This morning we leave early to head back down south. For the next couple of days I will be doing my twice-yearly teaching gig. For more than ten years now I have been invited to teach in a class at Cal State Fullerton called “Character and Conflict.” It’s the kind of class I wish I might have taken as an undergraduate student, back in the 1950s—though this kind of class, this kind of self-examination was virtually unheard of back then, particularly in England; it would have been an unwelcome addition to a university curriculum. From what I understand, it can still prove controversial. Best described, perhaps, as an introduction to the understanding of the self as an integrated whole, it challenges students to look into themselves and their relationships—with friends, with families, with life partners—and to find ways to heal those areas that may be broken. It treats such matters as pain, grief and anger seriously, as they deserve to be treated, and invites them to be brought out into the open rather than repressed, allowed to fester, and destroy lives.
When I say I wish I might have taken it, it’s because it took me decades to learn what these—mostly young—people learn in this one class in the course of a semester: that the integrated life is not lived in the head alone, but also in the heart and soul. For too many years, I remained closed to the possibility that I had either one of these, and it took a serious crisis in my family life to pull me up short and re-examine my assumptions. It took some serious work with other men who shared the same predicament to come to understand that we had an emotional life whether we paid attention to it or not; that we had a heart, and that its proper functioning was vital to our health—not to mention the health of our families.
And having rejected the notion that I had a soul after years at Anglican Christian schools and a home life presided over by an Anglican minister father, it took an initial brush with Buddhism to bring me around to the understanding that the spiritual life was also a part of that integrated whole; that without it I was something of a human cripple. I am grateful, now, that I was introduced to Buddhism more than ten years ago, and my life would be poor indeed without this spiritual dimension.
When I tell people that I will be teaching, the first question is almost always, What to you teach? My glib answer it, Myself. Which in a sense is true. I just go in there with a class of forty or so students and try to be as much myself as I can be. I tell them the story of my book, “While I Am Not Afraid’”—which most of them will have read by the time I make my appearance in their classroom—a book which follows me along the path described above, the path into the heart and, further, into the soul; and I try to answer any questions they have with all the honesty I can muster. It’s about the importance of not holding oneself back, of not hiding the feelings behind an armored chest, of speaking one’s truth.
I spent many years of my life as a teacher and, sadly for myself, I saw it mostly as a burden, something that had to be done in order to earn a living. One of the things I have learned from Buddhism is the importance of teaching and the vital role of the teacher. And one thing I have learned from life is that teaching is not about having some special knowledge and passing it on; it's about showing others who you are and what you believe and inviting them to share in it if they will. It’s a privilege to be invited to participate in the process of this class and, sometimes, I hope, to touch lives in the same way mine has been touched by those in my life who have truly taught me. It does mean, though, that my time is limited for the next couple of days, so don’t be surprised if you find me slacking off in The Buddha Diaries. Blessings all around….