On the Passing of a Teacher
By Sylvia Swain
One who sees the Way in the morning can gladly die in the evening.
Although he preferred to be regarded as our fellow student, to us, who clearly looked to him and accepted him as a teacher, Phiroz gave this one concession: “If you learn something from me, then you confer teacher-hood upon me.”
The relationship between a loved and venerated teacher and his close students can have surprisingly deep roots in the psyche, as we soon discover after his loss. We may well fear, not only that a rare presence has gone from our lives, but also that a fount of wisdom and source of light has been cut off; but that fear might be seen on reflection to be an incomplete understanding of his message.
Those who can really teach religion acquire a special status, and in every religious canon there are included stories of the reaction of the followers to the death of the teacher. Such stories form an important part of the canon. When Jesus prophesied his coming death to his disciples, he said:
It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.
St. John, 16:7
What is meant by the Comforter? The word comfort derives from the Latin jortis, meaning strength. A comforter is a strengthener in time of trouble. Jesus explained:
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
St. John, 14:26
The last days of the Buddha also have much to teach.
The Buddha was resting in the Mallas’ Sal-grove attended by Ananda, and the Venerable Upavana was standing in front of the Lord, fanning him, when the Lord told him to move aside. This puzzled Ananda and so he asked the Lord to explain.
Ananda, the devas from ten world-spheres have gathered to see the Tathagata … and they are grumbling, ‘We have come a long way to see the Tathagata. It is rare for a Tathagata, a fully enlightened Buddha, to arise in the world, and tonight in the last watch the Tathagata will attain final Nibbana, and this mighty monk is standing in front of the Lord preventing us from getting a last glimpse of the Tathagata!’
“But, Lord, what kind of devas can the Lord perceive?”
Ananda, there are sky-devas, whose minds are earth bound, they are weeping and tearing their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying: ‘All too soon the Blessed Lord is passing away, all too soon the Well-Farer is passing away, all to soon the Eye of the World is disappearing!’ And there are earth-devas whose minds are earth bound, who do likewise. But those devas who are free from craving endure patiently, saying: ‘All compounded things are impermanent — what is the use of this?’
Thus have I Heard by M. Walshe, p. 263
Later Ananda went into his lodging and stood lamenting, leaning on the door-post:
Alas, I am still a learner with much to do! And the Teacher is passing away, who was so compassionate to me!
Thus have I Heard by M. Walshe, p. 265
The Lord, wondering where he was, enquired of the other monks, sent for Ananda and said:
Enough, Ananda, do not weep and wail: Have I not already told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other? So how could it be, Ananda … that it should not pass away? For a long time, Ananda, you have been in the Tathagata’s presence, showing loving-kindness in act of body, speech and mind, beneficially, blessedly, wholeheartedly and unstintingly. You have achieved much merit, Ananda. Make the effort, and in a short time you will be free of the corruptions. (i.e. become liberated)
Thus have I Heard by M. Walshe, 265
And then the Buddha spoke to all the Bhikkhus around and praised Ananda for all his totally faithful and devoted service to him personally. Perhaps we can recognise ourselves when we hear stories like these of the feelings and reactions of those whose teacher has died and who need to come to terms with what it means to them.
Firstly we need to remember that every teacher was once at the beginning of his path, every teacher has at some time looked to another as a teacher and, going through the whole compass of human experience, hope and fear, gain and loss, has had, finally, to be alone to discover the inner teacher, that original teacher of teachers.
We too in the context of our lives, with our problems and abilities, have chosen the religious way. It is a very testing way of life to follow, and in due course of time there comes the great loss which is the great test for us, and its outcome is crucial. Will we simply bewail our lot, like those sky-devas whose minds were earth-bound, blame our fate, give up or look for another to call teacher, or will it be for us a time of transformation? Will it be a time for the renewal of our allegiance to that most worthwhile life, the religious life, the living of which is the cure for ill and the only lasting answer to the losses and disappointments of this earthly life? When we find ourselves in such a difficult position, silent meditation is the recommended way of opening the heart, and now is the time that we may well discover that the voice of the comforter is the voice of the true teaching given over many years by the beloved teacher himself, and we recall and perhaps understand more deeply many of the things we have been taught. As we sit in our silent communion, we may then realise the presence of the teacher within, the teacher not lost to us, but the voice of our own experience, of which our teacher has always been the interpreter for us. Finding this teacher we too can be of help to others. Phiroz used his manifold gifts of presentation to enable all comers to understand their own religiousness better, and now it is up to us to carry on and help as many people as wish it, to share his legacy, discovering with us the ever-increasing depth of meaning which lies at the heart of all the great religions and the healing power of the “religious life”, which was his life’s work.
Perhaps we may consider the valedictory words of the Buddha, words Phiroz frequently quoted, to be also Phiroz’s valediction to us: “Keep going without flagging.”