teach the student how knowledge can be systematized, categorized and summarized most effectively.
But memorization is just the first step. The next stage calls for the student to master the material, digest that information, so that it there at his disposal, ready to be used as the raw material for logical analysis or creative thinking.
Creative thinking doesn’t arise in a vacuum. You need to have raw materials at your fingertips, not in a book or in a computer somewhere, but right within you. When you can draw upon that information effortlessly then your ability to think on the spot, to deal with unexpected situations, is greatly enhanced.
Memorizing information also gives students a great deal of confidence. It is empowering to a student to feel that she’s on top of her subject, that she has the information and tools that she needs to fulfill tasks successfully.
The valid criticisms of memorization are really of learning things just because you’ve been told to, without any real interest in them, and then not being taught how to process and apply that information. When this occurs then the student learns things and then soon forgets them, (does this sound familiar?). This problem is not restricted to the Thai education system either.
It is a false idea that Western schools are full of kids who are incredibly creative, and don’t just memorize things like Thai children. I see a general over-estimation of the education system of Western countries, and assume it to be conditioned by the fact that most Thai people who send their children to school in the West are wealthy enough to send them to the best private schools. Comparisons with the teaching provided in such institutions to that provided by the public education system in this country are therefore unfair.
The original Buddhist system, based upon which the Thai education system was taught in monasteries for hundreds of years, emphasized memorization of texts followed by questioning, discussion and debate. The idea is that once you learn something, you talk it through, you discuss it, you question it, you look at it from different angles, you assimilate it, and make use of it.
This Buddhist approach can be found in the records of the great universities in India, such as Nalanda. It also survives to the present day in the monastic training provided in many Tibetan monasteries.
4. On Creative Thinking in Buddhist Education
The creativity we are interested in is part of a larger process. Having defined a particular goal, we gather necessary information, create various possible strategies or solutions, and then put them to the test.
Creativity here is dependent on a mind that is neither fixated on old ways of doing things, or on new ways. It is free from self-consciousness. It is fuelled by a love and interest in the task, and grounded in appropriate knowledge and skill.
A good example of creative thinking is the traffic lights which have a countdown so that motorists don’t have to get so tense when they are waiting for the light to change color. This development is based on a recognition that we find it easier to accept certainties (another thirty seconds to go) than uncertainties (how much longer? How much longer? Come on!).
Starting off with the fact that drivers get tense at traffic lights and with a goal of reducing that tension, the inventor used his knowledge of human psychology, together with practical knowledge and skills to come up with an elegant and effective solution.
The kinds of creativity that come from the ability to step back from the situation, look at it afresh, look at it from a different angle, are the kinds of creativity that can be cultivated, particularly through Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We develop the ability to look within, to let go of unnecessary thoughts of the past and the future, to be able to dwell unwaveringly on an object, to put down the habitual thought processes and dwell in a fertile state of clarity and mindfulness.
This is peace— not a kind of dull, dreamy kind of peace, but a very sharp bright awareness. You may be familiar with the hyper-realist school of art, those pictures with incredibly sharp definition. That sharpness is comparable to the clarity of the mind which has been well educated.
5. Does an education based on Buddhist principles risk compromising academic excellence.
In a word, no. I would say that the idea that the two should be in conflict reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of Buddhism. To explain why the very opposite is true it may be necessary to enquire into the assumption behind the question. It’s interesting to observe how many western ideas and attitudes have quietly slipped into Thai culture. Apart from the more obvious ones concerning dress and behaviour, there are others that have come in under the radar, and a number of those concern ethics and religion. Buddhists are increasingly looking at Buddhism with non-Buddhist eyes.
This is a good example because in the west, religion and rationality have long been seen to occupy different spheres. This has led to the prejudice that to be good is to be a little bit stupid. The saintly person is by definition seen to be naïve in worldly matters. There are lots of jokes and stories around about kind people being taken advantage of by the cunning and unscrupulous.
I don’t believe this coupling of goodness with a lack of intelligence is native to Buddhist cultures like Thailand. My suggestion is that it’s an import. One of the reasons for saying so is because if we look at the Pali word for goodness the term we find is kusala and the etymology of that word is intelligence. Built into the Buddhist’s view of life is the idea that goodness is intelligence, intelligence is goodness.
Following on from that we can say that if a foolish person is said it be good we must object that he cannot be good in the sense that we mean. Similarly, if a person is considered intelligent but his conduct is not characterized by goodness, then it’s a false, counterfeit kind of intelligence. So what does ‘kusala’ or ‘goodness’ really mean? It is often said these days that all religions teach people to be good, and therefore they’re all basically the same. But that’s a lazy and superficial way of looking at things because it begs the question of what is goodness. Does everyone who uses this word mean the same thing?
In Buddhism, we say that kusala or goodness is that which involves the abandonment or absence of unwholesome and defiled states of mind, and involves the cultivation or presence of the wholesome states of mind. In other words, any act of body, speech or mind which is based on greed, hatred and delusion is neither good nor intelligent, whereas any act free from or leading to freedom from greed, hatred and delusion are both.
For that reason, stressing goodness in the Buddhist sense means stressing intelligence. Teaching children to adopt boundaries for their actions in the world based on integrity and kindness is not just about being good. It is pointing out to them that keeping such standards is the most intelligent way that we can live in society both for our own peace of mind, self respect and also for the happiness and welfare of the community that we live in.
The inner development I outlined above— of the emotions and wisdom —provides a clarity of mind, an inner peace and lack of ego and selfishness which means that we see things more clearly, have uplifting principles to live by, and are motivated and able to contribute to society constructively. A person who follows the Buddhist path correctly will not be corrupt. Corruption is not only bad, but seen in the light of kamma rather than immediate financial reward, is deeply unintelligent.
When people talk about Buddhist education as being unrealistic, one may ask them: “What is a more direct, effective, intelligent way of dealing with the causes of corruption—a huge economic and social problem in this country as everyone knows—than dealing with the minds of young people before they become corrupted?”
The analogy here is of vaccination. Through inspiring children with the nobility of being honest, and in pointing out to them the consequences of dishonesty, they begin to feel it is unacceptable and shameful. I am not, of course, advocating brainwashing children into developing an unthinking emotional prejudice. These wholesome emotions arise as a byproduct of wise reflection. In short, one goal of Buddhist education is to encourage people to be too intelligent to be corrupt.
Academic knowledge is not inherently ethical. People with university degrees are no less likely to be dishonest than those who lack them. But when academic knowledge is developed within the framework of a mature value system and forms one part of a child’s overall development it may be hoped that the child will put that knowledge to work in a way that will lead to true benefit for herself, her community and the society in which she lives.
6. The role of teachers in Buddhist education
Important principles here are to practise what you preach and to be a good example. Students tend to work a lot harder, and to enjoy those lessons in which they like and respect the teacher, and in which the teacher shows both a real love of the subject they are teaching and a genuine interest in communicating that love.
We can easily overlook the fact that what we communicate when we teach is not confined to the words we use; perhaps the most important thing we communicate is who we are. Teachers who see the value of an ethical and spiritual dimension to their teachings must, to the best of their ability, learn to embody the values they are promoting. When teachers show kindness, patience, fairness and firmness, enthusiasm and clear thinking in their relations to their pupils, they are in effect teaching these values, even if they rarely mention them by name. For this reason I would say that for Buddhist teachers a commitment to the study and practice of the eightfold path is essential.
The idea of the teacher in Buddhism is of the ‘good friend’ or ‘kalyanamitta’, someone who has the particular qualities that nourish the student and create the most conducive environment for learning to take place. The kalyanamitta teacher exudes a warmth and kindness that makes students enjoy being with them. The affection the students feel is, however, tempered by respect and appreciation of the teacher’s knowledge and inspiring qualities. The student feels that their progress in their studies is due in no small part to the teacher, and they look towards the teacher as an example, someone worthy of emulation.
The kalyanamitta teacher is patient with students’different personalities, learning styles and varying capacities; he or she puts great effort into constantly developing skillful means of communicating with students, both verbal and non verbal, seeking ways of explaining things most suited to the students’ capacities, both as a group and as individuals. The kalyanamitta teacher never harms the students in any way.
On leaving school, a child should be able to say of at least one teacher, “I’m so glad I knew that teacher. I’ll never forget that teacher and what he or she did for me”. Many of us are fortunate enough to have had such teachers, and we know that we will always remember them. Teaching is a wonderful profession. You know that you can have a positive effect on people’s lives; not just through the time that they’re learning with you, but right throughout their lives and careers, until they have their own children and grand children as well.
The ‘kalyanamitta’ ideal means not only that teachers try to be ‘a good friend’ to their students but also to extend that same integrity and kindness in their relationships with colleagues and parents. In other words we are trying to create a culture of good friendship. We seek to model a community informed by sincerity, kindness and wisdom. It is one in which the warmth of metta and compassion is balanced by the passion for truth and understanding.
7. International curriculum and education in Thailand
It is still early days to make judgements, but one reservation I do have is that being essentially a form of education restricted to more wealthy families it may create some division between those children who have had this kind of special English medium education and those who have been through the conventional Thai-based system. So much of a culture and its values are transmitted through language that if children start to think and express themselves more readily in a second language, then we may need to ask what long-term effects that will have on society. What will happen if increasing numbers of children grow up with little sense of identification with and interest in their own culture? It is a subject our academics need to be gathering information on.
Most international schools are run on secular lines, but that does not mean that they are value-free. Emphasizing those subjects that will prepare the child for entrance into a global economy, and de-emphasizing the study of such things as history, culture, moral, emotional and spiritual development, entails a certain attitude to life. The concern is that if the economic dimension of life is being given too much importance, the student may go on to conceive life primarily in terms of being a successful producer and consumer of goods and services. To my view that would be a shame.
I would expect that an answer to the points above would be that the inculcation of cultural values etc. is the responsibility of the family. It is a private matter and not something to be taught in school. But it would be interesting to know just what percentage of families are able to provide such guidance. It must be said that the general understanding of Buddhism in Thailand today is depressingly low. When the capacity of parents to explain Buddhadhamma to themselves is so limited, to what extent can we hope that they will be able to explain it to their children? If you believe, as I do, that the Buddhist tradition and teachings are the most wonderful resource that this country possesses, then you may see that neglecting them will be to the peril of the well-being of the whole country.
Many parents now see the international schools as superior to other options, and see the advantages of such an education they provide as outweighing the disadvantages. That is, of course, their right. Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile for them to keep an eye on those areas where their child is not getting instruction, particularly in the realm of life-skills as opposed to academic skills, and try to supplement that lack as best they can.
8. Buddhism is perceived as leading to peace, contentment and few desires. Is this not an obstacle to development?
In Buddhism, we talk about two different kinds of desire. When you lack understanding of something or misunderstand it, then immediately a false desire arises in your mind— what we call ‘tanha’ or ‘craving’. When, however, you have a clear understanding of something, when your mind is at peace, it cannot be stressed enough that the result is that the mind does not become inherently passive, but rather gives rise to a wholesome form of desire, called chanda.
Chanda, in this context, refers to a desire based on an intelligent appraisal of the situation and powered by compassion. It manifests as a desire for truth, a desire to do good, to perform one’s duties well and to create happiness and benefit for oneself and those around you. This you can see clearly from the great monks and from people who have devoted themselves to Buddhist practice throughout their lives. These people don’t just sit back and take it easy. In fact, quite the contrary.
A common assumption is that being peaceful, having few desires or being contented implies a sort of lazy, passivity - anything is alright, everything goes. I see this as another one of those western ideas that has insinuated itself into Thai society. In fact, contentment leads to judicious effort. It means not just doing something because you can do it, and because you’re too restless to sit still; not doing something merely to satisfy cravings for wealth, power and fame, but applying yourself diligently to activities that you have decided are worthwhile with an interest and joy in the task itself rather than the rewards that may come when the task is completed.
The more contented, and at peace with oneself a person is, the more likely the work that he or she does, will be done well, done honestly and will not lead to the harm of self or others.
The idea is that the ending of craving is not the ending of all kinds of desires. It is the ending of unwholesome and negative desires. But the positive desires actually become purified rather than disappearing altogether.
9. Is it unrealistic or even detrimental to a child’s best interests to emphasize goodness and virtue if they will have to live their lives in a harsh and very unfriendly environment?
Very often it seems that the emphasis on the cut-throat competitive nature of modern society is overdone. It’s not really as bad as all that. It is just not true that people who try to live a good life with integrity and kindness necessarily put themselves at a disadvantage. If you are honest in your business dealings, for instance, yes you may miss out on some contracts that you might have got if you had been willing to be more deceitful or dishonest; but at the same time, in the long run, you get a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, and in certain situations that gives you a clear competitive edge.
Wouldn’t you rather do business with someone you can trust? So the ethical person may miss out in some areas but gain in others. Anyway, if this society is one in which there is a lot of dishonesty and corruption, then surely we have a responsibility to try to do something about it, at least in our own lives. We don’t have to just sadly shrug our shoulders and adapt to what should be unacceptable. There are no fixed permanent situations, everything is conditioned. We are not just moulded by society, we can help to mould it.
You have a choice whether you want to increase and to contribute to the dark side of society or do you want to add your efforts and energy to the other side - the bright side. Where do you want to make your stand? The important question to ask is how you can make a living in the world and maintain your self-respect.
How can you live your life in such a way that when your children grow up and they ask ‘how did you make your money?’ and you can look at them in the eyes, and be quite honest with them. You don’t have anything to hide, anything to feel ashamed of. You can look back on your life, and you can think, ‘yes, I may not have achieved the very best, or reached the very top of the tree, but I have led a good life and I did a lot of good things and overall I am proud of how I have lived my life’.
I think if you can reach that point, irrespective of how much money you’ve got in the bank, then you’ve had a successful career.