Two years ago, my wife, Stephanie, and I decided to move to Toronto from our home in Los Angeles to be nearer to our families. Among other things, this meant leaving our jobs—in my case, a career as a tenured professor and department chair at a Buddhist-founded university. While I was ready for a career change, I also recognized the value of academia for someone like me. Never comfortable laboring within the confines of institutional religion, I had found that work in higher education allowed me to engage in public conversations about Buddhism in dynamic terms and to serve students in ways that were amenable to my own beliefs about teaching and learning.
I’d come to identify strongly with the Brazilian educator-philosopher Paulo Freire, author of the classic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he argues for a practice of education that makes dialogue and critical thinking primary to the process of learning. Freire’s work also focuses on including students’ problems with “relating to themselves in the world and with the world” and the teacher’s willingness to reevaluate both the content and the processes of their teaching in response to student sharing. In the little corner of the academy I occupied, I could take practical steps—such as offering seminar-style classes, peer evaluation of coursework, community building in small group facilitation, and service-learning projects—to make participatory education a reality.
By contrast, religious institutions, like those I trained in as an ordained Buddhist minister and certified meditation instructor, tend toward what Freire calls a “banking” model of education. In this model, knowledge comes from the top down and power is concentrated in the all-knowing teacher, who is expected to fill the “empty vessel,” the student. Buddhism places a great deal of emphasis on issues of lineage and transmission, which represent a kind of long-term banking system: the Buddha transmitted the teachings to his disciples, who transmitted the teachings to their disciples, who transmitted the teachings to their disciples . . . right down to you and your own teacher.
The banking approach can be effective if you’re trying to facilitate the spread and survival of a religion. But in his book, Freire warns of its tendency to stifle dialogue and promote “circles of certainty.” (The consequences of this style of education are most dramatically visible in dysfunctional sanghas that have failed to address different forms of abuse and exploitation by teachers.)
So if work within a more conventional religious organization doesn’t suit him, how then does a radical Buddhist theologian make a living outside of academia? As we settled in Toronto, I wondered: Given my belief in the importance of critical pedagogy, would it be possible for me to transition into some kind of career as a “professional” dharma teacher who gives talks, writes books, accepts students, leads retreats, and so on? Trying to make a go of full-time, independent dharma teaching seemed a logical and plausible move—people do it, after all. Furthermore, despite institutional religion’s banking bent, Buddhist teachers often work in ways Freire might admire. A good teacher who embodies lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity will surely operate with his or her students in a generous spirit of deep listening and selfless action, and will be open to feedback, willing to challenge the status quo: the Buddha himself, for example, was (eventually) convinced to allow women into the monastic order after his disciple Ananda intervened.
I felt righteous about this plan and hung out my shingle as an indie dharma teacher and facilitator of an intentionally democratic approach to Buddhist education. I pursued speaking and writing opportunities, got to know local communities and leaders, revamped my personal website, stepped up my social media game, and generally did all the things a modern teacher is supposed to do to market a “good brand.” In almost no time at all, though, I started to sense what you might call “banking creep.” With each assertive pitch delivered, business card strategically handed out, and calculated update tweeted, I felt a little bit more of my integrity slipping away.
Success in the spiritual marketplace depends on a banking approach to education: if people are going to invite you to speak, buy your books, attend your retreats, and so on, then they have to see you as the keeper of needed knowledge. The less doubt they have about that, the better it is for the teacher’s brand, and the better the brand, the better the teacher’s livelihood. Professionally speaking, promoting a more egalitarian vision of Buddhist practice and community wasn’t going to do me many favors: why would people pay me to teach them that they should try an approach different from inviting guys like me to talk at them? If you want to make a living as a dharma teacher, opting for a banking approach to education might be the most viable of all your pedagogical choices; you challenge the idea of your indispensability at the risk of your subsistence. I realized too that most of the individuals I looked to as professional role models augmented their teaching work with consulting services, secular meditation training, or other things I wasn’t equipped for or was uninterested in pursuing.
Moreover, communities I admired that exemplified a critical pedagogy of dharma teaching—like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center, and the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, founded by the Thai Buddhist feminist activist Ouyporn Khuankaew–– were, well, communities. They weren’t organized around one or more elite, charismatic teachers, and that was the point: much like Quakers, with their “priesthood of all believers,” these communities tended to emphasize a more radical self-governance in which the group functions collectively as the spiritual leadership of the community. This kind of organization is born out of what Freire calls “critical consciousness,” or the capacity to both recognize oppression and intervene to do something about it. Critical consciousness is essential if we seek to reduce suffering and increase happiness in tangible, practical, meaningful ways. I think this is why Thich Nhat Hanh has prophesied that “the next Buddha may take the form of a community.” These communities are showing us the way forward.
Slowly but surely, I let go of the unhelpful idea that participating in the teacher racket was the only way to make good on my training and experience. In fact, I realized that not participating in it might be the clearest way to communicate my belief that the future of Buddhist community will depend on individual sanghas taking the initiative to move as far away as possible from banking models of education. Each and every community has to make its own decisions about teaching and learning that are consonant with its tradition, of course, but make decisions it must. For in the end, do we want dharma education that simply indoctrinates or, rather, in the words of Freire, one that serves as “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”?
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