thoughts on teaching

So a few weeks ago I tried writing a post about teaching. We’re about half way through the fall semester right now which means that teaching is the one thing that’s occupying most of my time. But what I tried to write didn’t come out right, so I threw it in the old File of Forgotten Blog Posts that seems to be rapidly filling up my hard drive.

I thought I’d revisit the issue because two of my favorite blogs, Angry Asian Buddhist and Enlightenment Ward, both posted commentary about a recent Brad Warner post over on Hardcore Zen. It seems everyone’s favorite punk rock Zen master has closed the comments down on his blog, and in the process he’s added to a litany of critiques about the value of the Internet in the practice of Buddhism.

Mr. Warner (Warner-sensei? what do we call him?) makes it pretty clear that, for him, you can’t teach Zen through a blog or on the Internet more generally just like you can’t teach someone how to practice basketball by just writing and reading about it. You have to actually go out there and practice. This argument obviously rests on the assumption that Zen is something you do, not something you study, a verb not a noun. I’ve got very little to say about that since, lucky for me, I’m not a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, so it’s status as either noun or verb really isn’t my concern. But the notion that blogs may be a sub-par place to teach is something that I do feel I can comment on since, after all, I’m both a teacher and a blogger.

And I think I have to agree. I have to agree that blogs are a lousy place to teach, especially if (emphasis on the “if”) you hold the process of teaching to be a programatic one, a progressive one wherein two (or more) folks enter into a student-teacher relationship with the explicit or implicit goal of getting from point A (ignorance) to point B (non-ignorance). If you hold this view, then, yes, blogs are a lousy place for teaching.

It goes without saying, to me anyway, that the idea that teaching requires some programatic process is not particularly controversial and can be supported by most people’s, ordinary experiences. We all learned how to do basic arithmetic because someone taught us in a programatic way. Hell, I learned how to tie my shoes because someone taught be in a forthright and directed way, leading me from being unable to tie a knot to being able to tie one. It’s not complicated. So, I’ll not wax on about the science of human development and learning; I’ll just point out that teaching programatically seems to work for most folks and leave it there. And it should also go without saying that in that last paragraph I said “blogs,” not “the Internet.” And “teach,” not “learn.”

Mr. Warner has rejected the notion of teaching Zen on his blog, and he suggests that teaching Zen on the Internet more generally may be a waste of time. But we would be remiss to mistake the claim “teaching Zen on the Internet is impossible” as identical to “learning anything anywhere on the Internet is impossible.” I would be remiss to claim that online learning is impossible since, after all, teaching classes online is one of the ways that I pay my bills. But, more to the point, I firmly believe that it’s possible to learn things (even things about Buddhism) on the Internet and through blogs because what we do in this space is, essentially, sharing information. And what better function does the sharing of information have than to give people an opportunity to learn things?

But let’s not mistake this for teaching.

If we return to Hardcore Zen, Mr. Warner quotes someone who, ironically, posted a comment: “This blog is NOT his forum for teaching, it is his medium for self-promotion, which as a writer, is absolutely necessary, if he wants to get his name out there.” Mr. Warner’s response to this is “Someone out there actually gets what I’m doing here.” So I think we can take him at his word and say, emphatically, that Mr. Warner doesn’t blog to teach. Blogging to teach is a horrible idea, and I’ll tell ya why.

Like I mentioned a moment ago, teaching implies that folks are entering into a student-teacher relationship. If I were to assume that you are my student by virtue of the fact that you happen to be reading this right now — well, that would be the hight of arrogance on my part. I have no idea who is reading my blog or what their motivations are for doing so. To assume that my readers look to me as some sort of teacher, in this capacity, would be foolish. You may be one of my students, but only in the classroom (or zendo, or dojo, or wherever “teaching” is actually happening); certainly not here, and only if we explicitly acknowledged that we had that student-teacher relationship to begin with.

If, again with the “if,” we assume that teaching implies a student-teacher relationship and programatic plan of attack to get from ignorance to not-ignorance, then a blog — with its perpetually anonymous pool of audience members and participants, with its asynchronous form of conversation, with its unstructured stream-of-consciousness writing style, with its meandering posts that jump from one unrelated topic to the next day after day — is a lousy medium to teach. It is, at the end of the day, a place to share information.

And there is nothing wrong with sharing information. The sharing of information is wonderful, in my opinion. Let’s just call it what it is and not assume that it is a replacement for something it is not qualified to replace.

The Internet — and all the subsets of the Internet from discussion forums to blogs to the Web to email — are all just tools. All tools are designed to fulfill some function. And while you can use a wrench to drive a nail into a piece wood, wouldn’t it be easier to use a hammer?

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5 thoughts on “thoughts on teaching

  1. Right on. Reminds me of what my teacher said. “If you want to be a surgeon, it would be crazy to read a book about surgery and then call yourself a surgeon. Yet many people think they can become Buddhist by reading a book.”

    I wonder if it has something to do with Buddhism lacking a central deity that requires obeisance, and so those attracted to Buddhism view it as a curiosity of intellect, rather than a religion or even a way of life.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. It seems so many are willing to call themselves Buddhists because they read a book is that they have no other choice.
    Many sects of Buddhism make finding a “teacher” next to impossible especially if one does not live in NY or CA.
    How am I supposed to learn about Shin Buddhism, for instance, when I live in New Hampshire? Please help me find a teacher in New Hampshire, of any form of Buddhism, and I will happily seek them out so I can “learn” Buddhism the “right” way.

  3. @ Bluecat: If I’m reading your comment correctly, I agree. It is difficult to find teachers far from major cities in this country, and that’s a real problem.

    However, let’s not mistake that concerns with the central thesis of my post which was about the difficulty of teaching through a blog. A blog, to the extent that it’s an open-ended, asynchronous platform populated with anonymous strangers isn’t the best place to develop a student-teacher relationship. That, however, doesn’t mean that Internet (or distance learning) communication is bad wrong bad. Those are two different things.

    Furthermore, to the extent that Mr. Warner is suggesting that Buddhism isn’t something you read about but something you do, perhaps we can think about it this way: if you happen to learn about Buddhism from the Internets, from books, from wherever, great. But that’s not the point. The point is what you do out there in the real world, off-line, outside the bookstore, in communion with other three-dimensional people. That’s where Buddhism happens. And for that, not all Buddhisms require a teacher.

  4. I agree with you whole-heartedly Scott. Buddhism is what you do outside in the world and how you respond and react to the world. I can learn about the precepts, the Dharma, etc. from books, the internet, and the occasionally talk at the bookstore. Would it be easier on me to have someone to aks questions of? Someone who can help me down the path and to possible help me avoid some pitfalls? Of course it would.
    But that just isn’t always possible in Buddhism of the Western world as it currently is.
    I also agree that it a blog is not the best place to be taught anything but it can be a great place to hear about new ideas, etc. I guess my comment was more focused on the first comment about the surgeon and about Mr. Warner than it was about your blog post. Thanks for clarifying that for me.

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