Zen and the Art of Teaching English

Trends & Culture - June 30th, 1989

by David Burleigh

Teachers and prostitutes, it is said, are the only people who work behind closed doors. Photographers might be added to them, together with the observation that all three labor much of the time in the dark. The language instructor, however, battles the shadows, seeks to enlighten, and this may be said to have a relation to Zen.

I myself, in the classroom, often hear the sound of one hand clapping a cheek in consternation. Like monks, the students beat themselves on brow and scalp, hoping for a moment of insight. The kaleidoscope is shaken, a pattern sought. When it doesn’t appear, guidance is required.

A sentence in English,” I then explain, “is a pointed, purposive thing. It is like a train from Tokyo to Osaka—it departs from one place and arrives at another. There may be diversions, stops along the way, but the destination is always reached.” This is received with slight nods.

“By contrast,” I continue, “a Japanese sentence is a sort of loose bag stuffed full of anything and everything—hints, sugges­tions, atmosphere. Or so it seems to me.” I gesture, simplify, repeat, without response. But I am now inflated with my own prose.

“Similarly with a paragraph. An English paragraph is a tactical exercise, with a goal. And it must fit in with the wider strategies of the essay or report of which it is a part.” My barrage balloons. I begin to lift off.

“Indeed, a Japanese paragraph, or even essay, might be com­pared to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: It goes round the subject, looking at it from different angles. It is serial only in a cumulative sense.” I am flying.

“Its conclusion, insofar as it is possible to extrapolate any at all, consists in the total effect of all impression.” I am approaching the sun, pure light, but my wings have begun to melt. Catching sight of a totally bewildered expression, I plunge to earth again. “Any questions?”

There is a long pause, then someone says, “Techaa!” I answer a query, check a piece of homework. “You must write subtly,” I tell them. I explain “subtle,” trace the adverb form, write it, pronounce it. “Satori, Satori,” comes a murmur from the corners.

I return to the sentences, A girl standing on “pedals” is not on a bicycle, but walking over fallen blossom. Each is a conundrum, a puzzle, perhaps a koan. Tackling a few more, my mind begins to loosen and lose focus, “You should write, ah , . . you might say, ah, ahm . . . um.” Something like that.