Close this search box.


Dharma versus Buddhadharma at a Buddhist School

Image courtesy of the author

A young family scheduled a tour of the Middle Way School of the Hudson Valley because they had heard that it would be an ideal place for their six-year-old. The school had a good reputation, some of their friends sent their children, and it was voted “best independent school” in the region by the local arts magazine. They were advised to apply early because there was a waiting list.

They came to the campus a little jittery with hope, but also with serious reservations because they did not identify as Buddhists, not even a little bit. They were charmed by what they saw—the children were clearly enjoying themselves in the forested playground, the teachers were kind, natural materials were neatly organized in the classrooms—but they worried about indoctrination. They knew that the school met all the usual academic standards but what is Buddhist about the school?

It was my job at the time, as the designer of the dharma curriculum, to address those fears. What I said to them was not scripted, in fact it sort of leapt out of my mouth. But it seemed to make sense and since then, I’ve used it again and again, with some refinements, because it’s been effective in communicating the unique opportunity of Buddhist education for children, and what differentiates it from other religious curricula. When I tried it out on Buddhist scholars, however, there were some raised eyebrows.

What I said was this: “The curriculum is about 80 per cent dharma and 20 per cent Buddhadharma.” Dharma and Buddhadharma were new terms to the young parents and I was aware of that. I wasn’t trying to trip them up, but sometimes intentionally dropping in language that needs definition helps initiate the learning process. The very need to define them helps start a rich conversation that, one hopes, opens the door for parents to engage with the dharma themselves.

Image courtesy of the author

So what is dharma? There is no exact English equivalent of the word. It is a concept more ancient than Buddhism itself, present among ancient Indian wisdom traditions, and is described and understood in different ways. Depending on which dictionary is consulted, and even among my own advisors, the definition of dharma varies. Some options are: “the nature of reality regarded as a universal truth taught by the Buddha;” “the teaching of Buddhism;” and “an aspect of truth or reality.” At a yoga ashram in the Bahamas, I heard a definition that I’ve used a few times since: “A matrix of universal truths.” Some people say “path” but I think it’s more like “way” as in the way things are. I also like the Collins Dictionary definition: “cosmic order or law, including the natural and moral principles that apply to all beings and things.” To the parents I use a blend of these depending on who is listening, but basically, it’s just how things are, the nature of reality and how our minds work.

The wholly unscientific 80:20 per cent ratio is my way of saying that much of what is taught at the school focuses on the nature of how things are, i.e. understanding how and what sentient beings experience in the natural world without ignorance or delusion getting in the way. Importantly, content is chosen with deep consideration of the child’s development, their physical and mental capacity. Finding that sweet spot at the intersection of dharma and childhood development has been the great experiment of Middle Way.

Then what is the Buddhadharma? It is what the Buddha taught to understand these truths. Here maybe “path” does work. It’s the framework that helps us to be in harmony with the truth. So another way to put this is that 80 per cent of what we teach is the view: basic principles about the world, and 20 per cent is the path: how to act in the world in a way that is of most benefit to self and other.

Image courtesy of the author

Most of the teachers at the school do not identify as Buddhists, but they are completely willing and able to teach what falls into the category of dharma. They rotate through themes such as impermanence, cause and effect, the unseen world, even refuge and lineage, weaving the concepts into their other curricular content in ways that are familiar to them.

Lineage, in this case, is a study of where things and ideas come from and where they go. The guiding question for this unit is: “what do I want to continue and what do I want to interrupt with my body, speech, and mind?” The younger children are encouraged to explore their family stories. There is a steady stream of families coming into the classroom to share songs and recipes. Students write odes to people who have taught them, and practice respectful investigation. They learn the difference between an elder and an older person, the difference between heritage and lineage. In this unit, we hope children come away equipped with questions to ask about the origin of things and ideas that they are being asked to adopt or accept, and the intentions of those who are passing them down. With that awareness, they can make wise choices about what to adopt and what to let go. Older students look at historical patterns and are guided to be more discerning about what gets passed on through their actions and words.

All of this could be categorized as secular. Teachers don’t have to be Buddhist to ask, “Where did that idea come from?” But without the support of being in a Buddhist school it might not occur to them to follow up with guidance on altruistic motivation and conduct.

When children have developed this awareness and a felt sense of what lineage means to them, the Buddhadharma can be introduced, it has a place to land. Every week a Buddhist educator comes to each class to teach the Buddhadharma more directly. Students learn about the different Buddhist lineages, they listen objectively to lineage chants from different traditions, and read homages to different teachers or compare and contrast the different yanas. Guests might come from different local temples to talk about their traditions. And because of all the preparation, students are ready to ask respectful questions, learn, and make meaning from these encounters. It’s important to note that the person who teaches this class must be a self-identified practicing Buddhist.

Recently, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche taught on the Tibetan term gyu lung mengak, which he said can be loosely translated as “science, information, and instructions.” The 80 per cent of the curriculum falls under gyu, the science of experienced reality. Buddhism is scientific in that it is rooted in what we can verify, what we can observe, and what we can arrive at through reason. For example, every action we take has an effect. Lung refers to the instructions of the Buddha. Lung also includes the teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma heirs, who lay out a path on how to deeply understand and embody those truths. And the mengak is where the magic happens. Mengak is the pith instruction, the skillful way that teachers make all of this come alive in the classroom.

Image courtesy of the author

The Middle Way School is unreservedly, unabashedly, proudly a Buddhist school. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to teach or attend. So the challenge was creating a curriculum that provides a secular framework of universal truths while allowing space for direct instruction on Buddhist traditions and practices. The more secular “dharma” piece is a necessary container into which the Buddhadharma can be placed, a womb that provides the oxygen and nutrients for the Buddhadharma to thrive, a fertile ground for the Buddhadharma to take root. The metaphors could go on!

The family enrolled in the school. The mother comes to the meditation classes. She can use the word sangha in a sentence and says she feels “blessed” that her children are being exposed to the science and magic of the school. She still goes to her own sources of spiritual guidance and doesn’t identify as a Buddhist, but in a year-end reflection she wrote, “In a world that feels so dualistic, what a joy it is to send my children to a school where they learn the dharma, the universal truths that unite us all.”

See more

The Middle Way School

Related features from BDG

Children in Lockdown: The Need for a More Mindful Approach to Education
For Our Children’s Sake: Dismantling Racism and Bias in Schools
Contemplative Practices: Helping Children Enjoy Meditation
A School for the Forgotten Children of the Himalayas
Finding Ways to Educate Our Children with Buddhist Wisdom
Educating Buddhist Children in America
A Buddhist Vision for Education Reform: The Blue Lion Preschool, Inspired by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments