What Buddhist literature taught me about being a teacher and student

When encountering a new religion there is bound to be some self-discovery. I found the study of Buddhism to be frustrating because I was trying to connect to the text but my personal lens was causing misinterpretation. It is natural to want to connect personally with the material you are acquiring and try to find a way to use that material to enrich your life but I had trouble doing this with Buddhism. This does not mean to study Buddhism; one must become a Buddhist, quite the contrary. When studying another belief system the student needs to acknowledge their own beliefs and use that self-knowledge to understand the religion itself and not their reaction to the religion like I had done. My two major objections became my two valuable lessons. Studying Buddhism made me look at my life and I saw how applying what I learned would enrich my life in many areas. In the classroom, applying the two lessons I learned can enrich the experiences for both educator and students.

“The Dharma … (is) the path which helps us to transcend the prisons of ignorance, anger, fear, and desire. This path leads to freedom, peace, and joy. It enables us to love and understand all others. Understanding and love are the two most beautiful fruits of the Path of Awakening. The Dharma is the second precious gem” (Hanh, 186).

These lines are profound. When I first read them, I wrote them down because they sounded important. It was months later when I returned to this quote that I realized the depth of the message. To adequately unpack this quote would take a whole other paper but it contains the key to changing the way I understood Buddhism. The first sentence tells us that by following the path we will transcend the prisons of ignorance, anger, fear, and desire. This would indeed bring freedom, peace, and joy. We need to work on liberating ourselves from these four prisons in order to love and understand each other. It takes great humility to recognize your actions as based upon ignorance, anger, fear, and desire but to do so will help to realize what the right action should be. By understanding ourselves and overcoming our prisons, we can understand others and once we understand them, we can love them and give them compassion. By doing this, we are offering care and through care, we have authentic experiences that bring freedom, peace and joy to those we encounter in the world and in the classroom.

The two major objections that were blocking me from understanding Buddhism had to do with challenges and non-attachment. Once I understood why I had my objections; I began to be able to understand why my thinking was flawed and incorporate what I learned into my life. My first objection had to do with the suffering and effort required for enlightenment. This objection was easy to amend but the primary objection I had with Buddhism was not as easy to correct. This was because I couldn’t understand what the Buddha was teaching about non-attachment and how one could love without attachment.   It did not come quickly or easily but I began to understand what the Buddha meant and look at non-attachment from a new angle. With this new perspective I found a way to implement what I learned in the classroom, both behind and in front of the podium.

Resistance to hard work and sacrifice is purely human and I am extremely flawed and human. It is sometimes easier to reject a religion or idea for whatever reason than to admit that we are just resistant to effort. However, in order for something to have value, it must have a cost. If enlightenment could be had easily, it would have lost its meaning to the person that attempted to get the benefit without the work. I thought about my own life and pursuit of a doctorate degree while caring for two small children. This is a goal I would have never imagined myself attempting much less while raising a family and teaching at a community college. Education is a really big deal to me and my family and it is hard. It takes time, effort, and sacrifices but that is precisely why it has value. Having that degree acknowledges that the person was able to endure the sacrifices required for academic enlightenment. Looking at challenges as opportunities for growth helped me to embrace the challenges. My first objection went away and I learned to embrace my work as adding value to my accomplishments.

From the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” I realized that current suffering alleviates future suffering is also a part of this lesson of challenges and value.   In many of the obstacles I now face, I think back to one of the seemingly impossible paper deadlines I made or look at all that I have read for class and new challenges seem easier, less threatening. By facing today’s challenges we become more confident and open to new ideas and experiences which brings us closer to enlightenment. Some people have more fear, desire, ignorance, and anger to overcome; this is why we have different degrees of suffering we must endure to reach our enlightenment.

This lesson helped me to be a better teacher as well. The second part of the lesson, about compassion, love, and understanding seemed easy to me until I realized that in order to really show care and give value; I had to also challenge my students so that their experience would have value. Many people think that to be a caring teacher means to be nice but it doesn’t, it is so much more. It is easy to let people slide because you understand them and the trials that they face but to understand those trials yet still challenge them is difficult, for me. To love a person, to truly love them and give them care, you must also want them to grow, to attain their own enlightenment. I see now that to be a caring teacher, it is necessary to be tough as well as compassionate. Both actions require effort and both actions have value and lead to enlightenment. Challenging students but giving them the support to master those challenges is hard work but shows compassion, understanding, and love more than allowing them to take advantage of the care and compassion.

When the relationship between student and teacher is challenging and shows care mutually between student and teacher, it becomes one of those transcendent relationships that Tsyogal describes in her biography. I have had the fortune to have had three of these relationships with former teachers, each was an authentic teacher and each appeared in my life when I was able to devote myself as a disciple to their teaching. I know it isn’t as big as a spiritual teacher, but these three teachers shaped who I am today.   While reading “Lady of the Lotus~Born” I went to visit one of the teachers that was more of the Guru than mere teacher. I hadn’t seen her in ten years but like Yeshe, I think of her almost daily and often have conversations with her in my mind. She taught me the value of work and how to show care to your students and even after all these years, I felt humbled by her and her capacity to show love. Now as a teacher myself, I try to imagine myself giving care to my students the way she showed me and I am humbled to think that I may touch someone’s life the way she touched mine.

Just as people need different trials to prepare them to face future obstacles, people may be able to have different ways of living a life with non-attachment. This is actually debatable depending on which of the many lenses of Buddhism we are looking through. Each person brings something different when approaching enlightenment; this includes ability of what that person can endure. Non-attachment was very difficult and frustrating because I was looking at it from the wrong direction. Once I caught a glimpse of the meaning of non-attachment, I realized it was still very difficult but it made sense and could enrich one’s life, especially when combined with the first lesson.

While listening to the presentations in class and discussing reactions to the texts with my classmates, I realized I was not alone in my frustration with the text and not the only one that shared my misinterpretation of non-attachment. When I read “Old Path White Clouds,” I was angry with Gotami for leaving his family behind in order to attain enlightenment. I was not the only student to feel that he was being selfish not taking care of the family that his choices led him to create. I misperceived this action because it is a sacrifice I had to admit to myself that I was unwilling to make, instead of being selfish, this act was incredibly selfless. In our country, we honor our veterans that left their families often for undetermined periods of time in order to fight or maintain peace but see a man leaving his family for enlightenment as being selfish. Gotami’s intentions were more honorable since he had to be the one to find enlightenment and share the message. Also, unlike a soldier, Gotami was not putting himself at risk of being killed and leaving his family forever.

Gotami left his wife and son because his compassion for them and others allowed him to make that sacrifice to make the world better for all. This was extremely personal for me; it is an issue I face daily. I know that going to school and teaching will benefit my family and allows me to benefit society but being separated from my family is difficult. I don’t see my pursuit of education and self-improvement as a great boon to society like Buddha’s quest for enlightenment but I do hope that I will be able to make the world a better place for as many people as I can. I think about the teachers that I have and have had and I am so glad that they made the sacrifices to gain knowledge and share their revelations with myself and the other students. I have had the fortune to have had a few of those teachers that mentored me through love and care. It humbles me to think that I may have had such an intense impact on a person’s life as they had on mine.

My culture stresses the importance of family above all else, maybe even enlightenment. I desire to be with my family, this is something I have been unable and unwilling to transcend. Being separated from his family for an undetermined time was a sacrifice for Gotami and his family made because they believed it would benefit humanity. Non-attachment isn’t about severing ties with those that you love, it is expanding that love to all living beings. Buddha wasn’t saying that we had to love those we loved any less, we had to learn to love others with that same intensity but without desire or attachment. When we love “Compassion is the fruit of understanding” This is a pretty big idea to grasp and not easy, it may require sacrifices, I admit that I have a long way to applying this to my whole life but I have seen how to applying it in the classroom can deeply benefit the participants.

Since I thought that Buddha was saying that to attain enlightenment, one had to sever ties with their families, I thought he was saying we couldn’t care about those close to us. To avoid suffering was to not care about anyone. It seemed to contradict what was said in favor of compassion and love for others. I admit, I really misunderstood what I was reading. My cultural and personal road blocks to understanding non-attachment were profound and so was my misinterpretation. Instead of not caring for individuals, the bodhisattvas were to practice extending the greatest love and compassion they felt for those individuals to all living beings. Instead of living without passion, they were to live with passion for everything. To be mindful to the simplest details of life is to experience them, learn from them, not to label or judge them. Instead of running away from the world like I thought the bodhisattvas were doing, they were embracing the entire world.

If something is to have value, it can’t be too easy to attain and to extend compassion, love, and understanding to everyone is unquestionably valuable and difficult. Applying this passion in the classroom can also be very difficult and humbling at times, but that is why those experiences that challenge us are also the ones that can make better and closer to enlightenment.

As an educator, extending compassion, love, and understanding to all students means to care about the students. It isn’t just trying to make your students remember a bunch of fact or perform specific tasks; it is something much more profound and exciting. Being a caring teacher isn’t easy, it takes time and heart. It is a giving of the self and when done with the right balance of giving of self of both participants, enlightenment becomes closer for the student and teacher.

According to Victoria Zakrzewski there are shared qualities of caring teachers. Caring teachers share three characteristics and engage in two shared actions. There are also factors that affect the desire to care, the ability to care, and basically if the teacher will succeed or even attempt to show care. First of all, caring teachers listen and take a personal interest in their students. They are respectful and they are warm and approachable. To some this may seem basic but acknowledging these characteristics gives educators the characteristics to strive toward. Caring teachers also adapt curriculum to fit students’ interests and needs and provide extra help to students when necessary. These actions take extra time and effort but they make the learning experience better for the teacher because they get to learn from the students and challenge themselves to improve their quality of instruction. They also improve the learning experience for the students because they will have more interest, they will enjoy learning, and will benefit from the experience more thourougly.

Along with shared qualities, according to Zakrzewski, there are also shared needs in order for care to occur. In order for the teacher to have a desire to care, they need to understand the cultural beliefs of the students and find a way to identify with the one that needs the care. This is getting more specific here, not all students need the same amount of care. The most difficult students are often the ones that most need the compassion, love, and understanding that can be learned from Buddhist texts. Some teachers don’t have the ability to care. They may lack resources, ability to have make attachment, or they may not know how to give care since they have never received it. Care in the classroom is challenging both physically and mentally but it is extremely valuable and worthy of attempting.

After I read the article by Alexis Wiggins about embracing the most difficult moments as learning experiences. She was opened up to the idea by reading Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path with Heart.” Her interpretation of the book is “whatever crosses your path – no matter how terrible – Kornfield suggests treating that person or experience as a teacher giving you the lesson you most need in that moment” (Wiggins, 74). Not by judging things as bad or good, just as challenges to help you grow. This includes embracing those most difficult students. Wiggins relates a story about a student named “Jack” that challenged her but in the end, was one of the most rewarding students she encountered in her teaching career. She encourages teachers to embrace their “Jacks,” instead of fighting them, take the opportunity to learn from those that are a challenge. These students, the “Jacks” are the students that need the most compassion, love, and understanding and they are the most difficult to give that care to.

Reading about Wiggins’ “Jack” made me think of my own “Jacks” through the years, especially the years I taught on the Indian reservation. I remember students that I would cringe to see at school in the morning, knowing they would be in my class later that day. Now that I am able to look at those experiences through the lens of time and insight I realize how much each of those challenging students and experiences taught me. Like my first year when an often challenging student verbally assaulted me, yelling and cursing at me in class. I was surprised but I remained calm and walked the girl outside. There was another teacher in the room so I walked the student to the vice principal’s office and talked to her a little on the way, explaining to her why I would have to write her up and she understood and apologized. Later that day, the school counselor called me to let me know that the student had CPS at her house before school and she was dealing with some really heavy issues. Since I was able to remain calm and compassionate even in the face of threat, the girl and I became close. She was often in my classroom, talking and helping out. She wrote poetry and shone with an inner light. She passed away a few years ago from alcohol overconsumption, she was 22.   I learned not to take things personally and react, instead, realize that the individual that is challenging you may be dealing with bigger issues and just be using you to let out some of your anger. When teachers treat their students with compassion, love, and understanding they get the benefit of the lesson they need to learn. By taking the time and effort to understand instead of react, a relationship may be created and lessons learned for future situations.

These experiences of care are the type of learning that we read about in Yeshe Tysogal’s book – an authentic experience that has to have the right circumstances to occur. Both teacher and student have to be open for the enlightenment. It can’t be done easily and is a rare, special occurrence. That is why it has value and is full of challenges. It is done by expanding the care, the love, compassion and understanding that you would give to those that you love the most, even to yourself to the people that seek it.



Works Cited

Fremantle, Francesca, and Chogyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975. Print.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zakrzewski, Victoria S. “Developing teachers’ capacities to create caring relationships with students: A case study of a Gandhi-inspired private school in India.” Dissertation Abstracts International Section A 73. (2013). PsycINFO. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

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