Thursday, October 11, 2007


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….


Kat said...


What time and day are you speaking? I am a CSUF student in the Master's in Counseling program which is an extention of Character and Conflict. I'd love to sit in and here your talk.

It's such a delight to get to know you better every day. It is amazing to me to see colorful threads of connection so many of us share.

Paul said...

Your last two paragraphs here are insightful, instructional, and of value to me. I am discovering what it means to be a good teacher and the process is rewarding. Some qualities I didn't know I had are revealing themselves.

I'm also discovering - through observing and reflecting on some serious mistakes of another - that a good teacher is more than just appearance.

The best teaching is done by example. Not only do teachers have a vital role, they have an immense responsibility. As the saying goes, they must practice what the preach.

PeterAtLarge said...

Kat, I have no other way, it seems, of getting back to you. I'll be teaching in Dr. Stuart Bloom's classes this afternoon (3PM, I think) and tomorrow (morning, check the schedule.) I'd be delighted to meet you. Cheers, PaL

TaraDharma said...

your class offers people some valuable insights...what a service in the world this is.

i had a somewhat similar class in college back in 1980 called, "Birth of A Poet" taught by the beloved poest and philospher William Evers. We were instructed to keep "Dream Journals" and explore the self through dream interpretation. A pivotal experience in my young life. It still informs and affects me today.

Enjoy the class!

thailandchani said...

It sounds like a wonderful class! Imagine how different the world would be if everyone could take a class like that.



khengsiong said...

The best way to learn is to teach...

carly said...

K: A secondary way to learn is to teach, for talking does not insure clarity. Teaching has handed down many wrongful ideas. The best way to learn is by having an open and inquisitive mind, a thing only few people have naturally.

P: You may remember our talks about the soul and the spirit. I finally decided the soul is an invention of man, to describe in a tangible way something like an object that can be nurtured and modified by purpose and design, something that can be salvaged or saved. I don't put much stock in it, because it's a religious concept designed to suit the purposes of the church.

The spirit, on the other hand, is used to describe something that man indeed naturally has, wonder, awe, connection, and completion within the whole of things. The greater the spirit, the stronger the connection. So my definition ended up as, a gauge of how strongly connected a man is to his microcosm and the macrocosm.

Extend that idea and you cover all of the things you are talking about. I took a brilliant course in college in the Sixties called Existential Themes in Literature. My prof hammered the themes of disinterestedness, acting in bad faith, and above all, indifference. In my book, indifference, the root of existentialism, is the root of most problems and evil itself. Connectedness, depth of spirit, is the real salvation of man.

This is why I balk at Buddhism, to reach a state of mind that nothingness teaches the true nature of reality, is to disconnect. To compensate, a system of rules of behavior have been set up as a coda, which in essence is nothing new and covers the same ground as other religions, except for it's basic premise. Which sets up the argument that the trend of Buddhism is merely a temporary ascendence of this religion over others out of favor. So far, everything I have heard convinces me of this.

Therefore, I invest my good faith in everythingness and my connection to it, and having the beneficial integrity of strength of spirit is far superior to rules of conduct and speech, no matter what name given it.

PeterAtLarge said...

Carly, funny, my understanding of Buddhism is exactly the opposite: that it invites us precisely to connect with the oneness of everything. As a young man, I was much influenced by French existentialism, but abandoned it, eventually, because ot the hope-lessness at its bottom line. But the Sartrian "neant", or nothingness, is very different, as I see it, from the Buddhist understanding of emptiness--an eventual freedom from those things that attach us to an illusory reality, in which everything is impermanent, and therefore an unreliable aid in the search for happiness. As I see it, it's all about freedom, and not at all about nothingness in that Sartrian sense.

kai said...

I'm trying to teach the children about something regarding practices in buddhism but at the same time I'm also trying to learn the practices in buddhism. I think if I can showed that I did do it on a daily basis, then it might give them and myself a chance to think and act it out.
My blog is in mandarin. I just drop by.