There is a detail I have been pondering this semester. At least it seems like a detail, but it calls into question the very structure of what education means to me. It arises at the end of an important field sutta. Poetically I consider myself at the end of a long semester. There is something relevant in this.
The Dhammachakkapppavattanasutta is a key text in the Pali canon. It describes the moment when the Buddha set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma after he gave his teaching on the Four Noble Truths to five disciples in Deer Park. While I’m sure most readers are familiar with the context, it’s worth reminding yourself a little bit of who they were.
The Buddha made a great departure from the royal palace to continue his philosophical quest, spending the next few years wandering the plains of the Ganges in pursuit of the awakened experience he had so desperately sought. Having tried a number of teachings and practices (and not convinced of any of them), he tried his hand at austerity. He renounced bodily needs and soon boasted that he had become the most ardent ascetic the world had ever known. The texts describe that he became so thin that he felt his spine when he touched his navel, which is at least impressive (if disturbing).
The five young men were so enthusiastic about Siddhatha’s efforts that they joined him as ascetic disciples. They sat at his feet and watched him closely as he tried to throw out his body. The future Buddha, however, was karmically destined to discover the Middle Way. When Sujata appeared with a bowl of rice milk as a sacrifice, Siddhatta realized that he did not believe that the answer he was looking for would be found in the remains of his discarded body. So he decided to leave the ascetic path, drink rice milk and look elsewhere for the answer he was looking for. The five disciples were devastated by his decision, turned their backs on him and left.
It was these very five disciples that the Buddha found after waking up. He decided to set in motion with them the Wheel of Dhamma. He went to the Deer Park, near the holy city of Varanasi, and presented them with his first sermon, which is the essence of this sutta.
The detail I am thinking about is what happened when the Buddha finished his sermon. These disciples were supposed to be quite foolish and petty; they sat in the presence of the greatest seeker in the universe when they were his disciples, but all they could see was their dogmatic ideal of asceticism. When the future Buddha decided to drink rice milk, they didn’t even ask him what made him change his mind. They just shrugged, announced he had resigned, and left. Why did the Buddha choose these five people as the addressees of his first sermon? They, without hesitation, refused tickets in the front row. Did they really deserve the honor of receiving his first teaching?
But Buddha did select them, and when he has finished, they say that something almost magical has happened: one of the five disciples, Condanja, has experienced a “dust-free vision of the Dhamma.” He understood the profound truth that everything that is to come into being is to be stopped, and he understood this not only intellectually but in his whole being. Although not one of those who usually jumps for joy, the Buddha enthusiastically celebrated the achievement of Condanya, exclaiming, “Condanya understood! Condanya understood! ” The sutta ends on that joyful note.
This scene happened again and again in my mind this semester. As a teacher, I want to engage with my students. I want to see the excitement in the eyes of my students and a passionate desire to learn more. Teaching many extraordinary students over the years has been an honor and their participation has been something wonderful for me. But when the semester comes to an end, the enthusiasm is often greater than they are capable of. Appearing on time is sometimes about as long as they can handle. They barely keep their eyes open; some of them put their heads in their hands, falling asleep in desperate need of sleep.
This morning, as I stood in front of my class, I was reminded of Condani’s experience again. How far my class is from the world that the Buddha created all these years ago. My disciples struggled not to sleep (unfortunately, my class at 8:15 am!) And I never realized any quality of Buddha. What could I hope to achieve in this sensory context to which I am bound to compare?
The humility I feel as a result of the Condania passage is incredible. I can’t relate to Buddha’s teacher’s position sutta. It seems too far removed from any reality I see in myself. Instead, this passage makes me wonder what it would be like to be a student at the feet of the Buddha. How would it be to hear a teaching so powerful that it tears my world apart and liberates a purity of vision that will not be overshadowed again? What would it be like to have eyes without dust? What kind of teacher can do something like that?
I understand that faith comes here. Belief that such a teacher exists. Belief that such a teaching experience can happen. And believe in it kamma will mature in time, providing each of us with what we need when we are ready. Such moments obviously cannot be forced or staged.
But, truth be told, I don’t know. I think about Condan and just don’t know. I had never seen anything like it at the time. I can hardly imagine this without mocking the supposed absurdity. I am here in samsara, doing my best to give my students a little taste of the world I know about. But I can’t offer them any experience similar to lighting. And I also can’t imagine getting anything stunning. All I can imagine is the very slow departure of some of my illusions. But it takes time; perhaps even for life. It seems more and more fantastic to me.
Sometimes Buddhism seems so distant.