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The Dalai Lama And The Genius Of The West
Some time ago, I found myself on a warm evening in June in Boulder, Colorado, sitting in a big white tent on a camp chair. Directly in front of me was the Dalai Lama, who sat about fourteen feet away with nobody between us.1 As he spoke, our eyes met now and then, as I listened with growing delight to this eloquent, humorous, plain-spoken man talk about wisdom and the world. Most of the things he said were familiar: that love and compassion are human necessities, that forgiveness is essential, that Western education lacks a dimension of heart, that Americans need to rely more on inner resources. But some of his presentation was surprisingthat it is better to stick with the wisdom traditions of ones own land than to run from them pursuing in exotica what was under your nose all the time. At one point, with what looked to me like a mischievous gleam in his eye, he offered that he had always been made to feel welcome in Christian countries, but Christians were not so welcome in his own country. I suspect that many who were there primarily to add to their Buddhist understanding missed this pointed aside.
It was only when Tenzin Gyatso, fourteenth Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, came briefly to the structure, goal, and utility of Buddhisma location he spent no more than five minutes visitingthat I was able to see in somewhat sharp perspective where Christianity had taken a different path, and American Christianity a very different one. The goal of Buddhism was "happiness," he said, happiness was the key. The Dalai Lama divided major world religions into "God-religions" and "God-less" religions, with Buddhism in the latter category.2
His Holiness seemed to focus marvelously when in response to a question from the audience about how wealthy people and countries could find spirituality, he replied (again, I think, with a mischievous smile) that Buddhism, with its orientation toward comfortable situations, found it easier for rich people to be spiritual than poor ones! Tenzin Gyatso also tossed another bitter herb into the pot for those romantic souls who expected a continuous sweet presence in their lives from imported religious teaching which they felt lacking in their own, [saying, "Better not take someone elses religion, plenty wisdom in your own."] The Dalai Lama said at another juncture, as if talking to himself, that religion was not for every day; religion was for times of pain. As I recall, his exact words were, "Religion something like medicine, when no pain no need medicine; same thing religion."
The next morning, it was my turn to speak, and with the Dalai Lamas words fresh in mind, I framed the Christian road as one whose goal wasnt happiness in the usual sense. It was a road where wealth can be an obstacle to the ends of obedience to God, to loving neighbors as you love yourself, and to redemption through self-transcendence. Unlike Tibetan Buddhism, Western religion has no ultraspecific application, so it cant be compared with medicine. According to Christianity, religion is not a sometimes thing when you need it but a medium in which we act out our lives. Nothing has any meaning without religion. Remember, even if you violently disagree with what I just said here, it isnt relevant to this discussion. I feel no urgency to convert you to anything. My purpose is only to show that the wisdom tradition of American Christianity has something huge to say about where weve misstepped in mass compulsion schooling.
The neglected genius of American Christianity has taken on greater urgency for mea lapsed Roman Catholicas I enter old age because it doesnt take much wisdom to see that Americans have been substantially broken away from their own wisdom tradition by forces hostile to its continuance. No mechanism employed to do this has been more important than the agency we call public schooling. In neglecting this wisdom tie we have gradually forgotten a powerful doctrine assembled over thousands of years by countless millions of minds, hearts, and spirits, which addresses the important common problems of life which experience has shown to be impervious to riches, intellect, charm, science, or powerful connections.
Wherever I go in the United States these days I hear of something called the crisis of discipline, how children are not motivated, how they resist learning. That is nonsense, of course. Children resist teaching, as they should, but nobody resists learning. However, I wont dispute that schools are often in chaos. Even ones that seem quiet and orderly are in moral chaos beyond the power of investigative journalism thus far to penetrate. Disconnected children underline schools failure as they come to public attention, so they must be explained in some way by authorities.
I dont think its off the mark to say that all of us, whatever else we disagree upon, want kids to be disciplined in the sense of exercising self-control. That goes for black mothers in Harlem, too, despite the scientific religion of schooling which believes those mothers to be genetically challenged. But we all want something besides just good behavior. We pray for discipline in the more specialized sense of intellectual interests and skills well enough mastered to provide joy and consolation to all our livesand maybe even a buck, too.
A discipline is what people who drink vermouth cassis instead of red whiskey call a field of learning, like chemistry, history, philosophy, etc., and its lore. The good student is literally a disciple of a discipline. The words are from the Latin disciplinare and discipulus. By the way, I learned this all from a schoolteacher in Utica, New York, named Orin Domenico, who writes me, and I pay attention. In this discipline matter, Im Orins disciple.
The most famous discipline in Western tradition is that of Jesus Christ. Thats true today and it was true fifteen hundred years ago. And the most famous disciples are Jesus twelve apostles. What did Christs model of educational discipline look like? Attendance wasnt mandatory, for one thing. Christ didnt set up the Judea compulsory school system. He issued an invitation, "Follow me," and some did and some didnt. Christ didnt send the truant officer after those who didnt.
Orin tells me the first characteristic of this model is a calling. Those who pursued Christs discipline did so out of desire. It was their own choice. They were called to it by an inner voice, a voice we never give students enough time alone to possibly hear, and thats more true of the good schools than it is of the bad ones. Our present system of schooling alienates us so sharply from inner genius, most of us are barred from ever being able to hear our calling. Calling in most of us shrivels to fantasy and daydreams as a remnant of what might have been.
The second characteristic of Christs discipline was commitment. Following Jesus wasnt easy. You had to drop everything else and there was no chance of getting rich. You had to love what you were doing; only love could induce you to walk across deserts, sleep in the wilderness, hang out with shady characters, and suffer scorn from all the established folks.
The third characteristic of Christs model of discipleship was self-awareness and independence. Christs disciples werent stooges. They had to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions from the shared experience. Christ didnt give many lectures or handouts. He mostly taught by his own practice, and through parables open to interpretation. Orin, my coach, personally doubts Christ ever intended to start an institutional religion because institutions invariably corrupt ideas unless kept small. They regiment thinking and tend toward military forms of discipline. I dont think hes right about Christs intention, but its hard to disagree about institutional pathology.
Finally, Christs model of discipline requires a master to followone who has himself or herself submitted to discipline and still practices it. The way Orin puts it is this: Christ didnt say, "You guys stay here in the desert and fast for a month. Ill be over at the Ramada. You can find me in the bar if you need help." He didnt begin his own public life until he was almost a rabbi, one fully versed in his tradition.
One way out of the fix were in with schools would be a return to discipleship in education. During early adolescence, students without a clear sense of calling might have a series of apprenticeships and mentorships which mostly involve self-education. Our students have pressing needs to be alone with themselves, wrestling against obstacles, both internal demons and external barricades to self-direction.
As it is, we currently drown students in low-level busy work, shoving them together in forced associations which teach them to hate other people, not love them. We subject them to the filthiest, most pornographic regimens of constant surveillance and ranking so they never experience the solitude and reflection necessary to become a whole man or woman. You are perfectly at liberty to believe these foolish practices evolved accidentally or through bad judgment, and I will defend your right to believe that right up to the minute the men with nets come to take you away.
1The occasion was a Spirituality in Education conference at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in 1997. The gathering, at which I was asked to speak, was non-sectarian.
2The reader is expressly cautioned not to infer that I mean to imply Buddhism is either hedonistic or with- out moral foundation.
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