Beginnings of Learning
The Beginnings of Learning Part II Chapter 4 Conversation with Parents and Teachers
IT WAS AN old, vast Byzantine building which had become a mosque. It was immense. Inside they were chanting the Koran and one sat beside a beggar on a carpet under the huge dome. The chantlng was magnificent, echoing in the great space. There was no difference here between the beggar and that well-dressed man, apparently well-to-do. There were no women here. The men had their heads bowed, muttering to themselves silently. Light came through the coloured glass and made patterns on the carpet. Outside were many beggars, so many people wanting things; and down there was the blue sea, dividing the East and the West.
It was a very ancient temple. They really couldn't tell how old it was but they loved to exaggerate the antiquity of their temples. One came to it through dusty, dirty roads with palm trees and open gutters. They walked seven times around the sanctuary and prostrated themselves as they passed the door through which one saw the image. They were devotees, completely absorbed in their prayers; and here only the Brahmins were allowed. There were bats and the smell of incense. The image was covered with jewels and bright silk. Women stood there with hands raised and children were playing in the courtyard, shouting, laughing, running round the pillars. All the pillars were carved; there was a great sense of space and heavy dignity, and because it was so bright outside in the dazzling sun, here it was cool. Some sannyasis sat meditating, undisturbed by the passers-by. There was that peculiar quality of atmosphere that exists when many thousands through the centuries come to pray, worship and give offerings to the Gods. There was a tank of water and they were bathing in it. It was a sacred tank because it was within the walls of the temple. It was very quiet in the sanctuary but the rest of the place was used not only for worship, for children to play in, but also by the older generation as a meeting place where they sat and talked and chattered about their life. Young students chanted in Sanskrit and later that evening about a hundred priests gathered outside the sanctuary to chant, praising the glory of the Lord. The chanting shook the walls and was a marvellous sound. Outside there was the hard blue sky of the south and in the evening light the palm trees were beautiful.
There was the vast piazza with a curving colonnade of pillars and the huge basilica with its tremendous dome. People were pouring into it, tourists from all over the world, looking with great wonder at the mass being performed; but there was very little atmosphere here-- too many inquisitive people, hushed voices. It had become a show place. There was great beauty in the rituals, in the priests' robes but it was all man-made--the image, the Latin and the structure of the ceremony. It was made by the hand and by the mind, cunningly put together to convince one of the greatness and the power of God.
We had been walking through the English countryside among the open fields: there were pheasants, a clear blue sky and the light of the early evening. The slow quiet autumn was coming in. Leaves were turning yellow and red and dropping from the huge trees. Everything was waiting for winter, silent, apprehensive, withdrawn. How very different nature was in the springtime. Then everything was bursting with life--every blade of grass and the new leaf. Then there was the song of birds and murmuring of many leaves. But now though there was not a breath of air, though everything was still, it felt the approach of winter, rainy stormy days, snow and violent gales.
Walking along the fields and climbing over a stile you came to a grove of many trees and several redwoods. As you entered it you were suddenly aware of its absolute silence. There wasn't a leaf moving, it was as though a spell had been cast upon it. The grass was greener, brighter with the slanting sun upon it and you felt all of a sudden a great feeling of sacredness. You walked through it almost holding your breath, hesitating to step. There were great blooms of hydrangeas and rhododendrons which would flower in several months, but none of these things mattered, or rather they gave a benediction to this spot. You realized when you came out of the grove that your mind was completely empty without a single thought. There was only that and nothing else. When one loses the deep intimate relationship with nature, then temples, mosques and churches become important.
The teacher said, "How can one prevent, not only in the student but in ourselves, this competitive aggressive pursuit of one's own demand? I have taught now for many years in various schools and colleges, not only here but abroad, and I find throughout my teaching career this aggressive competitiveness. There is a reaction to this now. Young people want to live together in communes, feeling the warmth and comfort of companionship which they call love. They feel this way of living is much more real, full of meaning. But they also become exclusive. They gather together by the thousands for music festivals and in this living together they share not only the music but the enjoyment of it all. They seem so utterly promiscuous and to me it all seems childish and rather superficial. They may deny competitive aggression but it is still there in their blood. It shows itself in many ways of which they may not be aware. I have seen this same attitude among students. They are not learning for the sake of learning but for success, because of their desire to achieve. Some realize all this and reject it and drift. It is all right when they are young, under twenty, but soon they are caught and their drifting ways become the new routine.
"All this seems superficial and passing, but deep down man is against man. It shows in this terrible competition both in the communist world and in the so-called democracies. It is there. I find it in myself like a flame burning, driving me. I want to be better than somebody, not only for prestige and comfort, but for the feeling of superiority, the feeling of being. This feeling exists in the students though they may have a mild gentle face. They all want to be somebody. It shows in the class and every teacher is comparing A with B and urging B to be like A. In the family and in the school this goes on."
When you compare B with A, openly or secretly, you are destroying B. B is not important at all, for you have in your mind the image of A who is clever, bright, and you have given him a certain value. The essence of all this competitiveness is comparison: comparing one picture with another, one book with another, a person with another--the hero, the example, the principle, the ideal. This comparison is measurement between what is and what should be. You give marks to the student and so force him to compete with himself; and the final misery of all this comparison is the examinations. All your heroes, religious and worldly, exist because of this spirit of comparison. Every parent, the whole social structure in the worlds of religion, art, science and business is the same. This measurement between yourself and another, between those who know and the ignorant, has existed and continues in our daily life. Why do you compare? What is the need of measurement? Is it an escape from yourself, from your own shallowness, emptiness and insufficiency? This attachment to measurement of what you have been and what you will be divides life and thereby all conflict begins.
"But surely, Sir, you must compare. You compare when you choose this or that house, this or that cloth. Choice is necessary."
We are not talking about such superficial choice. That is inevitable. But we are concerned with the psychological, the inward comparative spirit which brings about competitiveness with its aggression and ruthlessness. You are asking why, as a teacher and human being, you have this spirit, why you compete, why you compare. If you do not understand this in yourself, you will be encouraging competition, consciously or unconsciously, in the student. You will set up the image of the hero--political, economic or moral. The saint wants to break records as much as the man who plays cricket. Really there is not much difference between them, for both have this comparative evaluation of life. If you seriously ask yourself why you compare and whether it is possible to live a life without comparison, if you seriously enquire into this, not merely intellectually but actually, and go into yourself deeply putting away this competitive aggression, would you not find that there is a deep fear of being nothing? By putting on different masks, according to the culture and society you live in, you cover the fear of not being and not becoming: the becoming as something better than what is-- something greater, nobler. When you observe what actually is, it is also the result of previous conditioning, of measurement. When you understand the real significance of measurement and comparison then there is freedom from what is.
After a moment the teacher said, "If there is not the encouragement of comparison the student will not study. He needs to be encouraged, to be goaded, to be cajoled, and also he wants to know how he is doing. When he takes an examination he has the right to know how many of his answers were correct and how close his knowledge is to what was taught."
If I may point out, Sirs, he is like you. He is conditioned by society and the culture in which he lives. One has to learn about this competitive aggression which comes through comparison and measurement. This may bring about an accumulation of great knowledge, you may achieve a great many things, but it denies love and it denies also the understanding of oneself. Understanding oneself is of far greater importance than becoming somebody. The very words we use are comparative--better, greater, nobler.
"But, Sir, I must ask--how does either student or teacher evaluate his factual knowledge of a subject without some kind of examination?"
Doesn't this imply that in everyday teaching and learning, through discussion, study, the teacher will become aware of how much factual knowledge the student has absorbed? This really means, doesn't it, that the teacher has to keep a close watch on the student, observe his capacity, what is going on in his head. That means you must care for the student.
"There is so much to convey to the student."
What is it you want to convey to him? To live a non-competitive life? To explain to him the machinery of comparison and what it does? Tell him in words and convince him intellectually? You yourselves may see this intellectually or verbally understand it, but is it not possible to find a way of living in which all comparison ceases? You as teachers and human beings have to live that way. Only then can you convey it to the student and it will have truth behind it. But if you don't live that way you are only playing with words and hypocrisy follows. To live without measurement and comparison inwardly is only possible when you yourself are learning the whole implication of it--the aggression, the brutality, the divi- sion and its envies. Freedom means a life without comparison. But inevitably you will ask what is the condition of a life without any high or low, without an example, without division. You want a description of it so that through description you may capture it. This is another form of comparison and competition. The description is never the described. You have to live it and then you will know what it means.
Beginnings of Learning
The Beginnings of Learning Part II Chapter 4 Conversation with Parents and Teachers
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