three paper sheets are hung on a glass wall with yellow and orange sticky notes on it
February 22, 2023

Jumping into the Unknown

Learning to embrace an immersive experience
by Megan Farrell
A Klingenstein Center graduate student explores her experience in "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard"*

When was the last time you signed up for something but had no idea what to expect? For me, it had been a while. Going to the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy, I knew that I would be learning about Buddhism, but I thought I would be learning in the way I have throughout my life. I thought we would read and be lectured to about Buddhism.

Leading up to our experience, we did not receive an itinerary of planned activities. The only thing our co-facilitators, Chenxing Han and Andy Housiaux, wanted to know was what we wanted for dinner on the first night. As someone who loves structure and itineraries, this was uncomfortable for me. One of my first questions when we arrived was, what is our itinerary for the week? We were told that we would be going to a number of Buddhist temples and noticing, wondering, and reflecting. We were not given the itinerary for the week; instead, we were told the time we needed to be on the bus the next day.

Throughout this experience, it was emphasized that it is okay not to know. In society, there are often pressures to understand or have prior knowledge about different topics. Many students and even teachers have trouble with this. We are pressured to be seen as smart in front of others, and, since we are afraid to ask questions on topics we do not fully understand, this often inhibits our learning. Chenxing and Andy did an excellent job of creating an environment in which everyone felt comfortable asking any question that crossed their mind. They created an environment of mutual respect.

On the night we arrived, we spent an hour eating and getting to know each other. One of our first activities was to write down on sticky notes our connections, questions, and aspirations for our time together exploring Buddhism around the Merrimack Valley. I asked, how is Buddhism practiced in different cultures? Through this activity, our co-facilitators were able to figure out some of the questions that we had as well as figure out some of our prior knowledge. Public sharing allowed us to see that we had some similar ideas and wonderings. We continued to add to our connections, questions, and aspirations throughout our time together.

Usually when taking students off campus to learn, a teacher feels a responsibility to prepare the students for the experience. We want them to come up with questions they can answer at the location, and we give them background knowledge, so they know what to expect. Chenxing and Andy did not do this, and this experience was completely different. I had no idea what to expect when we went to the first temple, Chùa Tường Vân in Lowell, Mass. Here we were greeted by the abbot, Thich Tham Hy, and Joe, a layperson whose family attends the temple. They were excited to see us and welcomed all our questions. As soon as we walked into the temple, everyone stopped to take off their shoes. We were encouraged to pay attention to our surroundings and observe everything that was going on around us. Joe led us through part of a meditation called the Full Awareness of Breathing, and after, we were joined by the founder of the youth group at the temple, Tham Tran, who Zoomed in from Vietnam.

We were completely immersed in the experience. We noticed and asked questions about objects and pictures. Since I had never been in a temple before, I asked about the significance of the fruit on many of the altars. Thich Tham Hy made sure we got a full tour of the building, and we were fed fresh strawberries and yogurt. I learned so much about Buddhism by being in a temple. I noticed the color yellow, the many altars, the different Buddhas on the altars, and the bountiful offerings. We asked questions about who attended the temple and learned about the Vietnamese community in the area.

After our temple experience, we went to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. Over lunch, we reflected about our experiences. We journaled, then shared our overall impressions. We asked more questions, some that were answered and others that we were left thinking about. Reflection is a powerful learning tool. I saw the power in reflecting and sharing as a group. We recognized that each person noticed slightly different things, and it was easier to make connections to our learning as a group. As the days went on, we noticed similarities as well as differences at each of the temples. We continued to notice, sense, and wonder at each new temple.

On our last day, we wanted to clarify our own learning and see the different connections we made. It was a great exercise in retrieval practice, which is bringing information stored in memory out to figure out what we know (Omrod, 2020). As a group, we started with the different temples and then moved onto different subsections like food and beliefs. We talked about leadership within the temples and the questions that remained unanswered.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of learning without a set plan. Each person in our group had ownership of their own learning, and we all learned slightly different things. I am inspired to try unknown experiences more often and slow down to notice everything around me. In graduate school, we are currently working on a yearlong project that we do not know what the deliverable will be. Before this experience, the project constantly stressed me out and caused me a lot of frustration. After this experience, I am looking at it with new eyes. I am okay with not knowing, and I am excited to think about what the group can create together. I have learned to let go of some of the control and see where the project will take us. My eyes have been opened to learning without books or lectures. Instead, there is great learning through noticing, wondering, sensing, reflecting, and collaborating.

Ormrod, J. E. (2020). Human learning (8th ed.). New York Pearson.


Megan Farrell is completing a degree in private school leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Through this experience, she witnessed the power of listening, sensing, and wondering to learn about an unfamiliar topic. She plans to continue working on being fully present in everything she does.

*In early January 2023, four graduate students from the Klingenstein Center of Teachers College, Columbia University, arrived at the Tang Institute for an immersive learning experience. Throughout the week, Tang Institute Director Andy Housiaux and institute collaborator Chenxing Han led the students through an abbreviated version of "Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard," a project birthed during the 2022 Workshop.

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