Anyone who has gone to school in India can tell you that students are, as a rule, afraid of their teachers. This is particularly strange to an American. In the United States, it is common for students to quite aggressively challenge their teacher. American students are not shy and you cannot pull rank on them. You will have to prove your credentials to them. Respect is to be earned, not given as a right. Teachers are not allowed to verbally or physically abuse students even for grave violations. In India, on the other hand, the teacher holds the power of pain over the student. It was common (at least when I was growing up) for teachers to hit students quite brutally. Challenging a teacher was unthinkable. A fact was a fact because the teacher said so. A challenge could, quite simply put, lead to a severe beating. The atmosphere used to be such, that students were afraid to voice legitimate concerns, raise valid doubts and make simple requests lest it result in a beating, or even worse, in verbal humiliation. When the teacher asks any sort of question, the correct answer is expected. A wrong answer could also lead to verbal or physical abuse and humiliation. In Rural areas of India, this held even more true than in urban areas. The story I am about to tell you must be put in this context.
The first 3 days in a Vipassana course are spent in Anapana meditation, i.e. contemplation of the breath and it’s various derivatives and manifestations. Usually during these days the teacher will interview all new meditators once a day regarding any concerns/doubts/questions they may have as well as to inquire on their progress. One of the questions asked is, “How long are you able to maintain awareness of breath without getting distracted by some other object?” There is no correct answer to this question except that you are expected to answer truthfully. As background information, for new students, their mind usually stays on their breath for about 10 seconds before they get distracted either by the pain in their legs and body or by some random thoughts, other students or any number or objects. Unbroken awareness over one minute is considered very good. Anything more than two minutes is excellent and anything close to 5 minutes signifies an advanced adept at meditation (possibly with supernatural powers). Anything more than that is incredible. Anyone claiming more than that will either invite howls of laughter, shaking of the head, incredulous stares or even looks of derision from fellow meditators. Almost all new students and several veteran meditators will find their minds getting distracted every 10 seconds the first few days or so. Even by the end of the course a one minute unbroken stream is very well done.
Now let’s get to the story. One of the new meditators was a rather simple looking fellow from the Rural areas of India. He did not seem to be very serious. We were all wondering exactly what his intentions in coming to a course was. He regularly missed the group sittings. And he was usually spotted either sleeping on his mat, hunched over contemplating the texture of the meditation mat instead of observing the breath. When his time for the interview came, the teacher asked him the question, “How long are you able to maintain an unbroken awareness of breath?” He promptly answered, “2 hours.” The teacher and I both laughed. The teacher said, “Look, it is not correct to tell a lie especially at this Dhamma land. You are definitely lying. Please tell us again this time truthfully.” He looked at both of us in turns like a deer caught in the headlights. He did not exactly seem sure what was going on. “2 Hours” he insisted. The teacher started shaking his head. I tried this time, “Friend, are you able to maintain 2 hours awareness on your breath without any thoughts invading your mind?” He again looked at us with trepidation this time. You could see straight away that he was scared of us. He was back in the classroom of his childhood with the teacher and I being the villains of the piece. Memories of classroom beatings flooded his mind. In his mind a wrong answer would invite humiliation. “2 hours” he stubbornly insisted again. Perhaps he felt that if he said 1 or 2 minutes it would invite condemnation because it meant that he was not sharp enough. Perhaps he felt safe with the 2 hours answer. I tried again, “Look friend”, I said. “It is not possible for you to be continuously aware of your breath for 2 hours without distraction. Even 1 minute is a great thing. Please tell us again honestly this time”. He looked at both of us again in turns. You could see his mind was whirring. Was this a trap? Were we trying to trap him? His mind was in turmoil. He desperately wanted to avoid a beating or a scolding. After much deliberation, he reconciled himself to the fact that we were not going to leave him alone. We were determined to give him a beating or at the very least a scolding. He said with pain in his voice, “30 minutes”