Form and Essence

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How do the concepts of form and essence, and their interaction, inform the educational philosophy here at APV?


I think it is everywhere, this tension between form and essence. Like in religion- the truth is formless, yet what you see in the name of religion is all form. A church, a temple, a mosque- these are forms. The rituals that they do, the prayers they chant, worshipping this god or that god- that is also form. And the essence gets lost in this cloud of forms, because there is form everywhere and gradually people forget what a form represented in the first place. Maybe initially, the people who created the form did so to remind people of the essence. The forms were created to help people towards the essence, like a map can help people go to a certain place, but it is not the place itself. And gradually the forms stopped serving that purpose. The same thing happened in education. In India, at least in ancient India, the goal of education, as we’ve said many times, was to touch this essence. ‘Sa vidya ya vimuktaye.’ This state of liberation is a state of formlessness- it takes you beyond space and time. And once you can touch that state, then that state governs your actions and may help you create many forms. But all of those forms have come from, and are guided by, the essence. So what you see, generally, is that when anybody talks about starting a school they talk about money that will be needed to buy land, to build buildings, to pay the teachers, to buy supplies- all of that is form. Whatever involves money is form. I think that the hope was that this money, these forms, would then lead to education, which is helping children and teachers to touch this thing that is formless, the essence, the taste of pure internal freedom, not depending on anything external. But that hasn’t happened. So when we talk about things like uniforms- some may complain at our school that the children are not wearing neat and clean uniforms- people forget that the idea of uniforms did not come from the essence of education. It came from somewhere else, it came from the army. It was supposed to be an aid to learning, not something to be prized in itself. In fact, it came to disguise the essence- most of the forms have served this same purpose. They disguise the essence, rather than lead you to the essence. If they led you to the essence, then we wouldn’t be talking about uniforms in this way.

Is it good for children to play with the elements of nature, with soil, with mud, with leaves? Most sane people would say yes. Okay, so if children play then their clothes will not stay neat and clean throughout the day. And if you don’t let them play, if you have a space that is just cement, no dirt, no nature, and you make sure that even there they don’t play in such a way that their clothes get dirty- what is the purpose behind this? Why do you want clothes, which are not part of us in any essential way, to stay at a certain level of cleanliness? Similarly everything else that has to do with form. Government teachers complain that there are too many registers that they have to fill out. Whenever there are teachers’ meetings they talk about all of these forms- surveys, election forms, etc. Why do you need all of that? Why do you have a school in the first place? What are you doing with the minds and souls of the children, as well as your own? So the central purpose of a school gets sidetracked, and many educationists today would say that they are not concerned with essence- that they are helping children master certain skills because society needs it, and the students need it for a livelihood. Which, again, is not actually true. I think- I haven’t done any surveys, but I feel this is true- that 99% of the activities that bring us money do not require any kind of formal education. If you survey all of the activities that people in a big city do to earn their livelihood, what percentage of people actually require the skills they were taught in school? Somebody is a driver, a road builder, a mason, electricians, construction workers, miners- none of that requires this knowledge. There are very few specialized cases where it is important, like a doctor; and that is so because the government requires a degree. Otherwise the best doctors probably wouldn’t need a degree. To get the job they need a degree, but a degree doesn’t make them a good doctor.


Most of their actual learning is done by doing.


Yes. And I think if they didn’t require all of these degrees to become a doctor more would admit how perfectly useless their schooling was for the work they do. So to say that schools are helping children to earn their livelihood is not really true, and neither are they giving them real knowledge. So why has education come to this state? I think it is because people are lost in so many different kinds of form that were supposed to serve the essence, but don’t.


It seems that essence precedes form, and in fact gives life to form, the animating principle. Form without essence is a sickly thing.


Right. For instance, take the relationship between students and teachers; suppose there is a school in which the management decides that an excellent relationship is a priority. Now, one way is to begin with forms- forms meaning the things people have said about the issue, previous proposals and hypotheses about what makes for a good student-teacher relationship. And you create at the very beginning a list of rules and guidelines for a good relationship- do this, don’t do that, and so on. I was reading a book long ago that suggested a kindergarten teacher should enter the classroom before the students and stand at the door smiling. The hope was that this would set the tone for a good relationship between the teacher and the students. I never see that happen at our school, and yet the children are so close to the teachers. Most of the time the teachers come after the children; the children are already at the school, opening up the rooms, doing the cleaning, and then the teachers come. And sometimes the teacher isn’t smiling, but you don’t need these forms. A smile is a form, and it can be genuine or not genuine, depending on whether there is some essence in it. You can make it a rule that a teacher should always smile at the children, but it will never have the effect that you want it to if the smile is not genuine, if your soul is not smiling. What I am trying to say is that if you are with the essence then form will emerge on its own. All of these educational forms- teaching methods, classroom setup, so on- will come about naturally.

For instance, the assembly. We didn’t know that we were ever going to have this kind of assembly- it emerged on its own. And people come now and tell us that they haven’t seen this kind of assembly anywhere else. There are certain common elements in other places, but somewhere else, for instance, the children are never allowed to play instruments. There may be a certain group of children that are trained separately to sing and play, but here a child who has just come today, who hasn’t ever seen cymbals, is allowed to touch and play them, and is helped by the other children. There are many things here that happened spontaneously, and we let them happen. If we had done them with a lot of effort, by a lot of study and planning, we would be afraid everyday, very insecure. Are we doing it in the right way? But we are not afraid, even though we do not know exactly how the next assembly is going to happen, because we trust this energy, and trusting this deeper energy creates the surface form.


A preconceived hypothesis is always on the precipice of collapse; some bad responses or pieces of data and the whole structure deteriorates. A form that is allowed to build itself organically and gradually is much more resilient, and far more capable of change. It makes no truth claims- it is always in the process of becoming.


And it seems that it is now more scientific to trust the essence and let the form come out of that essence. For instance, as I’ve mentioned before, if the universe is composed of only 4% known matter and 96% unknown, then I think when we talk about essence that it is in that realm of the 96%. This tiny bit, the 4% that we know and can observe, is like a tiny thing floating on the ocean, and taking its life from the ocean. And the ocean probably changes into this form now and again, like a bubble emerges and it bursts and goes back to the ocean. So if this unseen thing which we may or may not feel is the main thing, and knows beyond our comprehension what a form should look like, then why not trust it? The only thing, then, is to find ways of contacting it, like meditation, your deeper instincts. All the resources that we have to touch this deeper reality- that is what we should spend our time and energy on, rather than on studying forms, as teachers are trained to do now without being allowed to explore their own inner being. Instead of focusing on studying previous forms, is it not more sane to observe the children that you have to work with right now? By being with them you will learn more about them and about yourself, and gradually other things will emerge. I am just exploring this now, and I can feel it from the inside, but we will probably have to speak in different ways to communicate with other people.


So how do you keep a form from becoming an empty form? It seems you have to be very open to change, and be willing to deconstruct beloved things that have worked in the past but may not work at the present moment.


That is true. One way is to have this flame of inquiry alive all the time, and always ask ‘Why?’ Children should stand in a line- why? The children do that in all the schools around here, and in most of the schools in India. They play a drum- dum dum dum. And all the people around you seem to believe in it and praise it- the parents, the management, the teachers, even the students themselves- and they come to feel a sense of importance through that ritual that they call morning assembly. There is a little drum and children are standing in lines and they even do left-right-left for some time. Then they sing a song, in India, one prayer, but they sing it without instruments, and standing in line, which is never done, culturally, in India. You don’t sing standing here- especially devotional songs. Begin to ask ‘why?’- yes, everybody’s doing it, but why? Yes, king you are wearing clothes. The old story about the king who is told he is wearing special clothes that he cannot see, and it is only a child that tells him he is naked. You must ask ‘why?’ to see with that simple clarity- this doesn’t make sense, and yet you continue to do it. Similarly, exams. I find that exams are very poor at testing a child’s true understanding. Now, there is the argument that if you go to that extreme of questioning traditional ways of doing things, then you will attract very few children, because parents will keep them away. So you do need some strategies to convince people to place some trust in you. We actually do have exams, but they mean nothing here except as a challenge to children, a game- can they express themselves in the written form within a fixed time frame? And we tell them that they will have to do this many times, that this is the system that is currently in place. And often in real life we are challenged in a similar way, often we do not have the luxury of unlimited time and we have to do something in a limited timeframe. So an exam will give them that training, and parents like that we do exams. And we can do exams, this form, in such a way that we do not lose touch with the essence, without harming it. We give exams to the children without encouraging competitiveness, without giving marks that will give rise to all these negative emotions that act as barriers. We can adhere to a form while questioning why we do it. We can give an exam without falling prey to all the stress and negativity that usually accompanies it. And we can question all sorts of things in this clarity. Why do we need furniture in the classroom? Why can’t we sit on the floor? It is so much freer. Similarly, teaching 1/2 + 1/3- you have only learned it on paper or on the blackboard, but what does it mean? In the same way, what does an assembly mean? What does a prayer mean? What does a relationship mean? When you begin to challenge you may find that many of the traditional things done in other schools makes no sense.

Like a principal’s room. Before we started APV there was a separate principal’s room in the school, like a government office that you’re afraid to enter. There was even a board with all the names of the previous principals. So the first thing we did when we took over was turn the board around and use it as a blackboard. We turned it into a classroom, and said that if you want to talk to the principal you can find him in a classroom, or working in the field- initially we did lots of work with the land. If we are not needed in the classroom we will be doing something somewhere else, and parents can find us there. And many times I talked to parents while working with stones, building a wall or digging something. The parents didn’t like that- they’re shocked. So then they don’t want to see you as a teacher, and you’re school as a school. That did happen, unfortunately, for some parents and their children, but it was actually good for us to have fewer children at the beginning. If you question these things, then you will inevitably be seen as going against tradition, against the mainstream, and you will be labeled by people as eccentric, or whatever.


Forms don’t stay in the present, but impinge upon the future; they replicate themselves in these ideas of tradition and the notion that the way things were is automatically the way they should continue to be.


Society is not ready for something that looks brand new, even if it is not really new but has been tried again and again successfully. They will see it as different compared to what exists today and what existed in the past. And as you said, things perpetuate themselves. Existing forms that have been disconnected from their essence continue because generation after generation passes without these things being challenged. So once you begin to get in touch with the essence, and start questioning, even if you take just a few steps, that is enough for you to see the fallacy of many things that exist today. When you start doing something different and get in touch with the essence, the forms will take care of themselves, and these new forms will come into conflict with the existing expectations of parents and society in general. But if you don’t panic, if you don’t start comparing your school with other schools- if you are comparing you cease to be in touch with the essence- you will make progress. Many people told us that what we are doing is excellent, but we are not talking about it, we are not spreading it, we are not writing articles or this or that. And we said that we are not against that, necessarily, but we have no time. Somebody will do it, the message will spread, but we need to stay wholly involved in what we are doing. Others will come, in time, and see what is happening, and they will be better equipped to communicate it with the world. Which has happened in our case. We knew nothing about computers or websites or people from other countries, and people came on their own. We would have had no way of attracting them through our effort- we didn’t know who to talk to. But we spent no time on that, because it was not our work. Our work is to focus on what is happening in the school. Let the essence guide it where it will go, who it will reach. We don’t know. So as long as you are not comparing your situation with the world, I see no danger. The essence is much stronger than any worldly opinion. The essence knows how to guide you through all of these difficulties, and you will have the intelligence to do your work in such a way that you don’t invite any real opposition, in people actually stopping you in what you are doing. There will be opposition from a distance, people disagreeing, talking against you, but that doesn’t matter. And worrying about scale, that you are a very small school and want to be big- why do you want to be big? In that urge you are probably moving away from the essence. If you are trusting in the essence, then the essence knows how many children you should have. Some years less, some years more. And you may touch other children through other people who have studied at the school, been at the school, lived with you, had this experience, and they talk to other people and start to replicate it somewhere else. So you are spreading a message, indirectly. Then why worry? The key, I feel, is to stay with the essence and not worry about anything else. It will all work itself out if you are committed to staying with the essence. Some years ago we were asked this question: what is your business plan? This was maybe ten years ago. How will you survive financially? And my answer was: it is not our job to figure that out. To use old words, we are doing God’s work. And God knows. We are not here to run the school; the school may close down tomorrow. If the experiment has run its course, if the essence dictates that we must do something else, then in that case the school may stop, and it should stop. But if the essence is guiding us to continue, and telling us to put all of our energy in it, then it will flourish- which doesn’t mean more children or more money, but that the experience will deepen. We will continue whole-heartedly, and there is no need for a business plan. If money is needed, money will come. It actually has. Money has come for houses that we never dreamt we would be able to build.

So from the materialistic point of view it is a scary philosophy, and to many it will make little sense, because they’re actions depend on calculations. And calculations depend on their previous knowledge. Because of this and this and this that exists today, because of their past experience, because of the way institutions work, they want to use all of this old knowledge to gain some clarity of the future. From the essence point of view, the future is always unknown; you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so why panic about the unknown? Tomorrow you may not be here- so what? But that is scary to people because they want to live as if things were permanent, as if they were predictable, as if that was the way things had to happen. But then the essence angle is that it is always unknown, that you are not a fixed entity, that you are flowing like a fountain, changing all the time. Everything is changing, and to stay in tune with that change you must change as well. Like a dance; the tune changes, your dance changes. Be ready for that, and don’t be afraid. People who are in touch with the essence, living in that way, they immediately understand what we are talking about. But then there are other people, from the management world, from a calculating, scientific way of planning things, and to them we make no sense.


This desire for external security and predictability seems like an attempt to check this inextricable internal impermanence. Against the buried and repressed knowledge and fear that ‘tomorrow I will not be me’ they build up these big apparatuses to predict and control the future as a balm.


There is very clear evidence, that can be accessed very easily, that it is not so that things can be maintained as they are. They can talk to other people who have lived that way, and now are dying. They can study their lives- what happened? This person seemed to be very secure and successful until a certain age, and then grew older and needed the help of others. At one point he had all the money and all the servants, and yet nobody was really caring for him. And then probably this realization comes. ‘I thought I was secure and successful, I thought they were my friends, I thought that they would take care of me, but now I am dying and they have no time for me.’ I think the intelligent approach would be to study those people, and you will soon realize that if you are doing those same things for security, you will meet the same fate. But if you study mystics, the older they become, the more free they are. There is nobody around them, and it doesn’t matter. They meditate and die. They are not afraid of death because they have touched death many times before. They know death is just another step. You leave this body. If you look at things from that angle, you see that forms will never give you security. They emerge and they collapse, after some time.

If your identity is conditioned on external things, then it is inevitable that that identity will pass away just as those external things must eventually decay and change. But if you see yourself unconditionally then no change of circumstances can threaten you. Before you own anything you must own yourself, and once you own yourself there is no need to own anything else. The same seems to apply to a school.