A new school opening in Woodstock, NY, this September will offer a primary school education based on the Buddhist understanding of wisdom and compassion. The Middle Way School will be nondenominational and aims for high academic achievement while teaching Buddhist ethical frameworks and contemplative practices. It will begin offering kindergarten and first and second grade classes in the fall and will grow by one grade a year through the twelfth grade.

Made possible by a grant from the nonprofit Khyentse Foundation and guided by the teachings of Bhutanese teacher and filmmaker Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the Middle Way School intends to build a model for Buddhist education that can be replicated around the world.

Below, Tricycle talks to Middle Way School Executive Director Noa Jones about the school’s approach to education.

What do you think is the benefit of a Buddhist school?
There is currently no formalized education for children within the Buddhist tradition. So, at the very least, we’ll fill that gap. But it’s not just that we’re teaching Buddhism; it’s really about the methodology around the education. We will be working from the perspective of recognizing inherent buddhanature in a child rather than just trying to fill them up with knowledge. There are a lot of things in the dharma that I think could enhance education. That’s what we are exploring.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by recognizing the buddhanature in a child?
I think a lot of education comes from a perspective that the adult knows something and the child doesn’t know something, and it’s the adults job to fill the head of the child with information. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s guidance has been different. When explaining his view to me, he swept his arm across a table, pushing everything off, and said, “That’s what we are trying to get at.” We’re trying to clear away obstructions, so that the child’s natural brilliance will shine through.

But that’s just one element. Buddhism is also a tradition of inquiry, curiosity, and debate. It’s not that you’re supposed to simply accept the Buddha’s teachings. You’re supposed to test them, make them personal, and question the teacher. This concept of debate is really going to run through this educational method, in which we develop curiosity rather than squash it down.

In Catholic schools or yeshiva, there would be separate classes for religious studies and for math and English and so on. Will there be a separate sutra study class at the Middle Way School?
That’s a good question, and we’re still working out when things are going to happen. We’re going to grow by one grade each year. Right now, we have no intention of separating out and having special Buddhist classes with our first class of kindergarteners. For them, the Buddhist philosophy will be completely integrated into their regular education. But moving forward, when they’re 16 years old, they will have dedicated study, kind of like a shedra, or a Buddhist philosophy class. Also, there will be separate sitting practices or contemplative practices.

For science, Buddhist teachings will also be integrated. There will be a way of questioning from the Abhidharma [a highly analytical Buddhist text on philosophy dating back to the 3rd century] that you can bring into science. But that level of detail of the curriculum is still being worked out. We’re creating curriculum development teams for the fourth grade onward, where it really starts to get more academic.

Until they’re eight years old, the education will be play-based; in public school, they stop being play-based after pre-school. Some of the parents are telling us that their five-year-olds are already having exams. We will definitely not be giving exams to five year olds. You can learn so much through play, which is our basic philosophy for the early grades.

Is the play-based approach Buddhist inspired? Or is that just an additional thing?
It’s all inspired. There’s nothing written in Buddhist texts that says children should play until they’re 8, but Rinpoche said, “Play is so important. It’s not just the means, but it’s also the goal”—that they remain playful with how they live their lives. And there are all kinds of studies that back this up, that play supports cognitive and social development.

Why did you locate the school in Woodstock?
Woodstock has such a concentration of different Buddhist communities. Zen Mountain Monastery is here, and the Karmapa’s seat [at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra temple] and other people from the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism are here. And we have relationships with them. The original plan was to open a school in Bali, but I’m actually finding it much easier to work here. You’d think that in this litigious country that it would be more difficult to open a school, but they’re quite open. Once you start working on a nonformal, nonpublic school, the restrictions really open up. You’re quite free here.

Are there going to be nuns and monks among the teachers, or are you going to have all lay teachers?
In the beginning, we want professional early education teachers. It’s really, really important to us to have people that understand the developing child. And we’ve been lucky to find very strong practitioners who are also teachers.

We will also have Rinpoche and others do remote teaching through Skype or another means. And then we’ll probably have visiting spiritual masters come on a regular basis. We’re not intending to have our classroom instructors teach the dharma. When it gets to that point, we will have khenpos and geshes [monastics trained in the Tibetan Buddhist academic tradition] and roshis teaching the dharma.

What are the main concerns that you’re hearing from parents? It seems like they would be taking a risk sending their children to an experimental school.
It has been overwhelmingly positive. We had 70 people show up at our open house in March, and people are very excited about it. Some people said it’s the answer to their prayers. We have two families who are moving here so that their children can attend the school. Of course, when starting a new school, you have to have a certain tolerance for ambiguity, because I can’t tell you when exactly we’re going to start teaching Madhyamika [a school of Buddhism that emphasizes emptiness], for example. So, parents have to be OK with not knowing every single detail.

There’s a quote from Rinpoche on your website that says “to be a Buddhist is not of utmost importance for Buddhists. There isn’t one stanza in the entire Buddhist world that says, ‘May all become Buddhist.’” Can you unpack that?
The Buddha never said, “Oh, I hope everybody becomes a Buddhist.” And I don’t think most teachers walk around hoping that people will become Buddhists. What Rinpoche is saying is that they’ll realize their own buddhanature.

We want our students to be able to speak articulately about all the traditions of Buddhism, to understand its history, to understand the differences between the different yanas [Buddhist schools], to be able to pronounce things correctly, to know where to go to get information on the dharma—but that doesn’t make you a Buddhist. And we also want them to have some experience and some facility in doing the Buddhist practices, including knowing how to sit—but none of that makes you a Buddhist. So, if they choose to be Buddhists, great; if they choose not to, that’s totally fine.

The core belief of this school is the view of emptiness and the practice of bodhicitta [the wish to awaken for the sake of all beings]. I don’t think you have to be a Buddhist to have a sense of emptiness and then also to have a habit of trying to benefit others.

How important is cultural exchange going to be? Are there going to be more teachers from the Himalayan region or from Asia in general?
The cultural dimension is so incredibly important to this school. We had dancers from Delhi come to our last open house. At our next event, we are going to have Bharatanatyam Indian dance. Again, I can’t say for sure who our teachers are. We’re just going to go with who is the most qualified; we’re not necessarily concerned with where those teachers are from. But we are planning to have Mandarin be one of our languages and possibly Sanskrit. So, naturally we’ll have teachers from other places.

Our plan is to have Friday be a half-day for our teachers, so that they can use Friday afternoon to work on the research component of what we are doing. Meanwhile, we will bring in specialty teachers on Friday afternoon, when we might have an Indian dance class, for example, or some kind of music, which might be Japanese, Indian, or even Native American. We’re going to have a real array. The plan is to rotate through different cultures and different traditions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Middle Way School will be holding its next open houses on April 28 and May 19.

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