Zen and the Art of Teaching
Updated: Jul 14
A recent trip to Japan has prompted me to reflect on ways that Japanese traditions and culture can inform creative pedagogy...
"Zen teaches nothing, it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach; it points." (D. T. Suzuki).
This post considers the influence of Japan's cultural heritage on on Western learning and teaching practice. An earlier post, Paper Play , discussed the role of Origami in learning: here, other traditional forms of making, being and learning are reflected on and examples of Japanese-influenced pedagogy are shared.
Zen, originating centuries ago with the influence of Indian Buddhist teachings on Chinese thought, is fundamental to Japanese culture. The influence of Zen, which can be seen as a religion, a philosophy or simply a way of being, can be felt everywhere in Japan, from traditional art forms such as calligraphy to the appreciation of the ever-changing natural world. Zen and Japanese Culture by D. T. Suzuki explores the history and influence of Zen in detail and the museum dedicated to his life and work offers an ideal setting for contemplation (see below). For a more light-hearted introduction, see this guide So you want to learn...Zen Buddhism.
Zen emphasises the importance of intuitive perceptions as opposed to rational, analytical thinking, in developing understanding. Suzuki uses the example of swordplay to make the seemingly contradictory point that to obtain the heights of skill in swordplay, all learning is to be "forgotten" and the mind emptied: "...he is the learning itself and there is no separation of learner and learning." There are parallels between this concept of the "empty mind" and Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory, where the self is lost through immersion in an absorbing or highly skilled activity.
Zen also aligns with my interest in contemplative pedagogy: the way that embedding meditative practices into teaching can enable learners to gain fresh insights and self-awareness alongside feelings of calm and relaxation. For more on this, see the earlier post on Multisensory Mindfulness.
Schon's (1982) emphasis on the "artistic, intuitive processes" of teaching also chimes with Zen's rejection of rational, logical thinking. The notion of "The artistry of teaching" was explored in depth at a recent online symposium led by Helen King: I enjoyed developing a poster for this event (see below) and the presentations can be viewed on the UWE Bristol Academic Practice Youtube channel.
The Japanese concept of Ikigai is also not straightforward to define, and has no direct translation into English. Essentially Ikigai is about finding both pleasure and meaning in life: our reason for getting out of bed in the morning. In the West Ikigai is often related to work, but in Japan the term is broader and more nuanced than that: this BBC article gives a flavour of what Ikigai means to the Japanese: Ikigai: A Japanese concept to improve work and life.
Ikigai can be linked to careers guidance, and can be a useful way of considering future direction for students, as shown in this UAL example: Ikigai: the Japanese art of finding your true purpose.
Wabi sabi is another elusive term, that broadly speaking relates to beauty in imperfection. In Japan, objects that are old, damaged or worn from use are revered: this is particularly true of the tea ceremony, where irregularly shaped, and often centuries old utensils are employed. This guide explains more about the origins and meanings of wabi-sabi: What is Wabi Sabi? The Elusive Beauty of Imperfection while the School of Life provides a video overview below.
Kintsugi, the art of celebrating broken ceramics by repairing objects using gold laquer, is linked to the wabi-sabi concept of appreciating objects as they age and become worn with use. Maha Bali uses this rejection of perfection and appreciation of flaws as a way to consider higher education post-pandemic: Reimagining #HigherEd like Kintsugi.
Haiku is a type of poetry originated in Japan consisting of seventeen syllables and three lines: it has a pattern of 5,7,5 syllables. The subject matter of Haiku is often the natural world, with a focus on closely observed small details. Translation into English may alter the number of syllables, as in this very well-known Haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho:
The old pond
A frog leaps in.
Sound of the water. (Basho)
The Haiku Foundation has many useful teaching resources, including this playful combination of the game Exquisite Corpse and Haiku writing by Robert Moyer: "Exquisite Syllable". This activity seems entirely in keeping with the essential "lightness" required by the Haiku form.
In Haikus for learning, Dr Jessica Clare Hancock suggests using the writing of Haiku with teaching staff to mirror the struggles that students may experience when approaching academic writing. Reflecting on their experiences enables staff to see writing from a student perspective, and to reflect on the importance of scaffolding in setting and assessing writing tasks.
In terms of visual arts, Japan has so much rich inspiration to offer for learning and teaching concepts. This research paper by Rachel Kelly uses Ikebana, the Japanese art form using flowers and natural materials, as a tool to visualise collaborative learning: "Ikebana: A Collaborative Design Pedagogy." Click on the image below to view the presentation based on this paper from the GLAD conference.
Japanese history, art and culture can offer endless inspiration to the playful Western educator, whether through traditional board games such as Sugoroku or an enhanced appreciation of nature. This small Michi-kusa vase, meaning 'flowers on the side of the road' and 'lazy loitering', is a daily reminder to pause and pay attention to the little things, whether in learning or in life, that we so easily overlook.