Zen and the Art of Sudbury Schooling

Watermelons and Zen students
grow pretty much the same way.
Long periods of sitting till they ripen and grow
all juicy inside, but
when you knock them on the head
to see if they’re ready—
sounds like nothing’s going on.

~ Peter Levitt, One Hundred Butterflies

If you know anything about Zen Buddhism and Sudbury schooling, you might be perplexed by my assertion that there’s considerable overlap or parallels between the two.  After all, Zen is known for the utter stillness of meditation, while Sudbury schools are typically bursting with exuberant activity (though contemplation does have a central place as well). Yet I remain convinced, after years of experience in each of these environments, that they are connected in substantive, significant ways; it’s no coincidence I find myself drawn to both.

Before going further, let me be clear that I don’t intend to exaggerate these connections. I am not attempting to spiritualize Sudbury, nor can I claim to be an authoritative voice on Zen. Rather, I offer a practitioner’s observation that both Sudbury schooling and Zen Buddhism represent paradoxical, yet intuitive, perspectives on how to access a deeper, more authentic way of being. For convenience sake, I’ve grouped my reflections into four categories:

  1. Doing Nothing
  2. Beginner’s Mind
  3. Not Therapy, but Therapeutic
  4. Individuals in Community

Doing Nothing

Zen and Sudbury students alike are accused of spending vast amounts of time doing nothing. Heck, you don’t get much closer to pure “nothing” than in a Zen center, where the chief “activity” involves sitting still and staring at a wall for hours. Meanwhile, despite the intensity of learning at Sudbury schools, newcomers (as well as the not-so-new) often dismiss what they see as perpetual recess. (For perspective on this, check out The Art of Doing Nothing, by a Sudbury co-founder.) These students spend basically all day, every day playing, hanging out with friends, and talking. Where’s the structure? Where’s the learning?

As the preface to this post suggests, the appearance of inactivity or wasted time can be very deceiving indeed. Much is made in Zen of emptiness, or the essential mutability of existence: meditation, in effect, is an extended (and frequently challenging) wrestling match with nothingness. In my Sudbury career, it’s become a given that young people allowed to direct their own learning eventually emerge breathtakingly capable of meeting and making their way in the world. While it can’t be said exactly when or how this happens, sooner or later it does. Doing “nothing,” it turns out, can be the best way to find the most important things.

Beginner’s Mind

Sudbury schools base their approach on the powerful, innate curiosity of children. In Zen, countless times we are urged to cultivate an openness to experience, learning from whatever comes our way. Take the classic Zen story of a Zen master pouring tea into a cup that’s already full. As he explains to his bewildered guest, prior to studying Zen you must first “empty your mind of preconceptions…If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

How often do our preconceptions, our assumptions and beliefs, limit our ability to see what’s right in front of us? How often do expectations about what we ought to be doing, questions about whether we’re succeeding in conventional terms, hold us back from realizing our potential, from being present and compassionate? One key lesson I’ve gained from years with Sudbury and Zen is the value of not getting in my own way, but instead trusting and remaining open to the process as it unfolds.

Not Therapy, but Therapeutic

In my Zen experience I’ve often heard it said that “to study the way is to study the self.” With external stimuli minimized, instructed not to follow one’s racing, “monkey” mind, Zen meditation leaves a person relatively free of distraction, with nothing to observe but one’s own self as it manifests in a given moment. At Sudbury schools we in effect tell students that “it’s your life; what are going to do with it?” In discussing the school, we often speak of the value of getting to know who you are, what you like/want, and how to achieve your goals.

While such a focus on the self could lead to narcissism, when the ego is held in check either by instruction or by community (see below), a space is opened up for the most profound personal transformation. I have less experience of this in my Zen practice, but numerous times in Sudbury schools I’ve seen a degree of growth and maturation I’d not have thought possible had I not observed it myself. The healing and unleashing of potential has truly been mind-boggling, though it’s important to point out that this transformation occurs not because of directed, imposed guidance, but rather from allowing things to unfold spontaneously and organically. While support and guidance are a key part of the equation, the real work is done over a very long time by the individual him- or herself.

Individuals in Community

As much as we each do the work ourselves, in both Sudbury and Zen circles the value of a respectful, supportive community is paramount. In Buddhist traditions, the community of practitioners, or sangha, is so important that, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, it is one of the Three Jewels or Refuges. I can personally attest that no amount of meditation, reading, and study can substitute for regular practice among others. By sitting, chanting, and working side-by-side, we gain support from a practice community—in a sense, like having exercise buddies—along with the challenges of coexisting with people who may sometimes annoy, distract, or reflect back to us qualities we’d rather not acknowledge in ourselves.

A similar dynamic plays out in Sudbury schools. In fact, while many people tend to fixate on the individualism of this model (which does extend a supremely customized education), too often they overlook the critical learning that can occur only when one is part of an ongoing, intentional community in which each person is a full-fledged, respected member. (For more on this point, see my previous post Unsought Learning and/or listen to an interview I gave for the radio show Liberating Kids.) These schools where one is basically free to do whatever one wants also provide vital lessons in learning to get along, sort out people’s rights, and safeguard for the general welfare of the community.

Although this has run longer than most of my posts, it still seems dreadfully superficial. What’s more, there are so many echoes in my Zen and Sudbury experiences that I didn’t even mention, such as the central role of play and playfulness, the power of randomness, and the necessity of giving up the desire for/illusion of control. Yet as an overview or introduction to the subject, I hope it will suffice.

After all, everything is practice.

If you have anything to add, or would like to discuss or request clarification, I hope you’ll comment below. I’ve been toying with developing these thoughts into a much longer format, and your feedback will help me decide whether and how to do so.




Filed under Sudbury, Zen

7 responses to “Zen and the Art of Sudbury Schooling

  1. Natalia

    Hello! Maybe living in the present moment can be the fifth category?
    As I understand this is the essence of Sudbury schools where hiding behind curriculum and externally prescribed paths is not really an option. Kids are encouraged to face themselves and to become attuned to the unique programs they came to this world with.
    My understanding of Zen is limited, but I believe it speaks about abandoning one’s illusions/delusions and facing his/her true self by being here and now?
    Thank you for your posts!
    I’m a mom from austin, tx and I’m considering sudbury school for my two kids.

    • Natalia, thanks so much for the comment! I’ve staffed at Clearview Sudbury in Austin and highly recommend them. Also, yes, I think “In The Moment” belongs on the list of Sudbury/Zen echoes. That said, one of the tangible benefits of Sudbury is what I might call a “cause-effect education,” in which one regularly experiences the consequences of one’s choices and thus learns over time to balance “being in the moment” with an awareness of where present choices might lead.

      • Natalia

        Hi Bruce! My kids are too young to attend Clearview but we visited it already and in a couple of years we’ll be happy to join the school.
        I’m glad to hear about “cause-effect education” from you as it is one of the factors that attracts me to Sudbury model.

  2. Pingback: Edu-babbling | Write Learning

  3. Good morning Bruce. I just found your blog. What do you think of the word, play? Children learn when they play. They love play, which is a love of learning. I’m completely thinking out loud here. As I go about my day farming and ranching, I’m playing, which is doing what I love and is learning. As I do this, my two young children are watching. They are playing, but I know they are watching me, doing what I love. I believe children need to see our adult playing at what we love. For who wants to grow up and not love what they are doing, learning, loving? It’s not the lesson that teaches, but the person in love with the lesson that draws the child in to the love of learning. Thank you so much for taking the time to write and share what you so very much love. It truly set my mind to thinking! I am free to keep learning, and playing at what I love. That is what I learned from your sharing of your thoughts. Thank you Bruce.

    • One of my favorite quotes, from historian Arnold Toynbee, goes, “The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” I’ve found that children do this naturally, unlike some of us who were taught “work good, play bad.”

  4. I think both are about finding your true self. And I agree with you fully that they do overlap a lot. Furthermore, they are both truth, to me. So no wonder they are so much alike. 🙂 I always feel very fortunate that I am exposed to both of them in my life, and learning of them have benefited my life tremendously so far. Sudbury is a validation/confirmation for me that people are self-initiative, and due to my interest in education and in my own learning, I am able to see that on a daily basis and also see that happening with a wide spectrum of people. Zen’s teaching on human consciousness also allows me to see that clearly.

    To add some more categories to your post (some are probably covered by you already): 1. it is often said by many zen masters that they cannot teach you anything. So looks like zen supports self-directed learning 100%. 🙂 2. zen emphasizes self-reflection, contemplation, or just be with oneself and observe; sudbury also respect children’s time to be alone, to be just by themselves. 3. zen has the tradition of roaming monks, who travel around in order to learn things; zen also has the tradition to receive these roaming monks as guest residents. These roaming monks learn by seeing various teachers and various people. So zen definitely disagree with the current school model where students are so confined! 4. zen puts a lot of emphasis on practice, and zen is probably the most prominent on that in all Buddhism schools. To zen, it is all in manifestation in real life that matters. 5. Zen also has the strong tradition of “peer learning”, people learning together, working together, discussing and conversing. 6. Listening to and reading of sudbury alumni talking about their lives in sudbury schools, I have a feeling that they are doing koans there: who am I? what I want to do with my life? They spend their whole lives doing those koans (which should be done by all people), and sudbury give them that space so they can be with those koans naturally

    The list goes on… And you are right that sudbury and zen do resemble each other a lot!

    On a future note, Zen is to teach one about one’s self. Sudbury model is a modern model for such exploring. How to learn of Zen or the knowledge that has been conveyed by Zen in our modern world? Or just how Zen helps us understand ourselves, and how that practice fits into our modern world?

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