Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On teaching, aging and Buddhist virtue of ‘mudita’

The intersection of an aged professor’s life specialising in Asian studies consists of a troika of emotions. These have become a serendipitous triangular conjunction to which I have, without merit or effort, become an ephemeral centre.

David I. SteinbergDavid I. Steinberg

One is the delight in teaching. It is not the prominence of oneself in a small classroom, nor is it the undocumented feeling that one has the answers, however circumscribed, to questions. Ego diminishes with age, one would hope. Teaching is dialogue, and perhaps dialogue is an appropriate substitute for more vigorous exercise or intellectual rigidity. The vitality of being around youth is a significant benefit, for their enthusiasm and diverse experiences inform, indeed often transcribe, one’s increasingly pedestrian foci.

The second is the energy of youthful inquiry – sustaining to the aged body and gradually diminishing senses. External youth reinforces one’s internal truncated vitalities that are at ebb tide. One can feel their strengths and interests that one hopes can be translated into successes – emotional, intellectual, and vocational. So one’s function, indeed one premise of teaching, is to help youth transform these latent, often idealistic, energies into achievements.

But if one studies Asia, and incorporates seriously an understanding of some of the norms of those diverse and ancient cultures of that vast region, one may come to understand that one’s teaching career is inherently focused on an attitude and attribute far from the mundane evaluative impedimenta of grading, faculty work, academic administrations, or even more ethereally, intellectual inquiry. This is the third emotion – the Buddhist virtue of mudita.

Mudita is the pleasure of seeing the successes of others. It is a transformative emotion not limited to assisting and encouraging a younger generation. It transcends age and ego, as well as status and fields of inquiry. It is not only passive appreciation and warmth, but an active role of encouragement and providing opportunities for growth, acclaim, and appreciation in others from which one has no material benefit.

We think of English as a remarkably flexible language, enabling us to say and write whatever we wish. We can modify our nouns or verbs to express nuanced thought and nuanced things – adjectives and adverbs are most helpful if not used to overabundance. Perhaps we who speak English do not need the panoply of words that some Asian languages use minutely and specifically to describe rice in its various growing or mature stages, as much as the proverbial multiple words the Aleut are said to employ in describing snow.

But if other languages sometimes excel in succinctly expressing concrete objects, the same applies to ideas and emotions that take us longer to formulate. Perhaps that is because some attitudes are more consciously or unconsciously lacking in our culture and more pronounced in others. The German term for joy in someone else’s misfortune, schadenfreude, has no single equivalent in English, so we frequently use the German. Perhaps it is good that we have no such word and have to rely on a foreign phrase. We might like to think that we are more warmhearted, although that assumption is questionable. Rather than being more cosmopolitan, perhaps we are simply verbally lazy.

But we also have no single word, like mudita, that expresses the exact opposite of the German term. The Buddhist virtue of mudita sums up nicely an emotion that we might well wish were more prevalent in our culture. It is one that perhaps is lacking because our attitudes are formed in a set of highly competitive Western cultures, but it is one that could help transform for the better our daily relations, whatever it might do in religious cosmology.


David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University.