August 25, 2000
I recently met an Israeli man who dropped out of school in 10th grade, and went to work in the fields. Now he’s living in the U.S., married to an American woman, and working as a freelance computer consultant. He has two young children who stay home instead of going to school. There are some 1.5 million “home schooled” American children. But the Israeli and his wife dislike the notion of “home schooling” since it retains the notion of “schooling.” They have chosen “unschooling,” an approach taken by some 200,000 American children. Unschooling rejects the notion of schooling entirely, invites the child to live and to explore the world, and believes that the child will naturally be curious about letters, numbers, etc. Unschooling reminds me of Rousseau’s educational theory, set forth in his novel Emile. There is now a considerable body of literature on unschooling, such as John Holt’s Learning All the Time, and Mary Griffith’s The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom. The Israeli said that school teaches the child to conform, not to listen to the voices within himself. When I asked him about social interaction, he said that there were plenty of opportunities for that outside school, and that he believed in quality (of social interaction), not quantity. I found his ideas original and refreshing, and I’d like to try alternative approaches to education with my own child.
Montaigne complained that education in his day had no effect on a person’s life, that it stuffed the brain without improving the person. How he would have loved Zen! Zen is practical and doesn’t try to stuff the brain with knowledge. Zen touches a person deeply, it touches every breath he takes. One facet of life to which Zen seems especially relevant is parenting. Zen teaches patience, of which a parent has great need since parenting involves a thousand little annoyances. Zen encourages perception rather than reflection, and thus develops in the parent a mental state akin to that of a child, and an appreciation of nature that can be transferred to the child. A Zen parent teaches his child not to regard the present as a preparation for the future, not to be preoccupied with himself, not to take himself too seriously, not to view life as a competition (for academic success, for wealth, for popularity, for moral virtue, etc.), and not to feel that he should be doing something at all times.
When I was giving a talk at a bookstore, a black woman pointed to the cover of my book and said, “all those people are dead white males. Is there no place for black people in philosophy?” I responded, “the native peoples of Africa — like the native peoples of North America, South America, etc. — had their own brand of philosophy, of religion, of mythology, of psychotherapy. They could guide the child into adulthood, guide the adult into old age, guide the old person into death, etc. They lived in harmony with nature. They had story-telling and oral literature. If the cover of my book has only dead white males, it’s because I live in the modern West, and I feel an affinity for Western thinkers, their predicament is my predicament. The predicament of the West may be described as an excessive development of reason, an ambition to master nature, and a loss of spiritual balance. The spirituality of non-Western peoples was shattered by contact with the West. Non-Western peoples are tempted to expel Western influence, and return to their traditional ways; this was the path taken by Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists. A better solution is to build a new spirituality that is in harmony with modern knowledge, in harmony with modern science.”
I’ve seen strange things. I’ve seen human beings cease to be human beings, I’ve seen flesh-and-blood human beings become cardboard bureaucrats.
If someone talks to you about the importance of consensus-building, remember the Roman adage, “senatores boni viri, senatus bestia” (senators are good men, the senate is a beast). Conscience is in the individual, not in the group. Instead of trying to build a consensus, instead of basing your decisions on other people’s views, base your decision on your own view of what’s right.
Our discussion group recently read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, which was recommended to me by Steve Thompson, a Phlit subscriber from Reading, England. It’s an outstanding collection of Asian philosophical writing, and it’s one of the seminal works of Zen literature. If you want to go to the source, and drink from a genuine spring of Eastern wisdom, read Zen Flesh. The back cover says that more than 1,000,000 copies have been sold, so evidently it’s a very popular work. It’s full of beautiful poetry, as well as deep thought.
Zen Flesh consists of four sections, of which the first and the most important is “101 Zen Stories.” These Zen stories are one of the finest collections of aphorisms in world literature. Many of the stories/aphorisms don’t relate specifically to Zen, they’re just good stories, full of wisdom and poetry:
Here’s another of my favorites:
Here’s another story on the theme of sincerity:
Another story dealing with passion in the heart of a monk:
Here’s another story that touches on the theme of sincerity, and the theme of consistency between public and private conduct:
In this remarkable list of rules, we find once again the themes of honesty, sincerity, wholeness, courage and self-discipline.
Zen often reminds one of Western mysticism. One of the most famous mystics in the Western tradition is the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. While walking down the street, Meister Eckhart encountered a peasant and said “Good morning,” to which the peasant responded, “every morning is a good morning.” One finds the same affirmative message in the following Zen story:
Here’s another story with a positive message: