(This article was written for the September 2018 issue of Teacher Plus, a magazine for educators. September 5 is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India, and my brief was to write about a teacher who has had an enormous influence on me.)
He is one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known yet it takes some courage to claim him as my own. I guess I have a tendency to court the ones who challenge me, and the ones who broaden my perception of what love is. But this man, I tell you, is relentless. He asks me what I want to work on — to slay my own demons, or be a social justice warrior, or honour both needs without posturing and political correctness.
He knows how to be there when all I need is a reassuring smile, and a reminder that this too shall pass. I know he has my back. Validation, however, is not what he offers. His job is to hold a mirror, to show me who I am. Mirrors don’t lie. Only Instagram filters do. My teacher is compassionate but exacting. I would not it another way. He agreed to be there because I asked him to, not for an ego boost. He doesn’t need me. I need him. But he is never patronizing, always respectful.
He died several years ago, and stays alive in more ways than you can count. Perhaps the mark of greatness lies in the legacy that one leaves behind. What also stays on is a haze that makes it difficult to focus on the teacher, and get lost in the illusions and apparitions spawned by the human mind in cases like this where myth, history and faith collide. I call him by his name — Siddhartha. He does not mind. Others call him Shakyamuni or Gautama or the Buddha.
At first, he seemed like an unlikely choice when I was invited to write about a teacher who has made an impact or been inspirational at a deeper level. However, I did not know who else to pick. He is the one who kept coming back to my mind. This might be his way of asserting his place, telling me that he is here to stay with his warm demeanour and his steadfast gaze.
What I appreciate though is the freedom I feel in his presence. There is no compulsion to win his approval, or to walk the path that worked for him. What I have instead is a life-long invitation to learn from his journey, to embrace what resonates in keeping with the truth of my own experience. I like knowing that he is a guide, not a warden. The responsibility for my choices is mine alone, and he reminds me of this quite consistently.
There are times when I wonder about his choices. Was it fair to leave his wife and son behind just because he was in search of something so amorphous as enlightenment? Did they not deserve his consideration? Could he not have had just one conversation with them before he set out for the forest? Was he so scared that he could not articulate what he wanted from life, and hear them out in return?
You might say that it is inappropriate to judge great men by the same standards that one applies to ordinary men. Apparently, they have bigger things to accomplish, and the suffering of their family is a small price to pay. I hear you but I do not buy that completely. I want to be able to ask these questions of my teacher — to understand their motivations, to refrain from hero worship, and to say that I love you but I do not agree with everything that makes sense to you.
I expect my teacher to be fierce, not flawless. I would be unable to learn from him if I saw him as perfect. His trajectory as a seeker is more educative than the substance of his sermons. He kept trying. He continued looking. He stuck it out. He refused to be satisfied with mediocrity. He pushed himself beyond all limits. But he also knew when to grow silent, how to watch the churning within, when to let things just happen and get out of the way.
There are images of him everywhere, some so exquisite it is difficult to take my eyes off them. But he cautions me against that error — mistaking the photograph of the tree for the tree itself. The shrine, he confides, is me. And he is in there when awareness is.