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Home Newsletters So-Wide Space MARCH 2011 - 4

So-Wide Space MARCH 2011 - 4

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So-Wide Space MARCH 2011
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Adult Education at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies

by Sarah Shaw

The OCBS is an academic institution and, like others, tries to offer a service to the general public too.

This term at OCBS a class ran for a few sessions for a group of people who were not academics in the field, but already knew a little Buddhist theory. The subject was the factors of awakening (bojjhaṅgas), and we looked at texts, stories and commentaries, mostly from the Pāli tradition, in translation, reading them out in class and discussing terms and terminology, as well as looking at some modern first-person accounts from Buddhist teachers. One session, in which Ven Dr Pannyavamsa (Oxford Buddhist Vihara) explained about his life as a monk, meditation and experiences teaching Buddhism in this country, was particularly popular.

The class, a very mixed group in terms of age, educational attainment and career, has been investigative and lively. As the class drew to a close, people recorded their reasons for wishing to study Buddhist theory and texts. Their responses are varied, as we can see here.

Most liked the sense of being able to study a range of Buddhist topics in an independent atmosphere:

‘The study of Buddhist theory at the OCBS has been/ is most interesting to me because of its breadth. The study and discussion of different aspects of the traditions has shown me why Buddhism supports so many different people and races in their search for a meaningful and rich life.’

Another writes:

‘The course has introduced me to a much more academic approach to Buddhism. This has come as quite a revelation. I had read a lot about Buddhism in the preceding years – mostly by committed practitioners. The course and discussions have provided an approachable introduction to more rigorous studies.’

One man said he had wanted the chance to study Buddhism academically because he could find out about all Buddhist traditions, in a neutral though sympathetic atmosphere, without feeling obliged to ‘sign up, engage in rituals and practices I didn’t feel comfortable with, make demands of time and belief that I wasn’t ready for’.

Such study does, however, also engage those with a longstanding interest from a practical as well as theoretical point of view, who welcome a setting in which to find out more. One writes:

‘My interest in Buddhism goes back to student days in the 1960s, when Zen was a fashionable adjunct to alternative lifestyles. However, I retained some interest throughout 35 years of working in the education service. Since retirement I have enjoyed and benefitted from the opportunity of finding out more about the various traditions of Buddhist meditation, both through the OUDCE and this class at the OCBS. In particular this experience has helped me to understand more about the core concept of mindfulness, and also given me a bit more insight into the Theravada tradition.’

A few work in the public sector or have heard of Buddhism in a psychiatric and psychotherapeutic context, and one comes from research in neuro-science. Such people wanted to find out more about the early context of the tradition:

‘I have come to the OCBS as a complete novice, drawn by my wish to understand a little about the Buddhist tools of therapeutic mindfulness meditation, which is encountering increasingly avid interest in the West. The centre is a warm and welcoming place, calm and book-lined, but nevertheless a place that listens and encourages independent thought and questioning.’

Key terms such as mindfulness, concentration and compassion have been discussed in the context of reading early suttas:

‘Buddhism appeals to many people, but few have much understanding of it beyond encouragements to compassion and peaceful lives. What lies behind such terms as these? We give them our own Western meanings, but that can hardly convey what is special about them, what the deeper message is.’

The classes are primarily academic: but in adult education, for some, reading texts will always be seen as a chance to enjoy what the Buddhist tradition has to offer for purely private and spiritual inspiration:

‘Reading the sutta on loving kindness helped me to apply mindfulness to my everyday life, improved my concentration and experience of tranquillity of mind (very rare states of mind for me)… it feels as if a flower of positive energy, love and compassion, which was hidden for many years for me, suddenly opened and made my life, relationships and environments around me lighter, radiant and more fulfilling.’

Clearly such classes fulfil a need, which may be quite different from that in those where qualifications are the prime aim: courses for the general public are entirely self-motivated and so many different points of views and interests in the subject come to bear on reading the texts and discussing key terms. We would like to provide an academic service, and offer more classes, of different kinds, so please let us know if you have any ideas.

Please contact Sarah on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 



 

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