pedagogic koans

I’ve been reading an interesting collection of essays in The Best Buddhist Writing 2007 which includes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Pema Chodron, as well as Gary Snyder, bell hooks, Alice Walker, and Natalie Goldberg, and many other excellent pieces. Today I want to write about the final selection, which offers perspectives on Nirvana from different Buddhist schools–Theravada, Zen, and Vajrayana. In particular I want to focus on the Zen perspective, offered by Roko Sherry Chayat, who is the abbot of the Zen Center here in Syracuse.

Clearly many writers have found productive relationships between Zen and writing, but reading this essay I was thinking more in terms of teaching writing. Chayat writes

Despite what the Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra–"There is no formula for supreme enlightenment"–we long for some guidelines, some diagram, yes, a formula for quick success. We want what our teachers have, and we want them to give it to us without delay. And therein lies the problem in at least two of its guises: we think there is something to have; and we think it’s good to get something for nothing–when, in fact, this practice of ours requires giving everything for nothing!

I don’t really want to equate teaching writing with teaching Buddhism. However there are certain similarities. Both are about practice. The path to enlightenment is founded on daily meditation. Developing as a writer requires a daily writing practice.

When I read this line, I thought immediately of my own experiences as a teacher. It’s a great frustration to students when they expect that learning is simply a matter of receiving discrete pieces of writing, as if I could simply tell them how to be a better writer. Well, I can tell them, just as one can read many Buddhist writings about what it means to be enlightened. But being told about enlightenment is obviously not the same as being enlightened! In analogous way, being told how to write well is not the same as being a good writer.

In short, we tend to think of knowledge as something we possess. Our teachers possess something, and they are supposed to give it to us, the old banking model, right? Chayat writes that Buddhism requires giving everything for nothing. I suppose this is quite literal inasmuch as the Buddhist seeks to recognize the impermanence of all things, the non-existence of the self, and seeks to meditate on emptiness. In my own way of approaching writing instruction, I have thought of it starting with unlearning, with giving up many ideas about writing, creativity, and thought. I have also seen it as beginning with recognizing what we take in, what shapes us as subjects, and becoming more aware of our own constructedness. All of this is somewhat familiar as a brand of composition pedagogy. However I don’t really see this as being about me as the teacher having knowledge (e.g. of cultural studies) that I give the students. I could give them that, but I don’t think it would help much. Instead, I look to writing as a practice for increasing awareness. So I suppose I am giving students a practice, but it is up to them to use the practice not to gain or possess new knowledge, but to give up existing ideas.

Chayat notes that as students "We want an answer, we want access to someone else’s understanding, we want some reassurance that what we are doing makes sense. And a good teacher’s response is guaranteed to pull the rug out from under us, to frustrate our acquisitive seeking after the attainment of something outside."

I know there are many ways to teach writing. Vive la difference! For me though, writing has always been about getting past the self. To write well, when I do, I have to get past my fears, my self-criticism, my ambition, my allegiances to theories, and so on. In a sense, writing is about giving up for me. Of course there is also a discipline. It’s one of those contradictions I suppose. When you give up everything for nothing, as a writer, you enter a very different kind of space. I don’t want to romanticize this. It’s an everyday kind of space, quite ordinary. In the end I guess it is both a practice and ethic, an ethical practice, a practical ethic. But, in my view, becoming a writer is as simple and difficult as practicing entry into that space.

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One thought on “pedagogic koans

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  1. Oh, so here’s a favorite old writing story, with a koan at its heart:
    A boy in old China wanted to become an expert on jade, the gemstone much prized in that country. Hearing of a very old man who knew most of what was known about jade, the boy sought out the ancient expert to learn.
    At their first meeting, the old man put a piece of jade into the boy’s hand. “Hold it tight,” the teacher said.
    The old man then began to talk softly about life and air and water and sunlight and birds. After an hour or so, he took the jade from the boy’s hand and gently told him to go home.
    The boy returned on the following day. The procedure was repeated–the jade in the boy’s hand, the old man’s quiet discourse, the taking of the jade. Days passed, then weeks, with the boy growing more impatient. He was hearing much about the earth and the stars and such things. When we he learn about jade? But he dared not question his revered teacher.
    Then one day the ancient one put a stone in the boy’s hand and the boy said immediately: “That’s not jade!”
    The old one smiled. “Now you know about jade, my son.”
    –from Gene Olson’s Sweet Agony II: A Writing Book of Sorts.

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