Friday, April 6, 2007

Words From My Perfect Teacher

Just got back from seeing, on the recommendation of one of my students, "Words of My Perfect Teacher," which is a documentary film about three people who become students of Dzongsar Kyentse Norbu Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who now resides in Bhutan but has educational and religious ventures ongoing all over the world. The thrust of the movie, whether or not by intention, is to undercut the entire notion of perfection in one's teachers, and indeed, to undercut the notion of teaching entirely. Much of the behavior that the movie documents, on the part of both the students and the teachers, is arbitrary and self-indulgent and apparently pointless.

I've been a Buddhist of sorts for my entire adult life. The central notion of Buddhism, as I understand it and attempt to practice it, is that your Buddha nature—which is to say your happiness, your most fully realized self—lies within you. The implications of that core belief is that you are, ultimately, responsible for your own happiness, and that you create, to a very large degree, by virtue of your actions, your own karma. American culture is grounded firmly in two mutually reinforcing traditions: the Judaeo-Christian tradition which posits that the source of our happiness is Someone Up There; and the consumerist tradition which posits that happiness, and success, so far as it is measurable, resides in one's ability to Accumulate More Stuff than the next person. The strength of those two strands of American culture is perhaps one explanation for why Buddhism has never really gotten much of a toehold in America.

There are dozens of different kinds of Buddhism, of course, and they vary primarily in the means by which they go about answering the question "If my Buddha nature is already inside me, how do I get it out?" Some forms of Buddhism emphasize meditation. Some emphasize chanting. Some require the renunciation of worldly ambitions. Some demand a life of service. Some ask that you submit yourself to a particular discipline: archery, woodworking, pottery, the making of tea. Some demand some proportion of all of the above. But what Buddism asserts is that, regardless of the practice, the goal is to liberate something that is already inside you. If you're looking outside of yourself—to your friends, to your job, to your family, to your God—you're going to come up empty.

In yesterday's post I cited Adam Zagajewski on self-instruction through reading: "Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what's evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can't yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are." This notion that reading will allow you to "become what you are" is in essence a view of reading as Buddhist practice. Zagajewski also seems to assume that this sort of True Reading is not conducted in schools: "We do our reading mainly off-campus and in our post-campus lives." Which is, in the nature of things, as it should be. I'd certainly argue—I did argue, yesterday—that as teachers we should certainly attempt to broaden our students sense of what is out there, and of ask them to extend the reach of their reading beyond what they already know. But any such extension can only be a starting point. The real journey in reading is, in Zagjewski's phrase, to "outlive yourself." Which I think he means not in a temporal, but a transcendental sense.

What I liked about the movie was that it was utterly unromanticized. The characters were shown to be what we all are, imperfect human beings with the potential to become more, with at least the inclination toward self-transcendence. What I found disappointing in the movie is that by the end there was very little convincing evidence that either the students or the teacher were any further along in the process than they were when the movie began. There was a lot of interesting footage of London and of Bhutan and the Rinpoche himself. But I left the movie happy to be within the boundaries of my own practice. The seekers in the movie seemed to be determined to miss the point.

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