The Blessed One said, “Now what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
(all quotes today are from this Sutta of the Pali Canon)
I am blessed to work with a teacher at my school who is Hindu, born in India. Blessed because she is, on the one hand, a great primary source to invite into the classroom when discussing India, and, on the other, a sweet lady, a respected educator, and a friend. On one occasion when we spoke recently, we discovered that we had something in common: we were both philosophically driven educators. Some educators are driven by their intense love of their subject, which is fine, but we were both driven by an intense desire to see students have success, and for us, the subjects we teach are merely a means to an end. We teach the student, not the standard.
Since that discussion, I have thought more deeply about my philosophy as an educator, and how to talk about it and classify it. As a Buddhist, it made sense for me to start with the Eightfold Path: the defining bedrock of Buddhist ethics and philosophy, the Buddha’s guide to the ending of suffering and the path to enlightenment.
I. Right View
And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the stopping of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of stress: This, monks, is called right view.
For the Buddhist, Right View means a grasp of the Four Noble Truths and an understanding of the world. For the teacher, I believe this means seeing the impermanence in your students. I see too often that students are rolled into groups based on what teachers think their natural ability levels are. But students are impermanent — sometimes people go back to college at 50 after living a difficult life, and sometimes the 4.0 student drops out. You can’t predict anything, so all students are deserving of an opportunity to be successful, and are deserving of your time, effort and assistance. They are all eventual Buddhas, if not now, then later, if not in this life, then another. Time is meaningless.
II. Right Resolve
And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.
For Buddhists, this is about intention. The intention to renounce sense desires, to act with good will, to be harmless and act with compassion. For the educator, they must ask themselves what is their intention? Is it just to collect a paycheck, or is there more to what they do? I chose to be an educator based on my compassion for others, and a deep commitment to social justice. That doesn’t have to be everybody’s reason, but each teacher should have a good reason for being one.
III. Right Speech
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter: This, monks, is called right speech.
For the Buddhist, this is about controlling what you say, and understanding the power words can have to harm yourself and others. For the teacher, it’s about understanding the power of the bully-pulpit that you have as an educator. There are thirty humans in your classroom focused on every single word you say. Choose wisely.
Teaching in a small town, I’ve sometimes had to learn this one the hard way.
IV. Right Action
And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.
Again, for the Buddhist, this is cut and dry. Control your body. It is a physical manifestation of your expression. For the educator, we must be what we say. We must be on time if we expect our students to be. We must control our anger and emotions if we ask for that of our students. So on, and so forth. Every action must be a symbol of the lessons you teach. You wanted the job, you asked to be a role model; now do it.
V. Right Livelihood
And what, monks, is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This, monks, is called right livelihood.
For Buddhists, it is accepted that we all must have a livelihood, a job, a way feeding and sheltering ourselves, but it is not acceptable that this livelihood harm others. Because of our interconnectedness, there is no way to do harm to one that does not do harm to all. As an educator, it is a reminder of the great power we have to help or harm. In my first year teaching, I convinced about fifteen students to do the “Night at the Roxbury” dance in a circle together at a dance I was chaperoning when the DJ played a little Haddaway. We were being silly and having fun, and a fellow teacher came up to me afterward and said “wow, they really trust you.”
It was a profound reminder of my power in the classroom, and how that extends out of the classroom. Teaching is the Right Livelihood for many, but would be the Wrong Livelihood should someone become a teacher who doesn’t understand the power that comes with it.
VI. Right Effort
And what, monks, is right effort? (i) There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (ii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. (iii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (iv) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.
For the Buddhist, effort is effort, but it is classified as wholesome or unwholesome based on intent and product. Effort can fuel anger, desire, aggression or it can fuel self-discipline, benevolence and compassion. For the educator, the Right Effort is the effort that fuels compassion. Every act towards a student must be an act of compassion, in both the eyes of the educator and the eyes of the student, to be successful or “right.” Are you holding that student after class because of your own anger, because of your ego in being one-upped during class, or because of your compassionate desire to help the student understand correct behavior? The only correct answer is compassion.
VII. Right Mindfulness
And what, monks, is right mindfulness? (i) There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (ii) He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iii) He remains focused on the mind in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iv) He remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. This, monks, is called right mindfulness.
For Buddhists, Right Mindfulness is the correct view of what is happening around you, to you, and within you. We tend to wrap those all up together, and confuse what really happens with our perception of what happens, often based on pre-conceived notions of “the world” and “how it works.” For the educator, we must correctly interpret the events around us and within us to be fully successful. We must understand our own prejudices and work around them. We must understand what our students bring with them, physically and mentally, when they enter the classroom. And while planning is a central part of being a teacher, we must not be so wrapped up in “the plan” that we forget to observe the classroom in the moment. Sometimes the flow of a lesson is so perfect, that the interaction between student and teacher becomes a state of oneness. This is when “teachable moments” occur — life lessons that go beyond the teaching standards. A teacher without Right Mindfulness will miss all of this. It is the awareness of when and where to do what.
VIII. Right Concentration
And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. (ii) With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. (iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ (iv) With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration.
For the Buddhist, Right Concentration is joined particularly with Meditation. I meditate regularly — usually daily. All educators should enter the classroom and profession with a singular mind, and I encourage meditation as the path and tool of this. But if that’s too New Age for you, create separation between home and work, between work and hobbies, mentally. Educating students is an intense mental exercise, exceptionally stressful at times. The focus of the mind should be singular when educating, and not hounded by petty distractions. When a distracting thought arises, the teacher should mentally note it, acknowledge it, then shove it aside. Piecemeal concentration leads to scattered thinking and disjointed teaching.
Breathe, be mindful, breathe, concentrate, breathe, teach.