A Buddhist nun braves a Kingdom Hall to discover how Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the truth.
Before my sister became a Jehovah’s Witness, my only encounters with them had been brief, as I tried to edge them out the door while telling them I wasn’t interested and didn’t really want their magazine, thank you. Even now, I would never under my own steam go into a Kingdom Hall on a Sunday morning, but my sister really wanted me to go with her to meet her new friends there. So I went. I wore a sweater over my nun’s robes, and maybe they noticed, and maybe not, but they didn’t say anything. They put me in the front row, and they were very friendly.
As I’ve been ordained for ten years now, people sometimes ask me to teach, and I try. Even though I still feel as if I only have the barest grasp on the basics of lam-rim, I guess I must know something that I could tell to a beginner that they haven’t heard before. But even though I’m already teaching, I’m still learning how to teach. For some people teaching might be second nature, but I have always been an introvert, and I tend to weigh my words, say just the essentials, and hope they’ll ask questions if they don’t understand. And sometimes I wonder if people really grasp what I am trying to say.
So with that background, I was very interested in the way they were teaching that Sunday morning at the Kingdom Hall. In fact, the class started the day before, when my sister and her friends got together at home and worked their way through a magazine article on leadership, which they would be discussing during the service. When I later looked at the article, I noticed that all the paragraphs were numbered, and there were related questions at the bottom of the pages, as footnotes.
When the group met the next day, everybody brought their own copies of the magazine, and they read it together. After every paragraph, the leader questioned the main points, and members of the group volunteered to answer. Since they were prepared and comfortable with the material, everyone seemed eager to participate. So slowly that way we worked our way through the article. Then at the end, there were a few questions to summarize the whole thing. To me it seemed a good way to really get people to process the material, to think about it and to understand it well enough to explain it to someone else.
It struck me that it had some similarities to the way that Buddhism is traditionally taught, and that it might give me some clues to ways I can adapt my teaching style to serve Western students. And we all need to know how to explain the teachings of Buddhism, because even though we don’t go from door to door, we all have to answer questions, and in that way we are all teachers …
Ven. Elly van der Pas took novice vows in 1991 at Kopan Monastery, and full nuns’ vows in 1994. A former editor of Mandala, she also worked for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York. Currently she is caretaker at a retreat center in the Southwestern United States.