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  • Pierre Smith Khanna

Notes From a Smaller School


What would a school inspired by the teachings of Krishnamurti look like, if there were absolutely no strings attached? That's the question I've been moved to ask myself having spent a week in Shibumi, a small alternative school in the south of Bangalore. Set up in 2008 by a group of friends who'd been meeting for dialogues on a regular basis over 5 years, until one day they asked themselves 'what if we started up our own school?' Shibumi is the result. Shibumi - which means 'effortless perfection' in Japanese - refers to a simplicity of spirit, an attitude of refinement without pretension, honesty without apology, beauty without artifice. Inspiring ideas for any school. But that's not what strikes me most about it. Rather, it is their willingness to explore the ideas of Krishnamurti with vivacity and in earnest.

Shibumi's a small school, with about 50 students and 9 full-time teachers. Parents are involved in every aspect of the school: they take care of the kitchen - its provisions, the menu and the cooking - the overall finance of the school - they decide on the teachers' salaries - and participate in weekly dialogues with teachers. They'll meet around three times a year to talk about their child/children with the teachers, and will come to school to participate in activities (woodwork, going for walks, cooking etc...) on a regular basis.

I had the chance to attend one of the parent-teacher dialogues, and found the parents to be engaged with the topic of inquiry just as they were concerned about how they interact with their children on a daily basis. The discussion began with questioning whether we, as adults, see when we use authority and how it spurs fear, conflict and division. This lead parents to wonder how they might interact with their children without resorting to authority, while at the same time desiring certain behaviours from them (ex: how do you break up a fight between siblings). "I can already see myself caught in the trap, of telling myself 'ok this is how I'll react next time', which is just prescriptive and again not dealing with the situation as it arises - with truly observing it free from conclusion" one parent mused. That all parents are engaged in such conversations is refreshingly uplifting and can be attributed to the school's intentions.

Shibumi is primarily a centre where interested adults come together to embark on a journey of self-knowing through engagement with the teachings of Krishnamurti, individually and with each other. And in the light of this enquiry to bring up children in freedom.

Of equal interest on their website is their inclusion of "What Shibumi is Not". This reminds me of CFL's willingness to abide by its principles and present itself candidly, without pretence. In fact, many of Shibumi's teachers come from CFL, having been there either as students or teachers, and have imported some of CFL's best practices with them such as the annual mela, their lateral staffing structure, long excursions into nature, silent time in the mornings and of course - something that seems to characterise all Krishnamurti-inspired schools - a beautiful campus.

The school is roughly divided into 5 age groups: the Beej (seeds) of 4-5 years, the Tulirs (6-8), Kiri (9-11), Taran (12-14) and Isora (14-19). The younger ones spend most of their time in open study or play. They do a lot of craft work mostly in small groups which seem largely self-contained (the teachers mill about, usually found working with just one or two students at a time). The slightly older Kiris have a little more structured assignments (like reading or maths) which also happens in this open self-driven and cooperative manner. This week they're looking at water, and their assignment for the weekend is to conduct any experiment they want with water and write about it. They're also writing letters to send to Inwoods, the small primary school affiliated to Brockwood, to start up a friendly correspondence with students there.

The Tulirs have daily meetings - what they call 'circle-ups' - in which they raise questions or issues that are on their minds. I sat in on one where a girl pointed out that Nikit and Ritwick were always spending together, and should spend more time with others. At first the teacher asked the boys if this was the case, and why it might be a good thing for them to interact with the rest of their classmates. As they went on the defensive though, the teacher turned the question around to the girl, asking her why she might think they are spending so much time together. By this time another girl had joined in the accusations, and the teacher asked her "why might we spend time with a particular person? Does it ever happen to you, that you see that you spend more time with certain people more than others?" She nodded, as did others in the little circle. "So why do you think that is?" "Because I do community work with them, and then we're talking and sharing things, so I feel closer to her, and it's easier to be with her you know..." "So do you understand now why Nikit and Ritwick are spending time together?" The discussion was open and not overbearing for them, and punctuated by other unrelated questions, retaining, overall, a quality of attention and consideration. Quite a feat for a group of 6 year olds!

Another inspiring moment came right after 'Silent Time' which begins when the school bus is 5 minutes away from campus and ends twenty or thirty minutes thereafter. The other school bus had broken down so it was just a dozen or so of us sitting quietly in a circle with Kabir, one of the teachers. As he brought the silence to a close he asked us to sit closely and shared a few words about why it is we have silent time. "It's rather boring for some of you, is it not, for us to have to sit here in silence every morning? So you just sit and wait it out, no?" He glanced at the little girl next to him who nodded. He goes on to talk about the quality of silence, makings sure to ask questions to the young ones as he does, describing the joy that can emanate from it. "Not the happiness that you feel from going out for a pizza, but a different kind of happiness. A happiness for no reason." While one cannot be sure how much of this is understood by anyone, one could see how passionate Kabir was in talking about the importance of silence. Later that evening I asked Sarayu - the 10 year old girl whom's family is hosting me here - what Kabir was talking about this morning (because I had actually forgotten the most important bit!) She replied "Kabir was saying that when the mind is silent then comes happiness.. But not that kind of happiness that comes with.. with.. That it was a happiness for no reason. And then he went on and on!" Happiness for no reason! Well, recollection might not equate with understanding, but I still find Sarayu's response rather remarkable.

It is when they get older that the complexities arise. As much as I think Shibumi is by far the most dedicated to addressing our inner turmoil, to understanding the whole movement of fear and conditioning, as students grow into their teenage years these considerations inevitably erode faced as they are with the monsoon-like demands of the world. Of subsistence, of work, of pleasure, of security, confronted by the torrent of abuse hurled at them by the demands of mass media. So while the school can state that "Shibumi's primary concern is not academic achievement, it is excellence in living" and leaves the students to complete their schooling in as many years as they wish, I can't help but feel that this is compromised somehow.

At some point, the pressures of mass media, advertising and materialism become stronger than a parent's will to explore a radically different education for their child. Even the child has it in their mind, by the age of 10, say, that they will eventually take exams and enter the working world. The careful, patient approach to observing oneself, to paying attention to one's environment with compassion and care, gets drowned out by the nerves, concentration and diligence only exams know how to precipitate.

What, then, is the total responsibility of these schools? Surely they must be centres for learning a way of life that is not based on pleasure, on self-centred activities, but on the understanding of correct action, the depth and beauty of relationship, and the sacredness of life. When the life around us is so utterly destructive and without meaning, these schools, these centres, must become places of light and wisdom. It is responsibility of those who are in charge of these places to bring this about.

As this is urgent, excuses have no meaning, either the centres are like a rock round which the waters of destruction flow, or they go with the current of decay. These places exist for the enlightenment of humanity.

Shibumi website, taken from ‘The Whole Movement of Life is Learning’, J Krishnamurti Letters to His Schools

I'm not sure if Shibumi's valiant effort at answering this question is sufficient. Somehow, we must be even stronger if we are to prevent these waters of destruction from taking it all downstream. And yet, where else to start but here, like this, with a small group of like-minded friends who will try their damnedest to stand still against the current. Their teachers' dialogue is a testament to how dedicated they are to exploring how a radical change might come about - both in themselves and in the students. This week's dialogue which I sat in on looked at how they might address the problem of self-interest with the students. Not just in dialogue - the concept is an elusive thing for adults let alone a child - but in everything we do. "This is something incredibly important for us all to look at. For each and every action made from self-interest reinforces the sense of 'self', of division and of conflict. So how are we going to do it?" How are we going to do it?

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