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A Buddhist in the Classroom

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174 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0791475980, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Joe Gawrys


In the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia, the Buddha was not a god or a savior, but a teacher. Sid Brown, who has a background as a Buddhist nun and now teaches Asian Studies at Sewanee: The University of the South, asked herself the question, “How does Buddhism influence the way I teach in twenty-first century America?” Her thoughts on that topic became the delightful book A Buddhist in the Classroom.

At first glance, the marriage of Buddhism and classroom teaching seems strange, but Brown quickly throws us into ideas that are very down to earth and practical. Like the Buddha touching the earth, Brown always begins with very concrete issues in her own classes and with her own students. For instance, various chapters discuss “Com­munity in the Classroom:’ “Learning from Students,” and “The Heart of Teaching!’ In thinking about these issues, Brown may tell a story of the Buddha and how he taught, or she might describe a Buddhist prac­tice or teaching.

For instance, one of the great Buddhist virtues is Mindfulness, or as Brown calls it, “cultivating attention.” Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. “Many students in the US don’t notice how good it feels simply to pay attention to something;’ Brown says. So, she has her stu­dents doing eye contact exercises and listening exercises. She even has students in her Buddhism in the Environment class sitting with trees each week and simply paying attention to them (this may be the only exercise in the book, though, that most teachers may not rush to adopt).

Just as Buddhism at its core is not a dogmatic, but rather an expe­riential religion, Brown also feels strongly that “learning is exploration.” Each student and each teacher is unique, and the grand experiment of education is continually trying new practices and seeing the results. Teachers need to grow, and teachers need to give students room to grow. As Brown puts it, “there’s wisdom in giving students the room they need to surprise themselves with their learning.” “Education is moment-to-moment bhthing,” she says.

A Buddhist in the Classroom ends with thirty-two useful pages of Brown’s “Nifty Assignments” and “Handouts!’ Some of these are par­ticular to the classes she teaches, such as “Fieldwork for Asian Reli­gions—Visits to Temples.” Some, though, like her handouts on “Sleep and Sleep Deprivation” or “Your Class Journal;’ are useful for just about everyone.

Brown took a chance by titling this book A Buddhist in the Class­room. Some might be put off by Buddhism, and some might be put off by the very idea of bringing religious values into education. You don’t have to be Buddhist or religious, though, to profit from Brown’s keen insights into teaching. And something seems to be working for Brown. In the spring of 2009, shortly after the publication of this book, Sid Brown was voted Sewanee’s Teacher of the Year.