The ‘empty vessel’ metaphor for the student’s mind is adopted by several Eastern monastic, mystical schools of thought such as Zen Buddhism and various Hindu spiritual orders. In these monastic orders, disciples are enjoined to submit themselves entirely to the will of the teachers, the teachers demand unquestioned obedience and the lives of the disciples, from the time of waking to the time of sleep, are micromanaged by the teachers (Reinders, 1997). According to Swami Satyadharma Saraswati:
“Obedience is the crux of spiritual life. It is the submission of the lower will to the higher will. It is only through the higher will that the disciple is able to transcend the instinctive drives and persevere with a regular sadhana (spiritual path) and discipline. By wilful obedience the blockages imposed by intellect and ego are removed and the disciple’s mind becomes receptive to the higher teachings. For the disciple who has attuned his mind to the guru through obedience, spiritual transmission takes place spontaneously, at all times, whether waking or sleeping”. (Saraswati, 1990)
Imagining a student’s mind to be ‘a muscle that needs to be exercised’ has very different sorts of implications. It portrays the teacher as a sort of an aerobics instructor for the student’s mind. This metaphor encourages teachers to strengthen student’s minds.
What would constitute a ‘strong mind’ open to interpretation though. Unless we define what sort of person we consider to be a strong minded person, it is impossible to determine what strengthening the mind would be. For example, people who are stubborn and insist on believing certain things despite evidence to the contrary are often portrayed as ‘strong minded’. That is certainly not the type of a strong mind that a teacher needs to create.
If, however, we define a strong mind as being a mind which is capable of independent thought, has a strong ethical basis and is not easily swayed by other people’s arguments into doing unethical or irrational things, then ‘strengthening the mind’ would be to teach students critical thinking skills, to teach them compassion and empathy, to encourage them to think for themselves and to teach them to recognize logical fallacies in arguments.
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