ON EDUCATION, RESPECT, AND ZEN
By Graeme Lottering
The Montréal Review, May 2011
By order of magnitude, the Japanese phrase, ʻoshiète kudasaiʼ is
the most humble, reverent, and powerful sentence I have ever come across in any
The meaning is simply ʻteach me,ʼ but within the simple two word utterance lies
innumerable nuances and an exposé on cultural priorities.
The Japanese people are known for a variety of things, including miniaturization,
robotics, hello kitty, and their Zen spirit. However, I feel that one of their greatest cultural
facets comes from the Buddhist tradition of learning.
For centuries, priests taught Zen. Today it is still a way of doing ordinary tasks
with intensity and purpose. In other words, it is a way of turning sweeping the floor into
worship. Monks taught calligraphy, tea ceremony, archery, pottery, as well as
meditation. They often took apprentices, who would study many years before being able
to be Zen-like in their arts. You still see this practice behind the counters of sushi
restaurants. It takes years to be able to slice the choicest cut of maguro, and decades to
trim the poisonous meat off the fugu blowfish.
This devotion and respect for learning is evident in the phrase ʻoshiète kudasaiʼ It
is simultaneously a request and demand. The subject of the sentence is the teacher, the
sensei. It is a humble plea for help and a verbal contract all at the same time.
The relationship between sensei and student is unlike anything we have in the
West. The sensei represents his own teacher and so forth, going backwards in time until
all the is left is the essential teaching—the Zen method of accurate action without
Neurological, the repeatedly practiced tasks moves from the cerebellum to the
motor-cortex. Studying in this way is like an athlete practicing until he can play the sport
without thinking about technique.This takes time, patience, and a deep respect for
learning. It requires that student enters into a contract with the teacher, respecting the
sensei and the origins of the knowledge itself.
Pronouncing ʻoshiète kudasai,ʼ like a Buddhist mantra, naturally humbles the
speaker. It illuminates that the speaker is aware of his lack of knowledge, and that he is
devoted to learn until the knowledge becomes part of his very being. He will learn until
he understand the essence of his actions with no conscious effort—the intuitive
understanding of the paradox at the heart of a Zen haiku.
I argue that we have lost the respect relationship in the Western school system.
Obviously, we focus on individuality, and our roots come from Ancient Rome and
Greece. I have a great fondness of the concept of the academy, but from what I have
experienced of the Canadian school system, we have started to run our schools like the
Post Office. It is an outdated bureaucracy, hiding behind jargon updated from past
decades, run on the same grid lines as the Romans: terribly practical yet superficial.
Our schools and universities are factories churning out entitled individuals with
no understanding of the rituals and origins of their knowledge. And, consequently, no
respect for their teachers.
Without getting into the politics of running universities like corporations or seeing
teachers as clerks distributing curriculum, I argue that the mindset required to learn
anything can only come from humility and respect.
A student needs to be humble to admit he doesnʼt know everything. He also
needs to respect the channel of distribution of information. (Note that this does not
mean learning without questioning! Critical thinking is very much part of learning.) In
fact, all three of these factors are absolutely necessary for deep learning to take place.
Without humility, you get arrogance and reticence. Without respect, you get
disdain. Without a critical mindset, you get indoctrination. None of these negative
emotions foster an environment where true learning can take place.
In recent years, education had continuously moved towards being ʻlearner
centered.ʼ Of course, a teacher must be aware of all her studentsʼ unique profiles, and
she must teach using every skill in her toolkit in order to attain the maximum
effectiveness, but to place so much value on only one party of a didactic relationship is
Teaching and learning is a relationship, and in any relationship, both parties
should accept 100% of the responsibility. It is not 50% from the teacher, and 50% from
the student. In our current system, the balance of responsibility lies heavily with the
educator, who is charged with conforming to each individual studentʼs needs.
Having said this, ʻstudent centeredʼ teaching is better than a ʻteacher-centeredʼ
method, but it still loses focus on the delicate relationship between the instructor and the
It is not the relationship between a clerk and a customer, but a microcosm of the
link between learner and society. It demands that the student respects the teacher, and
that the teacher, in the words of Maya Angelou, “loves the students to understanding.”
Perhaps in treating education like a Licensing Office, we have lost the essence of
this powerful teacher-student bond at the true center of all learning.
Graeme Lottering is living in Japan, where he teaches in the private school system.