“Ethics” is a familiar subject that most of Vietnamese student has studied in the foundation years at their primary schools. However, “ethics” should not only be the early lessons of childhood, but also the accumulation of lifelong learning and practice. And most importantly, “Ethics” are not rigid disciplines forcing learners to follow, rather, “ethics” need to be nurtured in empathy, mutual understanding through critical analysis and flexibility in real-life contexts. The “Ethics in Practice” course was designed and taught with such spirit by Dr. Nguyen Nam, currently overseeing the Vietnam Studies Major at Fulbright University Vietnam. The course inspires a generation of whole-person learners to not only acquire Knowledge and Skills but also strengthen Morality – built on Asian philosophy (Buddhism, in this course) associated with Vietnamese identity.

Professor Nguyen Nam in a field trip with students, 2019

In recent years, especially during the uncertain time of the global pandemic, the concept of mindfulness, loving kindness or Vipassana meditation (Vipassana is Buddhist term meaning “seeing things as they really are”) has been gaining a lot of traction. The popularity of these Buddhist-derived practices indicates a positive tendency that the Vietnamese have paid more attention to their mental, spiritual health and the circulation of energy inside the physical bodies. However, when assessed critically, the normalization of these practices has blurred foundational philosophy, losing the original ethical values and even, in some cases, going against what the Buddha taught. Given that, the course “Ethics in practice: Buddhist Philosophical Ethics in Vietnam and Beyond – Fall 2021 invited learners to return the roots of Buddhism, explained practices related to moral philosophy, and encouraged them to reflect on contemporary practices from the Buddhism perspective. In addition to reading assignments and lectures like many other courses, a special feature of this course is a series of guest lectures from a diverse pool of Vietnamese and international scholars, as well as Buddhist and mindfulness practitioners, which gives students a multi-dimensional view of Buddhist Philosophical Ethics through both academic and religious perspectives.

No-self and Interbeing

One of the fundamental theories in the course is the Engaged Buddhism movement initiated by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. “Engaged Buddhism” means acting completely voluntarily in order to apply the Buddhist ethics, insights acquired from meditation practice, and the teachings of the Buddhist dharma to contemporary situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering, and injustice. While Vietnam’s tradition of incarnation dates back thousands of years, Engaged Buddhism emergence and widespread as a social practice in the mid-twentieth century has been perpetually embraced and is still relevant in today society. The basis of this practice is “no-self” and “interbeing”.

When the poem “Call me by my true names” by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was introduced in the class, it perhaps raised emotional and rational conflicts inside each student. Acknowledging that there is no “self/ ego” that exists independently, but always exists interdependently, formed by many factors, influenced by diverse relationships, which makes us aware of the “immutable ego” illusion constructed with nuanced complexities of things when talking about “the self”. Breaking out of the illusion “I am the one and only” is the first step to realize that “self” is a part of society and nature; and that is also where the spirit of forgiveness begins. Such transformative change is not easy to perceive, especially for those who were nurtured to embrace their unique selves and compete to assert themselves. Challenging yet possible, after 12 weeks, students gradually realized that “no-self” and “interbeing” were the foundation of empathy, togetherness and the path leading to effective social intervention, family harmony, and even the World’s Peace.

The “service-learning” is the unique assignment of this course which requires students to practice what they’ve learned from classroom in their daily lives. With the topic “Teaching English to disadvantaged students” of Group 2, Nguyen Thi Thuong (Class of 2024), who served the community engagement role, had an epiphany when reflected on her pursuit of ego.

When we promoted our workshop, there were more than 70 sign-up. However, the actual turnout of the event were only 20, which was really disappointing to my ambitious self. When I reflected on what I had learned, I realized I was wrong to put my personal desire above the needs of the students and I let go of that frustration. I thought it was great that I helped as much as I could and even sent the workshop materials to those who did not participate. This may sound minute and insignificant, but for a perfectionist like me, this is a huge step.”

Service learning report of Group 2 on “Online workshop for disadvantaged students”

Another group practiced “the beginner’s mind” (Shoshin according to Zen Buddhism) to design a programming crash course for the visually impaired students. “In Computer Science classes, the teachers usually give students coding examples and describe them with pictures, but that does not work for visually impaired students. So we [our group] converted all [text and pictures] into voice, which was not easy. Therefore, a very simple coding lesson took a whole day to be delivered,”  shared Ly Minh Tu (Class of 2023). Despite the limitation of time and technical aspect, the six-week virtual learning course had planted the seeds of confidence and passion inside the visually impaired students of the class, as a participant shared: “I used to think Programming is something that is just beyond our [the blinds’] reach, but thanks to you [the team], I now know that I can learn it by just trying a little harder.”

Ly Minh Tu (Class of 2023) was sharing about her team’s experience with service learning activity

Understanding and loving in mindfulness

In Vietnam, one of the causes that create gaps between parents and children and among diverse communities is the fact that they are living with or practicing different ethical values. That gap can generates suffering in the form of torture, in the name of love. “Every parent wants their child to be happy, but not everyone knows how to raise their child to be happy, because they usually raise their children in the way they were raised, which might not have turned out well, and so unconsciously, the vicious cycle ensues” shared Ms. My Yen, Mindfulness Coach, guest lecturer of the sharing session “Understanding and Loving, Parents and Children”. “As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh once said ‘Without understanding, love will make you suffocated’. Instead of being a free and unconditional gift, love becomes a conditioned relationship of attachment, grasping and process of existence, and that causes us great pain.” The love that comes from a clear comprehension is the foundation for each of us to be fully present in the present, accepting everything with a calm, compassionate attitude towards others and to ourselves. And that is the mindful practice of understanding and loving-kindness.

The “tree of life” model reminds us about the diverse backgrounds of human beings, so we should not apply ‘our tree of life’ on ‘other’s tree of life’

Managing our instinctive reactions constructed in the environment that we grew up is easy to say but extremely difficult to do. It requires the practitioner to slow down, take a step back and mindfully observe the thoughts, feelings and the structurization of behaviors, to hold themselves from releasing the tempering expression and action. Being “mindful” does not mean denying the state of emotions that are often viewed as negative, namely anger or grief, but recognizing the arising of those emotions, observing the train of thoughts inside our physical body, thus, foster a calm and proper attitude in the spirit of Four Immeasurables. Being kind and compassionate to yourself is the beginning of a transformative journey of mind and action in the interaction with other beings.

One of the most memorable experiences in the lecture by Ms. My Yen was “The gift of 1 minute – 3 steps of self-compassion”: acknowledge your feelings, give yourself a pat on the back, and say kind words to yourself.  “At first I thought it would be nothing if I hug myself, but then I was able to sense warmth, I felt calmer, a calmness of tired days, I shuddered,  Nguyen Thi Thanh Lam (Class of 2024) recalled.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lam (Class of 2024) was sharing her feeling after practicing 1-minute of self-compassion

“Thank you for helping me connect with my parents” – a few words of a student at the end of the lesson on Understanding and Loving opened a promising journey of loving in mindfulness, not only in relationships with parents, but also with other social relationships, to be able to empathize and connect with each other more effectively.

Great questions of “human life”

Besides understanding theory and its application in life’s context, the course also allowed students to observe and analyze contemporary practices that are considered to be derived from or related to Buddhist teachings through the research-intensive final team projects. In place of traditional exams, students were split into eight groups to approach different aspects of life, which presented a feast of knowledge, in-depth discussion, and foundation for further research. The topics of the groups varied from Vietnamese people’s perception of Buddhist concepts such as Karma, Reincarnation; to the views on gender equality in Buddhism, the “Le Hang Thuan” ceremony at the temple, the release of living beings and the relationship between other socio-religious practices, such as Buddhism and vegetarianism or tolerance of Buddhism towards the LGBTIQ+ community. There were monks, nuns, and experts in mindfulness joining students’ presentations, therefore, the constructive discussion and in-depth multi-dimensional explanations were effectively monitored.

Snapshot of video presentation of Group 5 – “Kill ’em with kindness” raised a critical view on the popular social practice “life release”.

Accompanying Mr. Nguyen Nam and the students during the 12-week course, Ms. My Yen proudly said “I really admire the class: under the guidance of Mr. Nam, young students were brave to raise such great questions, the questions of human life, not just small problems.”. Encouraging students to raise great questions, to challenge established norms, to analyze and discuss issues together under an interdisciplinary and academically liberal approach, is one of the main pillars in educational practices that Fulbright University Vietnam pursues.

The “Ethics in Practice” course expanded the students’ understanding on themselves and social ethics from a Buddhist perspective, inspired them to practice “mindfulness” in managing emotions and behaviors, and above all, contributed to shaping the pillar of “Morality” in young minds, so that “our students not only come to know important things, we want them also to be able to do important things, learn to empathize and work with others, all while living purposeful, fulfilling lives,” Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam affirmed.

An Bình

“In philosophy, there is no right or wrong answer. Any action can be understandable and unforgivable at the same time. We get to consider and define what is right or wrong for ourselves. This is not a definitive answer on a single topic, but instead a skill that will accompany and guide us in life,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam, a student who has completed “Ethics and Moral Philosophy,” a course currently taught and coordinated by Professor Ian Kalman at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak, the Fulbright campus is on precautionary lockdown, while some classes have continued online. This is the case for “Ethics and Moral Philosophy.” We discussed with Ian the objectives and methods of his class, as well as the role philosophy can play, both in life and in times of crisis.

A fundamental discipline

Covering Western philosophical texts, from Plato to Arendt, and Eastern classics, such as Lao Tzu and Confucius, the objective of the class goes beyond the scope of an Ethics class, and into the fundamentals.

In contemporary use, “ethics” will tell you if you could get arrested for what you do. It is a code of conduct of sorts, in medical fields, in business, journalism, everywhere. Some even see it as an instruction guide to life, but it will only give you partial answers. Moral philosophy is what allows you to test or dispute the guidelines in the first place. It speaks to the fundamental questions, challenging your assumptions, goals and desires. And with better questions come better answers.”

At Fulbright, Ethics and Moral Philosophy is a core course, which means it is obligatory for all students, regardless of future specialization. Although some might question the utility of the subject for future engineering majors, for example, studying philosophy holds profound implications regardless of career choices.

Ian explains: “There’s a synergy of knowledge in which you gain depths to other fields, whether you want to be an engineer, marketer, political scientist or a lawyer. This is why we have core education. Having a deeper understanding of the world and a better understanding of the path to achieve your goals is immensely beneficial. We also live in a complex, interconnected world, with no easy answer. Trying to study subjects as separate units misses a lot of the nuance and sophistication required to see the bigger picture.

Innovation, in particular, comes out of questioning, challenging convention, and creating change. In our class, we begin with Socrates, who just asked a lot of questions. He kept asking us to define and understand the words we employ – and therefore the world and ourselves – ever more deeply. Building those habits will have a lasting impact no matter what you study.”

Dr Ian Kalman

This is doubly true at Fulbright University, where a culture of innovation and creative, multidisciplinary problem solving is already growing deep roots, for students and professors alike.

“Our students are particularly socially aware, active and conscious. For me this is because those who apply for and come to this school are looking for a specific sort of education.

We equip them with the right tools, we work with the classics, and encourage them to come to their own conclusions, building lasting habits and intellectual rigor. Even if they want to go into business, or math, or another field seemingly unrelated to philosophy, the form of education provided here will have a profound impact on the way they make mindful decisions and change the world around them. We are training, at Fulbright, the next generation of philosophers and thinkers, whichever field they dedicate their minds and energy to,” says Ian.

Training a generation of thinkers

For Ian, there are 3 main components to the class: Discourse, Reflection and Synthesis.

Discourse is a primary function of the classroom, as it allows students to engage with, challenge and analyze foundational texts. “I’ve been very impressed with how mature, responsible, and reflexive students are, both encouraging and challenging each other. I’m also really impressed by how we’ve managed to foster that online,” relates Ian. While classes happen on Zoom, with digital blackboards and online lectures, Ian manages a Facebook group, a platform where most of the dialogue currently happens. Students are given prompts, polls and links responding to student posts or to questions, and the latter produce information on the message board. These are often broad philosophical questions, which Ian then asks they support with text, or question and challenge, to improve the way their classmates think about it.

Students are also supported in taking ownership of the texts studied. Reflection essays encourage students to take a concept they have been learning about and apply it to their own life in short form writings, but also constitutes a major aspect of the class. “The goal is to take a philosophical text, which was written in one context and bring it into the context of your own life. In order to do that, you need a somewhat substantial understanding of the philosopher.” Ian explains. Student chosen topics include how Plato’s allegory of the cave helped them think about depression in different ways, or how Aristotle talking about unequal friendships made them see their roommate situations and responsibilities in the household in a different light.

“If we look around us, everything holds philosophical implications, from presidential elections and debates to business and science. Studying philosophy and mastering different schools of thought can be dry, and dense, and challenging. But it holds the key to overcoming obstacles and making sense of the world,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam.

The final exam mobilizes all the knowledge students are expected to have. This includes a history of philosophy, important thinkers, core concepts, fundamental discourses that have taken place over thousands of years. But for Ian, the most critical aspect, and the key to mastery, is to provide thoughtful analysis articulating several thinkers. Synthesis isn’t simply knowing the concepts – because you can memorize those – but connecting the concepts to each other.  “Yes, they should know what a social contract is, and what the Socratic method is.  They should have good understanding of what Confucius’ idea of filiality was. But then we take that one step further: How does Confucius’ concept of filiality relate to Aristotle’s idea of family? This is something that could be in the exam. It demonstrates the ability to connect people who weren’t talking to each other. Throughout the course, we push students to connect ideas in class, and build the skills to talk about and process information in this way.”

Philosophy in the face of crisis

With schools closed, routines disrupted, worries and uncertainties, some find safety and reassurance in the continuation of classes, and Ian provides much needed regularity with the course. But inevitably, those concerns also find their way into the safer spaces of academic pursuit. “Although the Co-Design Year is finished, I still believe in the spirit of Co-Design, and the class is still evolving. I’ve tried to treat this a learning opportunity. The students have been amazing, flexible and thoughtful, sensitive and reflective, and I think philosophy can help on many levels.”

In terms of helping us make sense of the crisis, Ian mention that Aristotle suggests the purpose of life is a specific type of happiness: eudaemonia or flourishing. This is a form of happiness that is not just rewarding but enduring, standing up to challenges. “Both the Aristotelian and Confucian approach to ethics, is a cultivation of personal growth. So that when difficulties arise, you have the tools and habits to think about it rationally and have a measured response. Your sources of happiness are also not fully external, which means you can find comfort or purpose in the face of adversity. Finally, you have the support structures and friendships that help you weather the storm,” Ian continues.

Philosophy can also make you a more effective leader: “The Utilitarianism school of thought has had the most enduring impact on public health care, the idea that the greatest good for the greatest number is how we should think about disease control. But other philosophical approaches are important, such as asking: what rights do people in areas with disease have, what are the responsibilities of some parts of the world to other parts of the world? What’s the importance of human dignity? And how can we protect that at times that are trying? In my opinion, the ability to think through those things can make you a more resilient observer and participant in trying times, to be more aware of what you’re trying to do, to achieve your goals as best as possible, or just to be there for your community,” Ian concludes.

Antoine R.Touch

Ethics in Context is a particular class that I attended during the Co-Design Year at Fulbright University. With the mission of incubating a university environment that enhances students’ learning experiences, our faculty helped us answer the question: How to apply knowledge into practice outside the classroom.

In the Ethics in Context class, we were introduced to the influential eastern ethical values through Buddhism and Confucianism. They include the Buddhist theory of Selflessness, Confucius’ moral lessons about balancing relationships and many other meaningful lessons …

The class did not just teach these values in theory. The lecturer asked us to do a project called “Service Learning” (Learning from community service activities). This project required each student to spend at least 10 hours to carry out activities that serve the community’s interests.

We decided to choose Dalat as the place to carry out our project. With only one month of preparation, 16 students of the class must design a fully functional project, from drafting plans to budget proposals and logistics preparation. The trip lasted two days with activities including collecting trash at Suoi Vang lake and organizing a training on Emotional Intelligence for children at Luc Hoa Orphanage.

On departure day, the bus left Saigon at 6 pm and arrived in Da Lat at 2 am the next morning. The long trip did not douse the spirit and energy of the group.

From 8 am, we started collecting trash at Suoi Vang lake, which was being overloaded with wastes generated from tourism activities. We named this activity: The Challenge for Change. We were happy that some local people joined us. They were all dedicated to preserving the environment and the landscape of Da Lat.

Joining the local community activities, I learned how to take care of the environment and to promote environmental protection awareness within the community. We collected more than 30 garbage bags.

However, what we expected was not the amount of garbage we could collect but the effort to inspire people to engage in such meaningful activities, promoting environmental protection awareness of each citizen.

On the second day, we went to Luc Hoa orphanage. Our planned training session on Emotional Intelligence for the children here unexpectedly overlapped with another group’s activity.

But we took immediate action to arrange activities so that the two groups could join with fun. The unexpected situation was a new experience that helped us learn how to adapt and adjust the activities properly to achieve the common goal of supporting the children here.

Dr. Nguyen Nam was in charge of our Ethics in Context class. He participated in all activities and set an example for us about passion and positive attitude. His positive attitude spread and inspired us during the journey.

The trip consolidated the values of the Ethics in Context class. Buddhism focuses on empathy and compassion. Confucianism provides guidelines on how to perceive the world not just from our personal interests. Individual benefit is not the center of the community, but the community should be the center within each person.

“Service Learning” and the trip to Dalat are not “tests” to pass Ethics in Context class. We learned the lesson of gratitude and appreciation of what we have and realized how fortunate we were. I learned to be more careful and pay more attention to my words and actions so as not to hurt children.

I got lost in the beautiful view of Suoi Vang lake after a day of cleaning and was amazed by its beauty. This peaceful landscape reminded me that each person has to be responsible for nature and for themselves because it is us, human to make the environment worse.

Confucius taught his followers not to break the rules in their family, because once broken, even just a minor rule, other more important rules would eventually be broken.

I learned a lesson that each person must be responsible for his own actions and should refrain from interfering or breaking common rules of society.

The Da Lat trip was once of the most meaningful trip that I have taken. Learning to give back to our community, I believe I have also received invaluable lessons.

Le Ngoc Ky Duyen