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The Noisy Wisdom of Monks

by catharine wells

Buddhist student monks teach each other by pairing off and debating, an intriguing contrast to the teacher-led, law school-style classroom method.Photograph by Catharine Wells.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to visit Tibet and Bhutan. I was drawn to these mountain kingdoms because of their Buddhist heritage and their isolation from the western world. I was not disappointed. Being in such unfamiliar surroundings gave me a new perspective on everyday realities. For example, a visit to the Serra Monastery in Tibet helped me to look at classroom teaching in a whole new way.

We arrived at Serra in the early afternoon. We had timed our visit so that we could see the “debates” that took place every afternoon in the monastery garden. Around two o’clock, we began to hear excited voices. Following the sounds, we walked outside until we came to an enclosure with high stone walls. The sound was so intense that it seemed as if several blocks of New York City had been compressed into the tiny area. As we entered, we saw the cause: hundreds of monks, dressed in fiery red robes, conversing.

The monks were gathered in pairs—one sitting, the other standing. The standing monk would talk with great urgency. Then he would stop and extend his left hand, palm facing upward. This would be followed by a motion that seemed almost like a baseball pitch. Stepping forward, the monk would bring his raised right hand down quickly over his shoulder and strike his left hand hard. Once he had done this, his partner would respond. He would speak briefly in a thoughtful and earnest tone. When he finished, the first monk might reply. Or they might laugh softly together. Once, I even saw a monk, twinkle in his eyes, bend over and kiss his partner gently on the top of the head.

I sought an explanation for what I was seeing. The monks were all students, I was told. The exercise was an essential part of their education. The pairings were random. The two could decide for themselves who would sit and who would stand. They could even switch off. The rapid speech from the first monk was really a question. The slap of the hands was the signal that the second monk must answer.

I watched for over an hour. My thoughts turned to the Law School and the way we teach students. I was struck by the contrast between the bustling activity in the monastery garden and the comparatively quiet atmosphere of a law school classroom. I started to enumerate the differences. First, in law schools, class participation is structured around an interaction between student and teacher. Thus, participation is limited to one student at a time. At Serra, however, the students were teaching each other. This meant that everyone was participating all the time. Second, the physical structure of the law school classroom restrains movement. Student heads emerge from above open laptops while the teacher is positioned behind the lectern. In contrast, the monks were constantly moving. It was not just the hand gestures, it was also the fact that sitting and standing in close proximity required the students to bend down, lean forward, or look up in order to communicate. Third, the atmosphere of a law school class is inevitably competitive as students learn by comparing their own answers to those that are given by their classmates. At Serra, the mood was lighter. A general good humor engulfed the exercise. The monks were not competing for grades. They were debating. They were getting fresh air. They were enjoying one another’s company.

After seeing the monks at Serra, I can picture our own students “debating” on the lawn outside of Barat. It is a happy thought but one that is not realistic. Nevertheless, I am inspired by Serra’s example. I have seen how much can be gained by more student interaction, more bodily movement, and more gentle good humor. I know that finding ways to incorporate these values into the traditional law school class would do a great deal to lift the spirits of our students and facilitate a more active learning process.

Catharine Wells teaches Torts and American Legal Theory.