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If you hang out with Baha’is, or if you take part in Baha’i community activities, you’ve undoubtedly heard the terms “study circles” and “training institutes.”
At first those terms may sound somewhat technical, but they really just describe a friendly, collaborative, discussion-based method of learning about some of the spiritual concepts and principles in the Baha’i teachings. If you’ve ever wanted a way to delve into those profound ideas and ideals with a group of like-minded friends, you can learn a bit more about how to do it in this short three-part article.
The concept of a Baha’i training institutes are not new, evolving from several diverse learning structures in the global Baha’i community going as far back as the 1960’s. The training institute known as Ruhi (which means “spiritual” or “of the spirit”) began in Colombia, South America in the 1980’s and became well known after producing a series of study guides on various aspects of the Baha’i Faith. Those study guides have been adopted by the Baha’i community worldwide, with the purpose of assisting participants to deepen their understanding of the Bahá’í teachings.
The people who take part in Baha’i study circles use the Ruhi Institute curriculum to gain the spiritual insights and practical skills they need to carry out the work of an ever-advancing community. Participants develop insight and understanding regarding the spiritual nature of humankind, and learn to see the spiritual causes and solutions for the human condition. The objective: to facilitate individual spiritual and moral empowerment.
What does that mean? Essentially, becoming spiritually and morally empowered means following Baha’u’llah’s loving advice to “Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday.” – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 138. It means fully taking charge of your own inner spiritual growth:
The Baha’i teachings emphasize that each person is in charge of his or her own spiritual development. While institutions exist to guide and release energies, and Baha’i community life is to be characterized by an atmosphere of cordial consultation and encouragement, the responsibility for spiritual growth ultimately rests with each individual. Indeed, there is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith; the Baha’i community can neither be described in terms of a pastor and congregation, nor as that of a body of believers led by learned individuals endowed with authority to interpret scriptures.
The dynamics of walking a spiritual path is a theme that Baha’is, both individually and collectively, are constantly exploring in their activities and consultations. Certain aspects are clear: that simply focusing on oneself proves counter-productive; that the path is to be walked in the company of others—each giving and receiving love, assistance and encouragement; that the tendency to allow self-righteousness to take hold needs to be conscientiously resisted; and that humility is a requisite of progress. – Walking a Spiritual Path
The training institutes work to maintain a system of distance education that inspires and facilitates an evolving conversation. The three main elements include the study circle—the group that voluntarily comes together to learn; a tutor who helps facilitate the conversation; and the institute curriculum itself, contained in ten workbooks based on the Baha’i writings.
Those workbooks help the study circles engender spiritual insights and new knowledge as the group works to translate Baha’u’llah’s teachings into reality. The institute books help guide discussions about the moral and spiritual principles of the Baha’i teachings. Crucially, study circle participants become involved in a process of learning and in the diffusion of relevant knowledge to contribute to their own spiritual development as well as civilization’s advancement:
Let your thoughts dwell on your own spiritual development, and close your eyes to the deficiencies of other souls. Act ye in such wise, showing forth pure and goodly deeds, and modesty and humility, that ye will cause others to be awakened. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 203.
Study circles are basically comprised of small groups who meet at least once or twice a week for a few hours to study the course materials. Those aged fifteen or older, whether Baha’i or not, are welcome to participate. There is never any charge. Tutors facilitate the study circles, but hold no special status other than some experience in leading groups through the materials. Study circles expand in each community by training participants to become study circle tutors. All participants become active agents of their own learning, and tutors strive to create an atmosphere that encourages and empowers participants to take ownership of that engagement with their own souls.