Against The Stream ~ LEARNING
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
To illustrate this here, I want to tell a
true little story that came to me from a doctor somewhere
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
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?