October  1992   2536   Number 22 

Learning and Spirituality; Ajahn Sucitto
Complementary Education; Medhina Fright
Meditating with Children; Sister Abhassara
Life of a Forest Monk (Pt V); Luang Por Jun
Alone on a Mountain; Venerable Chandako
In the Deathless Land; Sister Rosemary
Questions and Answers; Luang Por Chah

Signs of Change:

Learning and Spirituality

Taken from a talk by Ajahn Sucitto given at the Dhamma School Meditation Weekend, in May 1992.

We want to learn, we have an urge to know, because that knowledge serves as a connection between ourselves and the world, the other-than-self. This need to connect lies behind most of our seeking for knowledge, relationship, ownership and position. To feel unconnected is to feel insecure and unfulfilled.

However, this thirst for knowledge has built-in drawbacks: it may be motivated by a desire for worldly gains, personal prestige or aimless intellectual stimulation. Through such biases the ability to learn is hampered by impatience, competitiveness, anxiety or a general lack of true receptivity. To learn fully, to really connect, we have to return to a state of un-knowing, where our pre-conceptions of 'What's in it for me?' are laid aside. True inquiry can only proceed when we are willing and free to give the attention that is needed, rather than just what we assume is worthwhile. Only then can we fully appreciate both what is in front of us and what is within us.

This free awareness, and the means to cultivate it, are at the heart of Buddhist practice, most significantly the practice of insight meditation. Actually the notion of meditation itself can bring about the same pitfalls of desire as I mentioned before - the love of refined pleasure, the impatience to 'get there' and the inability to attend wisely and respond to what is actually right with us. So it's good to re-align the concept of meditation with reflections on what is needed for true learning, for a real union and 'merging in the Deathless' to happen, rather than an opportunity for self-view to take over more of the free space of the mind.

We may not be without blemish, but surely spirituality is a basic pre-requisite for anyone's life.
To learn, or to meditate, is not a simple, one-step activity. It is a graduated training in attending, reflecting and responding; it requires the movement of the mind from inquiry rather than fixation onto a particular idea or condition. Such fixation can grant a brief sense of security or conviction, but it also freezes the wisdom faculty and replaces it with will-power. No, true learning has to be a fluid process for the fullness of the mind to come alive and bring its life into what it works with.

We seldom fully recognise the initial stage in learning. We have to start with the sense of the unknown; at the beginning of learning there is uncertainty, and the reaction to that is to try to get knowledge or to see what we want to see. From that beginning, no true learning can occur. In the way of the Buddha, the beginning of learning is an act of faith, of trust and openness, a confidence that can't come from what we know, but from a willingness to let things be unknown. In that unknowing, we can get in touch with our own fundamental awareness; we can appreciate what we are and bring that forth. This side of education has hardly been recognised - we don't come from a position of trust to 'e-ducate' (from the Latin meaning 'to lead out') someone's wisdom, we find ways to stuff our minds full and thereby confirm our essential inadequacy while attempting to assuage its pangs. It's more a matter of getting programmed quickly to avoid self-recriminations or the scorn of others.

To stimulate faith, then, is the spiritual contribution to education. It is the work of affirming ethical norms as qualities that uplift and support our presence of mind and independence from success and failure. One obvious way of stimulating this kind of faith is through presenting (and as much as possible, being!) a living model of harmlessness, kindness and honesty. The primary role of a teacher has to be to serve as a source of faith, being someone who stimulates a pupil's/disciple's self-confidence and exemplifies the benefits of learning. The teachers I learnt best from at school and University were the ones who seemed at ease and interested in me and who seemed to be genuinely brightened and brought alive by their subject. Even in such an apparently 'worldly' context as a Geography or History lesson, one is very much affected by the teacher's spirituality.

Does the term 'spirituality' seem alien to secular activities? Here again, we need to consider how we have defined, and refined almost out of practical existence, such a fundamental quality of the human being. Is it not possible to experience kindness, discernment and a zest for truth in daily life? We may not be without blemish, but surely spirituality is a basic pre-requisite for anyone's life. The sad truth is that we don't commonly think in those terms. For millennia our culture has separated the world from the spirit - heaven and hell are characteristically not on the earth and not related to this life - and spirituality has become a part-time hobby for the leisured, or slightly eccentric few, hedged around by special jargon and systems. This perception is what the Buddhist practice of mindfulness should effectively dispel, but perversely, Buddhists have managed to make mindfulness an esoteric attainment, with Nibbana an inconceivably remote state at the end of it.

I suppose the crunch point for all learning, and why spirituality has become divorced from common parlance, is that we assume that learning has to be a steady smooth success. We're not prepared to learn from mistakes; and spirituality is largely associated with positive states of mind. Hence the split between God and Satan, the spirit and the flesh, or the perceptual difficulties that people have in bringing mindfulness to bear on negative states. Confusion, anxiety and dullness, if not attended to with wisdom and compassion, destroy our confidence, and the whole possibility of learning is limited. Yet to come to know what we don't know, whether this be through the 'self-inquiry' of insight or in the field of 'external' knowledge, is always going to bring up a certain amount of confusion. It is just there that only true spirituality, a self-abandonment, a willingness to be with that and let things change, will be effective. And honestly being with that which we don't know and haven't got a conceptual framework for is, conversely, the way to induce a spiritual response. It strengthens the heart without the power-control systems of the ego. It's the way a samana learns, by continually going beyond the edge of their knowledge and security.

To encourage that, to 'lead out' someone's wisdom, to bring forth true human beings, is a truer education than simply programming semi-automatons who don't even know that they don't know - who have dismissed the quickness and beauty of the mind as unproductive or unsafe. Surely it's better that we live honestly with unfulfilled alertness than stuff down borrowed knowledge to feel we're part of the right team. Even if the knowledge is true, it's not real if we haven't learnt it by taking it into ourself and working with it. We haven't made the real connection that will help us to realise our innate wisdom. Only that will give us the freedom to operate knowingly with the changing circumstances of life. But such a learning requires patience, effort, and above all faith.

"Like the Buddha, we too should look around us and be observant, because everything in the world is ready to teach us.

With even a little intuitive wisdom we will be able to see clearly through the ways of the world. We will come to understand that everything in the world is a teacher. Trees and vines, for example, can all reveal the true nature of reality. With wisdom there is no need to question anyone, no need to study. We can learn from Nature enough to be enlightened, because everything follows the way of Truth. It does not diverge from Truth"

Ajahn Chah