Buddhistdoor View: Buddhist Ideas on School Life, Competition, and Anatman
One of the great tensions in education is the simultaneous cultivation of competition and the encouragement to be selfless citizens who put others first. These objectives sometimes complement one another, but very often pull students and institutional cultures in different directions. Competitiveness can manifest in academic rivalry, in which students compare grades and seek to get the best results in exams, between school houses (a famous fictional rivalry, and a very destructive one, being between the houses of Hogwarts in Harry Potter), and even between entire schools on the sports field or in alumni networks.
Inter-student, inter-house, and inter-school competitiveness provides real-life drama and inspires literature and media. It exists globally, but is perhaps most visible in countries that prize educational accomplishment and self-development in a context of private schooling. Yet the dominance of this competitive culture is problematic in many ways. It is important to question long-held assumptions about childhood competition, and to explore how such assumptions could be reworked in more helpful ways for young people.
Defenders of rigorous competition might say that this is character-building, preparation for “the real world” in a controlled environment. Furthermore, they might add, competition is tempered by the patrician ethics of fair play and good sportsmanship. Learning how to be a generous winner and gracious loser, to demonstrate the ability to recover in defeat and share the spoils in victory, is an important part of childhood. Perhaps this is true in some cases. However, these arguments assume that a world dominated by rankings and hierarchies is a natural and desirable one—in other words, a meritocracy demands that winners be sifted from losers. Troublingly, moral value and even prestige is assigned to those “at the top,” with erroneous and harmful implications about those “at the bottom.” Worse yet, narrow conceptions of what students should want and do can reinforce this false hierarchy. It is often the case that students are simply different and should be offered a much wider range of vocations beyond those academic fields perceived as being more prestigious. Idealistic views of competition and romanticized ideas about its benefits do not give us the full picture.
Left unchecked, a free-for-all ethic of competition would seem little more than a warrior’s code for kids, a survival-of-the-fittest paradigm that inflicts sustained stress and emotional damage on the young, even in controled environments. This can also inculcate in them an exaggerated sense of self-importance or compensatory machismo, even as the school culture ostensibly claims to promote community and camaraderie. Competitive environments can overlook or underfund opportunities to develop the student’s interior being, such as through meditation.
Are serious questions being asked about how effective this competitive paradigm is at cultivating happiness and wellbeing among students, including beyond graduation? What are the side effects of unbridled rivalry? In certain parenting cultures, children can be pressured to be the best at everything they strive in, leading to many studies warning of stress and unhealthy mindsets at an early age. A parent’s answer to where they sent their children to school can lead to unspoken social cues and subtle judgments, leading to stress and unhappiness for both parent and child, and more widely the entire community.
Furthermore, competition could lead one to lose sight of genuine problems, with a soft spot for the superfluous and frivolous. An example is that of British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s criticism of a colleague in March, which was not on the basis of policy disagreement, but because that MP was “typically Wykehamist,” a reference to the ancient rivalry between the high schools the politicians attended, Eton and Winchester. Such preoccupations seem to border on the feudal to a detached observer.
Finally and most importantly, what is competition’s relationship to the core Buddhist doctrine of no-self (Skt: anatman)? This is arguably the central insight of the Dharma. Its realization (along with emptiness or sunyata in Mahayana Buddhism) tied to insight (Skt: prajna) and awakening (Skt: bodhi) and therefore enlightenment and the shattering of existential bondage. It is also the most counter-intuitive idea in human history and psychology, yet was the Buddha’s philosophical red line: few other world religions have upheld no-self so assiduously.
Notably, it is not just a truth-claim about the nature of reality and the human condition, but a tool of pedagogy. From an educational perspective, it should be fair to say that Buddhism urges students, including children, to understand that they have no permanent or everlasting self or soul beyond the five aggregates that make up a being, which themselves are conditioned and therefore unreal. Buddhism invites us to resist bracketing oneself into an identity, to be free from attachments to selfhood and the need to be “someone.”
It is commonly said that students should “make something of themselves.” Yet this “something” is not their self.
No one is arguing that a schoolchild should be uprooted from social bonds or have no sense of belonging to their school. Nor should they be made to feel that their favorite subject or extra-curricular activity is some kind of lie. Indeed, Buddhist writers and leaders have made it clear that the doctrine of no-self can itself be an attachment. In a 2014 essay, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a respected intellectual in the Thai forest tradition, noted:
“Because clinging lies at the heart of suffering, and because there’s clinging in each sense of self, he [the Buddha] advised using the perception of not-self as a strategy to dismantle that clinging. Whenever you see yourself identifying with anything stressful and inconstant, you remind yourself that it’s not-self: not worth clinging to, not worth calling your self (SN 22.59). This helps you let go of it. When you do this thoroughly enough, it can lead to awakening. . . .
“Some ways of selfing, the Buddha and his disciples found, are useful along the path, as when you develop a sense of self that’s heedful and responsible, confident that you can manage the practice (AN 4.159). . . . The belief that there is no self can actually get in the way of awakening. . . . If your purpose in practicing is to disprove the self—perhaps from wanting to escape the responsibilities of having a self—you can easily interpret the experience of nothingness as the proof you’re looking for: a sign you’ve reached the end of the path. Yet the Buddha warned that subtle clinging can persist in that experience.” (Tricycle)
It is not enough, from the Buddhist perspective, to simply deny one extreme in affirmation of another. In the conventional world it might be reasonable to continue using the word “self” in the psychological sense, because healthy and adjusted individuals tend to feel that when they look at their community, they feel their selves, composed of deeds and hopes and much more, “mirrored” or reflected back. It is not even that competition, in whichever way it is defined, is an inherent defect—it simply needs to be moderated, and going further, retooled into something more affirming. As with all Buddhist thought, it is a matter of degree; neither extreme is helpful. As it stands now, however, it seems clear that the pendulum in many countries long ago swung to the extreme end of favoring competitive school culture.
Perhaps school heads, teachers, and education policymakers should look at what might be called “self-creation,” where students are empowered to explore what they want to be, and be provided with the resources and encouragement to realize the fullest version of themselves. Buddhist educators are therefore not looking to literally dismantle the self of a student, but, based on the anatman teaching of flexibility in choosing a self instead of attaching it to a competitive identity, help students (and their parents) explore the many nourishing selves that are ripe for them to seize, opening up more possibilities for their future.
Such approaches to learning, which are at their heart compassionate while aiming for a higher spiritual goal, should be seriously explored as non-sectarian educational policies. A Buddhist exploration of education, much like the doctrine of no-self, aims to question basic assumptions about the nature of the field, and in doing so to foster the pedagogical anatman that can contribute positively to schools, teachers, and students. This radical challenge asks all individuals and institutions whether they really need to maintain what they think is their fundamental identity, and whether there is a yet-to-be-tasted freedom in trying something different.
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