In the Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta, the monks are discussing how wonderful the Buddha is when he comes into the hall, interrupting their chatter. He asks what they have been talking about and they tell him that they have been discussing his marvellous qualities. He then says, “So what are these wonderful characteristics of the Tathagata?” Ananda then piles on a huge heap of praise, some of which stretches credulity. At the end of it all, the Buddha says that there is one thing they can consider a special quality of him which is that when vedana occurs, he knows it is occurring, sees it arise, sees it persist and sees it melt away; similarly when samjna arises; similarly when thoughts occur.
I think that we can see this as a somewhat ironic comment by the Buddha that really is intended to puncture the balloon of extravagant praise. If one thinks of Buddha as beyond all human foibles, then vedana and samjna would not occur in him, but here Buddha says that he is aware of them occurring, and even of thoughts grounded in them occurring. They had probably actually been occurring as he listened to Ananda, so he is saying that although feeling arise in him as he listens to all this praise, he is not carried away by it, he, as it were, sees through it. In fact, he is only concerned for the well-being of the monks and unconcerned about his own status.
WHOLLY HUMAN AND WHOLLY ILLUMINATED
He also implies that such awareness is much more important than whether or not he had descended directly from the Tushita Heaven and so on. Even if one did descend from Tushita, one came into this life as a fully human being. The nature of a true teacher is not that he or she has stopped being human. On the one hand, it is true that we do not have much respect for a teacher who does not practise what he preaches, but this should not lead us to think that the mind of the teacher is so pure that unwholesome impulses never arise. Rather, what a teacher does have is a greater insight into his own bombu nature. It is by seeing how human nature is that we arrive at compassion, for then we realise how it must be for others. The fact that the teacher can rise above and be beyond does not mean that he is not also totally immersed and engaged; he is both at the same time, fully human and fully illuminated.
For this reason it is hazardous for a teacher to preach too holy an ideal. His chances of inhabiting it are slim and he easily falls into hypocrisy and vainglory. This is why there are scandals in sanghas around teachers who have arrived at too high an opinion of themselves. To teach the Dharma is to facilitate the study of the self in such a way that it loses its fascination and this is not achieved by laying out a programme of perfection which only invites the ego to take hold of one’s supposedly spiritual life. This is precisely when a person fails to practse the path he advocates for others.
VEDANA MAY BE EMPATHY
When unwholesome thought arises it is a genuine basis for insight. When I am sitting in a lecture and start to think “This is really boring,” I am immediately alerted to my arrogance in finding fault with another. I may go on to reflect whether I could actually have done any better myself. Whatever the answer, there are things for me to learn. It is not that I should never have such a thought - after all, some lectures are boring - but awareness of one’s own process is illuminating. This is the real insight. The person who is delivering a boring lecture is probably doing the best he can, but is constrained by some factors - elements of self-consciouisness usually - that are making him timid or inhibited. When one thinks this way, one’s heart goes out to him. One wishes to release him from the bonds that are holding back his virya energy. Then one thinks of all the occasions upon which one has oneself been somehow unable to give of one’s best, having been, perhaps, overawed by the situation.
One perhaps even realises that the sense of being bored that has arisen in oneself was probably a kind of contagion from the speaker. Because the speaker is contrained in some way, that constraint fixes itself upon members of the audience too. We are all caught in the same samjna net. What had originally presented itself as a criticism of the speaker actually reveals itself to be a kind of empathy.
BELOW THE SURFACE
We are all emotionally vulnerable. As a lecturer, one is on display and self-consciousness can become a paralysing force. One may fear to depart from one’s notes, even though reading from a script is one of the ways guaranteed to make a talk dull. I have given a great many talks in my time and usually nowadays I am not nervous, but sometimes it happens for one reason or another. When one has to give a public performance a certain degree of emotional tension is necessary or the whole thing will fall flat, but getting the pitch right is not always an easy matter.
At a congress I recently attended one of the subjects was “the nature of a Dharma teacher”. Superficially we think that the teacher is somebody far along the spiritual path who can help those less advanced. However, the matter is really much more complicated. The path is not one-dimensional. Things are going off in many directions all at once. Below the placid surface of the well-socialised person there is a seething mass of passions. It is much more use to have insight into that cauldron than it is the have made the surface so firm that the magma never bursts forth.
Ananda’s praise of the Buddha is a trap. By inviting him to identify with an idealised image he is, in effect, setting him up. The Buddha punctures this and brings things back down to earth. The passage shows that the Buddha not only had some modesty about himself, he also had a sense of humour. To puncture inflated fantasies is true Dharma teaching. Awareness of real human nature is Dharma whereas the projection of a super-human image is delusion. It is much more wonderful to be genuine than to be posing an ideal, and it is this kind of genuine wonder that Buddha’s promote.