Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching and Learning as a Spiritual Practice

One of my favorite figures in all of the world’s spiritual literature is a 9th century Chinese Buddhist monk named Joshu.  I don’t love Joshu because he had his enlightenment experience early –although  it is said that he was only about eighteen when he realized his own Buddha-nature and, therefore, his essential oneness with everything.  And it’s not because of this next thing, although this is pretty cool too.  You might think that after you’ve had an enlightenment experience and realized your own Buddha-nature and your essential oneness with everything you might set up shop and start teaching people.  Not Joshu.  He went on a pilgrimage to visit all of the great minds and enlightened souls in China at that time, to see if there was anything else he needed to learn.   Pretty cool, right?
And this wasn’t a journey of a couple of months or even a couple of years.  He took sixty years to do it!  That’s right.  From the age of about twenty until he was eighty years old, Joshu continued to seek out teachers and continued to deepen his awareness and his understanding of the dharma.  When he was eighty he figured that he could finally settle down and begin to teach, which he did for the next forty years.  (Yes, Joshu lived to be about 120.)  But that’s not even why I love him so.
I love Joshu because of something he is remembered as saying when he set out on his pilgrimage, and which described his attitude throughout his life.  He always said that if he met someone who had something to learn from him, even if that person was one hundred years old, he would teach; he also said that if he met someone who had something that he, himself, needed to learn he would become their student, even if that person was a child of seven.  Joshu knew, and this is why I think he’s so great, that you’re never too young to teach, and you’re never too old to learn.
We Unitarian Universalists say pretty much the same thing.  It’s why we talk about “Lifespan Faith Development,” because we know that it’s not enough to simply offer “religious education” to the church’s children.  All of us, from our youngest to our oldest, the entire lifespan of our community, from “cradle to grave” as it’s sometimes described, we all need to be engaged together in both teaching and learning.  And we know that when it’s really happening, it’s always a two-way street.
I want to tell the children a secret.  Shhh.  You know those adults, those grown-ups who’ve been teaching your RE classes all of these years?  [Grown ups, put up your hand if you’ve ever taught or helped out in the RE program.]  You see all those folks?  You probably thought that they were teaching, but if you ask them I’d bet they’ll tell you that they were learning.  [Right?]
Never too old to learn; never too young to teach.  We know this.  We do know this.  What we do here in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning is one way to expand and deepen our souls.  Yet what we do downstairs, and upstairs, and across in Summit House is no less of a spiritual practice.  In fact, if you were to ask me, I’d say that it’s both a more challenging and, over the long haul, a more rewarding one.
If all the adults did was “teach” and all the children did was “learn,” I could see the point of those who prefer the worship hour to the “church school” hour.  But that’s not what it’s about.  That’s not what it’s about at all. 
In fact, back in the 19th century no less a luminary than William Ellery Channing, who was arguably America’s most well-known Unitarian preacher, had this to say about religious education:
The great end in religious instruction is:
Not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;
Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;
Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth;
Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;
Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;
Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought;
Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.
This was written, remember, in the 1800s!  And in a marvelous image he said that children are not empty vessels, needing adults to pour facts into them; they are more like flowers requiring only careful tending that they might grow strong according to their own individual natures.
Can you see why I say that this is a spiritual practice?  Can you see why I sort of secretly envy those who are free to engage in that practice?    And that’s not to say that what we do here doesn’t have its merits, it’s just that, well, in the words of the All-Church Meeting a couple of weeks back, a part of me has always been kind of drawn to the “do” track more than the “talk” track.
And speaking about “doing” I’m reminded of a quote from the Messiah’s Handbook” in Richard Bach’s fabulous book Illusions:  adventures of a reluctant messiah. 
“Learning [he says] is finding out what you already know.  Doing is demonstrating that you know it.  Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you.  You are all learners, doers, teachers.”  He also notes that, “you teach best what you most need to learn.”
I don’t want this to sound like a plug, although I suppose in a way it is, but there are still opportunities for you to engage with our children’s religious education program, our ministry to and with our children and youth.   I’m kind of stuck here most of the time, but you can sign up to take a turn at engaging with some of the best teachers you’ll have ever explored the world with and to offer something that might just be the thing to change a life . . . yourself.  Whether you have young children, have had young children, or have never known the pleasure, there is a place for you.  And I’ll share with you a dream of mine.  I dream that someday, in the not too distant future, when I ask those who’ve taught or helped out in the religious education program to raise their hands, every single hand will go up.  And I dream that those of you who are children here today will continue to be here, or in some other Unitarian Universalist church, when you’re the adults, and will still be active in the spiritual practice of teaching and learning.
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Lisa said...

I'm a teacher of lower-elementary children in a Montessori school, and teaching is most definitely a spiritual practice! And for me, learning is too. Most of the time, learning satisfies me deeply. Other times, when I must learn the hard way, it's more painful. But I still try to recognize and appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

When I encounter people who don't teach in the RE because they want to be in the sanctuary when the nature of ultimate reality is revealed, I advise them that revelation is more than twice as likely in an RE classroom. Roger Rochester