When I was younger, I spent a few years living in a Buddhist temple, motivated in particular by the suffering that afflicted my troubled adolescent mind. It was a very important time in my life and helped me sort things out. Then I went to college, grad school, ended up in this job here at Williams. None of what I did in school was about Buddhism or anything I studied at the Zen temple; it informed the way I thought about things, but I wanted to keep it separate.
Then, seven years ago, my son got very sick. He had a condition called necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria, and came very close to losing a limb—losing his life. It was a very, very difficult few months—the experience was traumatic all around. And it caused me to reevaluate my priorities.
My son needed a different setting, and the only way to do that was for me to leave my job. So I worked for a couple of years as a high school teacher at Berkshire School, a boarding school in southern Berkshire County. It reminded me of the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
When we were ready to reconnect with our lives here, I returned to Williams. I knew I wanted to teach in ways that speak as much to students’ hearts as much as it does to their minds and all the different things they’re going through at this age.
I had the idea for a course—Zen and the Art of American Literature—which I began teaching in 2018. In the class we explore how Buddhism came to be a cultural force. We range far beyond the world of literature into other cultural domains in which Buddhism has had a deep impact, like environmentalism, psychotherapy and Western attitudes toward death and dying. And we undertake an experimental investigation of the benefits of incorporating contemplative practices like meditation in the classroom, learning a variety of techniques and using time each class session, two to three times per week, practicing and reflecting.
Meditation is so popular today, but the quality of instruction out there is uneven. It’s good for students to be able to learn about it with someone who’s done it for a while. Here at Williams, Georges Dreyfus (the Jackson Professor of Religion) and Kim Gutschow (lecturer in religion and anthropology/sociology) also teach classes on meditation. For a college as small as ours, there’s a good number of opportunities for students to be exposed to meditation practice in serious ways and in different styles and voices.
The first time I taught the class, it was a seminar of about 25 students. By the fall of 2021, more than 150 registered.
It just didn’t seem possible to turn away so many students. So I re-envisioned it for 90 students, broken up into six groups, each with a dedicated online group chat. Every time we have a reading assignment, I ask them to share with the others in their group a quotation and why it spoke to them, perplexed them, inspired them, upset them—whatever it might be.
I offer optional discussion groups every other week and eight solid hours of office hours each week. Because I’m inviting students to delve into stuff that’s challenging both personally and politically, it wouldn’t be right if I weren’t available to meet with them.
In a way that surprises me, this class has felt more intimate and connected than any other version I’ve taught. It may be the best version. Students have probably been more open, honest and vulnerable in the group chat than they would have been in class. Speaking in class about what’s weighing on us heavily is not always easy. But with the slight distance that typing allows, people become even more open.
Meditation practice gives us a tool with which to face uncertainty and impermanence. It gives us a way of making friends with the full range of emotions that we’re going through, especially in a moment like this. Covid is producing a lot of anxiety and stress. We have all of the productive tumult that’s coming with the racial reckoning of the U.S. And there’s the ecological crisis. Those are all topics I deal with directly in class.
One unit that profoundly impacts the students is on death and dying. It’s a powerful thing to ask college students to reflect on the fact that their lives aren’t going to go on forever, so what do you want to do with the time you have? Though it’s difficult, they all understand why it’s important to incorporate awareness of death into one’s life—for the sake of life.
I think one of the things my students get from this class is a sense of importance of something like just looking at the flowers. The big stresses of college student life can be so overwhelming. There are ways to slow down and appreciate the small moments here.
Bernie Rhie also leads the Williamstown Zen Group, which meets online on Tuesday evenings. Find out more at williamstownzengroup.org. For tips on meditation and Buddhist wisdom, follow him on Instagram @zen_prof