Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Globally one-of-a-kind course at StFX includes study in a Buddhist monastery

December 14th, 2016

The opportunity to study in a Buddhist monastery, living the monastic lifestyle for one week, is part of an innovative, unusual and globally one-of-a-kind course offered at StFX.

StFX faculty member Dr. Adela Sandness teaches the three credit Religious Studies course, “Mind, Self and Society in Monastic Tibetan Buddhism,” which includes three weeks of online and home study followed by a one-week residential stay in a Tibetan-inspired Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton.

The course was first offered in 2012 and recently was highlighted as one of StFX’s “coolest classes” by Maclean’s magazine.

“It is to my knowledge the only class of its kind internationally,” Dr. Sandness says.

“The opportunity is rare. I saw the possibility of this opportunity,” says Dr. Sandness who has training, skills and knowledge in mindfulness drawn from the Buddhist tradition, and has connections with Gambo Abbey.

That’s where students live along with the monks and nuns, following the schedule of the monastic practice including sitting meditation, walking meditation and shamatha yoga. Dr. Sandness says the course provides an immersion experience of the history, theory and practice of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in the west.

Dr. Sandness says one of the reasons she wanted to offer the course was to provide a more in-depth look at where the whole culture of the growing movement called mindfulness comes from and how it relates to the world view.

The immersion quality of the experience also resonates deeply with students, she says, who are in a time period when they’re asked to attend to a lot of different things at once.

She brought the idea to Janice Landry in StFX’s Continuing and Distance Education Department, who she says was supportive from the start.

Dr. Sandness says even though the experience is brief, it’s significantly transformative. Two years ago, members of the returning class were so inspired they established a student society, A Mindful Society: Establishing a Culture of Kindness.

For students, it’s been an amazing learning experience.

“The Abbey class is a type of education I could have never expected to receive at university. It was insight into a meaningful and dedicated existence I could not have even considered before,” says Colleen Murphy, a third year philosophy student from Cornwall, ON.

The course, she says, was unique for many reasons. As an online course, they met via webcam chat group Blackboard and spent time getting to know each other, discussing class readings and building a foundation for entering the retreat component. 

“Our week at the Abbey was filled with hours of silence and meditation, personal meditation instruction with resident monks, assisting the Abbey in daily chores and operations. We were given the space to connect with each other, the land, the ocean and the teachings we were receiving. I can honestly say that I have never felt the same amount of appreciation, awareness and deep respect for my daily experiences,” Ms. Murphy says.

Despite the absolute joyfulness of the experience, she says it ought to be mentioned that this course requires a willingness to work diligently.

“The course requires not only the typical work ethic of completing readings, submitting assignments and participating in discussion, but it also requires a willingness to work on yourself, to exert your mind in meditation and touch aspects of yourself you may have forgotten. Just thinking about the entire experience gives me chills. It was the most meaningful educational experience I have had to date. My gratitude to the marvelous Dr. Sandness who runs the course along with the Gampo Abbey is inexhaustible.” 

Shya Bond, a fourth year psychology student from Truro, NS, and Aidan Hassell, a third year religious studies student from Ottawa, ON, are currently vice-presidents of A Mindful Society. They both took the course this past summer

“It was such a unique opportunity, that’s very cliché to say, but it’s true. You get to spend a week at an abbey,” says Ms. Bond who had taken courses with Dr. Sandness before and enjoyed her as a professor. “You’re completely immersed, living with monks. It’s something you have to experience. The monks and nuns are phenomenal,” says Ms. Bond who still keeps in touch with those she met at the Abbey.

Mr. Hassell says the class was something he always wanted to do ever since he heard a friend speak about the course. “It’s this amazing, actual, practical experience, a hands-on lived experience.”

Both say they went into the experience without any expectations, and got a lot more out of it than they expected, particularly learning a lot about themselves.

“The food is good, the landscape is striking, the core, the real experience is harder to explain,” says Mr. Hassell. “I don’t know if it’s so much a takeaway as just a discovery. It opens another door that I’m going to go through and explore.”

Ms. Bond says it reminds her how vital it is to spend time with yourself and your thoughts, to take a mental check in.

Because the class is so unusual, it attracts a wide variety of students from StFX undergraduates to students from other institutions, career professionals and senior citizens. Dr. Sandness says the course usually takes about 14-15 students, depending on the housing available at the Abbey.

Registration for this year’s course opens in February. Admission is with the permission of the instructor.

Start Your Journey