The Middle Way between Faith-Based and Secular Education: Teaching Spiritual Practices in a World Religions Class

2013-09-02 07.12.46Introduction

For years I have wrestled with how to teach religion at HKIS as a Christian school to a relatively secularized student body in a multicultural and multi-religious environment. The main issue was that while teaching from a primarily academic perspective made religion accessible and palatable to my students,  it did not speak to their deeply personal and spiritual needs. In recent years HKIS has developed some helpful statements that seem to thread this needle, and in a way that seems to work for my students. This blog entry shares these perspectives, and then shows how I apply this middle way approach to the teaching of my grade 9 World Religion class through the use of spiritual practices.

HKIS Teaching Religion Philosophy

 Our HKIS religion philosophy tries to find a third way between a traditional parochial approach and a secular vantage point. We describe these two types in this way:

  • Faith Education: the study of one specific theological understanding, offered in an academic style. Religions of the world would be taught in a strong academic program but the sponsoring religion would be identified as the truth. Teachers of faith education share their own faith with their students and encourage students to articulate their understandings of the sponsoring religion. Answers to students’ questions are provided within the theological framework of the sponsoring religion/denomination.
  • Religious Studies: a strong academic program of different religions, typically found in U.S. universities. Teachers of religious studies provide a non-personalized study of people and their religious views in order to understand them better. Teachers of religious studies do not share their own personal faith journeys in their classes nor do they engage the student to probe their own spiritual and religious understandings.

The Lutheran schools of my youth took the first approach, which served the broadly Christian and specifically Lutheran background of those attending quite well. When I came to HKIS in 1990, however, it became obvious that most families chose the school for its academic reputation, and religion was far down the list of priorities. In a multicultural setting, the religious studies approach seems to be a sensible, even-handed, and non-confrontational way to teach about Christianity as well as other faiths.

However, the weakness of the religious studies perspective is its depersonalization. It doesn’t really answer students’ deepest questions about religion: what is the ultimate truth about reality? how do I become a better human being? does religion have anything to offer me personally? and what do I really believe?

Out of this tension has emerged a middle path, which HKIS has called “religious education.”

  • Religious Education: a strong academic program of different religions in which teachers are encouraged to share their own worldviews and spiritual/religious understandings. Religious education takes the best aspects of the definitions of faith education and religious studies, thus combining the mind and the spirit/heart in developing academic understanding and a stronger sense of one’s own spiritual identity. Religious education features ongoing exploration of the questions of life. HKIS uses this model.

Every semester over the last 3 years I have tried to increase both aspects of the religious education approach, and have been quite pleased with the outcomes. I’ve tried to strengthen my curriculum this year by providing more engaging intellectual ideas of each faith we study, while at the same time matching these teachings to spiritual practices. This combination communicates to students that religion ultimately aims to integrate head, heart, and body into a way of life rather than only or primarily an academic exploration.

Spiritual Practices in the Hinduism Unit

 I introduced my first big idea on day 1 of World Religions class. In an attempt to justify the value of studying religion, I spoke of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life, as I shared in a previous entry. I helped students understand that history classes, or even our social justice-oriented Humanities I in Action class, remain on the horizontal dimension, but that this class gives students the rare opportunity to study this other cross-vector of the human experience.

2015-01-17 15.11.36During our first unit, I had students choose a spiritual practice that would help them explore one of the four Hindu paths towards spiritual growth. In class that day I helped students design their own and then gave them four days over a weekend to complete this assignment:

  1. You need to do this activity at least 3 times between Friday and Monday (unless you arranged something else with me). What days did you do it and for how much time? So, for example, “Friday (10 minutes), Saturday (20 minutes), Monday (20 minutes).”
  2. What did you do? Which one of the 4 paths is your activity a part of? Why did you choose this path and activity?
  3. What was the result of your spiritual practice? Did you learn anything about yourself (e.g, what type of spiritual path works or doesn’t work for you; how might your choice reflect your personality; did you feel any benefit outside of the time you did the practice)?

Here are a couple of student responses, a boy and a girl, respectively:

Boy: “I decided to meditate in complete darkness and silence, in a posture of me sitting down on a flat surface and my arms stretching up and joining together creating a stream line, thus making me concentrate my senses into every part of my body. This posture helped me not only concentrate into every part of my body, but also helped me concentrate on nothing. This means that by making myself and my body focus onto the very senses of my body, my mind lost its ability to think or worry about other things. This was a very effective way that led myself to emptying my mind, and it was an activity that allowed me to have more control over my body. I took in the perspective of Buddhists where they push their physical abilities to its limits, in order to clear their mind. I did this on Saturday, 6am, 3:30pm, and 10:00pm for 15 minutes every session. I believe that this helped me become a part of the infinite, meaning that I was shortly in a state where I couldn’t feel the flow of time. I think that by letting myself not to feel the flow of time, I was able to make my own vertical dimension in time, and give myself a nice rest in a busy life of hong kong. Some of the effects that I was able to observe during my day was that my mind was always relaxed, and my body felt lighter. I had a better balance while moving, and every action I did with my body was very easy. It will be easier to just say that my body felt like a newly built body. Overall, it was a very unique and helpful activity, and I would continue this in my normal life.”

Girl: “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I did zen doodling as my three experiences.I started by researching about zen doodling and looking at the zen doodling patterns to give me some inspiration. I used black ink to draw a knitted tape like structure and used a bit of pointillism to create three dimensional effects. For all three of my experiences, I was in my room with the window open so that I could hear the sounds of nature and have a rather quiet environment to draw in. 

Each time I put in around 45 minutes in the activity. It took me a bit longer than I expected it to be.

During my experience, I was away from all the distractions such as my computer and phone and I solely concentrated on drawing. While drawing, I focused on my breathing and listened to the rustling of leaves outside. I also thought that drawing repetitive patterns as such is very therapeutic and soothing. After each of my experiences, I felt calmer and less stressed out. Even though I had piles of homework to do, I didn’t feel as reluctant to do them, instead I felt motivated. I was also more concentrated when I did my homework, without letting social media distract me. Generally, I felt a lot more relaxed, patient and focused. Hence, I think that my activity had a positive effect on me.”

Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, so I did a second similar activity a couple of weeks later. I introduced the concept of duality and non-duality into class (using this video and resource materials that I had developed previously). Then I asked them to use the non-dualism concept experientially through this assignment:

  1. Over the next two days, note 5 strong attractors and 5 strong avoidances that you encounter in your daily life at HKIS or at home. Write these down on the blog as a list. EX: I like home-cooked meals, buying a snack at Wellcome with friends . . . and I avoid . . . how bad I’m doing in math class, a former friend . . .
  2. Design a 5-minute spiritual practice that you can do twice on different days in which you let go of the attractor(s) or accept the avoidance(s). For example, do 21 breaths and on each out-breath open your hands and let go of an attraction. Or with a music meditation, draw to mind with an attitude of acceptance one of the five things you want to avoid.So for this question, report back your practice and how it went.  (If anybody thinks this is just a bit too odd to do, talk to me and we’ll work on some alternative.)

Once again, students found this to be an interesting and worthwhile experiment, even if it was a bit more challenging than the first spiritual practice activity. Here are two girls’ responses to the assignment:

Girl: “Whenever I face with things that are not pleasant, I always remind myself that “this too shall pass”. I have been telling myself this quote since when I was in third grade, after my teacher told us about the story of Solomon. This quote always helps me to calm down and think more positively and look forward to the future. What I did to let go of attractors and accept the avoidance was to take a deep breath and mumble this quote to myself.

Even though I knew the quote before, I always have been using this only to accept the avoidance. I have never tried to let go of the attractors, so it was quite hard for me to use this quote to let go of the things I like. I tried it yesterday when I really wanted to eat some snack when I got home. I exhaled really loud and mumbled the quote, and even though the desire for snacks was still there until dinner time, I controlled myself not to eat until after dinner. After dinner, because I ate enough dinner, I was able to just let go of the will for snacks. 

To improve this method, I should breathe for three times and remind myself of the quote each time I exhale. In that way, I could let go of the attractors that my body wants and accept the avoidance.”

Girl: “I think the whole point of Dualistic and Non-Dualistic thinking is making all material things in our life seem neutral. So I first started by accepting the things I don’t like. Time has always been my enemy. Whatever I do, it always has to step ahead and ruin my plans. We’ve always been in this competition, and it has defeated me countless times. I thought, and I though long and hard about what I can do to accept the fact that time can actually be my friend. So for this activity, I meditated on time for 15 minutues. I spent time thinking that time has to pass, it can’t just slow down for me, it has the whole world to look after. This made me think of an old riddle that I was taught: What is the one, same thing you can say to a happy and sad man, that will make the happy sad, and the sad happy? The answer is: This too shall pass. (If you don’t understand it, I can explain it some other time). This made me realize that time can be good and bad, but it will always pass, so if you’re having a bad time, you can tell yourself: this too shall pass, and in your mind, you will feel much better. Time is still hard to deal with, but I can always tell myself that it’s alright.

The harder part of this activity was to let go of an attraction. I thought it ought to be easier, but it’s hard to get rid of habits. I see myself as an independent person, as I do a lot of my things without any one’s help. My parents have always been busy, and don’t have time for, so I’ve always known that if someone’s going to be there for me, then it’s going to have to be me. But sometimes, it gets a little too out of hand. It makes me see myself as the only right person in the world, and there is no one who can change that. So I tried 21 breaths, and for each breath, I stated times where I was wrong, and that I had to depend on someone to guide me through this issue. And all these situations came to me so fast. I didn’t think that I’ve been wrong so many times, and I actually need other people’s support in my life. I didn’t think it was possible, but I think that [being in high school has taught me that] life has taught me to ‘challenge the impossible’ (Wall in the front of room 103).”

Periodically, I have also done a number of meditations to begin class to the point where it feels quite confortable for our class to take a few minutes to do a practice. A few of the Christian students have had some concerns, which I have tried to allay by telling them that they never need to do something that they feel goes against their personal faith, and that they can of course do a Christian practice. As a Christian myself, I explain how I have come to handle these questions and engage in practices.

Another time as we faced a tragedy that struck our community, I read a couple of Bible passages amidst the shock of the moment, which again was well-received. I’ve tried to establish that just because I take an even-handed approach to different religions doesn’t mean that we can’t apply certain messages of various traditions to our lives for even our collective benefit.

Spiritual Practices in the Buddhism Unit

During the first three classes of the Buddhism unit I wanted stuimagesdents to learn about the Buddha’s life story, mostly using excerpts from “Little Buddha,” and come to understand the basic worldview of Buddhism, which I shared through a PowerPoint presentation that I created. Here is a slide summarizing the differences between traditional Hinduism and the Buddha’s reforms.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.55.34 PM

However, in the next part of the unit, I wanted to focus on Buddhist spiritual practices. One day my classes would visit Su Bong monastery, a Zen Buddhist community, in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong. I asked them to teach us about meditation, chanting, and prostrations.

DSC_3861I preceded, then, the visit to Su Bong monastery with some experience with each practice. In one 80 minute class period, I taught three forms of Buddhist meditation practices: focused-attention, mindfulness, and loving kindness. Using a recent article from Scientific American* and some explained insights from my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault**, I taught about three kinds of Buddhist meditation:

  1. Focused-Attention (1:15-3:15) and use of a mantra: following this clip, the class did a 3-minute mantra meditation.
  1. Mindfulness: TEDx talk about Vipassana: After the TEDx talk, students did a 3-minute session simply watching their thoughts, and then writing down 5 observations
  1. Loving Kindness meditation: We practiced this 7-minute meditation led by the video presenter.

I also wanted to include chantinDSC_3124g (although I ran out of time for this during this first class period), so I planned for them to do a Kwan Seum Bosal chant about Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. They can simply hum along with this video from 1:45 until the end at 7:19.

Finally, we grabbed some yoga mats and the students did prostrations along with this video. As a follow-up to this class, I asked students to respond to these questions:

Spend 10 minutes (or more) on both Tuesday and Wednesday to do one form of the spiritual practices that we talked about in class today. Then by 9:30 PM Wednesday answer these two questions (4-8 lines)?

  1. What did you choose to do and why? What was your experience of these two days of doing this practice?
  2. We have an experienced Buddhist monk coming to class on Thursday. What question would you like to ask him? He’s going to teaching us about spiritual practices, so your question can relate to this area or to another question you would like to ask. 

Here are two student responses, a boy and a girl, to this activity:

Boy: “The practice I chose to do was the prostration. Prostration stretched muscles around my shoulders and arms which I don’t normally stretch. This helped relax many muscles in my body and at the same time the engaging nature of prostration helped me focus on the act of doing it. Essentially, by keeping my mind focused on one task, it helped me clear my mind and essentially meditate. Furthermore, since I am very tired from sleeping late, the prostrations help me stay awake and focus better by ensuring the blood kept flowing. My experience was that for a long time, at least for the rest of the two evenings, I became more focused and more relaxed. Ultimately my body felt a little better, probably because it was less stressed.”

Girl: “For this spiritual meditation/prostration practice I decided to chant the mantra and I chose to chant Om Mani Padme Hom. I chose this mantra because I used hear it at home. When I was younger, my mom would play a CD with this mantra (the same exact one we listened to in class) throughout the day. During class, it felt really nice to connect again with this sound and vibration. I also decided to do this because I was comfortable with it and I really enjoyed it as well. Each of the days, I listed to the mantra for around 10-15 minutes and it really helped to relax my mind and felt easier to sleep as I did it before I slept on Tuesday. I will definitely continue to keep listening to this mantra in the future because I feel that it is very beneficial.”

As a next step, the students are now taking on a Hindu Buddhist study practice project in which they need to pick a spiritual practice and perform it at least 10 times over the next three weeks. At the same time, they will do some research on their particular practice. Each student (or small groups of students) will present their academic and experiential learnings. This was students’ favorite part of class last year, and I expect it to be well-received this year as well.


In the last several years I have slowly moved my 9th grade World Religions classes at HKIS from primarily a conceptual approach to a mix of study and experiences. I assumed that this would not be an easy task in a multi-cultural and multi-religious classroom that we have at Hong Kong International School, so I have moved slowly. To my surprise, however, students have continued to encourage me every semester to include more experiential opportunities that involved personal spiritual practices. This semester I have done even more than last semester because the students seem eager to experiment with learning that is fundamentally experiential.

These positive experiences with spiritual practices affirms to me that the HKIS religious education philosophy is indeed the right path, the middle way between a traditional faith-based education and a secular study of world religions. The next challenge for me is to imbed this approach in the next units, Judaism and Islam, which seem somewhat less welcoming to this kind of experimentation. This is the task for the rest of the semester.

DSC_3864Visiting the Su Bong Monastery in Causeway Bay is an important part of our Buddhism unit, and illustrates the third way approach between faith-based and academic religious education paradigms. The Zen Buddhist teachers at the center instruct our students how to breathe, meditate, chant, and do prostrations, which fit in well with the spiritual practices emphasis that I use in my World Religion classes. This experiential pedagogy is a practical example of how our “religion education” philosophy can be used to study religion at HKIS.


* “Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits: Contemplative practices that extend back thousands of years show a multitude of benefits for both body and mind.” October 14, 2014, By Matthieu†Ricard, Antoine Lutz†and Richard JA Davidson;

** Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2003) by Cynthia Bourgeault

The Wisdom Way of Knowing (2004) by Cynthia Bourgeault.

I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities as well. Like campers who have bonded over cook fires far from home, we remain grateful for the provisions that we have brought with us from those cupboards, but we also find them more delicious when we share them with one another under the stars. —Barbara Brown Taylor [1]

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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2 Responses to The Middle Way between Faith-Based and Secular Education: Teaching Spiritual Practices in a World Religions Class

  1. Pingback: Using Spiritual Practices to Teach for Happiness and Spiritual Growth in a World Religions Course: An Action Research Perspective | Social Conscience Education

  2. Pingback: Body, Mind and Heart: A New Curriculum Approach to “Service, Society, and the Sacred” | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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