Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1994

Is Buddhism A Religion?; Ajahn Sumedho
Images of Sri Lanka; Sister Siripanya
The Dhamma School: The Wheel Comes Full Circle
Tudong Letter From Macedonia; Venerable Sobhano
Obituary: Greg Klein (Ajahn Anando)
More an agreement than an Order; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


The Dhamma School
The Wheel Comes Full Circle

The value of education for the young is in no doubt, but in a competitive, commercial world just what standards and methods are realistically valid? Here are two articles by Medhina Fright & Peter Carey reflecting on various philosophical and practical aspects of the new Dhamma School.

Since the raison d'etre of the Dhamma School will be its grounding in Buddhist morality and the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of reality, it is appropriate here to stop for a moment to consider what we can possibly offer in our school which is lac king in mainstream education. Here the words of the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, are a good starting point:
     We are training young men and women with minds as sharp as razors and about as broad! This points to the heart of one of the central dilemmas of our educational system, the way in which our schools and universities are demanding ever greater specialisation, ever more detailed knowledge of more restricted field of enquiry, but an almost complete lack of vision of the true purpose of learning.

It is this challenge of creating an educational environment in which both knowledge and wisdom can balance each other which lies at the heart of the Dhamma School. In searching for this balance of heart and mind, one can bring to mind a new version of the three Rs, which we could define as reciprocity, responsibility and reality.

The starting point must be the realisation of reciprocity or inter-connectedness. No knowledge stands 'by itself', everything has a relationship with everything else. "What is the purpose in my acquiring this knowledge?","Where does it fit in the broader scheme of things?","What responsibilities does it entail?" These are some of the questions which should be asked time and again throughout the learning process, both by children and teachers. All too often education is a profoundly alienating experience, a form of intellectual 'joy-riding' which isolates rather than connects.

For wisdom to grow, there must be a willingness to lay oneself on the line, to be open, and to see the pursuit of knowledge as being in essence about the realisation of one's own inner being.

The original statutes of the University of Oxford, conceived in the early Middle Ages when knowledge and wisdom were seen as intimately connected, referred to it as a place of 'religion and learning' (the order is important). Religion in its original Latin sense of re-binding [re-ligare] points up the relationship of the individual to the wider whole which lies at the heart of all true learning. It precedes the acquisition of specialist knowledge and renders it truly humane. An education which is dedicated to the path of wisdom, should be about the realisation of this profound interconnectedness between human beings and fields of knowledge they acquire. The ability to set this knowledge, and the insights it brings into the wider human condition - into a constantly broader context is thus essential. This is not just the case of developing the capacity for 'lateral thinking', although that might be a part of it, but the nurturing of a more profound ability to open up to the integrity of human existence.

In practice, this means constantly being challenged and forced to consider and reconsider the relationship between what we know, or think we know, and what others know, or think they know; namely, our differing perceptions of reality. In order for this not to be just an intellectual exercise, schools should be places of genuine community, centres which encourage and facilitate constant interaction at all levels, teachers to teachers, teachers to pupils, pupils with each other, and eve ryone to the wider world outside the school. For wisdom to grow, there must be a willingness to lay oneself on the line, to be open, and to see the pursuit of knowledge as being in essence about the realisation of one's own inner being. The Buddha once said that one could travel the world, but yet find no more suitable place with which to begin the practise of metta (loving-kindness) than one's own body, the fathom-long length which we occupy but briefly, and which is one of the cells of the totality of manifestation, the Dhammakaya. Similarly, with knowledge, the true enquiry begins with ourselves. There can be no division between outer and inner. One's existence as a person, how one thinks, acts and speaks, has a relevance for our existence as soci al bbeings endowed with various forms of knowledge. This has been beautifully expressed by the Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heichel:
Let young people be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can all redeem the world despite all its absurdities and frustrations and disappointments. Let them remember to build a life as if it were a work of art!

Peter Carey
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Over the past few years we have been hearing of the project to start a school whose educational methods are grounded in Dhamma. After a lot of effort and commitment, this year the Dhamma School opens.

The Dhamma School opens its doors in a year when the education of children has, once more, a very high profile. The National Curriculum was introduced by this government in an attempt to raise academic and social standards, and was found to be unworkable by teachers all over the country. Now in 1994, SCAA (the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority) have brought out the new slimmed down version. The priorities of those in power are defined in its compulsory units, and a degree of freedom (equivalent to one day a week) is allowed for the teaching of further material felt to be important by the teacher.

The Dhamma School recognises the need for high academic standards, and clear social awareness. We also endorse the view that the values transmitted during those childhood years in school will have a great effect on the skills and attitudes of a child, a nd therefore of the nation. When those values are echoed between home and school they have an even greater effect than when there is a conflict between them.

The National Curriculum requires that every school should have a policy for "social, moral and cultural development" and that it should include "a daily act of worship broadly Christian in nature". This attempt to mould the character of the growing generation flounders on the shoulders of teachers who in the main have little empathy with spiritual practice. (Virtually all the staff of my current school would describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, and there is a recognised national shortage of Religious Education teachers.)

The National Curriculum gives emphasis to the economic needs of the country by making Science and Technology compulsory at all stages, alongside maths and English as core subjects; and relegating expressive subjects with much more discretion left to the teacher. When faced with compulsory testing of core subjects at regular intervals, the teacher is much more likely to use their discretion in their favour, though many mourn this restriction to their choice. Now competitive team games are to be made compulsory to develop that ambitious drive so essential in the market place.

The Dhamma School aims to bridge the gap between the laudable aims of raising academic standards and social behaviour, and the needs of the whole developing child. We are part of contemporary society and interdependent with it, while remembering the wis dom of the Dhamma tried and tested over thousands of years. The National Curriculum will be taught at the school with a sensitive and discriminating eye, and discretionary time will be spent on giving children the opportunity to explore and develop those talents that recognise the whole child and his/her place in the universal picture.

The way we work will give value to each moment of the day; to the learning process and not just to the end results. It will value the contribution of every child and not just those who achieve high test results or win races. The values of the home will be reflected in the school so that harmony is demonstrated and experienced, not just preached. The teachers are ready, the premises are ready, the legal framework is ready, and so is the support of many Dhamma guides. Now we shall see if the initiativ e is taken up by those parents practising the Dhamma in this country. I have three children of my own, and though I would have been inspired by the opportunity for such an education when they were that age I would have thought very carefully about a new school untried, untested. It takes a certain kind of courage to be a pioneer when the most precious thing in your care is involved. Be assured that we shall take the greatest care to give your children the best education possible.

Thanks to the unexpected and generous support of one of our donors we are able to offer a few free places, fully paid for three years (from September 1994) to children who are currently aged between four and seven. Enquiries should be sent to me. It is not in the nature of Dhamma teachers to evangelise. This opportunity is offered to meet the needs of families practising the Dhamma.
Your thoughts are also welcome.

Medhina Fright
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