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Beijing, China

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Woodenfish Foundation is an organization in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations since 2016

An Interview with Peter Romaskiewicz
Woodenfish Program Instructor

How long have you taught at Woodenfish?

I gave my first Woodenfish lecture, on Buddhist Ethics, in 2005. I taught several more classes in 2006 and 2007 before taking a short hiatus and resuming more extensive teaching responsibilities in 2013.

What subjects do you cover?

In the broadest sense, I am mainly responsible for covering the transmission of Buddhism into China – via the famed Silk Road and maritime Spice Route – and the development of distinctively Chinese Buddhist practices and beliefs. We investigate this by outlining the main contours of Indian styles of Buddhism and looking back at them through the prism of native Chinese beliefs and tracing new Sinitic (a snazzy word for “Chinese”) developments. One of our core goals is to start thinking about a thriving variety of “Buddhisms” throughout history, each determined by their own cultural contexts. In addition, because I am interested in visual and material culture (simply, “things”), I also cover the material dimensions of religion that complement its deep conceptual character. Finally, I have rather eclectic research interests, thus I try to develop new individual classes each summer, such as Buddhist Sacred Architecture, Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Religion, or the History of Mindfulness.

What is your motivation for teaching at Woodenfish?

Some motivation is grounded in the excitement I have for working with a group of intellectually dedicated, and oftentimes pragmatically oriented, students each year. The passion for learning about Buddhism is unrivaled in my educational experience, each class presents potential for engaging dialogue, genuine curiosity, and sharp insight. I know its cliché, but I learn a lot each summer as well. In addition to this, for a few students the Woodenfish programs offers a critical perspective on their lives and elicits a transformative experience in line with the best desired outcomes of a liberal arts education – a critically examined life. Since the instructors and staff live with the students, talking about our varied life experiences can provide depth and dimension to the “academic” materials, making them in many ways more tangible. This process, often engaged during quieter times after class, or chatting in the hallways, or during free time, is another strong pull for me to come back year after year. Not to sound too sappy, but we all have our own journey that has brought us together during the summer, and getting to talk about that journey makes us more, well, human.

What can Woodenfish bring to students that a regular university course cannot?

The most obvious difference between the WF and university class is the immersive nature of the program, which takes place in situ, thus giving students endless cues to focus of their study on Buddhism and its practices. For example, far from being a break from class, simply going to lunch provides a direct opportunity to ponder and engage the classroom lessons of the day. This immersive learning is perhaps akin to immersive language instruction where you encounter a foreign language throughout every day. In other words, numerous occasions arise daily where you can think more deeply about the concepts you  are trying to comprehend. This critical thinking can be honed through interaction with instructors, peers, staff, and Buddhist monks and nuns – all who live in the same immersive environment. Classroom instruction is but one prong of the education experience of the Woodenfish Program.