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The Expectations and Standards Of a Path

In my life as an educator, one lesson has served me and my students more than any other: in order to provide a good education to students of all backgrounds, a teacher must have high standards and have high expectations for his/her students. This is especially true when a teacher is teaching in an environment where students are at a disadvantage—when they come from poverty, difficult family lives, or mental challenges (or poor education in the past).

This runs counter to what a teacher’s impulse might be when they empathize with students who are coming from difficult circumstances. A teacher might think that they have to ‘go easy’ on a student because they have a ‘difficult family life’ or have had a ‘difficult upbringing.’ This leads them to make excuses for those students—they don’t grade those students as harshly, they don’t ask those students to do what they would ask more privileged students to do, and they have different expectations and set different standards in everything from rules of conduct to academic rigor.

I will be the first to admit that setting high standards and having high expectations is easier said than done. Most students do not like to do things that are contrary to their habits. Students don’t always understand the disadvantages they face, and they often don’t have belief in their own abilities or possess (momentarily) the skills they need to achieve the goals that are set for them.

When faced with a classroom of students who are facing these difficulties, I stick to high expectations and high standards—even when it seems impossible (especially when it seems impossible.) That means I give them the same level of difficulty and challenge that I would give students who are better prepared. I enforce rules of behavior that are unfamiliar and annoying to those students (annoying at least until they get used to them). Most importantly, I do not think that these students are any less capable or less likely to achieve great things than students who are set up in better circumstances and I teach them according to that view.

In the past few years, I have noticed that many Buddhist teachers in books and in classes speak to us as if we are flawed and incapable and are unlikely to progress on our path. As I have argued above, good teaching should include high standards and high expectations.

So let us assume that the definition of ‘basic goodness’ and ‘buddha nature’ and ‘tathāgatagarbha’ includes the idea that all people are equipped with the diligence, wisdom, centeredness, and initiative to navigate their own mind. Let’s expect that everyone sitting in the room with us is on the path to enlightenment. Let’s talk to each other and treat each other as if we have the skills, the strength, the energy, and the intention to achieve that goal deftly—even if, for some fleeting moment, we look like we do not.

For if we treat each other as if we are traumatized and weak and if we expect that only some of us will become enlightened, then some of us will lose our inspiration and intention to follow this path, precisely because we have been led to believe that we don’t have the inner strength and skills to do it.

Of course, one could counter my argument by saying something like, “What students need most is gentleness. Setting high standards and having high expectations is not a very gentle approach. We need to take into account where a student is at, and meet them at that level.” That approach, I think, is not gentleness, for it presupposes weakness, inadequacy, and a lack of potential. It smacks of pity. If I treated my students that way, then the students that need my help the most would fail to gain anything from our teacher/student relationship.

One starts with standards and expectations, and it is that starting point that I am addressing. Having high expectations and high standards changes everything about the choices that we make as teachers. Our actions follow from our views. Yes, the methods that we choose should be noble and kind. A heart-centered approach to teaching Buddhism or meditation with high standards and high expectations might include saying: “You are capable of doing and achieving everything the Buddha did and achieved. Here’s how.” If I’ve heard that or something similar to that, I’ve heard it so infrequently that it may as well have never been said. At most, I’ve heard talk that we are made up of good stuff, that our ground is good and that we are good enough.

Yet I’ve heard repeatedly how traumatized, screwy, confused, incapable, and “missing-the-point” we all are (or those other yogis are). It’s time to stop using that as a teaching tool. In fact, it is time to start working with a different view altogether.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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High standards and right intention

Really like what you have to say here. I definitely agree with you. I too think that teachers need to be held to high standards in order to be teaching the "truth". Teachers need to experience these teachings and thoroughly investigate them within themselves before even thinking about teaching these beautiful teachings to others. Once they have absorbed the teachings and softened to what the teachings are intending then perhaps they can begin to teach. Otherwise they may not be coming from the right place. Its the teacher's responsibility to have the right intention before becoming a teacher. With a pure intention there isn't any room for spiritual bypassing or demeaning behaviors.

I too observe that teachers need to stop with the ranting of how all of us students are troubled and so forth. We are all coming to Buddhism to further ourselves and open up to liberating ourselves from suffering, but enough is enough in telling us how bad off we are as westerners. I think a supportive environment is crucial within the sangha.

Just some of my thoughts...great conversation.


Thanks for your feedback and your view on things. It is helpful to know that you sympathize and understand.

Thank you.

I appreciate your thoughts and honor your willingness to share your view. I think it provides a good example of a view that runs counter to my own and it gives my argument, at least, a partner to debate that is not imaginary.

Thanks for offering it dharma sister.


My experience of the teachings is that we are all traumatized and troubled (that's what it means to be human) AND that we are all able to become enlightened. In fact, part of the reason we're unenlightened is that we are denying that the nature of being human means we're confused and troubled. For me, this is extremely good news as I've always been worried that maybe I'm too f-ked up and that there is something wrong with me.

When the Buddha awoke, he didn't become enlightened. He saw his confusion. To me that's an interesting and hopeful distinction and a kind of definition of humanness.

Love this post it's truly thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing dharma brother!

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