There is a detail I have been pondering this semester. At least, it appears to be a detail, but it is one that challenges the very fabric of what education means to me. It arises near the end of an important Pali sutta. Poetically, I find myself at the end of a long semester. There is something fitting in that.
The Dhammacakkappavattanasutta is a key text in the Pali Canon. It describes the moment the Dhamma Wheel was set in motion by the Buddha after he gave his teaching on the Four Noble Truths to the five disciples in Deer Park. Although I am certain most readers are familiar with the context, it is worth reminding ourselves a little about who they were.
The Buddha made his Great Departure from the royal palace to pursue his philosophical quest, spending the next few years wandering the Gangetic Plains in pursuit of the awakened experience he so desperately sought. After trying a number of teachings and practices (and not being convinced by any of them), he tried his hand at asceticism. He abandoned his bodily needs and soon could boast of having become the most ardent ascetic the world had ever known. Texts describe him as having become so thin he could feel his spine when he touched his belly button—an impressive (if disturbing) achievement, to say the least.
Five young men were so taken with Siddhāttha’s efforts that they joined him as ascetic disciples. They sat at his feet and watched him carefully as he attempted to discard his own body. The future Buddha, however, was karmically destined to discover the Middle Way. When Sujata appeared with a bowl of rice-milk as an offering, Siddhāttha realized he did not believe the answer he was looking for would be found in the remains of his discarded body. He therefore chose to abandon the ascetic path, drink the rice-milk, and look elsewhere for the answer he was seeking. The five disciples were devastated by his decision, turned their backs on him, and walked away.
It was these same five disciples the Buddha went to find after he attained awakening. He decided to set the Dhamma Wheel in motion with them. He walked to Deer Park, just outside the sacred city of Varanasi, and presented them with his first sermon, which is the substance of this sutta.
The detail I find myself pondering is what happened when the Buddha completed his sermon. These disciples were presumably quite foolish and shallow; 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 chose to drink the rice-milk, they did not even ask him what made him change his mind. They simply shrugged their shoulders, declared him a quitter, and walked away. Of all people, why would the Buddha choose these five men as the recipients of his first sermon? They had given up their front row tickets without a second thought. Did they really deserve the honor of receiving his first teaching?
But the Buddha did choose them, and when he finished, something almost magical is said to have happened: one of the five disciples, Kondañña, experienced “the dust-free stainless vision of the Dhamma.” He understood the profound truth that whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation, and he understood it not merely intellectually, but with his entire being. Although not one to usually jump for joy, the Buddha celebrated Kondañña’s accomplishment with enthusiasm, exclaiming, “Kondañña has understood! Kondañña has understood!” The sutta ends on this note of joy.
This scene has been playing in my mind on a loop, over and over again this semester. As a teacher, I yearn to engage my students. I want to see excitement in my students’ eyes and a burning desire to learn more. It has been a privilege to teach many extraordinary students over the years, and their engagement has been nothing short of miraculous to me. But as the semester draws to a close, enthusiasm is often more than they are capable of. Showing up on time is sometimes about as much as they can manage. They can barely keep their eyes open; some of them let their heads flop onto their arms as they collapse into desperately needed sleep.
This morning, as I stood in front of my class, I was once again reminded of Kondañña’s experience. How far my classroom is from the world the Buddha created all those years ago. My students were struggling to stay awake (my class is, unfortunately, at 8:15 in the morning!), and I am lifetimes away from realizing any kind of Buddha quality. What could I possibly hope to achieve in this samsaric context I am bound to by comparison?
The humility I feel as a result of the Kondañña passage is overwhelming. I cannot relate to the Buddha’s position of teacher in the sutta. He seems too far from any reality I can see in myself. Instead, this passage has me wondering what it would be like to be the student at the Buddha’s feet. What would it be like to hear a teaching so powerful that it tears open my world and releases a purity of vision that will not be clouded again? What would it be like to have dust-free eyes? What kind of a teacher can do something like that?
I realize that this is where faith comes in. Faith that a teacher like that does exist. Faith that a teaching experience like that can actually happen. And faith that kamma will ripen in its own 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 of Kondañña and I just don’t know. I have never seen anything like that moment. I can barely imagine it without scoffing at the presumed absurdity. I am here, in samsara, doing my best to give my students a small taste of the world I know something about. But I cannot offer them any kind of lightening-like experience. And I cannot imagine receiving something earth-shattering either. All I can imagine is the very slow ebbing away of some of my illusions. But that takes time; perhaps even lifetimes. Anything more seems like a fantasy to me.
Sometimes Buddhism seems so far out of reach.