IT IS THE MIDDLE OF December, the last day of classes. Outside, the sky is darkening and the wind is rattling the windows. I am meeting with students in a course called “The Nature of Religious Experience.” We have been reading from the Upanishads, the Life of the Buddha, the Zen Buddhist Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Tao Te Ching, the books of Job, Isaiah, Matthew, the sermons of Meister Eckhart, and the poetry of two great masters of Islamic spirituality, Rumi and Hafiz. We have been speaking about religious experience—we have not been trying to have religious experience.
But, of course, throughout the semester students have been asking the great questions of the heart. And I have been trying to maintain a necessary balance between my academic responsibility on the one hand and, on the other, my personal feelings–not only for the intimate metaphysical needs of the students, but for the fundamental questions about life and the search for truth that are bound to arise in the presence of such texts.
I had promised the students that on the last day of class, after they handed in their final essays, they should feel free to speak about absolutely anything. Attendance in this final class meeting was understood to be purely voluntary. In past semesters, about half the students would remain after dropping off their exams, but today, perhaps because of the threatening weather, only a dozen students, or less than one-third, stayed. I invited them all to come forward and form a half-circle in the front of the room.
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