How to Teach History? Musings on my first Socratic Teacher

Why do so many high school students claim that their history classes are “boring”? — when we know that history itself is a combination of Game of Thrones and world travel, and that nobody finds those boring? I remember how, in a high school geography class in England in the 1970s, we had to spend three weeks studying the geology and terrain of Western Canadian provinces, memorizing facts and drawing detailed maps — without the geography teacher ever explaining why this should have been of interest to us. At the same time, in an English county rich with relics of industrial history,  no one ever taught us about local geology and terrain, or took us to see an 18th century factory. It is much the same with the teaching of history in American schools: the abstract and remote overview is given priority because it looks more like some curriculum designer’s conception of “knowledge.” In this essay I want to commemorate one particular teacher’s art of teaching history, because what he did really worked.

   Of course, I had my share of conventional history: five years of working through textbooks and class lessons. I remember nothing from age 11-13, but after that a lot has remained in my mind: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the development of labor laws and the long fight for universal suffrage. Every now and then the teacher, Mr.Shilston, would give an exciting lecture on the history of vampires or gangsters, his two set pieces. I learned a lot from my history classes because I enjoyed writing essays in which I had to articulate the causes and consequences of complex events — and it was always the why and how that interested me, not the what or when.

   Even so, Mr. Rawlinson’s A-Level Ancient History class was a revelation: it was the first time I encountered “Socratic” teaching, decades before I even knew the word “Socratic.” Mr. Rawlinson was a svelte, dapper, soft-spoken man with short dark hair and a vicar’s smile. He was always dressed in a light grey suit, with (as I think I remember) no tie but a white shirt buttoned up to the top. In our merciless gossip he was portrayed as “queer,” but this gossip never took off because we all had a genuine respect for him. He never exerted authority, never resorted to corporal punishment, and was always quietly matter-of-fact whenever he had to chastise.  I never got to know him as a person very well, because he was pure teacher: self-effacing, dedicated to the subject and to his students, he reserved his personality for his home life. His erudition was impressive but humble; he read his Greek and Latin authors in Greek and Latin, and he would guide us through difficult passages gently and deftly, without imposing himself.

   The remarkable thing about Mr.Rawlinson was that he taught almost solely by showing us things and asking questions. When studying the Romans in Britain, we would examine photographs of Roman coins and tombs, and we would translate and decipher the inscriptions; we would stare at shards of Roman pottery, note the potter’s mark when we could find them, look up the location of this potter, and then determine which legion must have come from that location to Britain. He would have us figure out which legions came from where, how many legions there were, how many troops in those legions, what these soldiers ate and how much, and then he would make us read the Greek and Roman agricultural writers to figure out how much land and what kind of work would be required to grow that food. Thus we could hazard a good guess at how much land Julius Caesar would have needed to commandeer to quarter his troops in England over the winter. When we looked at the archaeological evidence for Caesar’s occupation, we found our calculations corroborated. Mr. Rawlinson would present the materials and ask us questions. On a few occasions we visited nearby archaeological ruins and saw and measured with our own eyes and hands.

   When we studied the Roman writers, he taught us how to interrogate them. For example, as we pored over Caesar’s account of the invasion, we would ask about his political motivations in presenting his exploits the way he did, and attempt to correlate his claims with the material evidence. When reading Tacitus’ account of Tiberius, we noticed that even the author described  Italy as being fairly well-off under that emperor — so why was the portrait so devastatingly negative? We wondered if in fact Tacitus was using Tiberius to criticize his own emperor, Domitian — so did that mean we would have to take his account of Tiberius’ foreign policy with a pinch of salt, and how exactly? 

   After doing all this work in detail, we would pull our notes together and only then read the relevant chapter in the modern textbook. We would usually find that the textbook was a restatement of what we had concluded ourselves — and the discovery was pleasant and satisfying, because we had reached the same conclusion as the experts by thinking for ourselves. Mr. Rawlinson never made a big deal of this; he just quietly led us in this process of discovery and reasoning. The essays that we wrote for the external examiners were almost entirely the results of our own engaged intelligences — for we were genuinely engaged, activated, even electrified by this direct approach to history, such that even now I vividly recall my excitement at being able to connect this potsherd and that coin with these passages in Tacitus or Suetonius.

   The main thing I got from this was not an accumulation of “things known and remembered”; indeed, I have forgotten most of it except Tacitus and Suetonius, and the dates of emperors. It was rather the activity of figuring out who did what, when, where, how, why. Mr. Rawlinson involved us in reconstructing the past and got us to do it, so that not only did we know how the authors of the textbook had pieced together the fragments of the past to make a plausible story, but we ourselves had also pieced them together. Alongside the historians, we too constructed history, and because we knew what went into this process, we unwittingly acquired a dynamic, critical relationship to history — where “facts” are not simply givens, but actively constructed. Would the teaching of history today be less “boring” if students were asked to cultivate this level of engagement with the making of history itself? In my experience, most people come alive when they know for themselves why something is so and are not just told. Moreover, in our age of “fake news” and a posture of mistrust towards everything the “other side” claims to be true, would it not be better for us in our schools to focus on how we know whether something is true or not, and how to distinguish more from less plausible, than to insist on the primacy of surveys that have been decided by faceless experts? The same thing applies to the teaching of science.

   One night, after an especially exciting class, I had a dream about Mr.Rawlinson. We were in class, on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, and the windows of the classroom were open. His eyes twinkled as he asked a characteristic question: “Why do we have to dig up ancient remains?”

   We stared at him blankly. “We don’t know what you mean, sir.”

   “Well, why are they always underground, instead of just standing around on the ground like every other building? Why do archaeologists have to use shovels?”

   We fumbled around for possible answers, until I blurted out the obvious: “Isn’t it because of the natural rising of the soil, sir, from the activities of earthworms and microbes?”

   “Ah, good guess, Venkatesh! But why would the rise of the soil be so systematic, and everything be so thoroughly buried?”

   “We are completely at a loss, sir.”

   “I will tell you! The ancient Greeks and Romans meticulously buried everything themselves.”

   A long pause. “But why would they want to do that, sir?”

   He chuckled triumphantly. “It was part of their religion, of course! Burying all buildings was a ritual to appease the gods.” We must have looked incredulous, because he added — “Well, can you think of a better explanation?”

   I’m not certain that I ever really woke up from this dream.



Knowing Our Own Minds: Mindfulness (7)

For a philosophy that systematically raises doubts about the reality of the individual soul, it is surprising that so much Buddhist literature consists of accounts of meetings between a teacher and a student. The Pali Nikayas are filled with thousands of pages of conversations between the Buddha and various disciples, kings, or Brahmin visitors; and the classical Zen koan is an encounter of two people, in which one of them suddenly “sees” or doesn’t see. We, the readers of these, are encountering the encounter, meeting the meeting of minds.

When two minds “meet,” the first thing that happens before anything is said is that one has to get the measure of the other: who am I dealing with, what kind of person, what kind of intelligence? This also applies to competitive tournaments — chess, fencing, wrestling, pingpong — where you find yourself facing someone you have never met before: you don’t have much time to figure out who you are dealing with and how you are going to beat him. The gauging of the other mind has to happen very quickly, and it demands powers of accurate intuition. Even if you are acquainted with the other person, you still don’t know how they are today; something big might have happened since yesterday. This is of course true with every interaction.  In conversations, if neither interlocutor is good at guessing the state of the other person’s mind, the two of them are likely to talk at cross-purposes and fail to “meet” in any fruitful way. This is most true of teaching situations. A good teacher has to have a developed intuition for “where” her student is, and this “where” is not determined only by tests that give numerical scores for knowledge and skills. The more important conditions for learning have to do with disposition, attitude, and character: how distracted or agitated is the student today, is there anything else weighing on his mind, can he concentrate fully or think clearly, did he get enough sleep, is he hungry, is he angry, is he having girlfriend problems or serious issues in his home life, has he developed sufficient strength of character to pull himself together for today’s lesson, and so on? Such issues are significant conditions for learning or not learning, and if the teacher ignores them or has no capacity to notice them, very little learning will occur. Unfortunately, many educational systems today reduce success or failure to quantifiable results, and are completely ignorant of the more mportant, unquantifiable dimensions of the teacher’s art.

A skillful teacher therefore has to be minutely aware of the students’ “state of mind,” for want of a better phrase. In the Pali Discourses of the Buddha, my phrase “state of mind” translates citta, which is also rendered in different translations as “mind” or “consciousness.” Just as teaching requires mindfulness of citta, so does self-cultivation — which is the primary form of learning for adults, who should be mature enough to steer themselves. But we can only steer ourselves if we know “where” we are. Thus, an adult who decides to develop the characteristics of warrior nobility cannot simply decide to have integrity, courage, justice, wisdom, and invincible fighting skills. Each one of these is developed through baby steps, and before we embark on a program of training we first have to know where to begin and exactly how far away we are from our goals. For the same reasons, once we have begun, we need to be able to evaluate where we are at every step.

This is why the third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta is contemplating consciousness [citta] in consciousness. 

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?

In martial arts training, lapses in attention and malfunctions in thinking are manifested physically, making it easy for the opponent or the sensei to administer a sharp corrective. In meditation, we are mostly on our own, and when we are attempting to find our way through the confusion of our own thoughts and emotions — many of which are only dimly glimpsed — we need to be able to take our own measure. The Buddha, in the formulaic style favored by his Pali editors, gives us a checklist of things to examine, which I take to be not prescriptive but suggestive, leaving us free to modify it appropriately for our own needs:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the state of consciousness become great, as the state become great; the state of consciousness not become great, as the state not become great; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the quieted state of consciousness, as the quieted state; the state of consciousness not quieted, as the state not quieted; the freed state of consciousness as freed; and the unfreed state of consciousness, as unfreed.”

These are the kinds of consideration undertaken by any good teacher regarding her students — because there is no point giving them assignments that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared to do. What is particularly moving in texts like the Satipatthana is that we are expected to be able to do this ourselves. Indeed, no one else can do it for us.  At almost every stage of the training, the student is asked to self-reflect and to review. If there is the will to progress, the capacity to evaluate and investigate can always be refined. Because our “state of mind” determines what we are capable of doing at any given time, we need to be aware, as we practice, of our current state of mind and how it might be changing. As with bodily phenomena and feelings, we notice that different states arise and then subside; they never stay the same, and they can be affected through training. It is a little bit like sailing a boat on a vast, dark ocean: we cannot necessarily change the ocean at any given time, but we can become minutely aware of winds and waters, and learn to navigate with skill to our destination.

This ideal is very difficult to achieve, because the citta are subtler, more pervasive objects of contemplation that either body or feelings. If you remember a time when you spent hours trying to reason with someone consumed with anger, you will also remember feeling frustrated and hopeless because your interlocutor was so submerged in anger that there was no way he could hear anything else: calm reasoning was futile. The problem with citta is that we identify with our mind-states, we believe them, we see through them. This is why some translators render citta as “consciousness”: our citta is nothing less than how we see things at any moment, and consciousness is always manifest in the form of some citta. We never find pure consciousness without citta, just as we never find it without body or without feelings. Thus, your angry interlocutor had consciousness with anger, and you had a dismayed state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, to use the Buddha’s formula. At the time of your argument, you couldn’t realize that your angry  interlocutor was equally frustrated with your inability to see the full justice of his fury. Citta is of the nature of passion, in that we are largely passive to it — and when we are deep in it, it is very hard to see it objectively. We tend to see it as ourselves. This is why when we are challenged in our citta, we tend to get angry or defensive — because it is we who are being attacked. To be mindful of our own citta, as a skilled teacher is mindful of the citta of her student, is to have attained a very high order of mindfulness. At this point the philosophical dualist would still say, Is the consciousness of citta the same kind of thing as citta, or is it not necessarily transcendent to it? The Buddha would reply, Can you point to it independently of the citta it is conscious of? The observing consciousness is still citta, still conditioned — and it will change, conditioned by its next set of determinants.

The contemplation of citta reaches very deeply into the question of who we are. Now, when we get the Buddha’s reflective refrain — which by this time we know by heart — we hear some new nsights:

“Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in consciousness. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Consciousness exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

States of mind have originations and dissolutions. Like corporeal sensations and the vedanas, nothing stays still from one moment to another; only the practice of careful, focused contemplation will teach us to be sensitive to even the minutest flickerings of change. Consciousness exists: this is how it is, there is no other way for consciousness to be, no place to go that is permanent. The Buddha’s matter-of-fact approach is especially valuable in this kind of meditation, for we are prone to take its objects personally and become upset and resistant. For example, if we find in ourselves a citta of laziness and if we happen to be the kind of person who flees laziness at all cost, our immediate reaction will tend to be disgust with ourselves and the desire to change — which of course is another citta, so we would be automatically flying from one state to another. The Buddha tells us just to contemplate, not to struggle; let it be, find it interesting, and let it pass — because it will pass. We contemplate not for the sake of fixing ourselves or to make ourselves perfect, but to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance. Knowing that the citta are as fleeting and insubstantial as bodily motions and feelings — insubstantial in the sense that there is no unchanging substance underlying them to give them fixity and soliditythe bhikkhu does not cling to them as still points in a turning world.

One practical benefit to this way of engaging with states of mind is that in accepting the various states as they our in our own beings, we become generally more relaxed and understanding when they manifest themselves in other people: the perceived stupidity and obstinacy of the other party is no more identified with them as our wisdom and righteousness are identified with us. Thus the advanced practitioner lives, contemplating citta in citta, internally and externally.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Deliberate Disenchantment: Mindfulness (4)

(陳俐瑾 / 林志純 / 楊淳如, from China Fashion Week, Fall 2010, Shih Chien University)

The Buddha is the first great empiricist: he never asks us just to believe anything he says, or to accept statements as true based on reason or inference alone. His Satipatthana Sutta is primarily a sequence of exercises for experiencing what makes us up. With breathing and our bodily movements, we feel and watch — but we are not given any conclusions about them. This is partly because the Buddha wants us to win back our own eyes and see for ourselves, and partly because the aim of the exercises is not to generate and amass propositions but to get us closer to our own existence — to see clearly what is there. In these exercises he can be called a “radical empiricist,” as in William James’ words: To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. (Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912) However, the next few exercises on “contemplating the body in the body” are not simply empirical in that imagination is called upon to aid experience. 

   Most of us take great care with our appearance; if we think we don’t, it is probably because over the decades the care we take has become second nature and we forget how much mental energy has gone into the cultivation of our clothing styles and of good hygiene habits. The investment is more than practical: if someone criticizes or mocks our physical appearance, most of us will be mortified or upset — and if our looks are praised, we will immediately find ourselves liking the praiser. We are also emotionally invested in our physical health — hence the trepidation we feel on going to a doctor or a dentist, even though we know rationally that the visit is a good thing, and hence too our disproportionate demoralization on hearing even slightly bad news. As we get older, the fear and dismay persist, while at the same time we know that it is increasingly reasonable to expect a diagnosis of serious illness. In all these cases, we live as if we cherish an image of our bodily selves that requires corroboration from others and that cannot bear to be disturbed. This self image, which we secretly love and enjoy tending to, looks out at us from the bathroom mirror, and from a mirror in our minds. Even in the case of people who claim to hate their own bodies, the disproportionate emotional vehemence still testifies to attachment to a self-image, which torments because it is loved. The daily unconscious hold of the idealized body-image generally comes to the surface at the shock of discovering that others do not see us as we see ourselves. When such shocks occur, we tend to be upset for a short while before the wound seals up again. It is our unconsciously coddled and caressed body-image that makes us oblivious to the fact that others see us as older or younger than we feel ourselves to be, to our terrible posture and awkward walk, to our distinctive smells, to the little tones and gestures that hurt or offend those closest to us. Obviously, armored as we are with an image of our bodies that we cannot see, it is very difficult for us to attain any true mindfulness of body. How do we break through the armor?

   The Buddha recommends an exercise in systematic disenchantment, in which we dismantle this body that we are so fond of, and consider its constituent parts. It cannot be a purely empirical exercise, because we do not have direct perception of most of our interior organs, but we can combine what we perceive and what we know about, to make the composite body an object of contemplation:

“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tars, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.’

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

It is easy to see how this reflection would be characterized as a cultivation of “revulsion,” but revulsion plays only a small part in the whole process. Most people are not revulsed by hair or skin, and the idea of their own teeth, sweat, and bones creates no perturbation. But it is not the idea of them that we are being asked to contemplate. When we see our own blood, many of us have to repress panic; or if we fall and find that there is a bone sticking out of our leg, or if we cannot hold our feces. Things like bile, pus, and phlegm are fine if they stay where they are supposed to, under cover, but their obtrusion into our attention is distressing. When there is some kind of disruption in our bodies, we always become miserable at what we now have to attend to — because we expect everything to keep its place, so that the designated surface remains a surface, and what is meant to be under it stays concealed. The shattering of place, of surface, reveals to us our own components removed from their normal background. This exercise pulls everything out and turns it into a list, where each item comes under a general heading but no relationship between items is specified. We become this list of unrelated items, most of which we do not like to examine directly; someone else’s liver in a science museum is acceptable, but not our own liver in its dark red, rubbery splendor. 

   Doing this contemplation just once is an interesting, provoking exercise, but if we were to undertake this disintegration regularly, how would it affect the self-image? When we dress in the morning and check ourselves in the mirror, what would we see? — the same old Me, or a collection of parts to be tended? If someone were to joke about our appearance, would we be bothered any more, knowing as we do that there is no one thing to “appear” and to defending from laughter? A nose is a nose, a heart is a heart, and all of us have the same fluids. In this contemplation, we have demystified our bodies — contemplating “the body in the body,” as opposed to body as amplification of ego. 

   I had an analogous experience in a firearms training class. Before the class, if I were to find a Colt 45 lying on a table, I would approach it hesitatingly with beating heart, and pick it up with fear; during the class, I learned how to check to see if it was loaded, how to render it harmless, how it works, and how to take it apart; after the class, I could pick up any gun calmly as just another piece of machinery that could be harmful in ignorant hands. It is ignorance that fuels the mystique. The Buddha has given us a way to pick up the body, unload it, and dismantle it: we know how to dispel the mystique.

    He goes further, and asks us to learn to view our bodies dispassionately, with no more emotion than we would feel in opening a bag of rice: nothing here to love or hate.

“Just as if, O bhikkhus, there were a bag having two openings, full of grain differing in kind, namely, hill-paddy, paddy, green-gram, cow-pea, sesamum, rice; and a man with seeing eyes, having loosened it, should reflect thinking thus: ‘This is hill paddy; this is paddy, this is green-gram; this is cow-pea; this is sesamum; this is rice.’ In the same way, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed in by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of the stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.’

   The Buddha reinforces the lesson by following it up with another, slightly more abstract, disintegrative exercise. In this one we are asked to envision the body as broken down into its fundamental functions and characteristics, feeling no more about it than if we were to see all these “modes” laid out in front of us like meat at a butcher’s stall:

“And further, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body according as it is placed or disposed, by way of the modes of materiality, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body the mode of solidity, the mode of cohesion, the mode of caloricity, and the mode of oscillation.’

“O bhikkhus, in whatever manner, a clever cow-butcher or a cow-butcher’s apprentice, having slaughtered a cow and divided it by way of portions, should be sitting at the junction of a four-cross-road; in the same manner, a bhikkhu reflects on just this body, according as it is placed or disposed, by way of the modes of materiality, thinking thus: ‘There are in this body the mode of solidity, the mode of cohesion, the mode of caloricity, and the mode of oscillation.’

He ends these sections with the usual exhortations to take a more rounded reflection of these aspects of the body, and also not to get carried away — contemplating only to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, no more and no less. This is an important caution, because the reader coming to this for the first time can easily mistake it for a reductive view of life — as indeed many Buddhists do, who assert to us with contempt that “the body is nothing but a sack full of fluids, etc.” You will hear this from Hindu holy men too. Yet the Buddha in these passages is neither giving us a view of life nor trying to express the essence of a body: he is offering a simple exercise, which anyone can do, that enables us to “contemplate the body in the body,” as distinct from its complex mystique. 

   In other suttas deliberate disenchantment is presented as a useful strategy to combat potential attachments. For example, when you feel yourself about to fall into an intense and dangerous infatuation with a person you are in two minds about, apply the meditation to your new object of attachment; at the same time, apply it to yourself, in case you were hoping that his person would find you extraordinarily attractive and special. The exercise is meant to get you to see “the other side” of things, the back side, and not the side that is a colorful display of ego to ego. We break down the human being into a list of all its parts, so that we are less likely to be magnetized by any one aspect. In applying the same meditation to someone you fear — for example, the intimidating boss or neighbor — the mystique evaporates on seeing the other body as exactly the same as yours in its physical constitution. On the level of body, there is nothing remarkable to love or to loathe. 

   An exercise like this gains power if, through frequent repetition, it becomes habitual — so that we do it naturally, in the moment, and not retrospectively as an antivenin to attachments that have already arisen. Thus, when invited to a party, we are already lucid about our own physical limitations and are no longer susceptible to the erotic frisson of meeting new bodies; or, when in middle age we go for a medical checkup and are not in the least worried about nasty new discoveries but, on the contrary, scientifically interested in seeing the current state of our body for what it really is; or, when facing the imminent failure of some crucial body part, we are already content with the fact that the body is an agglomeration of parts that will not hold together forever. This is sanity with respect to the body. The alternative is a body mystified by ego and entangled in the ego’s crazy dramas.

   If we succeed in separating the body from the realms of emotion and thought, and no longer see the body as the medium for expressing “who we are,” we will achieve a life of greater equanimity and clarity — but at what cost? For one thing, in the eradication of personal vanity and of attachment to corporeal beauty, we will have doused the fires of eros — and is that a madness we would want to live without?

   Montaigne recounts the story of two ancient madmen who are cured of their ailments:

This man [Lycas], though otherwise of very regular conduct, living quietly and peacefully in his family, failing in no part of his duty toward his own and toward strangers, preserving himself very well from harm, by some alteration of his senses had stamped in his imagination this hallucination: he thought he was perpetually at the amphitheaters watching entertainments, spectacles, and the finest comedies in the world. After being cured of this peccant humor by the doctors, he nearly sued them to make them restore him to the pleasures of these fancies.

   Alas, you have not saved me, friends, quoth he, 
   But murdered me, my pleasure snatched away,
   And that delusion that made life so gay.   (Horace)

His delusion was like that of Thrasylaus, son of Pythodorus, who tricked himself into believing that all the ships that put out of the port of Piraeus and came in there were working only in his service; he rejoiced in the good fortune of their voyages and welcomed them with joy. When his brother Crito had had him restored to his better senses, he regretted that state of mind in which he had lived full of joy and free from all trouble. It is what this old Greek verse says, that there is great advantage in not being so wise,

   In heeding nothing lies the sweetest life. (Sophocles)

And Ecclesiastes: “In much wisdom is much grief; and he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.”

(“Apology for Raymond Sebond,” The Complete Works, tr.Frame, 2003, p.444)

In such cases the cure may be worse than the disease, and the victims of medicine are much better off mad — for nothing now can make commensurable the “intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.” (Simon Leys, “The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote,” NYRB, June 11, 1998) This is why the various exercises for contemplating the body in the body should not be taken as an isolated or total  practice — as some practitioners do, who contemplate breathing for eight hours a day over decades. The contemplation of the body in the body must be balanced  with focused meditations on feelings and mental objects, so that we may also see clearly what the love of enchantment is, and what joy and grief really are. But feelings and thoughts are tricky, elusive, complicated; we needed to begin our practice with relatively simple objects of contemplation, such as breathing — and once we have trained our ability and stamina in sustained observatIon, we can move on to subtler contemplations.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

The Underrated Wonder of Breathing: Mindfulness (2)

The heart of the Buddha’s Pali discourses is the Satipatthana or Mindfulness Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is presented as the “one” way to freedom from suffering. Those encountering it for the first time are often surprised to find that such an influential text — central to Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen — makes no arguments and offers no vision of the ultimate nature of reality, but instead consists of twenty-one exercises for focused contemplation. These exercises have been subjected to hundreds of thousands of pages of often conflicting commentary, and some of them have become the central practice for entire Buddhist groups. In this essay and the ones to come, I intend to read the Satipatthana Sutta in a spirit of humble, naïve inquiry, hoping to show that even for a newcomer to these practices  the Buddha’s words do indeed make sense in light of ordinary human experience — and they also shed light on our experience. I make no claims to having a comprehensive overview of the path, and am content here to dwell on the handful of exercises that seem rich and powerful to me. 

1. Breathing

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi gives us this dismally concise summation of a normal human life:

We sleep and our spirits converge; we awake and our bodies open outward. We give, we receive, we act, we construct: all day long we apply our minds to struggles against one thing or another – struggles unadorned or struggles concealed, but in either case tightly packed one after another without gap. The small fears leave us nervous and depleted; the large fears leave us stunned and blank. Shooting forth like an arrow from a bowstring: such is our presumption when we arbitrate right and wrong. Holding fast as if to sworn oaths: such is our defense of our victories. Worn away as if by autumn and winter: such is our daily dwindling, drowning us in our own activities, unable to turn back. Held fast as if bound by cords, we continue along the same ruts. The mind is left on the verge of death, and nothing can restore its vitality. 

(Zhuangzi, Essential Writings, tr. Ziporyn, 2009, pp.9-10)

Our lives are constructed on a foundation of internal and external insecurities. Because this foundation is always shaking, made up as it is of changing realities and mental projections, the structure we put on it is also shifting, unstable, subject to a constant process of frenzied construction and repair. How can we save ourselves from drowning in this frenzy?

   For a reader accustomed to philosophical traditions that begin from the premise that the body is a dark, unknowable, painful thing that hinders light and knowledge and must be transcended if we are to attain the higher realms of Truth and Goodness, the Buddha’s opening recommendation has to be startling: a practitioner has to start by “contemplating the body in the body.”

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating the body in the body?
“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him.”
(tr.Soma Thera, 1998)

The very first step is to remove ourselves from the realm of our frantic activity, finding some place where we will not be interrupted, and sit. The foot of a tree is a wonderful place for this because from a tree we can learn, by osmosis, to be still. It is not that a tree is inactive; there is infinite life in its bark and foliage, infinite movement in the air and light playing about the leaves and in the fluids coursing through the veins, and unimaginable power in every cell and in the coordination of the cells to keep such a huge thing upright for so long in all the buffetings of weather. Yet the tree lives, bursting to fullness with all this energy, and has no need to bustle around achieving tasks. Sitting by this tree, we can draw strength and focus from it as we arouse mindfulness or sati. We bring our attention to bear on our first object of meditation: breath. 

“Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out. He, thinking, ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands when he is breathing out short.”

This seems at first ridiculously simple and tedious, and a person reading it for the first time might nod politely and pass on, because this is too easy and obvious; or might try it for a few minutes and then move to something more interesting. If we do react in this way, we will have missed the point completely. What the Buddha is offering here is the antidote to our toxic frenzy. We are submerged, asphyxiated, in the high dramas and cyclical intensities of the fabrication that we take to be our lives. Because we have lost ourselves in a fog where we can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality, the only way to obtain clarity is to find something we are certain about. One such thing is the fact that we will die, and the Buddha will invite us to chew on this soon; but another is the undeniable fact that as I am writing and as you are reading, we are both breathing. Not only is breathing happening, but we are capable of experiencing it, of bringing our attention to bear on it.

   This is so obvious that we should be shocked that we need a teacher to point it out to us, but it is testimony to the genius of the Buddha that the first exercise on the path involves breathing: something we are all doing anyway, whether we want to or not, and therefore a universal phenomenon that we have access to and contemplate — anyone, anywhere, anytime. Again, this is blindingly obvious — but a wise person is not afraid of the obvious, especially if it is telling us what we need to listen to but so far have failed to hear. The practice can start now; in the case of breathing, we need nothing extra and have no excuse to procrastinate. 

   For a student coming to this from another religion, the Buddha’s matter-of-fact way of talking about breathing is also striking: he is only discussing breathing, and not turning the breath into something high-flown and spiritual, such as prana. The Buddha makes no cosmic claims in these exercises, and if we undertake this exercise thinking that in breathing we are uniting with the transcendent breath of the world-spirit, we will have again missed the point. He is asking us to locate ourselves in the earthy and mundane, not to glorify ourselves. This is why he specifies contemplating the body in the body: not the divine principle in the body, or the body in the divine principle, or the body mixed up with feelings and thoughts, or the body as an idea (“mechanical”/”organic”) — simply the body, in itself. Moreover, what the bhikkhu does is to observe the breath as it is; he doesn’t seek to slow it down or to influence it in any way, with the aim of creating a different emotional state. In the paragraph just quoted, the qualifiers are “long” and “short,” but there could be other qualifiers –for instance, steady or unsteady, forceful or weak, full or thin, different at the end than at the beginning, and so on. The more we practice this, the more we notice — and our breathing becomes high definition breathing, rather than the haphazard low resolution affair it used to be. The key is that we are sitting and engaging; it is not about doing anything, but about seeing accurately what is there in front of us, beyond the mediating ideas we may have of it. Some have described mindfulness as “bare attention,” where “bare” means stripped of extraneous accessories and adornments, naked, pure.

   When we consciously experience breathing in this naked way, one of the first things to dissolve is the conception of breathing as respiration, as mere inhalation and exhalation of air by nose, mouth, and lungs. The air is experienced just beyond the nose, and we become aware of the coolness around the nostrils, the motion of the nostrils, our hairs, the distinctive feel of the air as it moves to the back of the nose, and so on — until, the intercostal muscles and ribcage expanding, we can feel the drawing down of the diaphragm as the entire torso breathes. With the exhale, it is easier to feel the whole body participating, as it relaxes in the toes, fingers, and face. It is not possible to describe fully what we discover when we engage our breathing with single-minded attention, and as we become more skilled and more sustained in our attending, we can see that every single breath is unique:

“Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself.
   “Just as a clever turner or a turner’s apprentice, turning long, understands: ‘I turn long;’ or turning short, understands: ‘I turn short’; just so, indeed, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, when he breathes in long, understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or, when he breathes out long, understands: ‘I breathe out long’; or, when he breathes in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or when he breathes out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe out.’

Thus breathing becomes an art, something to practice and become good at. The image of the skilled turner is evocative: imagine a turner on an ancient lathe, holding it steady with both feet while his hands turn the wood, the entire body alert and concentrated at an insubstantial edge — there, where the wood meets the blade. The true craftsman respects and follows the nature of the wood, bringing out its internal potential without forcing anything; and the action of turning is fluid, continuous, unhesitating. A stranger to wood and to woodworking would be quite blind to the fine distinctions in grain and shape that the turner can perceive with his whole body; skilled turning is not an act of mere manual production, but a creative and cognitive coming together of body and spirit. This is what breathing can become when we engage with it. We discover too that all sense of agency has been lost. The true artist is the first to tell you that he didn’t do anything; whatever it was happened through him, and he himself doesn’t understand what happened but could see it happening. Breathing is obviously an autonomic function; as long as we are alive it happens, we were not there when it started and will not be there when it ends, but in the meantime we can ride the breath like the swimmer in Zhuangzi who is at home in the fiercest rivers because he is not afraid of following the undertows wherever they take him. As with any skill, the better you get at it, the more enjoyable and satisfying it becomes — and the remarkable gift given in this one page on breathing is that an action that is so ordinary, so barely noticeable, yet going on in us all the time, can become a source of pleasure and joy.

   The first exercise of the Satipatthana concludes with a passage that gets repeated throughout the sutta with regard to other exercises as well. 

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world. Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

This is an invitation to reflect and examine, to hold what we have experienced and rotate it in our mind’s eye slowly, carefully, so that we understand it three-dimensionally and from various angles: the interior experience, its manifestation externally and objectively, the relation of those two, how a breath begins and continues and ends, or how there isn’t really a beginning and end because “breathing” is not a thing but a confluence of a myriad things in reciprocal activity. I am a being who breathes at this moment, in this place, having among my conditions a body that can take in air and a universe that has the air I can take in; and both this body and this universe abide in an infinity of conditions, all in action so that this, just this, can happen. Thus sati is really remembrance, a recollection of what we actually are, and it is only through this deliberate exercise of focused attention that we will begin to remember our own lives. 

   However, the paragraph ends with a sober caution: it is easy to get carried away from this experience and to lose ourselves in theories and speculations that arise from the thoughts we will inevitably generate from the exercise. Instead, we reflect to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and no matter how excited we become at our own discoveries, there is no need to impress, no need to spread the word, no neediness at all: he lives independent and clings to naught in the world

A note on the drawing above (from “The Woodturner’s Workshop,”

The image…is taken from a book published in 1881 (Hand or Simple Turning – Principles and Practice by John Holtzapffel) portrays an Indian turner. The author states that “He commences by digging two holes in the ground at a distance suitable for the length of the work, and in these fixes two short wooden posts, securing them as firmly as he can by ramming earth and driving in wedges and stones around them. The centres, scarcely more then round nails or spikes, are driven through the posts at about eight inches from the ground, and a wooden rod for the support of the tools, is either nailed to the posts or tied to them by a piece of coir or coconut rope. The bar if long is additionally supported … by one or two vertical sticks driven into the ground. During most of his mechanical operations the Indian workman is seated on the ground … The boy, who gives motion to the work, sits or kneels on the other side of it holding the ends of cord wrapped around it in his hands, pulling them alternately …”. Notice that in this instance the turner is using his toes to steady the tool on the rest.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Life Jiu-Jitsu: or, What I Learned from Seeing My Ass on a Platter Many, Many Times


The beginning of all effort has indeed with me been marked by a preternatural imbecility. I never could, even in forming a common acquaintance, assert or prove a claim to average quickness. A depressing and difficult passage has prefaced every new page I have turned in life. (Charlotte Bronte, Villette)

For about five years, in another lifetime, I was a dedicated but lackluster student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Without much natural talent for grappling, I nonetheless tried hard but never succeeded in becoming a good grappler — yet I think I was a good student, because in ways perhaps unimagined even by my brilliant teachers I learned more than I was taught. Even though I was mediocre on the mat, what I learned from my struggles there have helped me immeasurably in my life off the mat. Here are my three biggest lessons in “life jiu-jitsu.”

1) From the numerous times I have been lifted off the ground by some muscled brute and then slammed to the mat with the beast on top of me and determined to crush the life out of me, I have learned to stay calm and evaluate the seriousness of the assault. The impact was terrible — but was it pain, or merely impact? If there was only a great thumping crash but no actual pain, then it was nothing more significant than “noise,” a strong vibration, and I can go on. If there was pain, is it injurious — or merely painful? Having a large guy sit on you can be very uncomfortable, but how bad is it really? If no real harm is imminent, I learned to wait it out until the situation changed, or to create a little more space for myself by making micro-movements. When at last the situation changes, even slightly, there is hope for a new position. But if we panic and flail, we might not recognize the new opening in time.

2) From being outmaneuvered regularly by wiser, more adroit practitioners, I have learned that no matter how skillful or vigorous my attempts at evasion may be, with every move I may be falling deeper into a well laid trap that I haven’t thought of. I usually found myself on the defensive and trying desperately to escape. From my attacker’s point of view, I was the myopic novice unable to see further than one attack down the line. He, meanwhile, had set up a string of three attacks at any given moment: if I do this to avoid the armbar, I fall into a guillotine; if I do that to avoid the guillotine, I fall into an Americana; if I move too violently to avoid all of these, he easily takes my back and puts on a rear-naked choke…I am the elementary school pupil learning to spell, while my attacker composes paragraphs. Anything he knows I will do he can use against me — which is the fundamental principle of a strategic mindset.
The big lesson here is that if life is like a fight, a skillful, intelligent practitioner will see each new twist as another opportunity, or even as multiple opportunities. The more skilled you are, the more clearly the opportunities will present themselves. The less skilled you are, the more frustrated you will feel at thwarted expectations — and your frustration will blind you. To an advanced student, the opportunities never end, and an apparent setback will be a new opening. In life you can’t tap out, because your real enemies don’t respect submission. In moments of frustration or despair, I have learned to reset my attitude and ask, What is the opening here? I failed at the X, but am I now in a better position for something else? This training creates wonderful flexibility of mind. As long as I’m not dead or unconscious, I can still create a better situation. (The photo on this page is from a famous fight which begins, terrifyingly, with the great BJJ fighter Antonio Nogueira being picked up by fearsome giant Bob Sapp and slammed head-first into the floor, and which the tenacious and resourceful Nogueira eventually wins by maneuvering the giant into a submission.)

3) Victories are nourishing, but we don’t learn from them. Only in defeat are we forced to examine ourselves and understand what we did wrong and think out how we could do things better. From spending hundreds of hours on the mat getting my ass kicked by better grapplers, I really learned things — about myself, about other people, and about the art. I improved daily, but so did everyone else; I was always behind the curve, so in every session I had most to learn from every single person there. It was exhausting and wonderful. The most sobering occasions were when I thought I had figured something out and was feeling supremely confident, but then found myself easily defeated by someone smaller and with less experience. These upsets were sometimes difficult to handle but always healthy in the long term. We do not like having our self-illusions shattered. Yet what disillusion means is that we have lost illusion and therefore gained clarity; disillusion means intelligence, and greater closeness to reality. We should welcome it, and be grateful for the occasions and the people who reveal to us what we could not see before by making us lose. Only by doing this will we become stronger and smarter.

I am reflecting on these lessons today in the daze of shock and depression after the presidential election. It is as if my friends and I (not to mention the mainstream press and the Democratic Party) have been utterly blind to the society in which we are living. The defeat has necessitated the opening of our eyes: this is a good thing. Losing illusions is always a good thing, and we have to be thankful for that. “Nothing in the universe is hidden,” says a Zen proverb, but still we manage not to see. So, let us take a good look: in truth, we did not know ourselves or our fellow human beings. Awake, we can ask ourselves if the impact was painful, if the pain was injurious — and if we find ourselves still whole and conscious, we need to understand what has presented itself to us and what we can make of it. There are no setbacks, only openings. And there is no tapping.

Why We Fail Miserably at Learning Languages

If you have spent time in other cultures or traveled a lot, not in cars by yourself, but on trains, buses, and ferries where you are compelled into human interaction, or better still, on foot through bustling cities or from village to village, then you will have experienced several times the delight of having intelligent conversations with people who barely share a language with you. Solely from recognizing a few words, from being able to interpret facial expressions and gestures, and above all from being intensely interested in your interlocutor and her world, it is possible to communicate quite deeply with a stranger. I have fond menories of almost falling in love with a German girl I sat next to on a ferry; we talked for four hours in an almost nonsensical mash of German and English. When I taught in China, I noticed that many longtime students of the English language could hold only faltering, fearful conversations in English — whereas some businessmen and scientists who had never formally studied English could have interesting conversations with me about politics or philosophy, because their English had expanded through their curiosity in favorite subject areas. Their English would be far from perfect and always thickly accented, but they were capable of understanding and making themselves understood in discussions of deep, significant matters. In traveling, you also enounter shopkeepers and food-vendors who can conduct their daily business effectively in multiple languages; they have an urgent practical interest in doing so, and while they may not be able to discuss philosophical notions in all those languages, it is probably fair to claim that many of them are more confident and effective linguists than many people who have studied one of those languages formally for years. 

   Most people in the world are comfortably functional in two or three languages or dialects. In polyglot societies, it is common to hear multiple tongues simultaneously going at a single restaurant table. In Malaysia, among my own family, I have heard one person asking something in Cantonese to two other people who replied in Hakka and English, while interacting with the waiter in Malay; and I have also heard a sentence that began in Cantonese, continued in Hokkien, and ended in English. In such a society there is an astonishing ease and freedom with languages, a lack of anxiety coupled with a willingness to improvise. One of my uncles, who is proficient in four languages and functional in about six others, has told me his secret to learning a new language: just write down the fifty words that are most useful to you, look up how to use them, go out there and spend a few days using them, and over the weeks add to this store. This really works — but it requires not so much courage as recklessness, a deliberate abandonment of caution and an enjoyment of learning through failing. 

   In contrast, I think of the many years I have spent studying a language academically, through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and vetbs, drills, exercises, and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker — or able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation. This paralysis results from an excessive sense of responsibility to the language, a feeling that I have to be correct all the time and make only complete, well formed utterances. Experienced this way, a language is a thing, a defined object with fixed rules and standards that have to be conformed to; and its thingness is embodied in the grammar book and dictionary, which purport to contain the entire language. Now, there is an undeniable power to this view of a language. In the case of dead languages, which are “complete” in the sense that they are no longer evolving and are therefore “done,” it might be compelling and attractive to condense all the patterns of a language in one book; for example, it is a miracle that the whole of Sanskrit can be summarized in the 150 pages of Gonda’s Sanskrit grammar, and downright unbelievable that the great ancient grammarian Panini gave us the essential generative grammar of Sanskrit in fewer than 20 pages. Any grammar textbook of a language aims at doing something similar: grasping and presenting the underlying essence of a language in a way that makes it efficient to master, because the entire structure can be conceived theoretically by one who has studied the whole book. Classical linguists are so familiar with the deep structures of a group of languages that when faced with a new one, they can find their way quickly because they already have a map. It is like a zoologist who has spent decades working with the anatomy of rodents and mustelids: when given a cat to dissect, he will know where to find the heart or liver. 

   I myself am very good at the analytical study of language, but I know that only relatively few people have the aptitude for this kind of study. It requires the capacity for long hours of mental focus and retention, and an abstract, rational turn of mind that quickly and rigorously seizes underlying structures and is skilled at memorizing. People who excel in learning languages in this way pay a price for it; they tend to be socially shy or awkward, happier at desks than at human gatherings, and consequently not at ease with the flexible, fluid ways of living languages in spontaneous human interaction. The problem is that people who have advanced credentials with languages and who are good at the scholarly approach tend to be the ones who write language-learning materials. Moreover, an expert in a language generally teaches others the way he was taught (after all, why change the winning team?), and this way usually presupposes that the language is a thing with a fixed structure that can be taught through books and a classroom, independently of a living context. 

   However, it doesn’t work for most people. The effect of our conventional methods of learning languages is to create a monoglot — someone who is only comfortable in one language and is terrified at the prospect of having to be functional in more than one. Perhaps it is more than an effect; perhaps the intention is to create a society of monoglots. After all, the idea of a national language grew with the development of print culture, which enforced a standard range of prose for published texts. The culmination of this was the great age of philology and lexicography in the 19th century, in which authoritative reference books set down the official standards for a language. If a word isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t English; and if you are unsure of a point of grammar, you will consult one of the standard references in grammar and usage, such as the Oxford Guide to English Grammar. The essence of a language is thus treated as something that lies outside and beyond its particular speakers in particular times and places, and that is contained in books that have authority to declare if any given utterance is English or not. When we speak English we have to be obedient to such centers of authority; and when we attempt to learn French we have to be obedient to other centers. No wonder we are paralyzed with anxiety when we are called to speak. We have been shackled by shadowy, artificial authorities. We are lucky to have learned one language as children, before we received the gift of viewing languages as things outside of us.

   Official languages are nation-makers, hence also monoglot-makers. The many rules of a language — all those inflections, and then idioms and exceptions — are meant to make it hard for outsiders to join the group. If languages were solely for communication, they would have the simplicity and malleability of Esperanto. Instead, languages as we know it are used to create Us and Other, and the thorniness of the Other is reflected in the fearsome difficulty of speaking the Other language. Thus, we have succeeded in making the learning of languages hard and unpleasant. We have reified our languages, turned them into intimidating objects outside of ourselves that we now have to struggle with, instead of what they really are in our lived experience of them — dynamic, changing, growing, intimate aspects of our particular being in history.

   In a recent essay in the Scientific American (“Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” September 7, 2016), Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello argue that over the last few decades evidence has been mounting that our capacity for language does not emanate from an underlying “universal grammar” that we all have inside us. In other words, language may not be fundamentally a thing that precedes and causes all individual instances of speech. Just as the capacity for language itself may not need a hypostatized universal language, a Platonic form of language, in the same way a given language does not require a substratum or essence that stands apart from particular utterances. Uninhibited by ideas about language, children learn languages by freely engaging them with multiple parts of the mind, which in approaching languages is like a Swiss Army Knife: a “set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.” However, as we grow up, we abandon the Swiss Army Knife and strive to rely on a single tool for everything.

   We are living in an age of more complex relationships with different cultures and languages, but also of more vehement resistance to difference — hence the bigotry that manifests as nationalism, of which one face is rigid monoglottism. Listening to a group of people speaking an exotic language in a public space, how many people now become disturbed, uneasy, suspicious? — how many become even angry and indignant, and would consider reporting these strangers to the authorities? If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers. Reification always cripples the ability to relate.

   There is a place for the scholarly approach to a language through formal grammar and lexicon; it can give a valuable analytical account of a language, but does not necessarily express what the language is. Consider Chaucer’s dazzling creation of English through the audacious assimilation of French words and syntax, Shakespeare’s many shatterings and reforgings of the language, the King James Bible’s weird and beautiful Hebrew-English, Milton’s even weirder Latinate Hebrew-English: fortunately for us, our greatest writers never experienced their language as a thing, but as a process of formation boiling with possibilities, including the possibility of being wholly permeated by other languages. This is how we should be experiencing language, and the way we learn languages should reflect this dangerous, thrilling play at the limits of expression. Can we transform the way we study languages and become more open, more creative, more free? It seems that we are already beginning to, in the various new digital language-learning programs that emphasize living interaction; many of these start from an insight that the conventional approach is “boring” and ineffectual to most people, but do not go so far as to say that they fail because they are built on fallacious ideas about language. I hope nonetheless that the new “hands-on” approaches will percolate into our classrooms and shake us up.

   When we find ourselves on that train trying to explain ourselves to the attractive and interesting stranger, and reaching into the unknown to fathom what he is telling us, we find ourselves working at the very borders of what we know — and enjoying it, fuller for it. All language study should be like this — maybe even all study. A bilingual friend — who is not bilingual in the way a George Steiner is bilingual, namely as a superman-scholar type who can write polished prose in four languages, but rather is bilingual like my Malaysian relatives are multilingual, capable of rapidly ricocheting between several languages with easy functionality and no commitment to formal correctness — once remarked to me that being bilingual is “a bit like making out in the dark”: not everything is lit and seen, we struggle tentatively across spaces to make contact, and we learn to be bold and trusting in the unknown. This is indeed how we do language — venturing perilously into the new, not just memorizing and applying predetermined patterns in a safe, warm web approved by the best scholars. 



Shopping for a Spiritual Teacher

One day the Buddha suddenly pops this on his disciples:  “Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an inquirer, not knowing how to gauge another’s mind, should make an investigation of the Tathāgata in order to find out whether or not he is fully enlightened.” (Vimamsaka Sutta, Middle Length Discourses 47, tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) How do you know if a teacher is the “real thing” or not? If you’re serious, you’ll try to find out, and not just swallow what you’re told. The problem is, since you’re not enlightened yourself and cannot see into the mind of anyone else, how will you ever know if your guru is everything he is cracked up to be? If you’re a real inquirer, and not just somebody who wants comfortable or pleasant states of mind, you will investigate — and the Buddha tells you how to go about it. The list of criteria that follows is further proof of the Buddha’s common sense and mental clarity, and it also implicitly contains a profound challenge to the seeker who wants to find the truth and not just to be told.

Are there found in the Tathāgata or not any defiled states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? First, when you watch this prospective teacher carefully, does anything strike you as wrong or “off”? — not only the obvious defilements like greed or lust, but subtle attachments, lying, deviousness, narcissism? “Cognizable through the eye or the ear” seems to cover everything done or said, but also gestures and facial expressions. Second,  Are there found in the Tathāgata or not any mixed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? This can be interpreted in at least two ways: Is the teacher’s conduct consistently good, or is there unsteadiness and inconsistency — for example, often loving but sometimes choleric and spiteful? Or is his action sometimes ambivalent in quality — for instance, showering one disciple with so much praise and affection that the disciple is blinded by this excess of welcome attention? I once witnessed how a revered swami, all sweet and chuckly to his audience, viciously scolding and slapping the small boy who brought him his tea because it wasn’t warm enough. This may indicate a “mixed state” at best, a “defiled state” at worst.

Supposing you don’t see mixed or defiled states: Are there found in the Tathāgata or not cleansed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear? There is a bright, loving energy about this teacher, no obsessiveness or insecurity, nothing unhinged, nothing off — but it is not enough just to notice this:  Has this venerable one attained this wholesome state over a long time or did he attain it recently? One has to observe the teacher carefully over a long time to know that his goodness of character is well and deeply established. The assumption is that no one is simply born spiritually realized; we all have to put in work and effort over time, and it takes time for virtue to become rooted.

When you have found someone impressive and are certain that the admirable character is firmly settled in virtue, examine how fame and prestige have affected him. Has this venerable one acquired renown and attained fame, so that the dangers connected with renown and fame are found in him? We have seen in our own time many instances of the corruption of gurus through adulation and the absence of critical scrutiny: sex scandals, money scandals, and drug abuse. If the character of the teacher has blind spots and immaturities, fame and adoration will manifest and magnify them.  Does the teacher, for instance, consider himself immune to sin and error, and does he listen well to other people or assume that he knows? When contradicted or disagreed with, how does he react? The Buddha is asking us to watch carefully. I wonder if there is even one other ancient sage with the courage and foresight to point out the liabilities of spiritual celebrity.

Is this venerable one restrained without fear, not restrained by fear, and does he avoid indulging in sensual pleasures because he is without lust through the destruction of lust? That is to say, how is his behavior in private, when he is not constrained by fear of the law or social pressure? The Buddha is in fact asking us to pry: it is not enough to know that the teacher is trustworthy on the surface, because we need to know that he is thoroughly trustworthy — that he is good because he is good, and not because he is afraid of getting caught.  We should not take this on faith, and obviously, to know such things we need to observe for a long time. We also need to see if the teacher is partial to people, if he is fair, if he treats all disciples equally: Whether that venerable one dwells in the Sangha or alone, while some there are well behaved and some are ill behaved and some there teach a group, while some here are seen concerned about material things and some are unsullied by material things, still that venerable one does not despise anyone because of that. Disciples are going to be flawed and needing guidance, and if you are going to be one of them you need to know that the teacher will give you the same attention as everyone else and not have favorites. The teacher does not despise imperfect people.

When you strike lucky and find a teacher you can trust, you develop “faith” in the teacher only as you progress in your learning through his instruction:  The Teacher teaches him the Dhamma with its higher and higher levels, with its more and more sublime levels, with its dark and bright counterparts. As the Teacher teaches the Dhamma to a bhikkhu in this way, through direct knowledge of a certain teaching here in that Dhamma, the bhikkhu comes to a conclusion about the teachings. He places confidence in the Teacher. It will have taken years to get to this point. Only now, Bhikkhus, when anyone’s faith has been planted, rooted, and established in the Tathāgata through these reasons, terms, and phrases, his faith is said to be supported by reasons, rooted in vision, first. “Reasons, rooted in vision” means “reasons that emerge from the depths of our direct experience”: finding your teacher is not about blind faith, surrender to charismatic authority, or trust in someone else’s revealed truth. It requires careful and thorough scrutiny, in which you don’t just “believe” but verify for yourself that this person is worthy to guide you in the search for the most important things.

I can imagine that a spiritual seeker’s first reaction on hearing this would be shock: It’s going to take me so much time and so much work to find a spiritual teacher! Just thinking about the Buddha’s criteria, it seems unlikely that there could be anyone who could satisfy all of them — and even if such a person were to exist, would I ever meet him, would I be fortunate enough to live in the same century or on the same continent? The disciples are being provoked: how indeed do they know their teacher is the real thing? In an age of upheaval, when old interpretations are threatened and everyone is confused, it is natural for a person to want certainty, and to crave a “still point in a turning world.” This is no less true of the Buddha’s time as of ours. For us the certainty might come in the form of one of the many churches or scientific dogmas; for his disciples the truth had to be found in one of the sixty-two or more views of life that were being vigorously promulgated. His culture was one where a view usually centered upon a teacher, and students were then drawn to this teacher if they wanted the key to the door of their lives. The Vimamsaka Sutta is utterly characteristic of the Buddha in that it gives his students no easy answer, that it throws them back upon their own seeing and hearing. Throughout the Pali Nikayas the emphasis is on knowing for yourselves: there is no shortcut to experiencing for ourselves, thinking for ourselves, and seeing from where we actually are. This involves painstaking, frustrating, risky attentiveness. A teacher may tell us something, but until we see it for ourselves we do not really know it — and when we look into our own lives, trying to see, we cannot pre-know what we will see. The Buddha is deeply aware of the terrible temptations of authority. Because we are afraid of our own solitude, and are insecure about what we see for ourselves, we crave the reassurance and support of a teacher. This makes it all too easy for us to replace our own insight with the words of the teacher, to triangulate our own experience against the fixed points of those words, and never to stray too far from them. The disciple’s anxiety about how her own experience meshes with the teachings becomes a screen that eventually separates her from her own insight, which is no longer anything more than the shadow cast by the teacher. The Buddha’s project requires us to meet our own experience head on and to stare it in the face; for this reason, in sutta after sutta, he has to undermine his disciples’ dogged efforts to squeeze a “view” out of him that they can cling to for safety. He wants us to become spiritually adult, capable of self-reflection and self-correction. It is not that the Buddha’s guidance should count for nothing with us, but that that guidance can speak to us only if we are truly engaged, from moment to moment, with our own awareness. Fearful impatience drives us toward quick answers and clear teachings, but we need to look at that impatience too and ask what it really is.
Vimamsaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 47, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi