Our final day began with two very strong practice decoding sessions led by Bhutanese teachers. Then the monk and Dzongkha teacher led what was intended to be a brief decoding session of the Samsara painting. After about 20 minutes of him giving background information and the participants feverishly writing notes, I became concerned that he was not going to ask any questions. After intervening another participant attempted to lead a decoding and then I jumped in to present another model. In the discussion about the appropriateness of this process some of the participants became frustrated that the discussion was going on too long. At that point the monk launched back into his teaching session (in Dzongkha). We were now about 45 minutes in and I clumsily attempted to bring an end to the lesson upon which another participant scolded me. About 10 minutes later the monk finished and we took an uncomfortable tea break.
The conversation I had sought about the appropriateness of “decoding” traditional Buddhist media had evolved into an uncharacteristically contentious issue. While some of the participants (including the monk) appreciated the time to learn (and teach) about the deep and spiritual meaning of the painting, others saw it as a time consuming divergence from the core work of the training. Their conclusions about the appropriateness of decoding a Thangka were equally divergent. Some thought that only years of spiritual and scholarly practice could allow for authentic understanding and therefore analysis by laypersons was dangerous. Others thought that the public, including students, would benefit from even a relatively simple decoding of parts of the rich document. One participant suggested that probing for open ended impressions (e.g. “what feelings do you get from this painting”) would be a good way to begin explorations of Buddhist values such as compassion. And another participant felt that students needed to ask the questions of the monks, not the other way around.
In retrospect I think that I was provoking this conversation out of fears that my teaching of (Western style) critical thinking might somehow contribute to a shift in cultural orientation that could harm Bhutan’s essential traditions (see blog entry from the Delhi Airport). Having worked with these educators for the week I have full trust that they will use the skills of decoding in the best interests of the nation. I am encouraged by their enthusiasm for teaching critical thinking and, Thangka’s aside, their unanimous desire to integrate this process into Bhutan’s 21st century pedagogy.
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