16 November 2015

Death is a teacher

In the vast canon that is the Buddha’s teachings there is frequent reference to the sathara brahma viharana or the four sublime modes of living: meththa (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), muditha (appreciative or sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity).  I recently listened to a sermon where the bikkhu commented on this, pointing out that it is probably mothers who demonstrate most this particular set of qualities. 

It can be argued however that mothers see children as extensions of themselves, having carried them in their wombs for so many months, breast-feeding them and nurturing them for years and years.  It is easy, one could argue, to be kind to self, for example.  The bikkhu then went on to speak of teachers in relation to the practical expression of the above sublime modes of living. 

Teachers (and I mean by the term those who take their vocation seriously and show a commitment that makes a mockery of the paltry salaries they get) show meththa,karuna, muditha and upekkha in more ways and in greater magnitude than most other professionals, as the bikkhu pointed out. 

I’ve been thinking of what the bikkhu said for specific and general reasons.  First, this sermon was delivered a week after my mother, a teacher, passed away a little less than a month ago.  Of all the sweet things said about her after she passed away, two comments stayed with me. 

One of her students said, ‘She was the “Grand Old Lady of Royal College”.’  Another comment: ‘She always encouraged everyone, not just her students, always focusing on their strengths; she didn’t give up on anyone’.   Among them, I know, are students, younger teachers, gardeners, labourers, peons, three-wheel drivers, children, siblings, grandchildren and friends.  She was by no means someone who had acquired maarga pala.  She had her weak moments and could be short and even rude.  The moment passed quickly enough. No one ever harboured a grudge against her.  What is important is that she was a teacher both in and out of the classroom and that wherever she was she showed considerable fidelity to the sathara brahma viharana.

There’s something narcissist in talking about one’s mother, I feel.  So let me stop right there and move on to the more important issues that attends the death of a loved one: remembrance and regret.

Death is also a moment for reflection.  It calls us to remember.  That’s very human.  Thinking back, one remembers the sweetest things and it makes one cry. Nostalgia in a post-death moment offers no relief.   I realized that there will always be things one said or did that one would regret and things one didn’t say or do that one wish one did. 

There was another death a week later.  That of Gamini Haththotuwegama.  Another teacher.  A giant in many ways and in many ways a ‘small man’.  A friend of mine, who was also a student of this teacher, wrote to me recently.  He lamented the fact that he had never done anything for his teacher.  I told this to my wife and she said ‘ekane budu haamururuwo kiyala thiyenne pasuthevilla pavak kiyala’ (this is why Lord Buddha said that regret is a sin).  She said the reference came under ‘nekkam sankappa’ which comes under samma sankappa (Right Thought): right thought is thoughts of renunciation (nekkamma sankappa), loving kindness (meththa sankappa) and non-violence (avihimsa sankappa). 

Arjuna Parakrama, my mother’s favourite and best student by a considerable margin, told me something in the year 1987 that I will never forget.  He said he had dedicated his master’s thesis (submitted to the University of Pittsburg) to his teachers: ‘we rarely acknowledge what teachers do for us; we believe we are who we are because of our effort, our capabilities etc.’

The question is, do we acknowledge enough our teachers and how some of them showered us with compassion and kindness, how they treated things with equanimity and rejoiced in our triumphs?  I am not sure we do.  I certainly do not, I know that.  But last week, I went to see someone I hadn’t seen in thirty years. A teacher.  Mrs. Eileen Prins.  She taught me, or tried to teach me, the violin.  She quickly realized that I was not very interested in learning the violin or, more accurately, did not have the kind of musical bent for it.  She persuaded me, quite kindly, to switch to another instrument.  Her son, Stephen, told me that she was like that; never forced a reluctant student. 

I remembered her not for her violin lessons but for how committed and professional she was and I find today that whenever I am called to teach/coach, I am strict and very serious (although I clown around a lot).  I realize that these qualities have got ingrained in me thanks mostly to my mother and in some small way perhaps to Mrs. Prins.  She is now 93 years old, perfectly lucid and as sweet and gentle as she always was (outside class!). 

Another teacher.  Mrs. Liyanagama. My favourite in school.  She was my Grade 3 class teacher.  She told me about 15 years ago that sometimes her students see her and avoid her thinking she might not remember.  ‘We do remember; how can we forget?’ she said.  Sadly, she thanked me for stopping to talk to her.  I don’t think a student can ever thank a teacher enough for contributing to who he/she is and will become.  The least we can do is to stop by, say hello and worship our teachers now and then.  If not, we will not be able to stop ourselves from committing the sin of regret, ‘sin’ in the sense that it is a worthless exercise that is not beneficial to anyone, especially if we grip memory too hard. It possesses us and harms us. 

It is better to caress memory and better still to do today that which we will not be able to do tomorrow. And in this caressing and doing, it is worthwhile acknowledging now and then the fact that ‘I’ is a composite of all the things one reads, hears, sees, experiences and that ‘teacher’ is an important determinant of direction and product in who we are and who we become. 

This was first published in the 'Daily News', November 11, 2009