First, please let me introduce myself. My name is Bruce Newman. I am an old student of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. I have been teaching Tibetan Buddhism on the west coast of the US for over 20 years now. When I started, I had no idea how to really present the Dharma. Giving lectures or formal teachings seemed pretentious, since I had no realization and there were many great masters teaching in the US and publishing books of authentic teachings.
I decided to borrow a technique from a friend. In his group, they decided on a book, would read, say, a chapter at home, and in class would read the book out loud in a circle—each participant would read one paragraph out loud, and if anyone had a question or something they wanted to discuss, they would do that before moving on to the next paragraph. I have been using this technique for more than twenty years now with some alterations and I have been very pleased with the results. I would recommend this format to any small study group.
All groups will have older and newer students. Also there may be an authorized teacher in the group. For simplicity sake, I will assume one person in the group is the leader, facilitator, or teacher. The other participants I will call students. Using a book, the teacher is freed from having to present lectures on subject they do not have mastery of. If there are difficult passages in the book, the teacher should freely admit he or she doesn’t understand. Also the teacher should try to solicit the students to volunteer their interpretations or understanding of these passages.
Reading sections out loud invites us to delve deeper into the material. It is too easy to just skim over difficult material while reading by yourself but what you found difficult someone else probably did too. I’m always amazed in a class to learn what I read but didn’t really understand when someone inquires about it! One person’s query or interest in a passage can spark a discussion that will have important insights for many of the members of the group. It is crucial that the leader make the other participants feel safe enough to share their doubts, hesitations, obstacles, and experiences. When there is this environment of trust and openness, real magic can happen and everyone benefits!
When I am leading a book class, I don’t have the class read every paragraph. Depending on the book and the time, I will select the most helpful passages for the class. I will ask the class to read ahead and find the most provocative sections for them, prepare questions, etc. Although I generally start with a one chapter per class format, the best classes are the ones where we only get through a few paragraphs in two hours.
Some material is difficult or needs some context or introduction. In that case, I might prepare a short introductory talk on the subject. If the material is too difficult for the students to understand or the teacher to explain, skip that section or, if necessary, choose another book. The teacher should never hesitate to admit uncertainty and should be vigilant about giving students misleading information. A teacher can always say, ‘I’m not sure, but I think it means…’
The books selected should reflect the interests of the class. My students and myself prefer books by modern Tibetan masters such as Traleg Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, Tulku Thondrup, and everybody’s favorite, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. You can certainly choose more classical texts such as The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and Words of My Perfect Teacher. I have a dear friend who was an historian before becoming a Dharma teacher—the books he presents to his students reveals the development of Buddhism from a historical perspective. If you choose a western author, you must consider how trustworthy their words are. They might mean well, but may have their own agenda and not have the realization of the lamas I just mentioned. In future essays I will present some of my favorite books with some ideas on how to present them.
Another idea would be to find articles online. Lion’s Roar has a newsletter with many great ones. Students could pick their favorites, email a link to their cohorts, and make a short introductory presentation themselves. The articles in Dzogchen Primer and Dzogchen Essentials would also be excellent to use in that way.
It can occasionally be beneficial to select material that one disagrees with. People can often read uncritically so that reading a passage presenting an alternative view can be very helpful and help them develop a more critical, insightful approach to the material. Classes following these guidelines can certainly begin with refuge and bodhichitta and a short meditation, and conclude with dedication of merit prayers. The type of meditation can be chosen to complement the material in the book.
Hopefully, you will find this short introduction useful and will inspire some of you to step up and start a group or bring ideas similar to these to an already existing group. Best wishes!
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