09 December 2010

Is there a Class on That?

I sometimes take calls at the center asking if we have meditation or other classes.

Of course we don't.  We practice, and we'll give newcomers pointers, and on an Intro Night we'll walk people through the form of practice here, get them propped in a sitting posture or two, let them do twenty minutes or so of this new thing in their lives, and pretty much leave it at that.  We invite them to come back.  Some never return.  Some make this the practice of a lifetime.

But no classes.

It's becoming apparent to me just how much of life has been turned into a variation on school, and just how often people default to that model.  There are parenting classes, relationship classes, marriage classes, "personal development training" classes, "authentic practice" classes.  The list goes on.  I don't presume to know the mind (better: conscience) of those who offer these things, and I don't presume to know the mind of those who pay for them, but it is clear that classes and schooling seem to have become substitutes for something more – what? – organic, lived, done over the long haul, emergent.

And it's not an unexpected phenomenon.  It's the natural consequence of a trend that's been going on for the last few centuries.  The Reformation, for example, pulled spiritual development out of the religious community (monastery or order) and housed it in the university.  Most of the Reformers were not holy men and women; they were academic theologians.  The practice of a lifetime was reduced to a curriculum, cleverness with language (papers, exams) became the highest skill, and a degree came to stand as the mark of attainment.  Now you can get an M.Div. at the ripe old age of 24 and be installed as the spiritual leader of a community.  You might even set up, you got it, a "Sunday School."

If classes were good enough to master the spiritual life, then they are good enough for everything else, or so it would seem.

I bristle when I hear calls for building an academic model into Zen priest and teacher training (a Master of Divinity, or M.Div. wouldn't be quite right here; maybe a Master of Emptiness, or M.Empt.?).  I teach at a university.  I have some idea of what classes can do, and I have some idea of what classes are not at all designed to do.  I know what papers and exams test for, and I know what papers and exams cannot possibly test for.  Something tells me the Sixth Ancestor would have flunked out – to our detriment and loss.

I'm grateful that, at least in the lineage I am part of, Zen is not a matter of school and classes.  It is, and I hope it remains, simply and plainly, the practice of a lifetime.

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