Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Thoughts on facilitating a book group

Fall yellow with library stained glass
I've been reflecting on the different ways I've been involved with books and groups lately.  For the classes on "Soto Zen" I wasn't very comfortable putting myself in a position of being the authority.  When an instructor, I work best more as a facilitator.  I count on the wisdom of the group, and don't expect that I will have all the answers.  Still, as the leader in a situation like this, they look to me to talk the most.  Something I had to learn from this series was how to create more specific open-ended questions than I am used to, though I still wanted to resist my mentors' tendencies to ask questions intended to solicit specific answers.  I also resisted the suggestion that I have some summary statements ready, as this would assume I knew just what would be pulled out of the class discussion.   To me, a successful class happened when participants pulled something out of the material that had passed me by.

St. John's College, Santa Fe
I primarily want to talk about facilitation of a book group, but before that I want to touch on my experience with my fellow alumni and our seminar discussions.  Seminar is our collegiate word for our book groups fashioned after our particular college experience.

Unlike other book groups, we aren't expected to bring in background information on the author, on the history of the times, or especially other people's interpretations on the work.  Almost as a rule, we skip the Introduction.  We expect the book or selection to speak to us on its own merits.   We generally begin with a question that arises from the text, and discussion ensues from there.  We're quite all right with a weighty silence as we digest the question and our thoughts on how we can pull responses from the text and our interaction with it.  Unlike our college experience, some of us may bring in background historical information, just for fun, and to elucidate the text.  For example, we just read Frankenstein, and I found it useful to find out when grave-robbing for medical experiments was at its height. We don't make efforts to make sure everybody has a chance to speak, or to head someone off at the pass who is talking too much. We are a leaderless group, and after the opening question, more questions may arise and no conclusions may be reached.  There can be moments where we are awed by the results of our collective inquiry.

I bring aspects of this sensibility to my facilitation of book groups.  Over time, regular attendees begin to get it as I guide them to raise questions that explore what we can get out of this book, what it teaches about the world and ourselves, and move beyond the impulse merely to allow the book to entertain and inform.  A book really comes alive when we can interact with it, explore implications, argue with it, and learn a deeper knowledge within ourselves.

Sometimes the books we read urge us to look at our own experiences and family histories and share them with others.  Sometimes the books need to be figured out, and sometimes those books have no correct answers.  If we all just say, "I liked this," "I loved that," or "I hated it," there isn't much discussion to be had.

If I have the time, I will look into historical background, author biographies, and other related information that occurs to me.  I'll have that available if it comes up during the conversation.  Even better, I'll simply have a computer with me if we want to look up some factoid.  A tablet or smartphone could do just as well, but a laptop at least will have a screen large enough to share images.  Rarely will I kick off a book group with a monologue of information.  It's much more interesting to volunteer the information as a need for it arises.

I'll usually begin a group with a round robin, asking people to say their names, and what they hope to talk about from the book.  Even with that question, people will still say how they loved or hated the book, but enough will have questions or themes they want to explore.  When people get excited and start talking at once, or a couple have a side conversation, I'll raise a finger and ask for one conversation at a time.  If there is enough time, I'll ask for another round robin, asking for reflection, or if there's something anybody didn't get a chance to say.  Sometimes, a book has so much depth to figure out, I'll ask an opening question just like at St. John's, but then also ask for a round robin reflection about twenty minutes before closing.

Soto Zen by Keido Chisan

From September 14 to October 12 I co-led a class on Soto Zen: An Introduction to the Thought of the Serene Reflection Meditation School of Buddhism by Keido Chisan Koho Zenji at my Zen Center.

My co-teacher, Daicho, was able to give biographical information on Keido Chisan from a biography only available in Japanese.  The audio from the first class on this and the first chapter can be found here. Thinking of our class series, Daicho shared his thoughts on why Keido Chisan felt so driven to bring Soto Zen to the West, and to the United States in particular, and shared details from Keido Chisan's life that supported this.

More recently, Zen Center member Unkai published her paper on Keido Chison in the newsletter, found here. She concentrates more on Keido Chisan's younger years.

Unfortunately, the 2nd class on September 21 did not record correctly...nor did the 4th class...and I thought these were our most successful classes as discussions go.  (This happens because there is no way to double-check in real time that the recording is actually happening, they tell me.)

Chapter 2 really started to make sense to me when I realized I could express it in a diagram.  It was interesting to us that while the three foundational concepts of Buddhism that we usually talk about are anicca, anatta, and dukkha, in this case Koho Zenji talked about anicca, anatta, and karma (without naming them as such, but using English definitions for the "laws").  Altogether, these three laws allow what we think of as the self, always changing.  If I remember right, during class someone asked me where I thought dukkha (life is marked by dissatisfaction) fit.  I responded that dukkha flavors the whole thing.  The more one is subject to dukkha, and the clinging to the self being a certain way, the more separate from all beings, the more solidified the flawed self is, and the more unaware one would be of the middle of the triangle.

One of our monks pointed out that the inside of the triangle reflects the transcendent experience.  This pleased me, as I am tickled when something I create fits together even better than I originally conceived.

This diagram represents these statements by Koho Zenji in Chapter 2:

In Mahayana Buddhism we combine these three signs and say that they are but the One Sign which reveals the True Nature of all things. When we view the nature of things with the eyes of enlightenment, we see that all things are manifestations of Truth.

The law that all things are impermanent, based on the doctrines of causation and no-soul, ultimately developed into the concept of ku expounded in the Scriptures of Great Wisdom.

The law of causation, aided by the laws of impermanence and no-soul, was gradually deepened and led to the doctrine of phenomenal identity of the Kegon Kyo. Phenomenal identity is the name given to the idea that all phenomena have a deep, inseparable interrelation. Everything is related in both time and space to everything else, forming an inseparable whole, yet functioning freely.

The law of the non-existence of the soul, supported by the laws of causation and impermanence, led to the development of the idea of the Buddha Nature. The Buddha Nature is the essence of the Buddha. It is That which makes him Buddha.
Think about how radical this is, this Buddhism in the West. No soul, no God, no separable identity.

For the 3rd class on September 28, we discussed Chapters 3, 4, and 5, audio found here.

For the 4th class on October 5, we planned to discuss Chapters 6 and 7, but only got through Chapter 6.  We discussed sectarianism, and what the good and the harm could be.  We asked the question, "Why do we practice?" considering Dogen's teaching that training and enlightenment are the same, and Koho Zenji's statement, "Just-sitting based on faith is the fullest form of enlightenment." We also asked what people thought their Buddha Nature is, keeping in mind that as soon as we try to put words to it we would fall short.  We wanted to have fun with that, though with many newbies in the class, many thought they couldn't express this.  Mine, for example, is sparkly. Ebullient. In my younger years I did not have access to this consciously.

Koho Zenji says of Keizan, who is said to be the compassionate mother of Soto Zen, and who brought us our ceremonies,

We must enable them to know the joy that comes from a knowledge of the Dharma and the bliss that comes from the practice of meditation. It is absolutely essential to have a personal character like that of Great Master Keizan in order to carry out this mission. To regard all people with warm affection, to become the friend of the common people, to enter the realm of the ideal together with them and to share one's joy with others. These are the characteristics of the true man of religion.
We asked people to share this joy and bliss that came from their experience in a ceremony.  This particularly would have been nice to have captured in the audio.

Finally, the 5th class on October 12 can be found here.