After years of struggle practicing extreme asceticism, the Buddha realized how ineffective it was. He took food on the banks of the Niranjana River in Bodhgaya, and, at that moment, his life shifted. No longer was he cutting himself off from his experience; rather he began to look directly at it. This subtle shift in orientation is essential on the Buddhist path—we must find a middle ground in which we are neither over-indulging nor detaching all together. Instead, it is in and through our experience that enlightenment is achieved.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha contemplated what he should do next. Either by intuition or encouragement from the Gods (depending on the commentary you read), he decided to seek out his five friends with whom he had practiced prior to his enlightenment. This directed him westward from Bodhgaya to the outskirts of the ancient spiritual capital of Varanasi (also known as Kashi and Benares) and to Sarnath. Today, Sarnath is the famed location where the Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma, or offered his first teaching. Situated about ten kilometers north of Varanasi, this sleepy village is where the Buddha’s path began. There is much to be said about this initial encounter and the subsequent teachings the Buddha gave, such as the four noble truths. Here, we’d like to shine a light on a lesser known component of the Sarnath mandala: the Alice Project (AP).
The Alice Project: Holistic Education in a Buddhist Sacred Site
Located just west of Deer Park, where the Buddha allegedly resided in Sarnath, the AP’s Universal Education School currently educates for free over five hundred students each year, the large majority of whom come from the most destitute areas in greater Varanasi. With financial support for clothing and supplies and even college scholarships, the AP supports the entire education process for its students.
Grounded in a theory of inclusivity, the AP serves as a beacon, providing its students a sanctuary from an otherwise harsh living environment in greater Varanasi. This inclusivity performs two vital functions: 1) It breaks down harmful adherence to caste structure, which often restricts the activities of young people, especially women; and 2) It provides a plethora of theories and views of the world that invite students to ask the same questions the Buddha did, such as what is the nature of my mind?
AP founder Valentino Giacomin left Italy for India in 1994. After training in educational theory and implementing some of the theory that now constitutes the foundation of the AP’s approach in his home country, Giacomin arrived in Varanasi, a key pilgrimage site in India. He intended to create a learning environment that included both the rational, intellectual mind (as promoted in mainstream school settings) and the spiritual mind (aimed at understanding our own basic nature). The outcome of years of dedicated work is the AP, which currently has three schools in India, including the one in Sarnath. The curriculum created by Giacomin and his colleagues is being used in partnerships throughout India and the Himalayas, in both general public and monastic settings.
The school gets its name from Lewis Carol’s famous book, Alice in Wonderland. Giacomin describes the essence of the experience at AP as inviting “children to enter into the magic of their unconscious mind, exploring the inner world of thoughts, feelings and emotions and to cross the borders between our inner and outer realities.”
The curriculum includes the standard Indian Government education requirements; practices inspired by the ancient Indian contemplative traditions, such as yoga, meditation, and Aryuvedic medicine; and what Valentino calls “integrated universal branches of education,” which include forms of performance and creative arts, agricultural practices, and social engagement.
Looking at this approach through the lens of the Buddha’s teachings makes it that much more inspirational. In the context of the AP, learning is understood as a process of getting to know oneself and the world around us, embracing forms of intuitive discovery that are often omitted in formal education. Through this process, students come to experience their basic goodness (or what might be called “Buddhanature” in more traditional literature). Basic goodness is the core of our being that is inherently oriented towards thriving.
Within this space of discovery, students begin to cultivate what is understood in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings as the natural expressions of this basic nature. This comes in the form of generosity, compassion, empathy, and mindfulness, among other qualities. The ultimate goal of the AP is to educate the next generation of leaders, instilling in them a deep appreciation both for themselves and their surroundings.
Here is a lovely documentary about AP filmed over the past few years:
Valentino Giacomin traveled to India to create a school that looked to develop all parts of the student. His success is seen in the thousands of graduates from the AP who have gone on to support their communities throughout India. The root of this process is discovering our own basic nature. While this might sound foreign in a Western context, at one point it was advocated by some of the founding fathers of modern education. We will leave you with a quote from William James, whose Principles of Psychology was published in 1890:
“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”