Religion is hard to understand. What does it mean to be a Buddhist, a Christian or a Muslim, living your life by your faith? Most of the time we have to ask pupils to answer the question from an outsider perspective, which increases the difficulty. Still, as teachers, there are tricks of the RE trade that we can use to help them.
One is to explain the spiritual ideals held by religious adherents and ask pupils to imagine problems that those people might face when putting the ideals into practice in today’s world. This gives a real-life aspect to the discussion, engages the imagination and brings out ethical issues that the pupils can also weigh up for themselves.
Research into lived religion gives us rich resources for this kind of pedagogy. My RE research of the month for July is a case in point. During 2011, the American religious studies scholar Daniel Capper spent sixty days in a Buddhist monastery in Mississippi, participating in its various activities and interviewing its monks. He uncovered complications faced by Buddhists when they tried to put very pure spiritual ideals into practice. You can read a report of Daniel Capper’s research, together with a link to the original article, at http://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/how-eco-friendly-is-buddhism-really/
The monastery in question was founded by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught that every Buddhist practitioner should be a protector of the environment, because everything in the universe is interconnected, humans are equal partners in a larger system and no distinction should be made between inanimate and animate beings. The Buddhists in the monastery saw natural beings as enlightened and as spiritual teachers to people. They tried to consume little, their diet was vegan and they strove to avoid harming any living beings, even those normally regarded as pests. When they practiced walking meditation, this included an attitude of deep appreciation for the surrounding natural environment.
Yet Daniel Capper points out how there are various Buddhist beliefs which offer slightly different attitudes to nature and the place of human beings within it. In Thailand, trees have been symbolically ordained as monks; but still, Buddhists are taught that for purposes of attaining enlightenment, a human rebirth is the most favourable of all.
Do these differences underlie the compromises that were sometimes made in the monastery studied? For example: two stray dogs who were interfering with the contemplative atmosphere were eventually removed. The researcher himself was asked to do this, though it might be considered that for purposes of karma, asking somebody to do something is not very different from doing it yourself; in a compromised act such as this one, it may be worse. In another case, pesticides were used against red fire ants whose bites are very painful and can be fatal.
These acts can be seen as last resorts, but the Buddhists ultimately placed their own human comfort and safety higher than the intrinsic value of the dogs or ants. Sometimes their ecological lifestyle seemed to be motivated by their own spiritual wishes.
Nevertheless, Daniel Capper’s tone is far from judgemental. The issues are not simple. I would add that within the complexity lies the RE potential. The material challenges and assists pupils to understand and to engage critically.
In an outline teaching plan derived from it, they could first be asked to suggest possible practical difficulties in leading a life based on the principle that all living beings are equal. They could then be introduced to Daniel Capper’s ‘story’, perhaps also looking up the monastery online at http://magnoliagrovemonastery.org/ Finally, some general questions might be debated, also forming bases for extended writing where older or more able pupils are concerned. If you believe that all of life is equal and interconnected, can the use of pesticides be justified? If you believe that all of life is equal and interconnected, must you have a vegan diet? And in the final analysis, is it possible to live in a way that truly and completely reflects a belief that all of life is equal and interconnected?
Enjoy Daniel Capper’s research on the Research for RE site and please remember to leave your feedback there. If you happen to try out the teaching ideas suggested above, we would be delighted to hear about how these have gone and to include your reflections in future blogs, so do get in touch. We are also looking for nominations for future RE research of the month features, so if there is a research report which you have found particularly interesting or useful, email details to Kevin@cstg.org.uk