Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  2

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Writing Under the Bodhi Tree


Erec Smith, Drew University, NJ

Erec Smith, PhD, is an assistant professor of English and writing center director.



Buddhist Philosophy provides a fitting set of guidelines for writing center pedagogy and inspiration. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Charter of Interbeing  supports the importance of rhetoric, kairos and audience consideration, in general. Also, it provides a model, through its concept of “sangha” (community), for a writing center environment conducive to student support. Hanh’s “Charter” provides a holistic foundation for novice and veteran writing consultants on which all theories and practices of writing tutorials can rest.


There have been many theories of peer writing assistance that attempt to give us the proper outlook on how to conceptualize and actualize a writing center session. What’s more, many of these theories provide imperatives that every writing consultant should know before entering a writing center. However, these theories only provide part of the overall ideology necessary to promote the utmost productivity in a writing center setting. In addition, these fractions of the theoretical tutoring experience have been relayed in ways unnecessarily dense for undergraduate writing consultants trying to simultaneously assuage the anxiety of tutoring and provide the best service for their student writers. We are in need of a more comprehensive, yet accessible, theory.


 Ironically, I’ve found such a theory while taking a break from writing center research and pedagogy. Even stranger, this theory is couched in the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy .  One day, while indulging the leisure-reader in me, I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh’s  Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism.  However, it wasn’t long before I noticed something that resonated with the writing center director in me. This innocent looking book, written by a Buddhist monk that I’d taken interest in out of pure curiosity, had provided the comprehensive theory every student writing consultant should read before stepping into a writing center. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Charter of Interbeing” is the perfect credo for writing center theory and practice.


I must begin by saying that I am not trying to promote a new ideology; I believe writing center consultants, in their anxiety, can become too dependent on such things. What’s more, if relied on too much, what first may have seemed liberating and fresh can easily become restricting and stale.  The fairly recent development of post-process theory, “the body of theory which argues that writing does not always occur in the orderly stages presented by writing process theory”,  warns writing consultants and writing center administrators not to “adhere too strictly to a formula of non-directive tutoring” (Braun 10). D. Diane Davis, in her book Breaking Up [At] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter, writes,

                Any assumption of a “social essence” functions to deny both the infinite finitude (the       unprecedented multiplicity) of singular beings and the radical differences among those singular             beings.  Even when it is downsized to the level of a “discourse community,” as Faigley has       observed, the myths of common-being serve to “suppress differences among members and exclude                 those who are labeled different”(231).  Proponents of expressionist, feminist, and social epistemic              rhetorics of composing typically deal with this problem by turning the pedagogical task toward           myth re-vision/reproduction.  But, while reinscriptions are certainly not nothing (they are           necessary), they also will not have been enough to effect a rigorous hesitation in the machinations                 of exclusion. (13)


However, we are human and need something on which to hold. We have to have some grounding (most of us do, anyway). We have to have something on which to look back, or at least glance back, for some security. Thus, we arrive at Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Charter of Interbeing,” which, paralogically, provides a theory that shuns theory. It’s time we looked at this mysterious charter as well as the definition for “interbeing.”


 Interbeing, what Hanh calls “Tiep Hien” is understood as “being in touch with” (Tiep) and “realizing” or “making it here and now” (Hien) (1). The Order of Interbeing, then, is a group of people devoted to being connected with people based on a particular situation and not based on an unattached, ahistorical dogma.  There seems to be a parallel between the Order of Interbeing and writing center administrators and consultants who want to empower and guide student writers based on their individual and situational needs.


When analyzing Hanh’s “Charter of the Order of Interbeing” we can better see the connections between a writing center staff and a Buddhist sangha (community). A consideration of each principle (nonattachment from views, direct experimentation, appropriateness, and skillful means) separately, and considering a substitution of “writing center theory and practice” for “Buddhism,” will present guidelines quite apropos for writing centers.

                Nonattachment from views: To be attached means to be caught in dogmas, prejudices, habits, and   what we consider to be the Truth.  The first aim of the practice is to be free of all attachments,            especially attachments to views.  This is the most important teaching of Buddhism. (8)


Writing consultants must never bring preconceived notions or a strict methodology to any tutoring session. This erases the individual and his or her specific situation and replaces them with a ready-made issue, or attempts to solve a problem with a ready-made solution. We must not be attached to particular ways of doing things. We must not be attached to the idea of mastery (or any ideas, really). We must let the student writer and the particular writing situation dictate our behaviors. Training to be a writing center consultant must consist of providing a repertoire of methods for a consultant, and never a way to handle every tutorial.  Not all Freshmen, writing the same assignment for the same professor, can be tutored the same. A good writing consultant realizes this and does not need to attach him or herself to a particular method. This may be daunting for many, but it is completely necessary to achieve the utmost resourcefulness for student writers.


What’s more, writing consultants must not be too attached to their own personal beliefs, lest they be distracted from their original mission. When I was a graduate writing consultant at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I tutored a student who wrote a paper that was, quite frankly, very offensive. His thesis, in a nutshell, was that Blacks were taking over the country, and for the worse. He wrote that Whites were becoming enslaved by social mandates such as affirmative action, and that Blacks must be stopped before they control everything and ruin the White way of life. I originally was amazed and wondered if the student recognized my African descent (I had very dark skin and dreadlocks past my shoulders). Secondly, I realized that if I reacted in any negative way, the student would either shut off or not take my advice seriously; I’d just be one of those Blacks trying to take over and would probably try to sabotage his paper. I had to detach myself from my beliefs and my offended ego and point out the several logical fallacies in his argument. In the name of ethos and general credibility, I let him know that many sections in his paper were in need of proof and legitimate citations.  I also tried to familiarize him with logical fallacies like “hasty Generalization,” “Slippery Slope,” and “Faulty Causation.”  We went through the whole paper in this manner. When the session was over, he thanked me and walked out of the writing center, never to be seen again (not by me, anyway). I do not know what happened to him or what grade he ended up getting, but I know that showing my anger and talking to him like an enemy would have ultimately been detrimental for the both of us. The key to my chosen method was nonattachment from views.

                Direct experimentation: Buddhism emphasizes the direct experience of reality, not speculative            philosophy.  Direct-practice-realization, not intellectual research, brings about insight. Our own          life is the instrument through which we experiment with truth. (8)


Implicating Buddhism as a motivating force for writing centers would probably perpetuate the division of theory and practice so common in English departments that house writing programs and writing centers. As mentioned before, theory is important when informing students about the variety of cultural, gender and rhetorical issues inherent in tutoring, but ultimately, we must focus on the student writer substantially more than a theory devised by an armchair scholar who has no knowledge of the student writer’s existence or experiences. This, according to Hanh, brings about insight, or a realization of the best way to deal with a tutoring situation. “Our own life is the instrument through which we experiment with truth” is a very important statement. It inherently couches social construction, lore (as opposed to theory) and the emphasis of human interaction over a-situational methodology. This is a major key to writing center tutorials.

                Appropriateness: A teaching, in order to bring about understanding and compassion, must reflect   the needs of people and realities of society.


With the third principle, we can start to see the inherent overlap of guidelines in “The Charter of Interbeing.” All depends on the situation and all reflects Bruech’s claim that meaning is situational, interpretative and public. That is to say, meaning is based on one’s current environment, the attitudes and experiences of those interpreting meaning in that current environment, and the implied tendency of meaning to be based in social construction. Social construction is, of course, reflected in many sayings of the Buddha as well as theory in rhetoric, composition, and writing center practice. However, social constructionist theory, as applied to composition and writing center pedagogy, has also stopped short in providing an effective underlying strategy for its application to writing center theory and practice.


Kenneth Bruffee, an important and initial champion of social constructionist pedagogy, expounds on the benefits of social construction, but doesn’t lay out a clear plan for its use in his essay “Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind.”  He writes,

                Organizing collaborative learning effectively requires doing more than throwing students together   with their peers with little or no guidance or preparation.  To do that is merely to perpetuate,      perhaps even aggravate, the many possible negative efforts of peer group influence: conformity,         anti-intellectualism, intimidation, and leveling-down of quality.  To avoid these pitfalls and to            marshal the powerful educational resource of peer group influence requires us to create and   maintain a demanding academic environment that makes collaboration—social engagement in               intellectual pursuits—a genuine part of students’ educational development. (652)

Bruffee importantly makes an adamant and watershed demand for an academic community that promotes collaboration and guidance, but leaves it up to the reader to figure out an effective way to bring such a community to fruition. However, his desire for a space centered upon “social engagement in intellectual pursuits”, a kind of academic sangha, is precisely the kind of environment promoted by Hanh’s Charter of Interbeing, and the writing center seems like the idea setting. What’s more, Bruffee provides incomplete advice by not combining his thoughts on social construction with nonattachment and skillful means; one cannot effectively handle the needs and actualities of people with an appreciation of social construction, alone.


John Trimbur, who expands on Bruffee’s ideas, also implies a need to “reflect the needs of people and realities of society” as well as the fact that this cannot be done solely through a desire to collaborate. In “Concensus and Differences in Collaborative Learning,” Trimbur writes that a desire to arrive at consensus may still be too much of an ideal that disregards real-life practicality. In trying to fix this problem, he writes, “The revised notion consensus I am proposing here depends paradoxically on its deferral, not its realization. . . . Replacing the ‘real world’ authority of consensus with a rhetoric of dissensus can lead students to demystify the normal workings of discourse communities” (615). Trimbur makes a valiant effort to promote a non-attachment to ideals, even if that ideal is consensus; this is a wonderful attempt to focus on students and their particular lives as opposed to something more transcendent of teleological. Like Bruffee, Trimbur seems to embrace Hanh’s notion of direct experimentation. Even non-attachment from views is expressed through Trimbur’s mode of direct experimentation, a “rhetoric of dissensus,” that, “lead[s] students to demystify the normal workings of discourse communities” and “turn the conversation in the collaborative classroom into a heterotopia of voices—a heterogeneity without hierarchy” (616).


 However, Trimbur still falls short; he seems to leave behind the extremely important need for rhetorical competence.  Fortunately, the Charter of Interbeing does not.

            Skillful means (upaya): Skillful means consist of images and methods created   by intelligent              teachers to show the Buddha’s Way and guide people in their efforts to practice the Way in their            own particular circumstances.


Sans the religious bent, the fourth and last principle of the Charter of Interbeing is, basically, a definition of rhetoric or “expedient means.”  The distinguishing aspect of the fourth principle is, indeed, rhetoric. Consider Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as "an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion" (Aristotle 36) and its importance to the Buddhist purposes. Then, consider its importance to writing center tutorials.  Writing consultants must be trained and provided experience to build the storehouse of possible methods to be used. When to use each method is strictly at the consultant’s discretion; Principles One through Three already address the need for consultants to gauge the tutoring situation and act accordingly.


Training and providing experience for writing consultants is key to developing “skillful means.”  Being exposed to the writings of various theories and narratives as well as methodologies (as long as writing consultants are aware that no methodology is universally appropriate) is imperative the development of writing consultants.  Immersion into the theories and lore of writing center culture can help construct a writing consultant skilled in creating the “images and methods” appropriate for a given tutoring situation.


What’s more, social construction has done much to create the personalities of the student writer and consultant before the particular tutoring situation takes place.  When applied to the writing tutoring session and the prevailing characteristic of writing as situational/interpretive/public (Breuch), social construction morphs into a more inventive “social-epistemic rhetoric” defined by James Berlin as “the study and critique of signifying practices in their relation to subject formation within the framework of economic, social, and political conditions” (77).  Social epistemic rhetoric, like Buddhism (especially when considering all four principles of the Charter of Interbeing simultaneously) promotes the creation of meaning as synonymous with the writing process; student writer and writing consultant, socially constructed into their current, particular selves, come together to make a specific meaning appropriate for their specific situation. Berlin writes that writing is “discovery and invention, not mere reproduction and transmission” (81). The results of a consideration of Buddhist thought in the context of a writing center may point us toward social epistemic rhetoric as a pedagogical tool.


I am not trying to sell a religion through this essay, nor am I trying to make writing center pedagogy a Buddhist “thing.” I happened to have found a fitting and succinct list of guidelines to serve as an easily accessible foundation to any writing center pedagogue, whether novice or veteran. The Charter of Interbeing is an excellent springboard into the tutoring experience, and other learned theories and practices can supplement the charter for utmost effectiveness.



[1] Actually, the thought of finding writing theory in Buddhism was only stranger to me at the time.

Buddhism has already been compared to, or appropriated by, rhetoric and composition; however, one must take these texts a bit further to apply them to writing centers, specifically. Michael Mcphail, author of Zen in the Art of Rhetoric, focuses on the Buddhist idea that language is empty, and the ways in which we describe things are arbitrary and situational. What’s more, the arbitrariness and situational nature of language should empty the writer of any notion of being held back or limited by language as a stable monolith (McPhail 20). In fact, Zen koans, paradoxical statements, or questions that illicit paradoxical responses in an attempt to open and enlighten the mind, give major insight into the nature of language and the true essence of the guru/teacher/tutor.


Consider the koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

This koan like most others, are meant to imply the arbitrariness of meaning. The koan may, initially, make the listener question every assumption he’s ever known, especially if he or she aspires to practice Buddhism; would not killing the Buddha defeat the purpose? The point of this koan is a major point of Buddhism: true enlightenment does not involve following anyone but oneself. The Buddha, or any other teacher, can, at best, only be guides on the road to enlightenment (Kopp 11).  Likewise, a writing consultant, as a peer, should not present him or herself as an authority on writing, but a guide who is slightly more familiar with the environment along the path to “enlightenment.”  No writing consultant should be certain of a student writer’s compositional destination. Lee-Anne M. Kastman Breuch writes,

                Although I am unable to produce specific content-based pedagogical agendas that can be immediately transferred to the classroom, I do suggest that the rejection of mastery and engagement in dialogue lead to an important implication for how we teach writing: such a stance helps us reconsider teaching as an act of mentoring rather than a job in which we deliver content. To think of teaching as mentoring means spending time and energy on our interactions with students—listening to them, discussing ideas with them, letting them make mistakes, and pointing them in the right direction. (Breuch 121)

This ideal outlook on rhetoric, which echoes the main point of koans in general, is how Breuch sees this “post-process theory” working best in writing centers.

Writing centers provide a concrete context for post-process theory because one-to-one interactions are the primary practice of writing center tutors, as well as the subject of writing center research. . . . Given that post-process theory emphasizes dialogue in writing instruction, as well as the importance of mentoring, and given that such dialogue in writing instruction is the core of writing center work, the connection between post-process theory and writing center pedagogy is easy to support. (121-122)


Although Paul Gamache writes explicitly about the connection between Buddhism and writing centers, he eventually stops short of a more holistic influence of Buddhist philosophy. Gamache, in his essay “Zen and the Art of the Writing Tutorial,” takes two aspects of “the eight-fold way to enlightenment” described in the fourth noble truth of Buddhism. Right mind and right action are the ways one should think and act to attain enlightenment. Gamache uses these admirably as a general rubric for entering a writing session, and writes,

The specific techniques that I use are determined by the specific situation—student and assignment—not by any routine or “typical tutorial” model.  However, even though the specific techniques that I use vary widely, all are designed and used to achieve the same overall purpose—to give each student what he/she needs. . .” (Gamuche 4)

Gamuche’s elusion of any “typical tutorial” implies a need, by the writing consultant, to do whatever it takes, and have the ability to do whatever it takes, in order to “give each student what he/she needs.”  This idea is not only mentioned in Buddhist texts, but spoken of and used by the Buddha, himself.


[2] This quote can be found on page 231 in Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernism and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.


[3] Aristotle’s statement, in Book I, section ii of Rhetoric, that rhetoric is "an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion" is an excellent bridge from Buddhist philosophy to the Western tradition. Of course, various connections can be made throughout the history of rhetoric, transcendental thought, and postmodernism, but the effectiveness of Aristotle’s statement to Buddhism and writing center pedagogy is ideal.


[4] Throughout The Lotus Sutra, but specifically in chapter 2, the Buddha expounds on his past tendency and present need to use rhetorical tactics to explain concepts that were too profound to be directly expressed through words. In chapter 2, entitled “Expedient Means,” we find out that “the foremost device of the Buddhas” is, in fact, expedient means, a term synonymous with rhetoric (Lotus Sutra 27). According to the Buddha, the mystic law is something that cannot be described through words (25), and that expedient means (rhetoric), the one great device of all Buddhas , is the device of choice for Buddhas who are all trying to attain the “one great reasons” why Buddhas exist at all: to “open the door of Buddha wisdom to all living beings” (31).  While trying to explain all this to a worthy disciple name Shariputra, the Buddha states,

Shariputra, the Buddhas preach the Law in accordance with what is appropriate, but the meaning is difficult to understand.  Why is this? Because we employ countless expedient means, discussing causes and conditions and using words of simile and parable to expound the teachings. . . .Shariputra, the Thus Come Ones [Buddhas] have only a single Buddha vehicle which they employ in order to preach the Law to living beings.  They do not have any other vehicle, a second one or third one. Shariputra, the Law preached by all the Buddhas of the ten directions is the same as this.

                Shariputra, the Buddhas of the past used countless numbers of expedient means, various causes and conditions, and words of simile and parable in order to expound the doctrines for the sake of living beings. (31)

From these words, we can see that “expedient means” (rhetoric) is the only “vehicle” available with which to put human beings on the right path. And it must be; one need not look to Eastern religions for philosophical ponderings about the illusory nature of words, or language’s inadequacy to directly relay a message. So even the Buddha, a world-renown religious figures, calls rhetoric the “single Buddha vehicle” (31).


The Buddha also states how important audience consideration is when employing expedient means. He states, “I know that living beings have various desires, attachments that are deeply implanted in their minds. Taking cognizance of this basic nature of theirs, I will therefore use various causes and conditions, words of simile and parable, and the power of expedient means to expound the Law for them (32). This echoes the writing consultants’ need to act according to the situation, which changes with every session. If a teacher can take into consideration the many voices that inform each student, that teacher will be more affective. What has been shown by Breuch and others is that the best situation for a decent attempt at gauging these voices is the face-to-face tutoring session of which writing centers are the designated space.




Aristotle. On Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Braun, Paula, Courtney Patterson, and Sarah Abst. “Tutor’s Column: Talking Back to               Tutoring Manuals.” Writing Lab Newsletter Feb. 2005: 10.

Breuch, Lee-Ann M. Kastman.  “Post-Process ‘Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” In         Cross-Talk in Composition Theory. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.”        College English 46.7 (1984): 171-187.

Davis, D. Diane. Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Carbondale, IL:     Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Gamache, Paul. “Zen and the Art of the Writing Tutorial.” The Writing Lab Newsletter.             28:2, October, 2003, 1-4.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley,     CA: Parallax Press, 1998.

McPhail, Mark L. Zen in the Art of Rhetoric. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996.

Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51.6. (1989) 602-616.

Watson, Burton, tran. The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.



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