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Breath by Breath Reconsidering the Proje

Breath by Breath:
Reconsidering the Project
of Critical Pedagogy
Through the Lens of
Zen Buddhist Thought
and Practice
Journal of Transformative Education
ª The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1541344619838463
Kevin Holohan1
This article examines how Zen Buddhism conceives of human suffering, the
causes of suffering, and the method by which human suffering can be alleviated
and compares these with similar notions within critical social theory and its
educational manifestation in the critical pedagogy movement. While both Zen
Buddhist and critical theories/discourses aim to uncover the roots of human
suffering and offer particular methods to help alleviate it, these systems of
thought differ in fundamental ways. Consideration of significant concepts within
Buddhist thought and practice can address some of the criticisms that have been
leveled against the foundations and project of critical pedagogy. Ultimately, the
article illustrates how a Zen Buddhist–oriented critical pedagogy based upon
notions of interdependence, impermanence, and “no-self” can be a more
humane, inclusive, relevant, and applicable approach to working toward a more
just and equitable social order.
Educational Foundations Department, College of Education, Grand Valley State University, Grand
Rapids, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin Holohan, Educational Foundations Department, College of Education, Grand Valley State University,
Pew Campus, 442C Richard M. DeVos Center, 401 Fulton St. W., Grand Rapids, MI 49504, USA.
Email: [email protected]
Journal of Transformative Education XX(X)
critical pedagogy, Zen Buddhism, social transformation
In this article, how Zen Buddhism conceives of human suffering, the causes of
suffering, and the method by which human suffering can be alleviated are examined and compared with similar notions within critical social theory and its educational manifestation in the critical pedagogy movement.1 While both Zen
Buddhist and critical theories/discourses aim to uncover the roots of human suffering and offer particular methods to help alleviate it, these systems of thought
differ in fundamental ways. Consideration of significant concepts within Buddhist
thought and practice can address some of the pitfalls and criticisms that have been
leveled against the foundations and project of critical pedagogy. This argument
rests on the belief that while critical pedagogy offers important inroads into critically questioning and challenging the nature and causes of unequal and oppressive social relations within 21-century capitalist societies, these challenges rest on
equally entrenched binaries dealing with the nature of the human subject. Ultimately, a Zen Buddhist–oriented critical pedagogy based upon notions of interdependence, impermanence, and “no-self” is illustrated as a more humane,
inclusive, relevant, and applicable approach to working toward a more just and
equitable social order.
Since its inception 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has traversed much of the world’s
geography and cultural terrain and taken on a variety of manifestations in each of
these encounters. Yet Buddhism has also retained certain essential elements that will
be identified and explained. The focus will be on Zen, one of the major schools of
Buddhism that still exists today and that has been in dialogue with Western thought
and philosophy for around a century. Conceptions of the individual, the interplay
between the self and the social, and the path towards liberation within Zen and
critical pedagogy2 will be compared.
After a cursory exploration of the two schools of thought is provided, some
of the major criticisms and limitations of critical pedagogy will be reviewed.
More importantly, an explanation will be offered as to how the philosophy of
Zen Buddhism can help compensate for some of these deficits and limitations
and thus add greater emotional, psychological, and physical depth to what is a
predominantly intellectual endeavor. Finally, some avenues for incorporating
Zen thought and practice into critical educational endeavors will be highlighted.
By bringing critical pedagogy and Zen Buddhism into conversation with one
another, there is the possibility of developing a critical pedagogy of the self and
the social that attempts to address the relationship between the individual, the
relational, and the collective that has hitherto been largely ignored by critical
pedagogical discourses.
The Recognition of Suffering Within Critical
Pedagogy and Zen
Critical social theory, critical pedagogy, and Zen Buddhism posit that there is an
inherent existential void that accompanies human existence (see, e.g., Freire, 1970/
1993; Fromm, 1941/1969, 1976/1997; Sekida, 1975). We can think of this void as
the rift that exists between being and language, thought and action, the conscious and
the unconscious, self and other, and subject and object. According to McLaren
(2009), critical theorists “begin with the premise that men and women are essentially
unfree and inhabit a world rife with contradictions and asymmetries of power and
privilege” and this view gives rise to dialectical theories regarding the problems of
society that take into account the “interactive context between individual and society” (p. 61). Along with this void within the individual comes the incessant search
for ways to fill it in, close the gap, become whole again through things external to the
individual, be it relationships with others, religion and spirituality, and/or the products of modern industrialized society (see Cho & Lewis, 2005; De Lissovoy, 2018;
Foley, Morris, Gounari, & Agostinone-Wilson, 2015).
In Buddhism, the pain that accompanies illness, aging, and death is inevitable.
The suffering that individuals experience, according to Buddhist teachings, takes
rise from the individual’s clinging to that which is pleasurable and resistance
towards that which is painful. Critical pedagogues whose work is rooted in the
critical social theory of the Frankfurt School, on the other hand, focus their examination on “the mediations that link the institutions and activities of everyday life
with the logic and commanding forces that shape the larger social totality” (Giroux,
2009, p. 9). In other words, the attention of critical pedagogues tends to fall on these
“commanding forces” that are often difficult to identify in one’s everyday life but
that nonetheless affect one’s thought, behavior, and the possibilities for the full
unfolding of one’s individuality.
Generally speaking, critical pedagogues, like their Frankfurt School predecessors, have been strongly influenced by Marxist and neo-Marxist analyses of society
and culture and tend to view the fragmented human subject as the outcome of the
alienation created in and through capitalism. While often negated or consciously
overlooked, Paulo Freire’s own commitment to and grounding in Marxist–Socialist
thought is most obvious in his early works such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As
Darder (2009) explains, “Without question, when Freire spoke of the ruling class or
the oppressors, he was referring to historical class distinctions and class conflict
within the structure of capitalist society—capitalism was the root of domination” (p.
570). In a cyclical process, capitalism feeds off of this void and fragmentation by
producing needs and desires that one is conditioned to fill through consumption of
the products of capitalism (Fromm, 1976/1997; Marcuse, 1964). Because the material products of capitalism are inadequate and incapable of filling the void that
accompanies existence and self-awareness, individuals continually search for more
and/or more advanced products to fill the (W)hole. This leaves the process of
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production and consumption intact, ever expanding, and self-sustaining and renders
capitalism the dominant system structuring individual and social experience.
Leistyna and Alper (2009) articulately explain this relationship:
While capitalism consists of a structural reality built on political and economic processes, institutions, and relationships, its proponents also rely on the formative power
of culture to shape the kinds of meaning, desire, subjectivity, and thus identity that can
work to ensure the maintenance of its logic and practice. (p. 501)
Thus, within critical pedagogy, capitalism and capitalists are uncompromisingly
demonized and viewed as playing a fundamental role in producing human suffering
and exploitation.
Buddhism, too, recognizes suffering as a fundamental characteristic of the human
condition. Having escaped the protective walls of his father’s palace, the historical
Buddha—Siddhartha Guatama—witnessed the inevitable realities of old age, sickness, and death. While Buddhist scholars doubt the historicity of this story, it
remains that the existential encounter with suffering is what led the Buddha to his
search for enlightened wisdom. Like critical theorists and pedagogues, the Buddha
not only recognized suffering but also sought a means by which humans could be
liberated from this suffering. Yet in his quest for the liberation from suffering, the
Buddha came to very different conclusions from those of critical pedagogues regarding its root causes.
While both traditions recognize the centrality of the self/subject/individual in
relation to human suffering and the possibilities for liberation, critical pedagogues
tend to reify the notion of the “self” and submerge it within the social relations
between groups. On the one hand, critical scholars have initiated a shift that Grande
(2009) describes as the replacement of “the comparatively static notion of identity as
a relatively fixed entity that one embodies with the more fluid concept of subjectivity—an entity that one actively and continually constructs” (p. 186). These constructions, in turn, are highly dependent social discourse, institutions, and structures
(Grande, 2009). While the notion of subjectivity put forth by critical scholars goes
a long way to undercut essentialist analyses of difference, it does not go so far as to
question the nature of the subject itself. Buddhism, on the other hand, views our
commonsense notion of the self or subject as the primary cause of human suffering.
It is our clinging to the notion of a separate, independent self that gives rise to
dualistic thinking and, thus, our worldview, identities, and relationships that are
largely based on difference and feelings of inferiority/superiority.
The Roots of Human Suffering Within Critical
Pedagogy and Zen
Critical pedagogy as a progressive educational movement is, of course, highly
indebted to the life and thought of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970/1993) and
his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Much of Freire’s work is rooted in the
neo-Marxist view of the relationship between political economy, culture, and human
alienation/oppression and the broader movement of humanist philosophy. However,
based upon Freire’s own insistence that his pedagogical project be reconstructed and
reenvisioned within different cultural and historical contexts, a number of educational scholars and theorists have critiqued and problematized his work and that of
his North American proponents so as to make it more inclusive and to broaden its
ability to address the contemporary constellation of issues related to power, oppression, and liberation (Bowers, 2005; Ellsworth, 1989; Ladson-Billings, 1997; Luke &
Gore, 1992; Weiler, 1991). While these critiques have come from a variety of
sources and theoretical perspectives (i.e., feminist, poststructural, psychoanalytic,
critical race theory, and ecological, to name a few), this article is situated within
efforts to reconceptualize the notion of the subject at the center of Enlightenment
thought and humanist philosophy and attempts to bring together concerns for social
justice with considerations of individual subjectivity.
In his article, “Marcuse and the Quest for Radical Subjectivity,” Kellner (2003)
explains the multitude of philosophical attacks that have been leveled against the
concept of the subject:
Materialists have decried the idealist and essentialist dimensions of the traditional
concept of the subject in its various Cartesian, Kantian, and other philosophical forms.
More recently, poststructuralist and postmodern theorists have attacked the universalizing pretensions of subject discourse, its positing of a (false) unity, its assuming a
centered and grounded status as a linchpin for philosophical systems or knowledge
claims, and its transparent self-certainty from Descartes’ cogito to Husserl’s phenomenology. Following Nietzsche, poststructuralists have seen the subject as an effect of
language, constructed in accord with the forms of grammar (i.e., subject/predicate) and
existing linguistic systems, or, with Deleuze, have privileged the flux and flow of
bodily experience over more idealist conceptions of consciousness and the self. (p. 67)
These attacks have been primarily aimed at traditional Western philosophy and
its conception of the subject as unitary, ideal, universal, self-grounded, asexual, and
the foundation for knowledge. What began to emerge from the postmodern
and poststructural critique was a subject that is corporeal, gendered, social, fractured, historical, and decentered (Kellner, 2003). From this analysis, one gets a sense
of the intense debate that has surrounded the concept of the subject and its place in
philosophical considerations. While conceptions of the subject have a significant
impact on philosophical discourse, they also dramatically affect the theories and
practices that rely on these discourses for their articulation and enactment.
Critical educational theorists have advanced a variety of interpretations around
concepts of power, oppression, emancipation, agency, subjectivity, and knowledge
that are based on a particular conception of the subject. All of these concepts attempt
to “describe the ways in which cultural and economic forces and schools in
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particular, can oppress people and create, recreate, and legitimate an unequal, unjust,
undemocratic society” (Heilman, 2005, p. 115). As noted, in these formulations, the
causes of oppression and human suffering are attributed to what de Certeau (1984)
calls “the productive apparatus”—that is, the social institutions in which people are
educated, employed, and culturally engaged and that shape and maintain a dominant
worldview. It is these institutions and the identities they help create and perpetuate
that are put under the microscope for deconstruction within critical pedagogy. As
Heilman (2005) explains, “Much of Critical Theory so far had imagined a sort of
unified recoverable humanity that could be freed from oppression” (p. 119). While
contemporary Western philosophers have thrown this notion deeply into doubt, it
has not often been questioned against the backdrop or within the context of Eastern
spirituality and philosophy.
Critical pedagogues often aim not only to question and deconstruct those socially
and culturally situated identities that students bring with them into the classroom but
also seek to impart new identities upon their students through what McLaren (2009)
calls “emancipatory knowledge.” Emancipatory knowledge, McLaren (2009)
explains, attempts to reconcile and transcend the opposition between technical
knowledge and practical knowledge, attempts to help us understand how social
relationships are distorted and manipulated by relations of power and privilege, and
aims to create the conditions under which “irrationality, domination, and oppression
can be overcome and transformed through deliberative, collective action” (p. 64). He
goes on to explain that schooling should be “a process of understanding how subjectivities are produced and constructed out of the prevailing ideas, values, and
worldviews of the dominant culture” and, through this process, to “unmake” and
“make over” our own selves (p. 80).
Important in this formulation is the notion that despite its rejection of the
“banking model” of education (Freire, 1970/1993), some educators inspired by
critical pedagogy still look to give something to their students. Whether that is an
escape from “false consciousness,” the move toward “conscientization,” or a rereading of the world, this approach is based upon a number of assumptions regarding the
subject. This new understanding or reading of the self and world is to come primarily
through the use of reason and the development of new language and linguistic
categories with which to describe the dialectical relationship between the self and
the social. These assumptions, firmly rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment,
are often unreflexively invoked in critical educational discourses.
Primarily, this approach assumes a stable, coherent, and knowable subject that,
through the use of reason, can come to a “truer” understanding of the oppressive
nature of social relations within the contemporary world and, based upon this understanding, feel compelled to act to change them. What this approach ignores is the
historical, social, and cultural contingency of the subject. Often, it constructs a set of
binaries and privileges one of each pair over the other. For example, critical pedagogy emphasizes thinking over feeling, the intellectual over the emotional, the
rational over the intuitive, and the large “revolutionary project” over miniscule,
everyday practices (Heilman, 2005).
Much work has been done to rethink and retheorize identity and subjectivity
within critical pedagogy in light of its encounter with poststructural and feminist
discourses (see Gur-Ze’ev, 2005; Peters, Lankshear, & Olssen, 2003; Popkewitz &
Fendler, 1999). Many of those contributing to critical discourses within education
from poststructural and feminist perspectives have problematized and/or all together
abandoned the subject as it has been conceived within the Western Enlightenment
philosophical tradition. Some of these critiques challenge the fundamental epistemological and ontological foundations of critical discourses within education
(Biesta, 2005; Heilman, 2005; Popkewitz & Fendler, 1999). Others challenge the
call for radical social transformation, shed light upon the privileging of reason, and
call into question critical pedagogues’ attempts to initiate the subject’s emancipation
from oppressive social and psychological conditions (Ellsworth, 1989; Weiler,
1991). Still other scholars have aimed their critiques at the largely male-centered
notions of oppression, alienation, and liberation that dominate the works of early and
contemporary critical pedagogues (Heilman, 2005; Luke & Gore, 1992). Finally,
some scholars have taken critical pedagogy to task for its apparent lack of attention
to environmental and ecological issues, its largely anthropocentric focus, and its
reification of the notion of “progress” that initiated the industrial revolution, rampant
imperialism, and the expansion of capitalism in the first place (Bowers, 2005;
Bowers & Apffel-Marglin, 2005).
Yet while these critiques result in a more inclusive, pluralistic, and decentered
view of the subject, the notion that there is a subject persists. Matthews and Hattam
(2004) explain, “Our projects—personal, social and educational—are still driven by
a ‘profound desire for identity.’ The fiction of identity itself seems to be immune
from the sorts of deconstructive practices that characterize critical/poststructuralist
pedagogical work” (p. 3). Interestingly, it is Buddhism’s insistence on a radical
deconstruction of the concept of the subject or “I” that lies at the heart of its
liberation theory.3
A Buddhist-inspired critical pedagogy begins with a particular notion of the
subject that is in many ways contradictory to the traditional, Western Cartesian
concept. It rejects the notion of a stable, coherent, knowable subject that can be
uncovered through rational inquiry. In fact, as a radical departure from the Western
philosophical tradition, Buddhism posits that the ground of existence lies in the
recognition and experience of no-self. Although Zen Buddhism makes use of reason
to illustrate the fundamental error in assuming the existence of an independent,
separate self, it ultimately rejects reason and intellectual conceptualization as a basis
for understanding. Instead, Zen Buddhist practice aims to uncover the fundamental
absence of the subject through the experiential, intuitive recognition of nonduality.
According to Buddhist thought, it is in our clinging to an independent existence or
sense of self and the “otherness” of all that lies outside of us to which this view gives
rise as well as the subject–object dichotomy these concepts create that humans are
Journal of Transformative Education XX(X)
driven to categorize, conceptualize, and divide the world and their experiences
within it. The important point is that, within Buddhist psychology, this separation
is illusory. In acquiring language and entering the historically and culturally contingent symbolic order, we begin to see ourselves as separate and distinct from the
rest of the world and other human beings. Psychoanalysis offers a similar explanation, but the feeling of isolation and alienation that we all carry with us is based on
the experience of being separated from the mother figure. Similar to poststructuralism, Zen Buddhism views our tendency to divide up and categorize the world and
our experiences as a consequence of our linguistic and symbolic systems. Yet Zen
does not view this tendency as an inevitable part of being human. In fact, it is in
transcending conceptual thinking and the dualism it produces that we are offered the
possibility of overcoming our fundamental alienation.
In summary, critical pedagogy often develops a macroanalysis to uncover the root
of human suffering. In this analysis, it is the cultural and economic structures and
institutions coming out of capitalism that are identified as the cause of human
suffering and oppression. What is implicated through critical pedagogy is an oppressive “other,” namely, capitalists, neoliberalism, or the discriminatory worldviews
these systems engender. While contemporary reinterpretations of critical pedagogy
acknowledge fragmented, multiple subject positions or subjectivities, in doing so,
they maintain the centrality of subjectivity itself. Conversely, Zen Buddhism begins
with a microanalysis of the very idea of a stable, coherent subject. Rather than
directing its critique at institutions, Zen demands a thoroughgoing examination and
deconstruction of the individual by the individual. In this approach, each individual
is implicated in the arising of suffering while also being instrumental in the way to
the liberation from suffering for both self and others.
The Way to the Liberation From Suffering
Having provided a brief and simplified overview of critical pedagogy and Buddhism, a more detailed account of how Zen formulates the path toward the liberation
from suffering will be offered. In doing so, the ways in which it is both similar to and
very different from the project of critical pedagogy will be highlighted. The basic
aim of both projects is to liberate humans from suffering and in this sense, they are
both utopian. However, the fundamental differences in the distinct approach of each
tradition lie in their scale, their starting points, and their methodologies. Some of the
fundamental dichotomies between critical pedagogy and Buddhism can be characterized as rationality/logic/duality versus experience/paradox/nonduality, the intellectual versus the psychological/emotional/bodily, the conceptual versus the
concrete, thinking versus meditating, past/future oriented versus present oriented,
and heroic/revolutionary/oppositional versus simple/everyday/peaceful. While theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer cast a critical eye upon modernity’s unswerving faith in scientific rationality and its application in the service of industrialized
society (Giroux, 2009), critical pedagogues continue to employ the “master’s tool”
(reason) as the primary means of “dismantling the master’s house” (Lorde, 1984).
The Zen approach, it will be argued, has significant pedagogical implications which
lend themselves to a more flexible, realizable, and inclusive approach to revolutionary personal and social transformation.
The Buddha taught that the root of all our suffering is the conceit that “I am”—the
arrogance or ignorance of thinking that we are essentially independent beings and
not intimately connected with and a part of all things. Conversely, he also taught that
we are not completely dependent upon anything outside of ourselves. Neither independent entities existing outside of relations with all else nor completely dependent
on and at the mercy of anything outside of ourselves, human existence can only be
viewed as completely interdependent.
Interdependence is an important concept within Buddhist thought. The way the
Buddha explained this idea was that all things come into existence as the result of a
particular combination of causes and conditions. For example, although I perceive
myself as a self-contained and independent being, the truth is that I only exist in this
moment as the culmination of an endless chain of circumstance. Historically, I am
the product of countless men and women coming together to procreate. Biologically,
I am only possible through interaction with and consumption of organic materials
such as oxygen, food, and water. Socially, my thoughts and opinions are shaped by
my experiences in the world and the “regimes of truth” within which I have and
make sense of these experiences (Foucault, 1977). My perception of my self is the
result of matter, sensation, perception, and mental formations that give rise to consciousness, what the Buddha called the Five Aggregates (Rahula, 1959). In these
Aggregates, there is no unchanging substance. As Rahula (1959) explains,
There is nothing behind them (the Five Aggregates) that can be called a permanent self
(Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called “I.” Everyone will agree
that neither matter, nor sensation, nor perception, nor any one of those mental activities,
nor consciousness can really be called “I.” But when these five physical and mental
aggregates which are interdependent are working together in combination as a physiopsychological machine, we get the idea of “I.” But this is only a false idea, a mental
formation . . . (p. 26)
What this suggests is that all things, including the individual human subject, are
empty of inherent existence. Emptiness, or the absence of any abiding, essential
nature follows from the recognition that, “Things can be seen as having no essence
or core because they actually consist of particular patterns of relationship” (Hershock, 2005, p. 19). The Buddhist notion of “emptiness,” as explained above, helps
us understand Zen’s emphasis on the most miniscule details of everyday life—such
as pouring a cup of tea, making a meal, sweeping the floor, or greeting another
person. Although these types of activities—the mundane behaviors and interactions
every individual must carry out on a daily basis—are often not worthy of consideration within critical pedagogy, they hold monumental importance from a Zen
Journal of Transformative Education XX(X)
Buddhist perspective. According to Zen, within even the most mundane of tasks, the
entire universe resides. This is often described as the interpenetration of objects (S.
Suzuki, 1974). A deep, intuitive awareness of this interpenetration that goes beyond
a superficial conceptual understanding not only makes it less likely that one will spill
the tea, burn the meal, or ignore the other but also more difficult for the prison guard
to beat the inmate, the soldier to torture the suspect, or the CEO to allow his or her
industry to wreak havoc upon the environment. In other words, a recognition of
interdependence and its ego-diminishing effect speaks to both the micro- and macroanalyses of oppression and domination.
The concept of interdependence or “causes and conditions” has profound implications for the way we understand ourselves, the communities in which we live, and
the broader geopolitical situation. Not only is the self a product of interdependent
and constantly changing mental formations but so too all that is. War, conflict, and
social and technological progress are only the result of a coming together of countless causes and conditions. As such, none of these phenomena are always already
present and, conversely, none of them will exist forever. This leads us to the
Buddhist notion of impermanence.
Impermanence is simply the notion that nothing stays the same forever and, thus,
all that exists is subject to change and flux, radically contingent. All material objects
change including spatially and temporally large things like the sun and stars but also
much more easily observable phenomena such as our thoughts, emotions, and relationships with others. With this in mind, it becomes impossible to hope that anything
will exist forever, whether it is something to which we want to hold on (i.e., a job,
status, relationship, or emotion) or something to which we are averse (i.e., a person,
a job, an emotion, or capitalism). This attitude toward circumstances and phenomena
is much more likely to engender a sense of agency on the part of individuals than
traditional Marxist critiques of social and cultural institutions that are often outside
the grasp of individuals, particularly young people caught up in the turbulence of
finding their place, the process of maturation, and attaining a sense of independence.
Working to see all phenomena as impermanent and interdependent begins with
the individual rather than with the social and cultural milieu in which individuals
find themselves. Although the Zen approach begins with the individual, in deeply
questioning and deconstructing one’s notion of self, one is inevitably led to apply
this same radical doubt and critique to the historical, social, and cultural moment in
which one finds himself or herself. For, as expressed in the notion of interdependence, the circumstances within which we live have a direct and defining effect upon
how we conceive of our own identity, our sense of normality, and our gauge of
morality and ethics. By beginning with a radical questioning of our own subjectivity—the borders by which we define ourselves (our own “whiteness,” “blackness,”
“maleness,” “rationalness,” “straightness”)—we begin to have a significant influence on the larger structures that have more far-reaching effects. To restate a
previous point, within the individual lies the universal.
Seeing all things—including ourselves—as having no essential nature or identity
means that we cannot claim anything to be inherently good or inherently bad. This
view serves to decenter hegemonic ideals and subvert the basis for so much racial,
ethnic, sexual, and gendered stereotyping and discrimination. Recognizing the interdependence and impermanence of all phenomena lends itself to both a deep appreciation of and, at the same time, detachment from all phenomena. Zen describes this
appreciation as compassion and this detachment as wisdom. Within Zen thought, the
two are inseparable.
Despite the heavy reliance upon particular concepts to explain Zen thought, it
must not be assumed that an intellectual understanding alone is sufficient to effect
any significant change within the individual nor in the larger social order. Like
“oppression,” “hegemony,” and “freedom,” impermanence and interdependence are
similar in that they are further concepts that can help us make sense of our experiences. At the same time, impermanence and interdependence are different from
concepts frequently invoked within critical discourses. Rather than setting up additional binaries, Zen Buddhist concepts work to undermine the functioning of binaries. However, these concepts were never simply intended to be talked about or
written about. Their clear meaning and influence can never be imparted from a
teacher to his or her students. The Zen approach demands intimate contact with
these concepts through meditative practice in order to recognize and cultivate an
understanding of their workings. To go a step further, Zen assigns primary importance to direct experience and attributes as much less significant the concepts used to
describe this experience. As the Buddha instructed upon his deathbed, “Be lamps
unto yourselves!”
Zen has utilized a variety of techniques to aid the student in the intuitive recognition of impermanence, interdependence, and nonduality. These techniques include
verbal methods such as paradox, going beyond the opposites, contradiction, affirmation, repetition, and exclamation (D. T. Suzuki, 1956/1996). But, as D. T. Suzuki
(1956/1996) explains, “the truth of Zen is the truth of life, and life means to live, to
move, to act, not merely to reflect” (p. 129). By what method does one come to be
able to act spontaneously, intuitively, without the hindrance of preconceptions, and
in a manner appropriate to the situation? Zen’s answer has always been through the
practice of meditation and it is to this topic that I will now briefly turn.4
The Role and Practice of Meditation Within Zen
Zen is considered the meditation school of Buddhism. In fact, “Zen” is a transliteration of the Chinese “Chan,” itself a transliteration of the Sanskrit “Dhyana”—meaning meditation. While forms of meditation play a role in many of the other schools of
Buddhism, seated meditation, or zazen, takes unique form and holds a central role
within the Zen school. Zazen is a method by which the student can train his or her
awareness and concentration on the present moment. The cultivation of this awareness and concentration has the effect of pacifying one’s thought processes, bodily
Journal of Transformative Education XX(X)
affects, and emotions, thus “emptying us of the basis for picking and choosing, for
wavering between alternatives and doubting” and allowing us to realize “the dramatic stillness of a thoroughly poised awareness” (Hershock, 2005, p. 84). This
awareness allows for the intuitive recognition of nonduality, a significant point
within Zen thought and one with important implications for individual and social
transformation. As Hershock (2005) explains,
The “principle” of non-duality does not entail eliminating differences but only conflict
and compartmentalization. It means refraining from either rejecting things or clinging
to them. Rejecting and clinging deny the meaning of differences as openings for mutual
contribution. They assert separateness and reduce the interdependence of all things to,
at best, mere coexistence. Nonduality means closing the wound of existence. (p. 85)
The experiential insight and demonstration of understanding required by Zen
stand in stark contrast to the highly rational and intellectual project of critical
pedagogy. While the work of critical pedagogy lies primarily in gaining an intellectual understanding of how social and cultural institutions function to create and
maintain uneven power relations and how these relations are then internalized, Zen
begins with a critique of the internalized assumptions, attitudes, and biases of the
individual in order to transform the individual’s functioning in the world and, thus,
the world itself. The work of Zen is of a more psychological, emotional, and bodily
nature. Critical pedagogy is oriented toward the past’s shaping of institutions and
social life through capitalism and the coming revolution somewhere in the future.
Zen, on the other hand, encourages the individual to train himself or herself to be
fully aware in the present moment, seeing past and future as human constructs.
Finally, the project of critical pedagogy involves the heroic, revolutionary, and
oppositional transformation of social and institutional structures. In short, it can
be viewed as an epic undertaking. In contrast, the project of Zen is one of individual
transformation through simple moment-by-moment mindfulness and awareness.
Arguably, this individual transformational approach can have as significant an
impact on the realization of a more just and equitable social order as that of critical
pedagogy’s social transformational approach. As pragmatic and action oriented as it
is, the question remains: What are the implications of the Zen approach for pedagogical practices enacted by teachers within individual classrooms?
Pedagogical Implications of the Zen Approach
The incorporation of Zen concepts and meditative practices into educational settings
is a very real and tangible possibility. That said, one can imagine some of the
objections that might be raised in response to this recommendation, particularly the
notion that Zen has its foundation in Buddhism and Buddhism is a religion. Teaching
children religious ideas or practices without their or their parents’ consent would be
anathema to a critical pedagogy of difference, multiplicity, and freedom. While
acknowledging the concern, it is important to note that Buddhism is the world’s only
major nontheistic religion. Additionally, many of the most influential thinkers
within Buddhism and Zen, including the Buddha himself, have been explicit about
these traditions’ openness to all people despite their religious beliefs or personal
backgrounds. Evidence for this has been the ongoing dialogue between Christianity
and Buddhism. Finally, Zen, while acknowledging its Buddhist origins, claims
independence from any particular school of thought or hierarchy. In fact, it is
primarily independence from religious and secular dogmatism that Zen offers to
anyone willing to walk its path.5
Over the course of the past two decades, Buddhist concepts and Buddhist meditation have been utilized in a variety of Western social settings to help alleviate
individual suffering and institutionalized discrimination and conflict. Western psychology has taken a significant interest in Zen thought and practice in treating
individual and social neuroses (see Epstein, 1995; D. T. Suzuki, Fromm, & DeMartino, 1965, as examples). The Prison Dharma Network brings resources and training
in Buddhist thought and meditation to prisoners in over 900 prisons around the
world. Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist review, regularly publishes articles relating
Buddhism to contemporary social issues and activism such as anticonsumerism,
environmentalism, and human rights amongst others.
Despite the influx of Buddhist and Zen concepts and practices into a number of
Western discourses, there is a dearth of literature exploring their implications for
critical education and pedagogy. However, a few attempts have been made. Orr
(2002), in “The Uses of Mindfulness in Anti-Oppressive Pedagogies: Philosophy
and Praxis,” argues that educators can utilize mindfulness practices to enhance the
effectiveness of anti-oppressive pedagogy. She is wary of traditional formulations of
critical pedagogy that she sees as “still buying into a phallocentric and Eurocentric
model of teaching and learning and so reproducing its hidden ‘logic of domination’”
(Orr, 2002, pp. 478–479, quoting Warren, 1988, p. 32). She draws off of Wittgenstein and the Indian Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna in formulating her argument for
incorporating mindfulness practices into the classroom to help offset the organization of schooling around the mind/body binary. Specifically, Orr (2002) challenges
the privileging of the intellect over the body and emotion in anti-oppressive education and is worth quoting at length in this regard:
I have gone to access forms of analysis that are unavailable in contemporary Western
work, and to introduce practices that can be adapted for classroom use to expand
students’ awareness of the function of oppressive dualistic discourses in their thought
and, more broadly, in their lives. The analyses engaged below demonstrate that no
matter how radical the new critiques and the pedagogies that emerged from them have
been, both the new forms of knowledge production and the knowledge that they have so
successfully produced remain largely cognitive and so function primarily on the intellectual level in students’ lives. Such pedagogical praxis, which remain situated on the
dominant side of the mind/body binarism, are not, nor can they be, entirely successful
Journal of Transformative Education XX(X)
in creating the necessary conditions to achieve the deep levels of transformation in the
lives of students that, according to McLaren (1989), critical pedagogy seeks to effect
because its impact on the body, emotions, spirit, and the lived sense of self and other
can only be incompletely addressed through purely intellectual methods. (p. 480)
The claim being made here is that incorporation of Zen concepts and methods
into critical educational practices would enhance and deepen the project of critical
pedagogy. By beginning with the delusions, attachments, categorizations, and
stereotypes of teachers’ and students’ individual subjectivities, the Zen approach
addresses suffering and oppression at its core. While transforming social institutions
and cultural practices may remain a central task for critical educators and youth
alike, transforming individual bias and preconceptions makes for a more practical
and realizable starting point. Introducing students to the concepts of impermanence
and interdependence are conducive to helping them challenge hegemonic discourses
while also allowing them space to recognize on their own where and how these
discourses function. A radical deconstruction of the entrenched concept of self may
be initiated by a teacher, but the intuitive recognition of no-self is the individual’s
responsibility, not that of the “leaders” of the revolution. For however difficult and
threatening to the ego it may be for one to realize no-self, a teacher can but only
point the way.
Along with the introduction of Zen concepts, the practice of Zen meditation
carries with it a number of radical possibilities for both the individual learner and
the broader social order. On a very superficial level, meditation has been shown to
promote stress relief, greater mental clarity, and an enhanced ability to manage one’s
emotions (see Davidson et al., 2003; Frederickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel,
2008; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005;
Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David, & Goolkasian, 2010). However, the practice is
not confined to the intellect. It allows one to be more closely in touch with one’s
body and to be able to listen more attentively to the messages the body sends. On a
deeper level, meditative practice lends itself to the recognition of and change in
one’s thought habits. These thought habits are the foundation for many of our
prejudices, fears, and anxieties as well as our daily practices that are often harmful
to others and ourselves. In bringing the awareness that meditation cultivates into our
everyday practices, we can engage in them with greater care, mindfulness, and joy.
These seemingly miniscule changes in the way we engage in our work, relationships,
and play can have a profound impact on the world in which we live.
This has been an attempt to provide a cursory overview of the possibilities Zen
offers for critical educational practice and an enhanced and expanded pedagogy of
agency, praxis, and the everyday. In addition to the topics discussed above, Zen has
something to offer educational discourses related to poststructuralism, postcolonialism, psychoanalytic theory, pragmatism, and qualitative research methodologies.
Ultimately, it is hoped this work will prompt further discussion and exploration of
these topics only begun to scratch the surface.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.
Kevin Holohan
1. Critical social theory and critical pedagogy are rather broad and vague descriptors within a
spatially and temporally wide-ranging field. The term “critical social theory” refers primarily to the work of the Frankfurt School and specifically to Theodor Adorno, Max
Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Similarly, critical pedagogy encompasses a wide variety of thought and scholarship. The term “critical pedagogy” refers
primarily to the work of first-generation critical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire, Henry
Giroux, and Peter McLaren.
2. The characterization of critical pedagogy developed in this article draws heavily from firstgeneration, foundational thinkers within that movement and their texts in Darder’s (2009)
edited collection on the topic. However, several perspectives and critiques outside of this
first wave of critical pedagogues have also been considered.
3. It could be argued that the use and meaning of the term “liberation” within Buddhism and
critical pedagogical discourses imply radically different ontological structures—the former tradition dealing with more broadly existential issues and the latter focusing more on
the political. That said, when I use the term liberation or “liberatory,” I am referring to it
within the context of humanism in which both Buddhism and critical pedagogy share an
4. Based on a recommendation from an experienced Zen teacher, it is important to note that
there are differing conceptions of the role of meditation in Zen practice. While some
consider the simple act of meditation as Enlightenment, others within the Zen school
believe that bringing the mindfulness cultivated through meditation into daily life as
constituting the embodiment of Zen.
5. Again, it should be noted that the level and role of faith, belief, or religiosity are going to
vary between schools of Zen thought and amongst practitioners themselves. That said,
most scholars and practitioners consider one of Zen’s primary distinctions to be that it
promotes freedom from dogma and is practice based rather than faith or belief based.
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Author Biography
Kevin Holohan is an assistant professor of Educational Foundations at Grand Valley State