Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the Buddha was a teacher, too ~

Yesterday in the undergraduate class I teach, everyone was quiet. Working. Drawing and colouring.  Thinking. I often use ‘childish’ tools and practices in my classes, even though I teach university students. Or retired adults. I do this because of the effects: it makes learning almost effortless. The assignment wasn’t easy ~ to construct a metaphor for what your portfolio shows about your writing (thus what you’ve learned) this semester. I asked them to draw and colour this ‘metaphor,’ calling the whole process ‘drawing the arc of your portfolio.’ What would have been an ‘OMG!’ moment instead became a moment of discovery, of happy sharing and quiet intention.

The entire room was raptly writing.  Open windows flooded the room with autumn light. Music from one student’s laptop gave us a soundtrack from Florence & The Machine. This is when a writing teacher’s heart is happiest ~ when the room is broken only by the clatter of pencils, the soft swishing of crayons and pastels on paper. An occasional walk to the centre of the room to pick up new colours, or another of the home-made chocolate chip cookies one of my students had brought to share. Writing as learning.

I’m not sure why this kind of learning — learning that’s engaging, where you’re comfortably  enjoying the process — isn’t felt to be ‘rigourous.’ Why must learning be ‘not-fun’ to be legit? What dark legacy of Puritanism is this, that the joyous exploration of knowledge we have at 2, or 3 or 4, should become hated slogging by 20, 30, or older…

It’s much the same way, I think, w/ beginner’s heart. If we’re enjoying our practice, if we begin to feel good about compassion, or derive pleasure from helping someone else, we begin to question our motives. Am I in this for the strokes? we ask ourselves. What if my motives aren’t pure?

But when I pet the cat’s silky fur, I give us both pleasure. Do I pet the cat just to feel the softness on my own skin? Don’t I also enjoy the throaty purr, and the cat’s happiness? Isn’t the tactile comfort just a bonus? Why is it we distrust the pleasure that giving pleasure brings?

Every day I teach, it’s my beginner’s heart that learns the most. I think about the Buddha, teaching us 2,000 years ago  how to be happy. And I’m absolutely certain that brought him happiness. I also bet he did not disavow that happiness. But he may not have had a third chocolate chip cookie…

an Okie girl finds the Buddha ~

Occasionally people ask me how (why?) I became a Buddhist. And the deal is… I didn’t, actually.At least , not until quite late, and then only if you count my bodhisattva vow a few years ago. Long after I identified as a  Buddhist, in other words.

So what turns an Okie girl, raised in the Methodist church (at least some of her life), into a Buddhist? How did I go from competitive Bible verse memorisation and vacation Bible school to following my breath? Or have I been a kind of Buddhist since I was a small girl, growing up in a villa on a street in a city far, far away…?

I grew up, I wrote once, in a house with bars on the windows. In a country whose very name has come to mean war, for Americans ~ Việt Nam. Buddhism, Taoism, animism and Catholicism were all around me. They smelled like incense and strings of flowers and rice and rain. Protestantism was, by far, the least interesting option. Protestant Sunday School was held at the American School. Another kind of school — albeit w/ colouring, just held on Sunday.

The Buddhist temple I remember was carved from the ropy interior of a banyan tree, at the zoo. Inside, a saffron-robed monk — like the ones who came each day to the iron gate at the end of the drive, holding out their bowls for rice and vegetables — burned incense to the Buddha. This, I remember thinking, this is where God lives. And it may have been. But the Buddha lived there, too.

As a child, I went with the family servants — the cook Chị Tám who ran our house like happy clockwork; the amah, Chị Bốn, her niece; the baby amah, Chị Ba; the driver and the gardener and all the people who made our house the happy mash-up it was — to Taoist temple; to offer paper clothes to the ancestors at Tết; to serve the Buddhist monks who came early each morning for the food served them in their beggar bowls. And I went with Jeannie Adams to catechism and mass, when I stayed over w/ her. And to Hindu temple with Chantharack, my best friend in 3rd grade.

And when we went back to Oklahoma, which soon ceased to feel like home, I went to the small rural Oklahoma church where my cousins went, walking from my grandmother’s house south, up the hill and over the railroad tracks. I had access to more religions than most children know exist.

They all seemed a lot the same: you offered your money, your incense, your prayers or mantras, and you promised to be better. To do better. And then you tried to keep your promise. I liked that the Catholics got to go tell on themselves — confession is a bit scary, but very good catharsis. And I liked that we sang with the Methodists and other Protestants.

But from the very beginning, I felt at home with the Buddhists. And when the Buddhist monk set himself on fire, just around the corner from the villa where we lived, to protest a war I knew very little about as a child, I felt some kind of door open. This, I remember thinking, this is true faith. This is what people who care about others can do.

I am not the stuff of martyrdom, I assure you. But I believe deeply in standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. And social protest was something I recognised as immensely powerful even when I was a young child. It is, I think — coupled with the banyan tree, and the visceral mystery yet practicality of Buddhism — what caught me.

So that’s the start, the ‘once upon a time’ part. There are other reasons, but it really all began, like the movie say, long ago & far away….

the study of letters ~

I’ve always wondered what those of us w/ degrees in the letters — language arts, some folks call them — should call ourselves. History has historians. Science has general scientists, as well as botanists, biologists, micro-biologists, physicists, chemists, etc. We have English majors, English teachers. And for those of us who write, writers — both poets & novelists. In other words? What exactly do English majors do?

It came to me, as I was reading an article about ‘guerrilla librarians‘ at Occupy Wall Street. Good English majors — and w/ all due modesty, I’m a pretty decent one :) — are scholars. We’re the ultimate curious two-year-old, always asking ‘Why? Why? Why?’ If you send me a link, give me a book, offer me a story, and it doesn’t seem… well, plausible, I’m going to look it up. It’s the way I’m made, really. Which is probably what sent me in to English. Books have always been my reality test — even fiction. If it can be imagined, it can happen. And if there’s information out there on it, I’m going to find out.

Journalism is similar, but more ‘useful.’ When I was a medical journalist, people were interested in what I found to be true (dark chocolate is good for you, but only in moderation) and what is false (no real link between autism and vaccinations — honest). There’s far less call for folks who can find out that some esteemed scholar just made stuff up in a book on a famous poet (that happened, too).

I try to teach my students skepticism (an editor I had many years ago used to say — If your mother says she loves you, check it out). I also want them to learn that real life provides endless opportunities for research. So does religion (the whole argument over evolution rests in good part on a misunderstanding of the scientific use of the word ‘theory’). And this is good. But then, I’m a Buddhist — product of a Kalama Sutta mindset: don’t take the word of someone else for anything, just because they’re an ostensible expert (or religious figure). Test it yourself, and see if it works for you.

This is what Buddhism teaches, but it’s great overall pedagogy, as well. I tell my students often: I do several things kind of half-assed, but not scholarship. It’s important. Writing may open your heart, but scholarship — the ability to open your mind to multiple points of view, to search for the most likely of alternatives — will maintain it. It will help you sift truth from urban myth, light from darkness, love from intolerant gossip. And if we carry this curiousity and search for what is so with us, deep within our beginner’s hearts, we’ll do fine. It’s just one of many reasons I think good teaching is a sacrament…:)

suffer the little children… or, the consequences to bullying ~

I will caution you right now: if you believe it’s okay (for any reason whatsoever) to be mean to children in the name of religion, you should find to do other than reading further. Because this is my bit for socially engaged Buddhism, teaching, and my students, friends and family.

Michigan just passed what’s basically a ‘ no-consequences’ bullying bill. For more than 10 years, Michigan social conservatives like the American Family Association have fought any kind of anti-bullying bill, stating that it’s simply a ‘Trojan horse’ to promote the ‘gay agenda.’ In the meantime, 10 children have committed suicide, fatally wounded by homophobic bullies. One per year.

So what has Michigan finally done? Promoted a bill w/ no consequences for ‘religious’ bullying — read: “allowing students, teachers, and other school employees to claim that ‘a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction’ justifies their harassment.” I’m thinking this is NOT what Jesus meant when he said ‘suffer the little children.’ And I can’t help but contrast this attitude — it’s okay to what? Threaten children (because under 18 they’re all children) with the prospect of hell if theyact ‘butch,’ or ‘effeminate,’ or just ‘different’? — with ‘come to me, all of you who are heavy laden.’ Or ‘let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.’ Not to mention the Beatitudes…

The Michigan bill has enormous consequences if passed, if not for the bullies. Oklahoma is considering a similar bill. Where what you believe — your religion — exempts you from treating children with love and respect. Allows you to tell them they will go to hell, because of their sexual identity. (N.B.: please let’s not call it ‘sexual preference’ any longer, as it’s not a ‘preference,’ but  hard-wired into the self and mind and heart.)

I’d be interested in knowing how many parents would accept someone telling their children they were going to hell — which many religions believe about non-believers — because of the child’s choice of religion. If you believe that sexual identity is a choice, not in-born, then it resembles religion, which also is a choice. And I wonder what the parental reaction would be to someone telling a child of one denomination that s/he is going to hell. Over and over. For this ‘choice.’ I’m betting it wouldn’t be okay…

But it’s okay, apparently, to do this to children who ‘look’ or ‘act’ or ‘seem’ gay. Okay to single them out. Okay to make them ashamed of who they are. Okay to frighten them with threats of hell and damnation. And apparently Christian,at least in some people’s eyes.

A former student sent me a Facebook post. Attributed to Felissa Elfenbein’s FB page, the post asks you to crumple a piece of paper. Wad it up, stamp on it, really do a number on it. Now smooth it out as carefully and smoothly as possible. Tell it you’re sorry, and see how that erases the wrinkles, the scars from the mistreatment. Doesn’t help, does it? And our children are so much more fragile — and valuable — than paper.

The Michigan bill obviously is okay with many Americans. But I’m telling you as a teacher, as a mother, as the friend and relative of gay friends and family, it’s not okay with me. And it shouldn’t be okay with you, either. A religion that says it’s okay to hurt children is not a religion, but a license. And that’s not okay either.

 

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