Others asked him, as a test, for a sign from heaven
There is a story of the Buddha meeting with a group of Brahmins among whom there is a sixteen-year-old, insufferably prattish, prodigy, who knows all the texts and challenges the enlightened one’s authority. Gautama fields all his questions and eventually checkmates him. The happy ending is that the youth has learned his lesson and becomes a disciple.
Becoming a disciple for most of us is a longer business. The ego, like Lucifer, in the cosmic struggle that led to the civil war in heaven, wills not to serve. It prefers defeat and exclusion from the ranks of the blessed to acknowledging a higher power.
In more down to earth terms, this is reflected in our struggle with addiction. The first of the Twelve Steps that leads to freedom is the most humbling, to acknowledge our incapacity to free ourselves and the need to recognise a higher power. This eventually leads to the eleventh step by which time we have learned what prayer really means: ‘conscious contact with God as we understand’ what God means. Only then, after the ‘spiritual awakening’ that results from mastering the ego, are we ready to help others suffering from addiction and to begin to live what we have learned in all parts of our life.
We cannot teach until we have learned from a teacher whose higher power we have acknowledged. As long as we see this relationship as a battle of wills, competing with our teacher, impatient for our graduation with honours, we have not even taken the first step. Ultimately, however, we do not surrender to our teacher. We love our teacher and therefore the teacher of our teacher… Students graduate and set up on their own. Disciples enter a community stretching in all directions in space and time.
At first, testing our teacher is not a bad thing, provided it also brings our ego out into the open where it can itself be tested and tamed. I guess the Buddha wasn’t really angry with the prattish Brahmin prodigy or offended by his attitude. He understood where it was coming from. Finally, with his help, the youth understood himself and saw that his true self would only be freed, and his talents put to good use, by what perhaps seemed like a humiliating defeat but was, in truth, the mutual acceptance that exists between a true teacher and a true disciple.
But this can be a long and difficult game until we encounter this kind of teacher, one who can make us this kind of disciple. Until then, the ego has innumerable red lines that it refuses to cross and will even seek to defeat and humiliate the teacher on whom it depends for freedom. This is made explicit later in the story of Easter.