The Making of Abiding Heart Education™️ Approach: Beyond Contemplative Education

Dr. Meyrav Mor

October 2021

In 2000, a nascent Abiding Heart Education™️ approach began its journey with the establishment of my first school in Nepal, Tashi Waldorf School, which integrated Waldorf methodology with Himalayan cultural heritage. Tibetan Buddhism was central to the school’s curriculum due to the primary importance of supporting and nurturing the connection between displaced Tibetan and high Himalayan students and their linguistic and cultural heritage. Many families had fled to Kathmandu from the other side of the Himalayas and from the Maoist insurgents that controlled many parts of the Nepali high Himalayas. At Tashi Waldorf school I developed a Tibetan Buddhist curriculum that encompassed meditation, Buddhist morning prayers and offerings, contemplative and Buddhist education, Buddhist festivals such as Sagadawa and also featured Tibetan language, music, folklore and drama. From this, and later postgraduate research, emerged the foundation for Abiding Heart Education, described in my publication of ‘Preserving the Past Reserving the Future: A Foundation for Kindergarten Curriculum for Tibetan Exile Schools’, in 2003.

My first pupils at Tashi Waldorf School-Kindergarten - Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2000

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The shrine at Tashi Waldorf school class 1 - Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2001

In 2004, myself and 15 other experts were invited by the Tibetan-Government-in-Exile Prime Minister to advise on a new education bill that was being presented to the exile parliament. The education bill sought to integrate Tibetan language, culture and dharma into the curriculum with the explicit goal of sociocultural integration and preservation of children’s linguistic and cultural heritage and dharma. Such an educational approach can validate and foster children’s positive identities as well as providing a resource for learning. I rejoiced in the knowledge that the Exile government's concerns and actions were aligned with my own in relation to heritage language and cultural preservation and most importantly, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasised, to ensure that the Buddha dharma continues to support inner development towards liberation. 

 

I subsequently embarked on a PhD at The University of Bath in England to continue this work of cultural heritage preservation within the curriculum in order to maintain the essential connection between global communities and their dharma and heritage language and culture, whilst also meeting the demands of the 21st century. From my fieldwork, working with Buddhist communities in Nepal, the need for a Buddhist transformative experiential education for children age 3 to 14 or from kindergarten to class 8 became clear and propelled my work both during and after my doctorate studies. By the beginning of 2016 the development of a Buddhist education became my main focus, and what a joy it was! 

 

A Buddhist Children’s Pedagogy

A new pedagogical approach developed from the fundamental understanding of the aim of education as progression along the pathway towards liberation. The knowledge, experience and expertise gathered over  years of the aforementioned research and practice, become precious tools in constructing a new educational framework and content. While Buddhism provides the educational lense for my work, it is essential that this worldview is embedded within a children's pedagogy that is also Buddhist. However, here lies the gap; Buddhist learning and teaching methodology has been predominantly developed for adults.

 

A Buddhist children’s pedagogy needs to be transformative, experiential, and developmentally appropriate to nourish children’s beings towards freedom. As a former teacher at a Waldorf school with 30 years of experience in education (also in teacher training and curriculum development), I identified the Waldorf transformative educational approach as providing such a pedagogy, with it’s deeply holistic understanding of child development, and integrated this with the Buddhist contemplative and meditative (experiential) methodology. This synthesis became a new educational approach, termed ‘Abiding Heart Transformative Experiential Buddhist Education’. It is founded on a sound philosophy of education and a view of a profound path towards inner freedom. 

 

I reside in Boudha, the heart of Buddhist Kathmandu, where many of the great teachers were questioning how to integrate Buddha dharma into the Nepali children’s curriculum in monastic schools. It became apparent that the Buddhist educational approach and curriculum that I was developing addressed this issue, so I initiated a dialogue with several Buddhist masters. The great masters had a profound understanding of the future directionality of Buddhist children’s education and I was able to discern the subtleties of the various global pedagogies.

 

One master, Mingyur Rinpoche, listened deeply and asked many questions about such pedagogies. I described the nesting system of conforming type education, progressive and transformative education, and the placement of both Waldorf and Buddhist pedagogy within transformative learning. Both aim, in their individual ways, towards inner freedom– enlightenment. This includes but moves beyond human flourishing. The aim of Buddhist education is to progress on the path towards liberation or at the very least sow the seeds to enable this process. This includes children’s Buddhist education, starting in kindergarten, through to high school. Everything in Abiding Heart Education becomes part of the path towards inner freedom. 

 

The essence, which I explained to Mingyur Rinpoche, is the approach to teaching; the teaching methodology, and the assumptions from which an array of methodologies arise, including an understanding of the human being. As practitioners, it is important to identify our positioning and assumptions or paradigm from the outset. Without such reflection, tensions and contradictions between the educational content and teaching and learning methodologies can arise and potentially compromise the effectiveness of curriculum delivery. A transformative Buddhist education can only arise from an education philosophy and pedagogy that supports pupils progressing on the path of inner development towards liberation or Buddhahood. I propose that the Waldorf methodology is the only methodology that is capable of delivering a deeply immersive Buddhist education for children while also teaching a comprehensive children’s curriculum. 

 

Intrigued by my work, Mingyur Rinpoche shared that he was planning to set up another school in Kathmandu and that such a curriculum would be of great benefit to his schools. Thereafter, we met reguraly to discuss the content that I was developing and to ensure that it was accurate from the Buddhist perspective. In turn, I was able to offer educational expertise in relation to his other monastic school in Bodhgaya, India. And so, for several years, Mingyur Rinpoche and I have met; me sharing my knowledge and understanding of education methodologies, transformative and experiential teaching and learning, and the need for child development to underpin curriculum delivery; and Mingyur Rinpoche ensuring that the Buddhist content and curriculum I developed is authentic and accurate. How precious! 

 

I have been exceptionally fortunate to also be advised by other accomplished Buddhist teachers. Lama Shenpen’s insights over the years have been invaluable, guiding me in relation to integrating Buddhism across year groups in primary education. She even wrote a class 5 play for us about Guru Rinpoche’s life story! Khenpo Sonam Tsewang, a great Buddhist scholar, from the Nyingma tradition, has also been closely working with me for the past 7 years, explaining Buddhist texts and advising on the Buddhist aspect of our teacher training courses. Both Lama Shenpen Hookham and Khenpo Sonam Tsewang and other Buddhist scholars have been checking the Buddhist curriculum content for accuracy. There are many more experts that have been involved in advising and supporting Abiding Heart education, some of which I will mention below. After many years, Abiding Heart’s transformative experiential Buddhist education has registered training organisations in both Nepal and the USA.


 

The Pillars of the Abiding Heart Education™️ Approach

The Abiding Heart Education™️ approach comprises four foundational components: 

  1. Experiential Buddhist Foundation Studies; 

  2. Buddhist and developmental science-based Child Development from Birth to Rebirth;

  3. Learning theories: Buddhist learning methodology, Steiner pedagogy and other contemporary learning theories and methodologies leading to the Abiding Heart Education learning and teaching approach;

  4. Abiding Heart’s transformative experiential curriculum for kindergarten through to class 8. 

 

I have developed courses to encompass each of these areas, which form the pillars of the Abiding Heart Education’s transformative experiential Buddhist learning approach on which our teacher training courses and Buddhist imbued curriculum rests. The curriculum includes an array of subjects taught in kindergartens and schools, from literacy and numeracy, to cultural studies, sustainability and arts and crafts, all of which are immersed directly and indirectly in the Buddhist view and meditation, with the aim of nurturing the development of wisdom and compassion. Contemplative education, Buddhism, prayers and rituals, are integrated into every lesson and throughout the daily, weekly and monthly rhythms of the school year. The curriculum is rich, purposefully wholesome and true to my ideal of educating the head, heart and hand.

 

The Abiding Heart Education approach comprehensive teacher training courses aim to have a global reach and to work at the depth of things through the four foundational components. The first pillar of the Abiding Heart Education™️ approach is Foundation Buddhist Studies and the inner development of the trainee teacher. Trainee teachers must first dedicate time to understanding, contemplating and meditating the Buddhist view. This involves guidance and instruction on how to meditate. Although such insight and skills require many years of practice, trainee teachers are grounded in a foundational understanding of the Buddhist view and meditation. In our view, this is essential, as being a teacher is less about what we teach but who we are. 

 

The first pillar of the Abiding Heart Education™️ approach formed the Foundation Buddhist studies course - a 16 week full-time course - a full semester! Experiential arts are also part of this course to enrich the process of learning and to enable exploration of inner landscapes and reflection on how the Buddhist view and meditation can be applied in the journey of self-transformation. The combination of daily philosophy classes together with meditation and transformative and expressive arts, modelling, Himalayan arts and crafts and movement, are a fantastic way of applying the Foundation Buddhist studies into our lives.

End of semester 1 exhibition - Transformative Experiential Foundation Buddhist Studies, in 2019

Painting Tara - Thangka painting lesson - Semester 1 of Kindergarten Teacher Training course, in 2020

The second pillar of the Abiding Heart Education™️ approach is Child Development from Birth to Rebirth. This is a 10 week full time course that similarly follows a daily rhythm of lectures, meditation, artistic exercises and personal development group work. This course progresses from exploring our own inner landscape to understanding the nature of the human being and in particular the developing child. It does so from multiple perspectives; encompassing Buddhism, scientific theory and a holistic philosophy of education. By the second semester of our full-time two-year teacher training courses, our trainees have acquired the knowledge and understanding to enable them to explore Buddhist psychology, developmental science, psychology and neuroscience. By the end of this course, our trainee teachers have an in-depth understanding of the developing child from birth to adulthood and how it relates to our teaching methodology and content for each year group. However, our child development course does not stop at the end of childhood, for it is anchored in Buddhist psychology and understands human development from the moment or bardo of death through the other stages of the bardos of death to conception and prenatal development.

 

Understanding the importance of the Abiding Heart Education’s methodology is key to building children’s resilience and opening both heart and mind, where attention is given to supporting children’s spiritual, physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development from birth to rebirth. This is the process of transformative experiential learning and has been developed in collaboration with a global and multidisciplinary team of experts. Dr Robert Roeser (see below, second line second from left) has brought incredible knowledge of developmental science linked with Buddhist psychology. Dr David Vago has contributed an understanding from the perspective of neuroscience and how it relates to aspects such as the aggregates. Dr Tawni Tidwell brings an understanding of child development from a Buddhist and Tibetan medicine worldview. Khenpo Sonam Tsewang and Mingyur Rinpoche explained Buddhist psychology and the nature of reality while I, (see below, first line second from left) have woven Buddhist psychology, science and pedagogy together in relation to applying a transformative experiential Buddhist pedagogy that is Abiding Heart.

Child Development from Birth to Rebirth module 1, 2020-2021. Understanding Buddhist psychology, developmental science and transformative experiential Buddhist pedagogy

The third pillar of the Abiding Heart Education™️ approach is our 3 week course on Learning Theories and Methodologies: Buddhist Pedagogy, the Transformative Learning Approach of Steiner and other Contemporary Learning Theories. This course provides a synthesis of the three components (Buddhist, taught by Khenpo Sonam Tsewang, Steiner, and other contemporary learning theories, taught by myself) and forms the Abiding Heart Education learning and teaching approach. Here again, the course follows the same pattern of daily lectures, meditation and artistic exercises.

Khenpo Sonam Tsewang and 2019 Foundation Studies students

Khenpo Sonam Tsewang and 2019 students ​​

The fourth pillar of the Abiding Heart Education™️ approach is the curriculum content. This is introduced to trainee teachers in the final part of semester 2 when we feel they have the depth of knowledge and understanding, both of heart and mind, and are at a stage when they can immerse themselves in learning how to teach the Abiding Heart Curriculum. The course is delivered over two and a half semesters and focuses on thorough training on how to teach each individual subject to each specific year group. Curriculum delivery requires trainee teachers to learn an array of new skills in a multifaceted role; to develop confidence as speakers, writers, artists, meditators; to train in child observation, and this is all anchored in contemplative practice and the Buddhist view. I teach this course myself, with the wonderful support of Waldorf colleagues from around the world. Our trainees receive the full curriculum content and are trained in how to teach using transformative learning and teaching skills and tools. 

A story for young children based on the Heart Sutra and turned into a puppet show. The trainees learn how to make these beautiful sewn and felted puppets, created the backdrop and choreograph the puppet show. Kindergarten curriculum and teacher training course, in 2020

The process of teaching and learning should be a lived experience, so we provide many handouts and supporting resources that we created rather than a single document. When a concept is crystallised into a selection of lesson plans with accompanying instruction on teaching, the process of education becomes that of imparting abstract concepts. We believe this can hinder the dynamic inner processes within the child and becomes something that is imparted onto the child from the outside. The right education at the right time using the right approach, considers the developing child and how they learn in relation to each phase of development. This can make a difference to how a child receives knowledge and whether this brings healing or becomes detrimental to their well-being. For us, education is an art; it is a responsive and creative process!

The Magpie Robin and the Monks, a story by Yuya Mon, year 1 primary teacher training student, 2021. The trainees learn to write nature stories that describe natural phenomena in a pictorial way as part of the science curriculum. This is integrated with arts, and teaching literacy skills such as writing, spelling and reading. Primary teacher training Class 1 curriculum studies.

The Abiding Heart Education team currently comprises of over twenty experts who advise and teach Shamata and vipassana meditation, Buddhist philosophy and psychology and neuroscience, as well as experienced teachers of progressive and transformative pedagogies, contemplative education, experiential arts, sculpture, craft and handwork, Buddhist Himalayas dance and thangka painting, music and drama, sustainability education, and science.

Handwork and mindfulness primary education curriculum; plant dyeing, weaving and weaving, in 2019.

So far, the results of the Abiding Heart teacher training courses have exceeded our expectations and predicaments beyond imagination. I have observed the trainee teachers' growth as they become reflective practitioners and develop a deep inner relationship to each subject they teach. It is not only their confidence to teach that develops daily, but the courage to use the knowledge they have gained to develop and adapt our curriculum in relation to their own culture and Buddhist traditions (also non- Buddhist tradition for some of our trainee teachers). 

The Abiding Heart Education teacher training courses are open to teachers and aspiring teachers from all over the world. Candidates can apply to become either a kindergarten teacher or a primary teacher (class 1-8). The training is full time over two years. We aim to keep the tuition fees as low as possible to make it accessible to as many people as possible from all backgrounds.

Abiding Heart students past and present 2019 - 2021

The training and curriculum content is designed to be adapted to any Buddhist community around the world. We also include in our training how the Buddhist content can be mostly taught in a contemplative way (secular) for non-Buddhist or mixed Buddhist and non-Buddhist school communities. This training can greatly support teachers in the context of progressive and contemplative based schools around the world; for those who teach children dharma holiday camps and in dharma centres globally as well as Buddhist monastic schools and Buddhist based lay schools in Asia.

 

I feel deep gratitude for having the good fortune to walk the path this lifetime of developing the Abiding Heart Education approach, such a rich and wholesome pedagogy that can nurture and bring healing to children. May it be of benefit to all children and beings.