My father, Allan Schmidt, lifts a triumphant hand in celebration as the ribbon is cut, signaling the opening of Concordia International School Hanoi on September 9th, 2011. To his left, partners and close friends in this 5-year project are Ted Engelbrecht, currently the executive director of the Asian Lutheran Education Association, and Dr. Tu Ngu, our long-time friend and supporter of this and other programs. Participating in the opening gave all of us present a shared sense of purpose and accomplishment, and the belief that this school will benefit many young people in the years ahead.
“Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. There is intelligence in that: I fill up all the space so I don’t have to actually relate to myself!”
-Reggie Rae, “Buddhism vs. Speed“
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
– John 10:10
What Do You Want?
Teaching a World Religions course for the first time in 15 years has given me a chance to become reacquainted with inspiring materials at a new stage of life. Now beginning the course studying Hinduism, I again read Huston Smith’s brilliant encapsulation of this incredibly diverse faith in an excerpt from his book The World’s Religions, “What People Want” Smith eloquently takes readers through the four aims of life for a Hindu: pleasure (kama); power, success, and money (artha); fulfilling one’s social duty and responsibility (dharma); and liberation (moksha). At every stage of life, Hindus are offered a higher, ennobling, and more satisfying way of life than their present state.
Transcendence in Hanoi
As a teacher for many years at an international school with all the opportunities such a position affords, Smith’s statement in the form of a question – what do people want – frequently comes to mind. Over this past weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the opening of Concordia International School Hanoi, our new sister school. At Thursday night’s worship and celebration in a hotel banquet hall, I experienced part of what I want: a sense of transcendence, being part of something larger than oneself. More than mere connectedness, however, transcendence includes the feeling of uplift, or, as I discussed in a recent entry, the sensation of moral elevation.
CISS Head of School Steve Winkelmann recognizes Hai, his business manager, and others at Thursday night’s celebration. Steve and his family have been in Hanoi for two years getting the school up and running. Congratulations, Steve, on a job well done.
The somewhat impromptu, but nonetheless pitch-perfect culmination of the evening found us all reaching for hands, spontaneously untangling ourselves into a circle, and offering a prayer of thanksgiving for and blessing upon this new educational venture. We were a mix of old and new friends, young people and senior citizens, new teachers and 40-year plus veterans, Asians and Westerners, Americans and Vietnamese all standing together celebrating our large or not-so-large contributions to bringing something new into the world. We were part of something bigger than “my class” or “our school.” Adding CISH to HKIS and CISS (Concordia International School Shanghai) felt akin to expanding from a 2-D to a 3-D world. We were participating in the creation of a field of new possibilities.
A happy group of Establishment Committee members is honored: Ted Engelbrecht, Curt Larsson, Allan Schmidt, Ed Strohschein, Jim Koehrsen, Ken Fowler, Fred Voightmann, and John Mehl (off camera to left). Strong representation from HKIS and CISS made the creation of our new sister school possible.
Transcendence Under Stress
The CISH opening and the various meals, speeches, dragon dances, and celebratory conversations of this 5-year process of creating a new school left me with an indelible joyous memory. Yet last Sunday night as I returned to Hong Kong, the inevitable set of pressing tasks that I had shelved to take 3 days away from my teaching responsibilities returned. As with other such trips, a multitude of ungraded papers, lesson plans, emails, projects, and more left me feeling anxious, not unlike the manner in which I had left four days before.
Desiring Fullness and Cheerfulness
Assigning Smith’s excerpt for my World Religions class over the weekend trip kept his question, what do you want, in mind. And so when a gifted Hindu nun named Nishita (pictured below) spoke to my World Religions class this week about the four aims of life, I was primed to hear more. Following her explanation, I asked, “Do you know anyone who has reached moksha?”
“Yes,” Nishita replied assuredly.
“What are they like?”
In her characteristic manner of unwrapping hidden gems, she spoke deliberately, “A person who experiences moksha lives a life of fullness and contentment. Their life seems perfect, for they don’t really have desires.”
Fullness! Something inside of me responded to this simple word. Yes, that’s what I want. It spoke to me of what seems missing in my life, and the lives of the people I know, the teachers and students that share this international school community.
She continued, “Moksha is experiencing what is infinite. We don’t want love just one hour a day; we want it 24 hours a day. In fact, we say we love people as they are dying. We want our love to extend beyond this life. Or we want to be happy, not just today, but all of our days, and even eternally. We want to be wise, not just in religion class or science class, but in all of our classes; we want wisdom throughout our lives.”
Her statement struck me as self-evidently true. Yes, I want fullness. I had an unmistakable taste of fullness in Hanoi celebrating the beginning of CISH. But I want to experience this at least some moments of every day, or perhaps hourly. Or is even something more possible – an abiding presence? To borrow a biblical phrase, can we “pray without ceasing,” remaining in contact with the divine throughout the day?
Pace vs. Peace
The class was coming to an end, but I couldn’t resist asking Nishita another question, “Can you achieve moksha when you are stressed out?”
She responded wryly, “You can’t achieve anything when you are stressed out.” Hearing this, a phrase jumped to my mind, “The pace of HKIS prevents the peace of HKIS.” Nishita continued, “It’s fashionable to be stressed out at international schools and in modern life in general. It shows our self-importance.”
At an international school such as ours, we have incredible material and non-material resources. We are able to be on the “cutting edge.” Through the service we give to others who are “less fortunate”, as we call them discretely, we try to help those with less become more like us. I believe in these good works that we do, and will continue my efforts in leading out with more such projects.
Yet I wish that we as a community and myself personally had more spiritual discernment in this area. I sense that I am not leading an abundant life, one characterized primarily by transcendence, fullness, and – a final virtue added by Nishita – a cheerful disposition.
Most of us probably don’t really know what we want. And even if we can state what we want, do we know how to get it? We seem to settle for a less-than-abundant life. We just can’t do better “on this side of heaven,” we might say.
Seeking What We Want
It is no exaggeration to say that I struggle with this issue on a regular, if not daily, basis. As the speed of modern life accelerates, an area in which international schools are certainly “ahead of the curve” (as we like to say), how do we find a way to support a spiritual life that includes transcendence, fullness, and cheerfulness?
The answer seems to lie in taking time each day to step away from, as Cynthia Bourgeault calls it in her books, “ordinary awareness” and cultivate “divine awareness.” Her answer is a Christian form of meditation called Centering Prayer, a practice I am persistently drawn to – but, I confess, mostly in theory only.
Yet here it seems to be. What do you want? If you want the fruits of the spirit, there seems no substitute for spiritual practice. Is teaching, doing service in the community, being part of a religious community, and having rich conversations a sufficient form of spiritual practice to reach some form of moksha? Or does it require a spiritual, specifically contemplative, practice?
This was my final question to Nishita. “Can moksha be reached without meditation?” “Of course. Teaching, for example, is a great way to develop patience, tolerance, and other values that lead to moksha.”
I trust Nishita’s word in most things, but on this one I’m just not convinced. Rather, at this point the Psalmist’s advice seems to ring more true: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Bourgeault, C (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD: Cowley.
Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco
Huston Smith explains in this interview with Bill Moyers how Hinduism teaches that you can have what you want:
Additional pictures from the CISS opening: