Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Making of a Teacher

I am still an educator. But formerly it was education for degrees; now it is education for living.
--Eknath Easwaran

I'm reading a wonderful biography. The book is entitled The Making of a Teacher: Conversations With Eknath Easwaran. It was written by two of Easwaran's students, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived with him at his ashram, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Easwaran was a marvelous writer despite the fact that English wasn't even his native language. He grew up in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala and spoke Malayalam as his mother tongue, learning English as a second language in school and mastering it along with Sanskrit through his own diligence. In fact, he excelled so well in English that he became the leader of his high school debate team, fell in love with English literature, and became a very successful university professor of English in India.

However, he felt a higher calling over time to take up a spiritual path grounded in meditation and was transformed through his discipline and experience into a spiritual sage who came to the USA in 1959 on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up teaching, at U.C. Berkeley, what may well have been the first accredited meditation course in a major university anywhere in the country if not the world. He also founded the Blue Mountain spiritual center and retreat and the Nilgiri Press.

In the late 1980's, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived at the Blue Mountain Center with Easwaran in a community of his devoted students from all walks of life, spent several months interviewing him for a biography they planned to write about him. The Making of a Teacher was the remarkable result, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested either in Easwaran in particular or in simply reading about the life experience of an enlightened and much beloved spiritual teacher.

Below is a passage from the book that deeply moved me. I read it in the wake of a recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay that has befouled water and beaches and killed and imperiled birds and other wildlife all along the area. In reading it, I also thought of my beloved Smokey and wished I had stayed with him until the very end. The passage illustrates beautifully how Easwaran looked at life and death and taught about them in his mindfully loving way.

Halfway up the beach, six teenagers stood in a huddle, scuffing the sand with their bare feet. They were looking down at something, and as we approached we saw that it was an immature harbor seal that lay just above the water line. It was panting heavily, its eyes wide open. Easwaran stopped and looked down at it. The trembling pup turned its eyes toward him, too weak to retreat. Carefully, Easwaran knelt on the sand and began to stroke the unresisting, doglike head, running his gloved hand back and forth over its damp fur. The seal did not turn away.

The teenagers watched with cautious interest. One of them was tall and slender, with quick, serious eyes and a headful of blond hair that moved with the breeze. He stepped forward from the group, then dropped to his knees beside the seal. He looked into its eyes, then looked long and steadily at the man who was stroking it.

Easwaran didn't look up but continued to stroke the seal's small, pointed head. For some time, the pup lay still, its wide, dark eyes fixed on Easwaran. Finally, the eyes dimmed and turned lusterless.

Easwaran turned to the boy.

The boy asked, "Is it dead?"
"His body is dead," said Easwaran, standing up and brushing the sand from his knees.

"You mean. . .?" The boy glanced at the group of friends standing nearby, then back at Easwaran, who smiled warmly at him. Encouraged, he stood up slowly and asked, "Did you see how that seal looked at you?"

"Perhaps he knew I was his friend," Easwaran answered.

The boy pushed the long hair out of his eyes and paused again. He appeared to be struggling to frame another question.

Easwaran waited, unhurried. His seriousness matched the boy's own--softened, though, by the transparent affection that young people always elicit in him. He returned the gaze of the young man who was asking him, wordlessly, what the death of the seal pup
meant. "It means that this same thing will happen to all of us," Easwaran said quietly, anticipating him. "To me, to you, to your friends here." He looked at the faces of the others, who stood watching with patient incomprehension. Then he turned back to the young man beside him. "But it will not be the end. Not for any of us."

Not a muscle moved in the young man's face, but the look of struggle was gone. His gaze was eager now, and searching.

Easwaran clapped him on the shoulder, gave him another smile, and said good-bye. Then, waving to the others, he took Christine's hand and started up the beach. Had the boy been a few years older, I guessed, Easwaran would have let himself be drawn out a little more. Later he confirmed my guess, recalling his favorite Upanishad, the Katha, in which a teenage boy boldly demands answers about the meaning of death from a sage who is as fierce as he is wise. "Teenagers can show tremendous spiritual potential," Easwaran said. "They have the passion, the desire, the idealism, the reckless daring to stake everything they have on an almost impossible goal. But these young people need time, you know. My way is terribly demanding. Before they take on meditation and these other disciplines, they need every opportunity to explore all the innocent pleasures of life--and they need to begin to see through them too!" Still, he added, if the young man on the beach were to turn up at one of his Tuesday night talks, he wouldn't be surprised. "I would be more than happy to see him."

More than happy
. Spiritual teachers in the Indian tradition keep ceaseless watch for that special light in the eye of the most gifted students--the glint of gold. When the teenage hero of the Katha has passed the tests placed before him by the teacher and proved himself worthy of spiritual instruction, the crusty sage breaks into an uncharacteristic smile: "Blessed are you, Nachiketa!" he exults. "May we find more spiritual seekers like you!" (133-135)

No comments: