Against The Stream ~ LEARNING

TO LEARN IS SOMETHING quite different than to study. Learning is basic and involves our own experience, and for this there is no substitute. Study, on the other hand, is academic, and usually of things already known, shown by others, cut-and-dried, like hay.

A little baby does not sit down and study how to walk from a book, but learns from its own experience, and after much failure, frustration, pain and tears. Even babies born blind learn how to walk; it is not merely a matter of imitating others. And so it is upon the Way.

If you wish to learn, pay no attention to the personality or appearance of the teacher; such things should not concern you. Listen to what he says, and think about it clearly, to see if it is true and useful or not. If you like or dislike the teacher, your vision will be clouded thereby.

Is there a difference between 'chicken' and 'kitchen'? Is there a difference between 'teacher' and 'cheater'? I have heard people, just learning English, confuse 'chicken' with 'kitchen'; just so, many people confuse cheaters with teachers. There are many cheaters posing as teachers, so we must beware; neither believe or disbelieve what the teacher says, but check it carefully. The teacher is important only insofar as what he says is true and pertinent. He should not cause you to depend upon him, as upon a drug, but should help you to learn and understand that everyone and everything is a teacher. This is his duty as a teacher.

Once, a king went out to visit a certain part of his kingdom, accompanied by his courtiers and servants. On the way, they came to a mango-grove, and the king noticed that, while one tree had a good crop of ripe mangoes, the other trees had none. Being fond of mangoes, like most of us, he thought: "On the way back, after I've concluded my business, we'll stop and gather some of these mangoes"; he then went on ahead. His followers, however, had different ideas. They were also fond of mangoes, but were not willing to wait until later; instead, unbeknown to the king, they took sticks and stones and knocked down every mango on the tree, and broke many branches in doing so.

When they returned later on that day, the king was looking forward to eating mangoes, but all he found was a battered tree stripped of fruit. Being a wise man, however, he didn't become angry or sad, but thought: "This is interesting. The tree that had much fruit is badly damaged, but the other trees, which had none, are untouched. There is a lesson for me here: Have much, and suffer much; have little, and suffer little." With this in mind, he returned to the palace, where he called his eldest son to him and placed the crown on his head, saying: "From now on, you are the king. Rule wisely". Then he changed his royal robes for the simple garb of a mendicant, left the palace, and went off to live in a forest, far away. And if anyone happened to come across him there and asked him: 'Who is your teacher'?"— a common question that seekers ask each other— he replied: "My teacher is a mango tree".

We should not always depend upon a teacher to teach us everything, but should cultivate a burning interest and unquenchable spirit of inquiry. It is infinitely better to learn than to be taught. All the teaching in the world is useless if we are not ready to learn.

The answers to all our problems cannot be found in any book or books. If we depend upon books to solve all our problems we shall be forever running to the library to see what the books have to say about them. This is not to deny the importance of books, because there are countless things we can learn from them, and it would be silly to discard them as useless. Understanding something of Dharma — which we might get from books— however, takes us further than books can, and helps and encourages us to develop the intelligence necessary to find our own answers.

To follow the Way, we must be learners, not students (it's not an academic pursuit), and this means being humble and ready to admit we don't know when we don't know. Pretending to know when we don't know, and taking academic knowledge as our own experience, is a great obstacle. There are people whose pride won't allow them to admit to not knowing; before they will do that, they will lie to conceal their ignorance, and so make a double error. Pride is an impediment, not a virtue. It has been written: "Be humble if you would attain Wisdom. Be humbler still when you have attained it."

It saddens me somewhat when I hear people say of my talks: "What can I learn from him?" I am sad not for myself, but for them, and say: "Yes, they may be right. But it's not because there is nothing to be learned; it's because their minds are already so made up, so full of ideas and beliefs, that nothing more will go in. If you know how to learn, you can learn something from anyone and anything, without exception; and when learning becomes sufficiently important to you, you will not mind who you learn from".

To illustrate this here, I want to tell a true little story that came to me from a doctor somewhere in Malaysia.

While serving in the Anaesthetic Department of a certain hospital, Dr Tan was often faced with the breakdown of the ageing anaesthetic machine. Whenever this happened, a hospital attendant by the name of Muniandy was sent for, as he was the only one who knew how to repair and get it running again. The doctor not only respected Muniandy for his quiet competence, but felt rather embarrassed that he, and no-one else, should know how to fix the troublesome machine; he decided that he had to learn to do it himself.

When he requested Muniandy to teach him, however, he was met with a look of astonishment. Muniandy was not highly educated; it was inconceivable to him that anyone as educated and qualified as a doctor should ask him for instruction. He humbly refused. The doctor insisted, however, saying that if he knew how to fix the machine himself, and it should break down when Muniandy was off-duty, his new ability could save someone's life. Muniandy saw the logic of this and therefore explained and demonstrated how the machine worked and how to repair it. Because Muniandy’s knowledge was that of experience instead of mere theory, the doctor was easily able to absorb his lesson.

When he was transferred to another hospital, Dr Tan was confronted with an anaesthetic machine newly-imported from Germany, with the instructions all in German, which no-one there understood. What he had learned from the old machine, however, enabled Dr Tan to master the intricacies of it, without recourse to the instruction-manual; Muniandy was always in his mind whenever he approached the machine.

Years later, when Dr Tan started his own practice, Muniandy, who had by then retired, came by to visit him. They reminisced about old times together, and when the subject of the old machine arose, tears came to Muniandy's eyes. He said: "In all my 35 years of service as a hospital attendant, you were the only doctor to ask me to teach him anything. That is one of my happiest memories!"

Who knows everything? There is no reason to be so proud that we cannot or will not say, °I don't know". Only when and if we can say it, in all sincerity and humility, will we be able to make progress on a spiritual path.

Every situation, whether we like it or not, is an opportunity to learn. Painful and unpleasant things, especially, have good lessons to impart. A mosquito is a good example of this; it can help us to overcome our fear of pain, can help us to strengthen our minds, to develop patience and that highest of virtues: Compassion. How can a 'mozzie'— a thing so ordinary and despised— help us in so many ways?

Well, no-one likes being bitten by mosquitoes, of course, but our fear of the pain from their bites magnifies the pain out of all proportions, and is enough to keep some people awake at night, when these tiny but so-annoying insects come looking for dinner. You may test it for yourself, as an interesting experiment: Allow a mosquito to settle on you and bite. Without slapping it or brushing it off, observe it; it will take about ten minutes to drink its fill. Calmly watch the process and your own reaction, without fear or anger. You'll notice that the pain is minimal, whereas when you are afraid of it, it seems much more intense. Then, when it is full, allow it to fly away, without killing it; with a full stomach it will hardly be able to fly, and lumber away to digest its meal. It is said that only female mosquitoes bite and suck blood, which they need to fertilize their eggs; that is their nature; they have no choice about it.

Humans, however, can choose; we don't have to follow brutish instincts. We don't have to suck blood (though many humans— like arms-manufacturers and other war-mongers — do, living on the blood and suffering of others); we can choose to live lives of violence and destruction, or lives of peace and creation. No-one makes us behave like savage beasts.

After the mosquito has flown away, maintain mindfulness and observe the urge to scratch the itch the anti-coagulant it has injected into you has caused, and resist it. Under observation, when you are in control of your mind, you will find that the desire to scratch will not be half as great as when you do not observe it. It's a case of 'mind over matter’, and it works.

Within a few minutes, the itchiness will wear off, whereas if you scratch it, it will last much longer; I have seen people with scars all over their arms and legs from the mosquito-bites they had scratched until they bled when they were children.

All living things wish to be happy and avoid pain, just like us. We do not like others to come along and disturb, hurt or kill us, and it's the same with all forms of life; as humans, we can and should reflect on this. Even the single-celled amoeba will react and withdraw if a drop of weak acid is put into a dish with it; the dislike of pain is so universal.

The one who saves life is stronger than the one who kills. Anyone can kill; it doesn't require much intelligence. But to heal and save life is not so easy, and needs compassion, thought, and effort. If we cannot help, we should not harm.

Buddhists look upon the lesser animals, and other living things, as their younger siblings. They are not there for our sport, pleasure or food, no matter which person or book says so. They are there to live their own lives, to fulfill their own destiny, to evolve and grow, to climb, slowly and painfully, the Mountain of Perfection, where Birth and Death are no more. In this, they are not different from us. If we do not like them— as in the case of mozzies— we can admit our preferences, as they are of our personality, and will always be so. But, looking deeper, beyond the personality, with its myopia and narrow limits, we find LOVE, and this doesn't choose, but embraces all equally; it has nothing to do with 'you' and 'I', with like and dislike, for it is not of self. Self is the center of most of our activities, but LOVE has no center, and therefore no circumference, no limits, and we can know LOVE even if we are not yet enlightened, by understanding the limits of self, and going beyond them. And is that not Enlightenment already?

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