A Professor’s Dilemma

Jan Willis on teaching Buddhism in an academic classroom, and what kind of Buddhist understanding her students are receiving.

By Jan Willis

I have taught undergraduate-level courses in Buddhism for almost thirty-five years, but I still wonder whether I’ve succeeded in imparting to students what I see as the compelling qualities of this compassionate religion. In short, I find myself asking, is there anything “Buddhist” about a college course in Buddhism?

I wonder what particular skills and qualities we scholar-practitioners of Buddhism within the academy are trying to foster in our students when we offer our various classes on Buddhist subjects. Are we attempting simply to get students to facility with a Buddhist vocabulary, to help them comprehend a few major tenets of the dharma, or to somehow encounter Buddhism’s essence (pardon the misnomer)?

The Buddha famously announced to his followers, Ehi passika; that is, “Come and see (for yourself)!” He went on to lay out a hermeneutical code to be followed when engaging in gaining knowledge of his dharma, namely, “Do not be led by reports or tradition or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea, ‘This is our teacher.’”

Though clearly challenging, these principles are decidedly not the ones that guide most university courses! Rather, an “established body of knowledge” is the professor’s-and the students’-presumed stock in trade.

I am not trying to suggest that intellectual pursuits are not good things; they are. In Buddhism also, critical reasoning is highly regarded. Wherever we look in Buddhist discourses, we read over and over again about the importance of developing critical reasoning and insight. Still, ultimately, there are limits to discursive reasoning, and nirvana is beyond concepts. Thinking alone will not get to it, and no matter how fine-tuned our reasoning ability, it will not save us from the facts of birth and death.

Buddhist studies professors are not lamas or geshes (the true scholar-practititioners), capable of imparting lung and dbang-that is, direct spiritual guidance and empowerment. But it seems that our aim as professors is not even to offer the students experience, though this is what true knowledge and insight into Buddhist thought and practice requires. We cannot sit on the cushions for our students. And yet, if they don’t sit on the cushions, what are they, or we, really doing?

On occasion, I offer students the chance to sit with me and meditate. However, this is always offered apart from and outside of class, without obligation and without penalty for those who choose not to participate. Our universities have long ceased to be theological institutions and, in this secular and scientific age, talk of spiritual experience is viewed with a good dose of skepticism.

Still, rather than simply teaching our students to discuss and debate the concept of buddhanature, I wish that we could somehow teach them to recognize their own. If it were up to me, I might require that my students (and I) attend a ten-day vipassana retreat along with each of my classes, to try, as Phillip Moffitt recently said in Shambhala Sun, “to teach through the body itself.”ÊThere is enough discursive mind-flexing already.

It is no accident that the Buddha’s earliest discourse on meditation was the Satipatthana Sutra (Foundations of Mindfulness). I have often thought that such vipassana, or mindfulness practice (and its corollary metta, or loving-kindness meditation) is ideal for Westerners, being the least encumbered by cultural baggage. Such practices are stripped down, direct, and immediate-Buddhism embodied at its heart.

In the end, though we can attempt to articulate it, we cannot simply hand over that all-important Buddhist view, the view that not only distinguishes Buddhism from all other traditions but also grants ultimate freedom and liberation. If the Buddha himself could have enlightened others, we would all already be enlightened. (Of course we are, but as yet we don’t fully know or realize this.) But even he could not. He told us at his leaving that each of us would have to work out our own salvation, with diligence. In the absence of meditation practice in the classroom, we academics can only advise students seek out a practice center.

“Be diligent!” I say to students as the semester ends. “Be diligent, and be kind.”

Anne Waldman

Jan Willis

Jan Willis is a Professor of Religion Emerita at Wesleyan University as well as a visiting professor at Agnes Scott College. She has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the U.S. for five decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism almost as long. Her work has explored meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race; her most recent book is Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra.