Zen and the Art of Teaching Abroad
By Jeffrey K. Mann, Associate Professor of Religion, Coordinator of the Asian Studies Program
Before and immediately following Commencement, faculty enjoy the bittersweet moment of congratulating and saying goodbye to the students who are graduating. We almost always end our conversations with “Stay in touch.” In this electronic age, doing so is quite easy. However, we know our contact will often be limited to words typed on a computer, especially with students who return home to countries around the world. I often assume I will never see them again. Sometimes I am wrong.
Susquehanna University has enjoyed a relationship with Senshu University for many years. Every spring we receive roughly a dozen students from Japan as our guests for seven weeks. We also have the occasional exchange student who stays for an entire year. Thanks to the help of one such student, I was given the chance to spend the fall semester teaching at Senshu.
While some of my colleagues thought it odd that I would use my sabbatical from teaching here to teach somewhere else, I jumped at the opportunity. I love being in the classroom, and teaching Japanese students about Western religions they know nothing about was just the challenge I was seeking. Examining current events through the lens of religion was new for most of them, and I was happy to offer them that perspective.
At the same time that I was bringing my knowledge of Western religions to Japan, my new Japanese friends were helping me understand their religious traditions and culture more clearly. I have been researching the relationship between Zen Buddhism and the martial traditions of Japan for a few years, but being in Japan allowed me to experience much of what I had only read about before then. Whether it was a morning spent in meditation at a Zen temple, a festival at a Shinto shrine or visiting a traditional Japanese archery dojo, I was deepening my understanding of these traditions. When one sociology professor, a fifth-degree blackbelt in jodo (Japanese short-staff fighting), invited me to the world-famous Budokan to train with her teacher, I knew I was in for a treat. One does not walk away from such an experience having learned only about fighting, but also about Japanese etiquette, values, tradition and spirituality.
Throughout my 4½ months in Japan, I not only met many new friends, but reconnected with many old ones as well. In September, I was greeted by shocked Senshu students who had been in my class during their stay at Susquehanna and were surprised to see me walking the halls of their university. A number of them signed up for my classes, while others made sure to join me for lunch in the cafeteria. Even Senshu graduates came back to visit. Miki Koyama, the student who helped initiate my connection with Senshu, stopped by. Our conversation, over my less-than-adventurous chicken teriyaki, covered a variety of topics regarding both Japanese and American culture, but with the common thread of how much we appreciated being able to experience each other’s culture. Doing so had helped us both understand our own respective cultures more clearly.
Another former student, Humi Pai, a Susquehanna alumna not connected with Senshu, visited the university for two of my public lectures. Catching up on each other’s life, work and hobbies, as old friends do, was a wonderful opportunity that neither of us expected when she graduated and left the United States. But we are members of the Susquehanna family, and when we bump into each other in unexpected places, it is a reunion we always appreciate.