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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1

The Peripatetic Class:  Buddhist Traditions and Myths of Pedagogy 

E. H. Rick Jarow

Assumptions that Lie Underneath the Classroom

This paper has its roots in a classroom incident that took place during an Introductory Course on Buddhist Traditions. I had been working through a standard introductory curriculum: the life of the Buddha, the four noble truths, the twelve-fold chain of interdependent origination, etc., when after class, a student from Thailand came to me in tears. She had a Buddha-image around her neck, a talisman that she had been wearing since childhood, and she could not reconcile the God "Buddha" she grew up with, with the "Buddhism" being taught in Religion 152," in which a focus on the non-theistic polemics of the Theravadin tradition is standard fare.

This incident typifies one aspect of a greater issue; that of "disembodied pedagogy." It is not that our information is wrong, or that our intentions are pernicious in any way; it is just that most of the scholastic traditions inherited from Descartes, and from humanistic disciplines trying to prove their worth by imitating the natural sciences, do not favor embodiment. Mind is to be developed and sharpened; a reasonably healthy body is needed to carry the mind on its way, but the two shall rarely if ever never meet. Schools known for their athletic departments are generally not the same ones known for their English or Religion departments. Students learn about religious traditions in ways that favor detached observation over engagement, textual study over fieldwork and practicum, universals over particulars, and sitting over movement, to name but a few areas of body/mind separation. These areas are amplified by a tradition of academic study in religion that must uphold non-engagement as a pre-requisite to serious scholarship.

This may have much to do with the subject itself, with the fact that religious fervor has more often than not been characterized as the antithesis of reasonableness and critical acumen (and not without good reason at times). Nevertheless, when the pendulum swings full-blown in the direction of disembodied objectivity, entire areas of religious experience are rendered invisible or insignificant. The subject, (i.e. the Buddha) tends to be gazed upon, with the researcher taking on the role of an educated tourist, camera in hand, going into a temple. Those of us who have actually spent time in like temples know that such an approach is considered to be fundamentally rude at best, and is not at all appreciated by people who live and worship in particular sacral environments. But, in most contemporary institutions of higher learning, there is an "experiential line" between practice and study that is considered too precarious to cross.

[Spring 2002 Issue Contents]