Looking inward is the test for college's Zen students

March 28, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

About 20 Western Maryland College students come to a classroom in Baker Memorial Chapel to study a religion, but God has nothing to do with it.

They come to study philosophy, but intellectual thought has little to do with it, either.

Dr. Laurence Wu, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, introduced "Zen and Creativity," a 200-level philosophy course, into the college's curriculum with the intent of giving the students a break from the usual.

"I thought it would be interesting to try something new," said the professor, who has taught at WMC for 18 years. "What we don't need is another class that teaches [students] how to be intellectual. The students get that all the time. They can get that elsewhere.

"This is a rather unusual philosophy course," Dr. Wu said. "Normally, these courses deal with rational, intellectual and analytical thinking. This is almost the opposite.

"Zen is to be spontaneous, to live a simple and natural lifestyle. There is no god in Zen. [In Zen] it is all inside you."

What students get from this philosophy class is the opportunity to "develop some sensitivity and appreciation for a characteristically East Asian way of looking at the world," according to the course syllabus.

Dr. Wu incorporates textbooks into the course that explain the Zen tenets, but students spend much of their time with their noses out of the books.

"The Zen way is not book learning, but turning your attention inward to get to know your true self," Dr. Wu explained.

The students in the class participate in meditation activities and breathing exercises to help them focus their attention into themselves and relax, he said.

He acknowledges that some people may find the self-examination portion of the course difficult.

"That [focusing inward] is not an easy thing to do, since the nature of the mind is multidimensional," he said. "Most people just think smartly, to solve problems. But there is more to the mind than just intellectual capabilities. We're working toward a higher consciousness."

The students also examine how some poetry and art express the Zen attitude in life. Calligraphy, Chinese writing, is one medium that illustrates well how the mind and body work together in Zen philosophy.

A nervous hand would not be able to maneuver the ink-dampened, soft, pliable bristle of the calligraphy brush as it is moved over delicate rice paper.

"To practice calligraphy, you have to calm your mind and really concentrate," Dr. Wu said. "You need to be firm, but not tense. You have to be comfortable and spontaneous."

One example of correctly -- and exquisitely -- executed calligraphy hangs on the wall of Dr. Wu's office.

In the drawing, dozens of Chinese proverbs, written in tiny Chinese characters, are drawn on rice paper to create a picture of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.

"There are no mistakes in calligraphy," he added. "Chinese ink is not erasable. You cannot modify. The motion is quick and you cannot hesitate."

Students also study haiku, three-line Chinese poems that require five syllables on the first and third lines and seven syllables on the second. This art form, too, exemplifies Zen philosophy, Dr. Wu said.

"Haiku poetry is being studied precisely because it is so short and deals with only one topic," Dr. Wu explained. "The form allows you to focus on one thing, which increases its impact. It is sort of intellectual economy, using less to express more."

Lori Fleischmann, a freshman business administration major, said she finds the Zen class a refreshing change from other subjects.

"I thought it would be fun and it is. I have never done anything like this before," Ms. Fleischmann said, as the rest of her classmates deftly maneuvered their calligraphy brushes to copy a Chinese expression from a chalkboard. "It's not that hard," she said of the writing. "But you really have to concentrate."

Dr. Wu hopes his students will leave the course understanding that all situations can be viewed in numerous ways. "Hopefully, they will gain some insight into themselves and will have a more open and flexible mind . . . will look at things more deeply," Dr. Wu said. "One very important aspect of Zen is to look at things from a different perspective."

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