Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2004: Volume 8, Issue 1

Teaching Mindfully
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.

Teaching Mindfully: Encountering Student Perceptions, Beliefs, and Attitudes 

In ancient India, a set of stories known as Sanyuttanikaya celebrate the courage and wisdom of ten Buddhist 
nuns [bhikshunis] under spiritual duress. [1] These stories seem to have been quite widespread across 
various regions and eras. In one tale, Mara, a tempter, “tries to awaken [in the nuns] the lustful thoughts, 
painful memories, and past fears that would make a weaker person abandon the past of spiritual attainment.” 
The tempter also insults their intellectual and spiritual competence, saying that one of the sisters, Soma, 
has only a woman’s “‘two-finger intelligence’ (enough to use a common and simple way of measuring rice).” [2] 
Soma responds by defending her own and the other nuns’ abilities: “What does the woman’s nature do to us if 
the mind is well-composed / If our knowledge progresses rightly, giving insight in the Teaching?” [3]

I find this story especially encouraging, having periodically been tempted to painful self-doubts and 
fears about my competence myself--not by some supernatural tempter like Mara but rather by fluctuating 
student evaluations sometimes critical for gender-specific rather than academic reasons. I am a professor 
of theology (and up until recently also Christian ministries) at a fairly conservative evangelical university, 
where students periodically question whether a woman, regardless of her credentials, can ever have authority 
to teach “spiritual” subjects, especially to men. In recent years, students here have even used course 
evaluations to comment on the physical appearance of women faculty as something they perceive as interfering 
with their learning process, while making little or no comment on their own progress in mastering course content.

When students’ attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about gender consistently cause them to undermine female 
faculty in the classroom and in course evaluations, it can sometimes be difficult to remain as strong and 
outspoken as the ten Buddhist nuns in this ancient Indian story. Colleagues who battle student stereotypes of 
race and nationality have expressed similar struggles. How does any teacher battle spiritual fatigue when student 
perceptions about non-academic factors affect their assessment of that teacher’s potential or real competence? 
I confess to being tempted to “abandon the path” in my own moments of weakness.

As this Buddhist narrative illustrates, however, teachers must know themselves well in order to withstand the 
temptations posed by inaccurate critiques. Soma, the nun who counters the tempter Mara’s belittling remarks most 
clearly, seems implicitly to admit that others’ expectations of her as a woman may be perceived as limiting. Yet 
she also boldly asserts that “dark ignorance has been pierced” by the insight her “well-composed mind” possesses 
into Buddha’s teachings. [4] She claims the strength that professional and spiritual training have given to her 
and her colleagues. Through mutual support and affirmation of their own capacities and training, Soma and her 
colleagues overcome Mara’s attempts to discourage them from their vocation and spiritual path. Although we must 
give serious consideration to student perceptions, we too may find spiritual equanimity by encouraging each other 
spiritually and professionally while embracing our own real strengths.

End Notes
[1] Nancy Auer Falk. “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: The Fruits of Ambivalence 
	in Ancient Indian Buddhism.” In Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross. Unspoken Worlds: 
	Women’s Religious Lives. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1989, 151.
[2] Ibid., 161.
[3] Ibid. Falk cites Sanyuttanikaya 1.5.2. Translations include Mrs. Rhys David, trans.
	The Book of Kindred Sayings (SanyuttaNikaya). London: Oxford University Press, 1917. 
	A more recent translation is available in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. 
	Moore. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1967.
[4] Ibid.

Heather Ann Ackley, Ph.D., Azusa Pacific University, CA 

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