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Buddhist education
March 23rd, 2015 (March 24th, 2015)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Buddhist education

   In this age when curricula might be tainted by religious dogma, when a Christian education might be perceived (rightly or wrongly) as profoundly differing from a Muslim education, when communitarism falsely appears as a refuge, when sectarian differences are exacerbated rather than bridged over, is there a place for a Buddhist education?
   One might want to promote that "Buddhist values" (e.g. calm-abiding, equanimity but also compassion, loving-kindness, virtue, cultivation, patience, perseverance, etc.) should be taught explicitly, in schools… Or one might want to 'defend' the freedom of holding Buddhist beliefs, even if elected representatives in the State of Texas would rather impose a Biblical approach…

   Can Buddhism help us articulate a constructive (wholesome) criticism of the current educational trends?


   In most countries, history is taught in black and white terms, with only the local perspective being presented as valid. Sometimes the local perspective will in fact be the only perspective presented!
   For example, the French will build a view of their conflicts with England without considering the English perspective on the same conflicts. And the two countries certainly had their share of bloody conflicts before the "Entente cordiale"!
   People are simply indoctrinated: a 'common' aspect of identity is forced upon them (preferably as children). Of course, ancestors were heroes, white knights, people "doing the right thing"… or, at the very least, their mistakes are excusable and were in "good faith"! History manuals don't present your 'own' people as oppressors or bullies. Invasion and occupation are regularly named anything but! Economic interests are presented as political concern for the freedom of others!

   Once it's clear that history is taught to solidify a manipulated, delusional, self-serving narrative as a basis for identity, maybe Buddhism has something to propose… but it's not  yet another version, a 'Buddhist' version, of history!

   What's to be proposed is the very questioning of the classic approach: while secure child development might require certainties at an early age, nothing prevents the introduction in secondary education of "other points of view".
   These additional points of view would be presented as "experienced too": not as a replacement of the 'national' version but as a complement. "Some" ancestors experienced such event in this way, "other" ancestors experienced the same event in that way…
   Don't promote identification to a single group of ancestors: they influenced each other, they co-dependently defined each other (sometimes by association, sometimes by rejection), they all participated in who we are today.
   Don't (pre)determine who's 'right' and who's 'wrong': build compassion for both sides, each side missing the big picture, each side relying on old ideas to solve conflicts rather than on creativity and sensitivity to nuances, each side nurturing future resentment and therefore perpetuating conflicts!
   We can build a bridge only if we discern the two banks! Asserting "the other bank is inconveniently located"  isn't helpful.


   In most countries, science is taught in black and white terms, with only one local perspective being presented as valid. Sometimes the local perspective will in fact be the only perspective presented!

   Whether the state defines itself as secular and argues for some version of science (presented as full of certainties, not as a constant iterative process of refinement and re-questioning!), or it defines itself as religious and argues for some version or another of divine 'revelation', the universe (cosmology, biology…) is usually presented as  unquestionable 'truths'. Be it the word of God, or the 'proof' of scientists, the official version isn't debatable. You have to repeat what you're taught to pass your exam!

   Some of the initial attempts at Artificial Intelligence quickly failed because very little of the world is black and white, and true/false logic couldn't reconcile the facts gradually entered in the system. It wasn't just that facts were not entered precisely or accurately enough; rather, multiple perspectives do co-exist, multiple aspects do complement each other rather than oppose, etc.
   It's now been long formalised that this can be accommodated by associating levels of grey, probabilities, or "strengths" of belief, to the facts… rather than 0% / 100% caricatures.
   The step we missed is to adapt education (from secondary school, not once the brain has already been rendered stupid by too long a brain washing) similarly.

   Before secularists hold genetics as undebatable (without much regards for progress in epigenetics) or hold the Big Bang as undebatable (without much regards for the fact that physics doesn't support a regression to a single singularity and has many questions unanswered as this point —e.g. over the apparent win of matter over anti-matter), levels of grey could be introduced.
   Introducing a healthy dose of doubt doesn't equate some 'relativism' where everything is considered equally acceptable or legitimate (
   A lot more people could have basic training in probabilities; it would help them to understand polls, and support them to be better citizens; it would help them to understand scientific progress, and how we iteratively update our view of the world, and could support them to develop a constructive response to lobbyists promoting that cigarettes are harmless or lobbyists denying the human influence on global warming…

   Once it's clear that science is taught to solidify certainties and truths as a basis for superiority and for empowerment, maybe Buddhism has something to propose… but it's not  yet another version, a 'Buddhist' version, of science!
   A buddhist education of science would not propose yet another version of the creation of the world… It wouldn't promote beliefs with Mount Sumeru  as some well-defined center, or blindly repeat views from Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam… It wouldn't promote the four elements as the basic constituents of matter.
   Realms might provide valuable psychological analogies, phenomenology might still be of use e.g. to study the mind-matter dialogue… but the Buddha himself rejected that all teachings should be accepted literally!

   A buddhist education of science would simply present science as a 'process' rather than as 'conclusions'.
   It would promote probabilities and measurability up to understanding uncertainties (96%), sampling errors (96% +/- 1.5% with 99% confidence), and biases (notably the "confirmation bias"). None of this is buddhist dogma but it's perfectly in line with « don't-know », in line with accepting the power of conventional truths while still paying attention and looking out for exceptions, for the limits of the model, for the validity scope!
   We can influence the world for the better only if we accept that we (clearly) don't have a solution yet, that what we believed so far didn't prove as clear-cut an answer as we naïvely hoped initially, only if we keep looking! Asserting "I wish the world was different (e.g. simpler, more black and white, more certain)"  isn't helpful.


   Morality classes are pointless in most parts of the world.
   In some places, morality is simply dismissed as outdated conservatism, or dismissed not because of what it offers but because of what its root is presented to be (a divine command). Rejecting the necessity of a divine command, for beings to be moral, might —by throwing the baby out with the bath water— lead some atheists to reject morality lessons altogether.
   But the conscious undermining of institutionalised morality is far from being the sole undermining: the primary reason morality classes are pointless is that grown-ups push morality on children on a "do as I say, not as I do"  basis!

   Most societies, whether they're secular or religious, officially reject arbitrary killing. Most push the message "do not kill"  on their children… but what the children then see is that grown-ups very easily and self-servingly rationalise war. What do they pick up? What the role models say  from time to time, when they remember about it, or what the role models constantly do?

   Once it's clear that morality is not embodied yet, maybe Buddhism has something to propose… but it's not  yet another version, a 'Buddhist' version, of morality (which is not particularly original, frankly —cf.!
   Buddhism certainly isn't foreign to the idea of doing the right thing, without letting lust or aversion vis-à-vis praise or reputation get in the way ( But I don't think this is its key contribution; it might even turn into the trap of 'righteousness'.
   What Buddhism might contribute is a less black-and-white approach to morality, not by proposing fuzzy precepts and guidance but by focusing on individual practice (which includes not  judging others, but supporting them!), by prioritising practical corrections over guilt, and by understanding that people fall and that what matters is to get back up, not how many times one falls (!

   A lot of people try to jump-start their Buddhist practice by going straight into meditation or into the cultivation of right views and right intentions, but all schools (from Theravāda to the most exotic tantra) start with the cultivation of virtue as the appropriate 'foundation' for meditation and wisdom.


   Providing a Buddhist education to children (or to grown-ups) doesn't require new buildings with some new curriculum based on another set of institutionalised certainties. This doesn't mean there's nothing to do though.
   « Selflessness » may be nurtured within our current history programs, we just need to start combining programs from different 'sides'. Inter-cultural dialogue is already within our possibilities, with the internet there's little excuse not to reach out!
   « Don't-know » may be nurtured within our current programs of mathematics and of science, we just need to stop pretending that it's "only for experts" and to stop the dumb and ignorant view that "since one may interpret statistics in a variety of ways, it means statistics are useless or unreliable" (statistics don't provide stupid caricatures and easy narratives? That's a strength, not a weakness!).
   « Constructive morality » may be nurtured within our present (and varied) societies. Less guilt, more work… it's not complicated: the key is in abandoning the copouts and producing "right effort" to "walk the talk", i.e. to "lead by example"!

   We don't need a Buddhist revolution, we only need to start embodying more what we already know intellectually… and to keep the curiosity to look beyond certainties, beyond seeking cheap assurances.
   One has to remember that "seeing reality as it is" is the key to appropriateness and Liberation; dogma isn't!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
image: traditional cosmology (mount Sumeru having an hourglass shape, not a triangle!) from hells to formless realms —maybe useful for psychological analogies and meditation maps, but not particularly useful as a model in physics… Usefulness is context-dependent (no surprise for the Buddhist practitioner here!).