When my children were young and I was learning how to be a parent, one of the things that I quickly noticed was how they learn from their parents. The most obvious way in which they learn is by the things that you tell them. I think most people think this is the most important way in which they teach their children.
But long after they have forgotten anything you told them – and this will be most of the time – how they really learn is by observation. They watch how you react to situations. If you tend to overreact and show a lot of anger, this is how they will behave. This is how patterns of abuse get passed on from one generation to another. The converse is true as well. In Thailand children first learn about generosity from their parents who give alms food to the monks.
I have had similar experiences with my meditation teachers. To be honest, when I go to a retreat, even a few months later I hardly remember anything that was said. I may remember one or two notable things, but that is about it.
But what often stays with me is how the teacher behaved, and I have seen more than my share of bad behavior in Dharma teachers. One benefit of this is that I have learned to be very self-reliant in my practice. I value the teachers that I have had, and I have had some wonderful teachers, but even my most revered teachers I tend to hold at arm’s length. After all, they cannot will me to become enlightened. That can only happen through my own effort. They are guides leading you through the mountain pass, but you have to carry your own weight.
A little over a year ago I went to a retreat with an extremely prominent, world-renowned monk. As usual, I remember very little of what he said. But what I do remember is an incident that happened on the first day of the retreat. There was a young woman in our group who was asking him a lot of questions. I got to know her during the week and became quite fond of her. She is smart, and has a lot of energy, she loves the practice, and it also turned out that she is quite creative.
But her persistent questions could have been experienced as being annoying, and that is, in fact, how the monk reacted. He was, I thought, quite harsh with her. There was nothing in what she said that could be considered rude or objectionable; she was just asking a lot of questions. But he became quite impatient with her and was, I thought, quite rude.
Now fast forward to this year. I went to a different retreat with a different monk. There was someone in our group, an older man, a successful business owner, and he had a rather loud and big personality. This is the kind of thing that can rub people the wrong way. To be sure, once again I became quite fond of him. As with the young woman, there was nothing he said that was offensive or rude, and in fact I believe he has a very big heart. But he did on a couple of occasions launch into rather loud and lengthy soliloquies about his life.
This time, however, the monk was so attentive, and so kind, and so patient with him, that it left a substantial mark on me. He was the very embodiment of patience, kindness, and compassion. He was very sweet with the man.
Uncharacteristically for me I learned a great deal at this retreat. But what really stuck with me was that interaction between the monk and that older gentleman. It was Dharma in action.
The Buddha’s teachings are vast, and over the centuries they have spawned a great deal of scholarship. At a certain level the scholarship is fun. The Buddhadharma is an incredible exercise in learning. And the scholarship has produced some wonderful results.
But at the end of the day it is about cultivating yourself in a certain way, and being a certain kind of person. Some of the kindest, most generous people I know don’t know anything about Buddhism, and some of the most ideological, self-absorbed people I know call themselves Buddhists. It isn’t about how many suttas you have memorized or how smart you are or how dominant a personality you have or whether you can win a debate. It is about being patient when someone cuts you off in traffic, being compassionate towards someone who has treated you badly, and being generous to those who are in need. It is also about wisdom and skill. And when you bring all of those qualities together, you really have something, indeed.