Home Buddhist space Education Zen Buddhist Perspectives on Modern Education – by Masato Mitsuda

Zen Buddhist Perspectives on Modern Education – by Masato Mitsuda



Many articles and books on Buddhism have been published in recent years, but publications dealing with Buddhist educational views are rarely available. In this paper, I wish to expound on Zen Buddhist perspectives on modern education. In the first section, I shall discuss how Buddhist monasteries in India and China functioned as learning centers; I shall also discuss how the sangha (community) provided people with security in early centuries (400 B.C. – 800 A.D.) The second section will deal with Zen Buddhist views on modern education. In this effort, the following questions will be addressed: i) What is the meaning of education in Zen Buddhism ? and ii) How can Zen Buddhism assist modern education? I shall interpolate typical Zen positions with non-technical observations in order to balance between scholarly and non-scholarly views. The third section will present a conclusion of this paper.

I – Monasteries

The history of education is long and complex. In ancient Egypt and India, for instance, education consisted mainly of the study of morality, astrology, and religious knowledge. The availability of education in that period was limited to rulers, administrators, soldiers, and priests. In fact, only the elite received education. However, the availability of education gradually changed in Asia and Europe, as more people, included commoners, gained access to education. In India, even untouchables and women were permitted to join Buddhist sangha (community) and were given opportunities to study; many oppressed individuals sought a safety net in sangha. For the first time, around the fourth century B.C., in India, some Buddhists defied the rigid caste system, as monasteries sprung up in many parts of India. Monasteries offered a communal life in which monks and nuns studied vinaya (the rules of monastic life), and they were taught unwritten canonical lore by a regular instructor called acarya. (1)

Apparently, as Buddhism became more popular and accepted, the number of monasteries increased. The most famous monastic universities were Nalanda and Valabhi, in eastern and western India respectively. These and other monasteries were usually supported by leading merchants; royal grants also supported monasteries. (2) Nalanda reached its peak during the seven century A.D. Hsuan tsang visited India between 629 – 646 A.D. and studied at Nalanda. Hsuan tsang reported that, at Nalanda University, the number of teachers was 1,500 and of learners 10,000. Indeed, Nalanda University was the center of Buddhist education. Another famous Chinese monk, I tsing traveled in India between 671 – 695 A.D. I tsing also reported that in monasteries, in addition to different sutras, Sanskrit grammar, Indian logic, and metaphysics were taught. (3) Also, Buddhist art as well as medicine were essential to Buddhist education. By the seventh century, the monastic life of monks and nuns had transformed to a more complex life style which required them to be more pedagogically competitive. One can argue that Buddhist “scholasticism” began in this period.

Chinese Buddhist monasteries began making their presence known in the first century A.D., as Buddhists gained acceptance. The famous Buddhist community of Lo yang was established during the last quarter of the first century A.D. The most well known and respected Buddhist monk in Lo yang was An Shih kao. He was a Parthian (a part of Iran) of royal lineage; An Shih kao arrived in Lo yang around 148 A.D. (4) He translated sutras, primarily on dhyana practices such as concentration, meditation, and the technique of breath control, into Chinese. Among the foreign coworkers of An Shih kao, was Chih Lou chia chan, a Seythian who arrived in Lo yang around 167 A.D. and who was also an important figure. In contrast to An Shih kao, Chih Lou chia chan’s main interest was in the translation of the prajinaparamita texts. (5)

Between the first and the fifth centuries A. D. in China, some monks mainly engaged in translating various sutras. In addition, Chinese monks had the opportunity to study the Vedic, Indian astronomy, mathematics, and other occult sciences from foreign Buddhist monks living in China. Kumarajiva ( d. 413 A.D.) was certainly responsible for introducing more Indian religious literature to China. (6) Monasteries were ipso facto operated as universities. People who wanted to become Buddhist monks and nuns in China sought to further their education; some men and women joined monasteries in order to avoid heavy taxation and other social injustice, taking refuge in sangha. The situation was somewhat similar in India, uneducated and under privileged people like untouchables were allowed to join sangha. In short, there were two advantages that were awarded to monks and nuns. First, they escaped from social injustice, and, secondly, by becoming the followers of the Buddha, they were able to gain a higher status in society. However, monasteries in India and China had a higher goal; the goal was to make monks and nuns realize the deepest level of human existence. Hence, the main purpose of education or practice was to make enlightenment come true.

II – Zen Looks At Modern Education

i) What Is The Meaning Of Education In Zen Buddhism?

In general, education comes in two different forms: formal education taught in school and informal education. Informal education comes in various forms. Poetry reading at a book store, self teaching a language, bible study at a local church, and a business seminar in the work place are some examples of informal ways of learning, done for the fulfillment of personal taste and need. The beauty of informal learning is that it flows with one’s life and is not a contest among participants.

The condition of the modern educational system is distinctively different from that of past centuries. Formal education in modern times is a billion dollar industry. Books, tuition, and various tests such as GRE all cost money. Today, students who receive a university education are mainly interested in the financial benefit and social status they may acquire as a result of education. Such an attitude among learners has been accepted as a matter of course since capitalism, science, and technology began to form a new world order; to wit, occupational training has became more essential to one’s way of living than the spiritual quest. The nineteenth century Industrial Revolution certainly changed the purpose of education worldwide. Because the Industrial Revolution created more occupational fields, more people were needed to be trained for their occupations. The purpose of institutionalized education was, therefore, forced to modify in order to accommodate the need. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the educational concern was in humanistic studies, but in the post-Industrial Revolution scientific training has became the queen of education. Consequently, the contemporary educational system has been greatly influenced by economic and technological factors that make difficult for any one to concentrate on the humanistic side of education. The N.A.S.A. spent 1.3 billion dollars, while the US. government allocated only 147 million dollars for humanistic study, according to the 1996 US. Government statistics. This figure speaks for itself. That is, humanistic study is not taken seriously.

Undoubtedly, formal education has become a means to secure a financial condition. If a financial stability is not secured, one is forced to live only in a lower echelon of society, as homeless people do here in the United States. In order to secure a materialistic life, one must, therefore, compete in school and in the workplace. One must work harder and longer hours; often one is forced to play a “corporate game” in order to keep the job. However, sadly, the more one competes for material gain, the less time he has for himself; as a result one loses a chance to develop his inner-self that has capacity for compassion, understanding, and love. In the eyes of Zen Buddhism, the student nowadays is an expert on finding the faults of others and society in general, but fails to reevaluate his self. The modern educational system fails to educate students to learn to be sensitive, caring, and even-minded individuals. In effect, modern education has become a mere process, rather than a transformation of one’s humanity.

Lin chi ( d. 866 A.D.), one of the great masters in the Tang dynasty, suggests the ideal education in the following way. He says: “The true student of the Way does not look to the faults of the world; he eagerly desires to seek insight. If he attains true insight in its perfect clarity, then, indeed, that is all.” (7) What is taught by Lin chi is that the student must not be judgmental to world conditions, nor should he be critical to others’ shortcomings. Lin chi clearly represents a Zen position on education. To educate oneself means to find the true insight that does not discriminate between failure and success, wealth and poverty, and right and wrong. Hence, in Zen Buddhism, the word education should mean finding one’s undiscriminating mind.

Finding one’s mind is a form of Zen education. In the Zen fashion, a koan may be used to teach students find the mind. However, a koan is not an ordinary teaching method. A koan is a tool to invoke the student’s insight that does not depend on reasoning, ideas, and words. Ever since the time of Bodhidharma, Zen followers have been trained not to depend on words and letters. Hence, in Zen learning, followers are taught by the method of non-teaching. (8) In other words, reading and thinking are not viewed as the best form of educational method. Of course, such educational philosophy is irrational and impractical to most contemporary educators. However, there is another dimension in Zen education. That is, from the level of non-teaching, there follows the method of teaching by example. (9) One day the Gotama took a seat in front of an audience. He did not say a word, but instead he held up a flower. With this mysterious gesture, the congregation became utterly confused and helpless. Only one person, by the name of Kasyapa, understood the Buddha’s act. Kasyapa did not say a word, but he smiled. The subtle and profound doctrine of the Buddha is not expressed in ideas, nor is it taught in words. The Buddha simply practiced the methods of non-teaching and of teaching by example. What the Buddha exercised was not an unusual teaching method. Everyone understands the meaning of the phrase that says “one must practice what one preaches,” or “one must practice what one learns.” Such an educational teaching method is only natural in Zen education.

ii) How Can Zen Buddhism Assist Modern Education?

Every historian agrees that modern life is characteristically faster tempo than centuries ago. Everything is required to move fast; things must be carried out in the shortest time possible. Almost no one on freeways and streets observes the speed limits; everyone wants to drive faster. There is an overnight package delivery system, and there is an instant banking system 24 hours a day. An e-mail message can be sent out in the blink of an eye. These are certainly convenient. However, expediency does not always provide modern people with intellectually and spiritually satisfying lives. In the middle of their busy lives, people follow one event after another, and they often neglect human relationships. (10) To this fast-moving modern life, Zen Buddhism suggests to focus more on human element of life. In other words, one should seek the mind, instead of following after events and material goods.

In one sense, finding one’s mind means seeking more time for oneself, instead of engaging in a busy and disruptive life style. By allowing more time to oneself, he is able to reach his tranquil and calm mind. This calm mind is not the same as a lazy or an indecisive attitude; this kind of mind is not disturbed by the external environment that often times forces a person to succumb to somewhat a chaotic and aggressive nature of modern life. One who follows his calm mind has complete control over his spirituality. He certainly sees the ills of society, but he is not blindly drawn into the problems of society.

Many modern problems are one way or the other caused by too many people engaging in too many activities. When arrogance and ego are mixed with numerous activities, a situation becomes unmanageable. Twenty three countries were involved during World War II to solve the problem by destroying each other, and, as a result, more than 53 million people perished. Zen Buddhism offers a solution to this modern day madness. The solution is to become more mindful and selective in daily activity. In this way, one can find more time for self-examination and reflective thought. It is Zen Buddhist understanding that by grasping the “twist and turn” of unpredictable life, one will have opportunity to find his mind, or the Buddha mind.

The mind, or the Buddha mind, is not a special kind of mind, but it has special effect to make a person realize the importance of every existing thing and its mutual relationships. The idea of interconnectedness helps to neutralize the feelings of hatred, prejudice, pride, disappointment, anxiety, and joy into a well balanced perspective which in turn enables one to perceive and to live in the complete state of harmonious existence. Pang yun ( 740-808 A.D.) clearly represents the essence of Zen education in the following poem:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
In every place there is no hindrance, nor conflict.
Who assigns the rank of vermilion and purple.
The hills’ and mountains’ last speck of dust
is extinguished.
[My] supernatural power and marvelous activity —
Drawing water and carrying firewood. (11)

The layman Pang yun lived a materialistic life just like anyone else, but in his later years, one day he loaded money and possessions into a boat and sank them in a river, thus freeing himself from material things. Pang yun not only got rid of material things, but he also became indifferent to how others judged him. The internal self successfully absorbed the external appearance. However, Pang yun did not abandon living. His life became simpler, and he performed the activities that were basic to human life, but at the same time he became well disciplined, aesthetic, and spiritual.

Pang yun’s non-attachment to material goods seems for modern men an extreme practice, and his spiritual life style may be impractical for modern men, but the solution lies in seeking the “middle way” between an excessive materialistic life and the kind of life inspired by Pang yun. His life is not to be misunderstood as an unproductive life; he says, “My daily activities are not unusual.” Indeed, his life is not substantially different from others’ lives. What Pang yun and others do are basically the same, except for the fact that Pang yun is unattached, not disconnected, to things around him, while the latter is attached to things and superficially connected.

III Conclusion

Zen Buddhism recognizes the necessity of formal education; one must not forget that centuries ago monks translated and studied sutras, and the monks and nuns received religious education that was rigorously prescribed according to vinaya. As a result of religious training, they established themselves in the hierarchical order of the society, just as most graduating students today wish to secure financial stability and a social status for their future. But, Zen Buddhists are not shy about pointing out the ill effect caused by the modern educational system. Education has become excessively competitive, and education causes students to become self-centered and reward-seeking individuals who fail to understand the essence of humanity. Centuries ago Indian and Chinese Buddhist monasteries provided followers with spiritual guidance as the core of education; on the other hand, universities today accentuate occupational training more than spiritual education. Thus, contemporaries are prone to perceive spirituality through the eyes of materialism. For example, one would ask “Is my donation tax-deductible?” It is easy to understand why so many people today are complaining about everything and are disconnected from the spiritual world. The aim of Zen Buddhist education, thus, is to connect people at the universal scale. The way to harmonize everyone with the world is to encourage every sentient being to find his mind. Students are encouraged to learn the Buddhist notion of non-dualism; wealth and poverty, education and the lack of education, joy and sorrow, success and failure are all different faces of the same coin. Having grasped non-dualism, one can advance his spiritual education that has no destination. Hence, Zen education is about a person’s transformation which takes a life time.

As a result of Zen education, a well-educated person demonstrates compassion far beyond ordinary measure; an educated person is endlessly open minded, and his humility beyond comparison. These characteristics come about when one finds his mind, or the Buddha mind. Thus, it is clear that in Zen education, receiving more information or merely conventional learning is not regarded as a good form of education. Bad education results in producing a self righteous person who imposes rigid views to others. On the other hand, good education creates an even-minded and compassionate human being. Reading, writing, and conventional knowledge are necessary, but so are “Drawing water and carrying firewood,” as Pang yun claimed. In other words, the life of a scholar and the life of a bus driver are equally meaningful and essential to all sentient beings.

Formal education has a certain rigidity, while informal learning has no fixed approach, but in the mind of Zen Buddhist informal education, or “practice,” is not inferior to formal education. Because, “practice” is free from a set of rules, one has a wider parameter and can enjoy and appreciate both formal learning and every day “practice.” On the other hand, a person who is blindly drawn into only formal or book learning is missing the other half. Consequently, his education is only fifty percent complete. However, this implication should not be taken as a criticism; rather it should be understood as an encouragement to practice and appreciate ordinary things to fulfill the other missing fifty percent. Learning, then, becomes more complete.


(1) Bapat, P. V. 2500 Years in Buddhism. (New Delhi: Government of India, 1956), p. 158.

(2) Ibid., p. 162.

(3) Ibid., p. 165.

(4) Chen, Kenneth. Buddhism in China. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 43.

(5) Ibid., p. 44.

(6) Ibid., p. 83.

(7) Lin chi. The Record of Lin Chi. tr. Ruth F. Sasaki. (Kyoto, Japan: The Institute for Zen Studies, 1975), p. 14.

(8) Hosaka, Gyokusen. Zen no yotei. [ Secret of Zen] (Tokyo: Kyoiku shincho sha, 1968), p. 57.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 31.

(11) Pang yun. The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang: A Nineth-Century Zen Classic. tr. Ruth F. Sasaki. (New York: Weatherhill, 1971), p. 46.

Source : www.bu.edu
Zen Buddhist Perspectives on Modern Education
Masato Mitsuda
California Institute of Integral Studies

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