Interview with Dr. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette
How long have you been teaching at Woodenfish?
I have been teaching at Woodenfish since 2014. Every year has been an exciting new adventure in a new setting, with new faces.
What subjects do you cover?
My area of focus, while teaching at Woodenfish, is Indian Buddhism, and especially its philosophical and argumentative components. I insist on the importance of intellectual discipline within the religious path articulated by core authors of the Mahāyāna tradition. Rather than separating theory and practice, I point out the analytical component of contemplation, sustained through a rigorous methodology, generally designated as logical and epistemological. I thus introduce the students to the idea that the practice of reasoning is a spiritual exercise in its own right. But, every year, I develop new lectures of interest for the students, on New Age thought for example, or on the relations between Yoga and Buddhism.
What is your motivation for teaching at WF?
Throughout the years, Woodenfish has become a family of dedicated people, from various backgrounds, coming together to create a memorable learning experience for the newcomers. My commitment to Woodenfish rests mainly on these bonds of friendship, with Venerable Yifa, the magnanimous founder, and with all the brilliant minds which compose the staff and academic teams. But, also, I see the Humanistic Buddhism Monastic Life Program of Woodenfish as one of the rare non-sectarian, non-affiliated, Buddhist program where one can critically engage with Buddhist thought and culture, as well as acquiring a first-hand experience of the discipline of monastic life, without being expected to embrace the faith. Being a collaborative enterprise of many minds of varying interests, the program seeks to present a broad range of Buddhist and Chinese cultures, and various approaches to contemplative life. I am committed to contribute to that diversity, and especially to the critical approach which I feel necessary to adopt when engaging with religion in general and with Buddhism in particular.
Is there a difference between teaching at WF and at university?
The learning context at Woodenfish, being an intensive month-long immersion within a Chinese monastic environment, is obviously different from the regular classroom setting where one momentarily comes and go. This gives the instructors the opportunity to explore various pedagogical approaches with the group, adapted to different materials. Of course, the traditional magisterial lecture is part of the lot, supported or not by technology, PowerPoints and so on, but there is more. Personally, I insist on a rigorous mode of dialogue with the students, where every intervention is open to investigation. Though it can seem time-consuming and unsettling at first, it has the advantage of cultivating awareness within the classroom itself, about the way one speaks and thinks. In brief, the analytical method which I present in class can be immediately applied to the exchanges happening in class, between students, and with me. Awareness should not be cultivated solely on the meditation cushion…
What can WF bring to students that a regular university course cannot?
Regular university courses are generally more circumspect in their scope. The Academic curriculum of Woodenfish is ambitiously broad and carried on by competent scholars from various fields of research. The monastic atmosphere of the program naturally influences classroom discipline and impregnates the course of study with a personal dimension where each student is invited to relate to the materials not only through the usual objective lenses of academic inquiry, but also through a subjective experience naturally guiding the students’ individual growth throughout the program. In brief, students not only learn about external realities, such as Buddhist art, philosophy, rituals, history and so on, but also about themselves as human beings. What is learned at Woodenfish is transferable to everyday life, leaving a positive impact on many fronts, be it socially or within one’s own appreciation of life, not to mention the strong bonds of friendship which every student invariably develops internationally.