Aims of Buddhist Education
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
Ideally, education is the principal tool of human growth, essential for transforming
the unlettered child into a mature and responsible adult. Yet everywhere today,
both in the developed world and the developing world, we can see that formal education
is in serious trouble. Classroom instruction has become so 'routinized' and pat
that children often consider school an exercise in patience rather than an adventure
in learning. Even the brightest and most conscientious students easily become
restless, and for many the only attractive escape routes lie along the dangerous
roads of drugs, sexual experimentation, and outbursts of senseless violence. Teachers
too find themselves in a dilemma, dissatisfied with the system, which they serve,
but unable to see a meaningful alternative to it.
One major reason for this sad state of affairs is a loss of vision regarding the
proper aims of education. The word "education" literally means, "to
bring forth," which indicates that the true task of this process is to draw
forth from the mind its innate potential for understanding. The urge to learn,
to know and comprehend is a basic human trait, as intrinsic to our minds as hunger
and thirst are to our bodies. In today's turbulent world, however, this hunger
to learn is often deformed by the same moral twists that afflict the wider society.
Indeed, just as our appetite for wholesome food is exploited by the fast-food
industry with tasty snacks devoid of nutritional value, so in our schools the
minds of the young are deprived of the nutriment they need for healthy growth.
In the name of education the students are passed through courses of standardized
instruction intended to make them efficient servants of a demeaning social system.
While such education may be necessary to guarantee societal stability, it does
little to fulfill the higher end of learning, the illumination of the mind with
the light of truth and goodness.
A major cause of our educational problems lies in the "commercialization"
of education. The industrial growth model of society, which today extends its
tentacles even into the largely agrarian societies of South and Southeast Asia,
demands that the educational system prepare students to become productive citizens
in an economic order governed by the drive to maximize profits. Such a conception
of the aim of education is quite different from that consistent with Buddhist
principles. Practical efficiency certainly has its place in Buddhist education,
for Buddhism propounds a middle path, which recognizes that our loftiest spiritual
aspirations depend on a healthy body and a materially secure society. But for
Buddhism the practical side of education must be integrated; with other requirements
designed to bring the potentialities of human nature to maturity in the way envisioned
by the Buddha. Above all, an educational policy guided by Buddhist principles
must aim to instill values as much as to impart information. It must be directed,
not merely towards developing social and commercial skills, but towards nurturing
in the students the seeds of spiritual nobility.
Since today's secular society dictates that institutional education is to focus
on preparing students for their careers, in a Buddhist country like Sri Lanka
the prime responsibility for imparting the principles of the Dhamma to the students
naturally falls upon the Dhamma schools. Buddhist education in the Dhamma schools
should be concerned above all with the transformation of character. Since a person's
character is molded by values, and values are conveyed by inspiring ideals, the
first task to be faced by Buddhist educators is to determine the ideals of their
educational system. If we turn to the Buddha's discourses in search of the ideals
proper to a Buddhist life, we find five qualities that the Buddha often held up
as the hallmarks of the model disciple, whether monk or layperson. These five
qualities are faith, virtue, generosity, learning, and wisdom. Of the five, two-faith
and generosity-relate primarily to the heart: they are concerned with taming the
emotional side of human nature. Two relate to the intellect: learning and wisdom.
The fifth, virtue or morality, partakes of both sides of the personality: the
first three precepts-abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual abuse- govern
the emotions; the precepts of abstinence from falsehood and intoxicants help to
develop the clarity and honesty necessary for realization of truth. Thus Buddhist
education aims at a parallel transformation of human character and intelligence,
holding both in balance and ensuring that both are brought to fulfillment.
The entire system of Buddhist education must he rooted in faith (saddha) faith
in the Triple Gem, and above all in the Buddha as the Fully Enlightened One, the
peerless teacher and supreme guide to right living and right understanding. Based
on this faith, the students must be inspired to become accomplished in virtue
(síla) by following the moral guidelines spelled out by the Five Precepts.
They must come to know the precepts well, to understand the reasons for observing
them, and to know how to apply them in the difficult circumstances of human life
today. Most importantly, they should l come to appreciate the positive virtues
these precepts represent: kindness, honesty, purity, truthfulness, and mental
sobriety. They must also acquire the spirit of generosity and self-sacrifice (caga),
so essential for overcoming selfishness, greed, and the narrow focus on self-advancement
that dominates in present-day society. To strive to fulfill the ideal of generosity
is to develop compassion and renunciation, qualities that sustained the Buddha
throughout his entire career. It is to learn that cooperation is greater than
competition, that self-sacrifice is more fulfilling than self-aggrandizement,
and that our true welfare is to be achieved through harmony and good will rather
than by exploiting and dominating others.
The fourth and fifth virtues work closely together. By learning (suta) is meant
a wide knowledge of the Buddhist texts, which is to be acquired, by extensive
reading and persistent study. But mere learning is not sufficient. Knowledge only
fulfills its proper purpose when it serves as a springboard for wisdom (paññá),
direct personal insight into the truth of the Dhamma. Of course, the higher wisdom
that consummates the Noble Eightfold Path does not lie within the domain of the
Dhamma School. This wisdom must be generated by methodical mental training in
calm and insight, the two wings of Buddhist meditation. But Buddhist education
can go far in laying the foundation for this wisdom by clarifying the principles
that are to be penetrated by insight. In this task learning and wisdom are closely
interwoven, the former providing a basis for the latter. Wisdom arises by systematically
working the ideas and principles learned through study into the fabric of the
mind, which requires deep reflection, intelligent discussion, and keen investigation.
It is wisdom that the Buddha held up as the direct instrument of final liberation,
as the key for opening the doors to the Deathless, and also as the infallible
guide to success in meeting life's mundane challenges. Thus wisdom is the crown
and pinnacle of the entire system of Buddhist education, and all the preliminary
steps in a Buddhist educational system should be geared towards the flowering
of this supreme virtue. It is with this step that education reaches completion,
that it becomes illumination in the truest and deepest sense, as exclaimed by
the Buddha on the night of his Awakening: "There arose in me vision, knowledge,
wisdom, understanding, and light."