05/29/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Compassionate Teaching

I believed my trip to Lhasa ended when my cordial, but strangely nervous, guide escorted me past security onto my return flight to Kunming. Recent events had made the Chinese nervous about curious foreigners like myself wandering the city and making friends with the natives. From the small window of the plane, I watched as we bounded over jagged peaks and sped away from thick cloud of incense hovering over Lhasa. A year later, in a massive auditorium in Louisville, it was surreal to realize my journey to the Land of Snows hadn't ended with that departure.

From May 19-21, his Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Louisville, Kentucky, to speak to the community and offer instruction in Buddhist doctrine and scripture. I attended his morning instruction on May 21. A massive ceiling to floor thangka provided the backdrop for the stage. Vivid depictions of the Buddha and minor deities gazed out toward the audience. I sat quietly, pensively in the cold, dark auditorium hypnotized by the bright colors of the tapestry. The sudden knocking of shoes and flapping of clothes startled me. I looked towards the stage to see the Dalai Lama shuffling cheerfully to his elevated podium.

I was in a bit of mood during the talk. The spring semester had just ended, and my successes and, especially, failures in the classroom were fresh on my mind. I obsess about the particulars of course design and delivery to a fault, often losing my bearings on what the point of it all is. As I listened to the Dalai Lama's soft words and child-like chuckles, I began to hear something unexpected over the comforting content of his address. I marveled not just at the words he was speaking, but the way in which he was delivering them. I began to recognize the brilliant teacher that he is. I constantly struggle with the motivations and the way in which I instruct. Speaking to an audience that was largely not of his faith, the Dalai Lama succeeded in winning over hearts through gentleness, embodying non-violence even in his instructing. Two things in particular stuck out in my mind that demonstrated this: first, anytime he risked hurting someone's feelings in his talk, he would gently press his hands together and bow apologetically, asking for forgiveness. Second, there was a particular story he told of one of his dear friends, chancellor of a major American university, who had confessed to him that all his power, money and education had not made him happy. The Dalai Lama remarked that this was an important illustration of how education does not bring contentment. This story made me think about the ends that motivate my instruction and the way in which I engage with my students. Are my students prepared to be happier more satisfied beings when they leave my classroom? Education is not solely an object, a designated body of knowledge to seize and manipulate. The way in which knowledge is pursued, grasped and dispatched are ultimately much more important. How to deliver the content and utility of knowledge in a way that benefits learners holistically, prepares them to be better and happier human beings is something I am teased and tortured by.

The Dalai Lama's brief visit to Louisville capped a trip to Tibet I'd believed had ended for me in summer 2012. It also kicked off a new search to find a gentler more caring approach to teaching--one whose method invites and apologizes, and doesn't perpetuate habits of acquisition that threaten the peace of the learner and his world.

Tomorrow morning I leave for Thailand, leading a group of colleagues on an exploratory research trip. We will meet with one of the Dalai Lama's famous Theravada counterparts, Sulak Sivaraksa. I am eager hear his thoughts on the subject.