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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

186. The Dalai Lama And The Genius Of The West: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The Dalai Lama And The Genius Of The West 

Some time ago, I found myself on a warm evening in June in Boulder, Colorado, sitting 
in a big white tent on a camp chair. Directly in front of me was the Dalai Lama, who sat 
about fourteen feet away with nobody between us.' As he spoke, our eyes met now and 
then, as I listened with growing delight to this eloquent, humorous, plain-spoken man talk 
about wisdom and the world. Most of the things he said were familiar: that love and 
compassion are human necessities, that forgiveness is essential, that Western education 
lacks a dimension of heart, that Americans need to rely more on inner resources. But 
some of his presentation was surprising — that it is better to stick with the wisdom 
traditions of one's own land than to run from them pursuing in exotica what was under 
your nose all the time. At one point, with what looked to me like a mischievous gleam in 
his eye, he offered that he had always been made to feel welcome in Christian countries, 



but Christians were not so welcome in his own country. I suspect that many who were 
there primarily to add to their Buddhist understanding missed this pointed aside. 

It was only when Tenzin Gyatso, fourteenth Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of 
the Tibetan people, came briefly to the structure, goal, and utility of Buddhism — a 
location he spent no more than five minutes visiting — that I was able to see in somewhat 
sharp perspective where Christianity had taken a different path, and American 
Christianity a very different one. The goal of Buddhism was "happiness," he said, 
happiness was the key. The Dalai Lama divided major world religions into "God- 
religions" and "God-less" religions, with Buddhism in the latter category. 2 

His Holiness seemed to focus marvelously when in response to a question from the 
audience about how wealthy people and countries could find spirituality, he replied 
(again, I think, with a mischievous smile) that Buddhism, with its orientation toward 
comfortable situations, found it easier for rich people to be spiritual than poor ones! 
Tenzin Gyatso also tossed another bitter herb into the pot for those romantic souls who 
expected a continuous sweet presence in their lives from imported religious teaching 
which they felt lacking in their own, [saying, "Better not take someone else's religion, 
plenty wisdom in your own."] The Dalai Lama said at another juncture, as if talking to 
himself, that religion was not for every day; religion was for times of pain. As I recall, his 
exact words were, "Religion something like medicine, when no pain no need medicine; 
same thing religion." 

The next morning, it was my turn to speak, and with the Dalai Lama's words fresh in 
mind, I framed the Christian road as one whose goal wasn't happiness in the usual sense. 
It was a road where wealth can be an obstacle to the ends of obedience to God, to loving 
neighbors as you love yourself, and to redemption through self-transcendence. Unlike 
Tibetan Buddhism, Western religion has no ultraspecific application, so it can't be 
compared with medicine. According to Christianity, religion is not a sometimes thing 
when you need it but a medium in which we act out our lives. Nothing has any meaning 
without religion. Remember, even if you violently disagree with what I just said here, it 
isn't relevant to this discussion. I feel no urgency to convert you to anything. My purpose 
is only to show that the wisdom tradition of American Christianity has something huge to 
say about where we've misstepped in mass compulsion schooling. 

The neglected genius of American Christianity has taken on greater urgency for me — a 
lapsed Roman Catholic — as I enter old age because it doesn't take much wisdom to see 
that Americans have been substantially broken away from their own wisdom tradition by 
forces hostile to its continuance. No mechanism employed to do this has been more 
important than the agency we call public schooling. In neglecting this wisdom tie we 
have gradually forgotten a powerful doctrine assembled over thousands of years by 
countless millions of minds, hearts, and spirits, which addresses the important common 
problems of life which experience has shown to be impervious to riches, intellect, charm, 
science, or powerful connections. 



Wherever I go in the United States these days I hear of something called the crisis of 
discipline, how children are not motivated, how they resist learning. That is nonsense, of 
course. Children resist teaching, as they should, but nobody resists learning. However, I 
won't dispute that schools are often in chaos. Even ones that seem quiet and orderly are 
in moral chaos beyond the power of investigative journalism thus far to penetrate. 
Disconnected children underline school's failure as they come to public attention, so they 
must be explained in some way by authorities. 

I don't think it's off the mark to say that all of us, whatever else we disagree upon, want 
kids to be disciplined in the sense of exercising self-control. That goes for black mothers 
in Harlem, too, despite the scientific religion of schooling which believes those mothers 
to be genetically challenged. But we all want something besides just good behavior. We 
pray for discipline in the more specialized sense of intellectual interests and skills well 
enough mastered to provide joy and consolation to all our lives — and maybe even a buck, 
too. 

A discipline is what people who drink vermouth cassis instead of red whiskey call a field 
of learning, like chemistry, history, philosophy, etc., and its lore. The good student is 
literally a disciple of a discipline. The words are from the Latin disciplinare and 
discipulus. By the way, I learned this all from a schoolteacher in Utica, New York, 
named Orin Domenico, who writes me, and I pay attention. In this discipline matter, I'm 
Orin's disciple. 

The most famous discipline in Western tradition is that of Jesus Christ. That's true today 
and it was true fifteen hundred years ago. And the most famous disciples are Jesus' 
twelve apostles. What did Christ's model of educational discipline look like? Attendance 
wasn't mandatory, for one thing. Christ didn't set up the Judea compulsory school 
system. He issued an invitation, "Follow me," and some did and some didn't. Christ 
didn't send the truant officer after those who didn't. 

Orin tells me the first characteristic of this model is a calling. Those who pursued 
Christ's discipline did so out of desire. It was their own choice. They were called to it by 
an inner voice, a voice we never give students enough time alone to possibly hear, and 
that's more true of the good schools than it is of the bad ones. Our present system of 
schooling alienates us so sharply from inner genius, most of us are barred from ever 
being able to hear our calling. Calling in most of us shrivels to fantasy and daydreams as 
a remnant of what might have been. 

The second characteristic of Christ's discipline was commitment. Following Jesus wasn't 
easy. You had to drop everything else and there was no chance of getting rich. You had 
to love what you were doing; only love could induce you to walk across deserts, sleep in 
the wilderness, hang out with shady characters, and suffer scorn from all the established 
folks. 

The third characteristic of Christ's model of discipleship was self-awareness and 
independence. Christ's disciples weren't stooges. They had to think for themselves and 



draw their own conclusions from the shared experience. Christ didn't give many lectures 
or handouts. He mostly taught by his own practice, and through parables open to 
interpretation. Orin, my coach, personally doubts Christ ever intended to start an 
institutional religion because institutions invariably corrupt ideas unless kept small. They 
regiment thinking and tend toward military forms of discipline. I don't think he's right 
about Christ's intention, but it's hard to disagree about institutional pathology. 

Finally, Christ's model of discipline requires a master to follow — one who has himself or 
herself submitted to discipline and still practices it. The way Orin puts it is this: Christ 
didn't say, "You guys stay here in the desert and fast for a month. I'll be over at the 
Ramada. You can find me in the bar if you need help." He didn't begin his own public 
life until he was almost a rabbi, one fully versed in his tradition. 

One way out of the fix we're in with schools would be a return to discipleship in 
education. During early adolescence, students without a clear sense of calling might have 
a series of apprenticeships and mentorships which mostly involve self-education. Our 
students have pressing needs to be alone with themselves, wrestling against obstacles, 
both internal demons and external barricades to self-direction. 

As it is, we currently drown students in low-level busy work, shoving them together in 
forced associations which teach them to hate other people, not love them. We subject 
them to the filthiest, most pornographic regimens of constant surveillance and ranking so 
they never experience the solitude and reflection necessary to become a whole man or 
woman. You are perfectly at liberty to believe these foolish practices evolved 
accidentally or through bad judgment, and I will defend your right to believe that right up 
to the minute the men with nets come to take you away. 



The occasion was a Spirituality in Education conference at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in 1997. The gathering, at which 1 was 
asked to speak, was non-sectarian. 

"The reader is expressly cautioned not to infer that I mean to imply Buddhism is either hedonistic or with- out moral foundation. 

Religion And Rationality 

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