A Refuge for Love

The other day on almsround I was stepping up in front of the local country store and was greeted by a friend. He’d just suffered a blow – a breakup with his girlfriend of some months. “It’s happened before but this time feels more final.” he said. Still, he was curiously upbeat. “I’m feeling a weight lifted off me! It was so chaotic. I feel good! I woke up and said, hey, I’m single!”

A week earlier he had been introducing himself as a man in love, so, sensing this circumstance might also change, I thought to soften the blow by pointing out he would probably feel differently in a day or two. It would be then, when he’d had time to process, that the lack of his girlfriend and the space she had filled in his life would become apparent. Whatever underlying condition or lack had drawn him into the relationship despite its ups and downs would again resurface. The old hunger for affection, which had been seemingly removed, would return again. Just as sure as that no matter what great meal we eat today, we’ll wake tomorrow thinking of breakfast, so the hungry heart will never be eternally sated by the love of another.

So it was that when Anagarika Drew and I came by on almsround the next day our friend sat down beside us with a huff. “I’m hurting,” he said, and the cause didn’t need to be spoken. We were three men familiar with love and loss.

How quickly we can go from the joy of freedom back into bondage, or at least a yearning for some engagement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that I think all relationships are born from neediness and dependency. An image comes to mind of the comic spy of the early 2000’s cinema, Austin Powers, after he found out his new wife was actually just a cyborg. The movie has him break into a tap-dancing Broadway musical, frolicking down the street with the joy of being single. Yet not half an hour of screen time later, buoyant with joy and a sense of invincibility, he’s already neck deep in wooing the next Mrs. Powers.

But outside those occasions when we connect with someone through a meeting of joy and mutual interest, for many of us the seed of romantic relationship is the attempt to fill some sort of lack, and it was this lack that our friend was feeling mostly acutely now after the breakup. What made it agony was not just the feeling but the grim knowledge that any moment of weakness might find him plunging back into the same or another chaotic relationship to try to resolve this feeling. He could tell it wouldn’t work. We all know it won’t work. But, in a moment of weakness, down we all go.

“I’m just hungry for love.” he reflected. “Well, I love you.” I responded. He held a hand to his chest, but his wry smile signaled what we both knew – if that were enough he would have never gotten in this situation in the first place. A spoonful of sugar doesn’t do much for hunger pains.

“I just want a refuge,” he said, without a trace of knowledge of the customs and rituals of the two Buddhist monks beside him. For he was saying aloud what we all feel, what we are all really seeking – a refuge, a safe space, a true love. We’re not greedy, we say, we just want one person to love us, unconditionally, forever. Is that so much to ask?

Thousands of years ago, the Buddha pointed to this same tendency. People have always yearned for refuges. The places they look tend to change with the times, but the pattern does not.

Nevertheless, my offer to him stood. I will love you unconditionally. Not forever, but at least a minute or two. Can you make that enough? And it’s not just me – how many sources of love you have! Love of family, of friends, of teachers and students and peers. Any one person might not be able to fulfill all your needs for love, but that’s too much to ask of a temporary, mortal, changing person anyway.

We don’t get to eat one meal and be full forever. Likewise our need for appreciation and recognition can be sated for a bit but will arise again if our expectations are unrealistic. We can accept this, accept the changing nature of it, accept the hunger too. We can learn to be okay with less-than-perfect love from all the many sources. How much love we feel is only limited by our capacity to see it.

Our yearning for something permanent and happy, a perfect refuge, is burning our heart and forcing us into one disaster after another. Why not abandon it? Why not take refuge in the knowledge that the hunger, too, is impermanent?

Gradual Training Retreat

This month’s In-Person retreat, “The Gradual Training”, wrapped up this evening. It was wonderful having friends together in a comfortable space for two days of dedicated practice, and the first offering since monastics Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew arrived to spend the vassa in Western Mass. The retreat was themed around the Buddha’s method of gradually training new practitioners so that they developed in a fluid and linear way, all while minimizing difficulties from being asked to let go and take on new experiences.
The talks have been recorded on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel. A playlist for the retreat is available at:
The opening talk on Friday night is presented here, though the camera couldn’t decide where to focus thanks to Tahn Pamutto’s enthusiastic hand motions!

The Path to Impermanence

This week the conversation both online and on the street has been around Impermanence. The ‘idea’ of impermanence is one that every person has at some point – realistically many times in their life. And yet the Buddha highlights it and returns to it again and again in his teachings. Clearly not a mere idea is intended but a profound and paradigm-altering depth of realization. What could this insight be, and how do we as practitioners get there?

Everything is already Impermanent, already changing all around us, so this is not something we need to do or add to our experience. Buddhism is not about adorning ourselves with a bunch of fancy philosophical ideas about how things come and go. If we were to take the most precise and eloquent reflection of impermanence and add it to our current state, that’s all we would be – a mass of everyday thoughts plus one more thought. As it turns out, that’s already what we’re getting nearly every single day. People are talking about change, singing about change, acting it out in theater and on a billion screens. Constantly talking about aging, about loss, about growth …

We already think about impermanence a lot. The only problem is that they are just thoughts, and a fraction of a second after we have these thoughts … they change too.

We could grab a string of mala beads to chant “Impermanent, Impermanent,” a million times, and we would get no wiser. Impermanence is not in the words or ideas. That’s not where it lives. It’s in the objects and circumstances of our lives, and that’s where we must look for it. To see impermanence we must find this quality in the things we love and hate, and that’s why the deeper insight stays mostly hidden to us, because by our nature that’s the last place we want to look for it.

Are there things in our lives we don’t want to change? Are there things we feel couldn’t change fast enough? Both help reflect to us what this contemplation is really for. Whether or not we understand Impermanence, still all things that arise will cease. But its the fact that we struggle with this change, that we get burned by loss or refuse to tolerate something’s existence – that is why we contemplate.

Take something dear to you and say, “Will it change?” Then, “In what way?” “Will I feel differently about it later?” “Is the change inevitable?” “How do I try to force or resist this change?”

On the subject of deeper realization, this is perhaps a place to illuminate the terms in Buddhism we call Path and Fruit – or Magga and Phala. Both are powerful alterations in the process of thought, often initiated by a profound insight, which occur only in those who have sincerely and personally undertaken spiritual practice.

Before Path arises, we are of the mass of beings roaming saṃsara, the round of existence. Even if we become religious figures, or poets, or philosophers, and even if we see that things are arising, changing, and ceasing, still we don’t know what to do about it. We are like stargazers taking in the vastness of the cosmos above only to be humbled and dumbfounded.

True Magga, or Path, arises as a response to suffering. It’s not merely that we see something change – we see our reaction to it. We see pain, hesitation, and fear. We follow these emotions to their source and we realize with a gasp that the suffering we are experiencing has attachment as its source. We don’t want things to change, and because they will despite our feelings on the matter our protest itself is the burning we feel.

Path arises in that moment if we alter the script. Impermanence is real, it’s universal, it’s natural even if it can be vexing. We decide to embrace it and to abandon the attachment instead. If impermanence isn’t going anywhere, we determine to find a way to be at peace with it (or even like it!). There will be some work involved, but we know what has to be done and we get to it.

So what is Fruit? What is the goal, the attainment of this profound insight, in pursuit of which we start analyzing and dissecting every aspect of our lives to reveal attachment and abandon it? The curious thing about the Fruit of practice is that it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the exact nature of the work that was done. It’s not about addition. Fruit isn’t a matter of Person plus the perception of impermanence. It’s about Person minus the delusion of permanence. When that delusion is gone and a person is freed, they love fully and let go in the same breath. They buy a new car knowing it will fail them someday, or wash and tune an old car glad it might get them to work even one more time. They look in the mirror not aghast to see wrinkles and gray hairs, but fascinated by the new face that is continuously looking back at them.

This is the curious trajectory we are following in doing this work of contemplating impermanence. Before we begin there is no work, just wandering and suffering. Then there is Path, and we know the work and get to it. We try hard to understand, and each breakthrough powers us onward. Then, with the attainment of Fruit, there is no longer any suffering, and no longer any work.

After all, the work is not coming from Impermanence but from our suffering and the attachment that generates it. It is our own delusion that creates the work, and is the work, and is the obstacle to work. If we seek an end to the work we must seek an end to the delusion. When we have found the refuge at the end of that path, however, what is left is just us. Loving, living, letting go. Whether we have the ‘idea’ of Impermanence or not, it will be there with us every breath.

Retreat starting Friday

Tomorrow, our weekend retreat “The Gradual Training” will begin with an extension of the normal Friday meditation session on Zoom, at 8pm EDT. After the meditation there will be the opportunity for participants to take the Refuges and Precepts, and then at 9pm Tahn Pamutto will offer a talk outlining the theme for the weekend.

This retreat is being offered In-Person in Shelburne, MA, but the reflections given will be available on the ‘Innovative Dhamma’ YouTube channel either as they happen or in the coming days.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Last Friday night, for the Full Moon, the monastics were able to host their Uposatha gathering in the town of Wendell, where they will be spending the three month Vassa season. This is a time of stability, where wandering is reduced and monastics commit to staying in a particular community for the duration.
Whether at a hermitage by themselves or in the thick of a bustling monastery community, monks are often assessing whether or not their situation is conducive to spiritual progress. How do we assess? What factors are most important? Is it our level of comfort, our enjoyment, or the quality of our peers? Access to spiritual texts? Popularity with the townsfolk?
As always, the Buddha’s encouragement is direct and unambiguous. Are we surviving, and are we attaining insight and freedom not previously attained? This simple formula is applicable to a wide variety of situations we face in life, whether in our jobs, our relationships, our living situations. When we focus on spiritual growth, even difficult situations can be seen as edifying.

Speedbumps and the Vassa

From Tahn Pamutto: “One of my root teachers, Luang Por Pasanno, once famously exclaimed, “It’s illegal to live simply in this country!” That became something of a running joke at Abhayagiri Monastery in northern California, where ever stricter building codes have made it incredibly expensive to build even the tiniest structure. You can’t just nail some boards together – everything must be able to simultaneously withstand both forest fires and earthquakes. That means concrete, metal rebar, and elaborate fire-suppression measures.

Yet, with a devout lay community and a long-cultivated spirit of compliance with the fussy Building and Planning Commission, Abhayagiri has managed to build everything they originally set out to (and survived said forest fires along the way). They are a model of steady growth and a stable monastic training environment.

Though I no longer live there, Abhayagiri Monastery’s long uphill battle to afford ever more expensive structures is part of my monastic DNA. I was there, watching and learning. Last year, when I set my mind to return to western Massachusetts to start a dhamma practice center, I knew what I would be up against. Every improvement has a cost.

It’s illegal to live simply here! You would think it wouldn’t be too hard for a couple of Buddhist monks to get together and practice diligently, but you would be wrong. Our laws and societal structures are built around a very narrow definition of living, and monasticism, to say nothing of forest monasticism, was not in the consideration.

There are these four requisites of life – Clothing, Food, Shelter, and Medicines. That is the simplest definition of human needs, and for years I traveled this area content with the bare minimum: almsfood placed in my bowl, three thick robes, sleeping in the forest, and only the supplies I could carry on my back.

I learned over time, though, that only individuals can aspire to live by the minimums. The moment you seek to bring others along for the journey, needs multiply and laws and societal structures start to kick in. Complications arise. And yet, curiously, in those places you succeed and the conditions for practice are stabilized, interested dhamma friends seem to show up as if summoned.

Thus, I’ve spent much of the last three weeks puzzling over the fate of Upavana’s ‘mobile temple’. There have been a number of requests by monastics and lay people to visit and perhaps join for the summer. Both the Leverett site and camper weren’t yet fit for the expansion. In every place I thought to expand, I ran across a lack of resources and even legal considerations. The more people, the more visible a movement becomes. But through perseverance and flexibility, I think the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place.

After one of the many speedbumps to finding a place to park the camper — a town Board of Health that wasn’t sure if camping on private property was even legal in their town — a friend who was frustrated by the matter turned to me and said, “Well, if I’m this upset, I can only imagine how you feel.”

Curiously, I didn’t feel anything. “Maybe I’m just in shock.” I said. “But it doesn’t seem like a big deal.” It was potentially a major setback, yet somehow I knew if I stayed on course, I would still get where I was going. It wasn’t about results, but having a clear trajectory that could tolerate the bumps.

All of this – finding a site, repairing structures, deciding who to live with — is happening like clockwork and occurs every year at this time. We are about to enter the period of the Indian calendar known as Vassa, the monsoon season [Vassa sure sounds a lot like Water, doesn’t it?]. During this time the intense rains make it impractical to travel. Monks are required to secure a shelter or shelters and determine a region to live three months of this four-month season.

We used to joke in California that we were keeping the Rains Retreat in the driest part of the year, but this is already the third wettest July on record and we’re barely half through the month. Nevertheless, two monastic friends are undaunted and arrive on Monday to see if Upavana might provide a place to train for the season.

More on them when they arrive. In the meantime, I’m set up in the town of Wendell, the densely forested hill-town with a warm and inviting community of less than a thousand people. This was the first place I came on my wandering in 2015 and the first place I spent a Vassa on the road. The ability to go almsround every day provided the perfect nourishment for my growth in the disciplines of wandering. How very circular that Upavana’s sangha should arrive here first to begin it’s own journey!”

Finding Our Center

Last night during the tea time another perennial question came up – how are we supposed to relate to the differences between the Buddhist traditions, and which practices should we take up or avoid?

The first part of the question is mostly historical. The three main branches of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana – are designations for styles of practice from different regions and cultures. Theravada (tare – uh – vahd – uh) came from India and migrated to Southeast Asia; Mahayana branched up through China and to the Far East, and Vajrayana is centered around Tibet and Nepal.

What differs in terms of doctrine or beliefs between the three branches is (mostly) centered around the willingness to recognize teachings from after the Buddha. The Theravada formed out of a desire to focus again and again on the original teachings and commentaries, while the Mahayana and Vajrayana flourished through recognizing new ideas and source material. None of the three stances is definitive, and each person tends to know intuitively what resonates with them.

It might seem that you could categorically describe any of the three branches by their chanting, or vows, or favorite teachings, but the more you travel and look around the more you see how diverse each branch is. They are each over a thousand years old and encompass numerous cultures. Any practice or austerity you can find in one is found somewhere in the others. They all draw their inspiration from Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and the realized and well-practiced proponents of each branch dwell in harmony and respect for the others. In the beginning, the roots of all three schools dwelt together in central India, even in the same monasteries. While they might not practice the same, it’s as though they say, “What you do works too. Practice well!”

The spirit of the tolerance of differences is at the heart of the Buddha’s most famous teachings. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha encourages the Kalama people to give up hearsay, blind faith and guesswork, and instead ask, “When I practice in this way, do wholesome states increase and unwholesome states decrease?”

This is the standard we can use when we are visiting other centers or seeking a practice to call our own. Don’t just trust what you’ve heard about others or make snap judgments. Try it and see for yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, trust your judgment. Move on when you have a better option.

We have a blessing that is also a curse in the modern world. Choice. Virtually anywhere you go you will have access to all three Buddhist traditions and a buffet of options for practice. I’m currently staying in a hilltown in western Masschusetts with a population of 850 – and yet all three traditions are represented at the weekly meditation group.

We have access to all the teachers, all the books, all the chants and rituals … how do we pick? Should we pick, or should we just use them all? I say this is also a curse because, perhaps you’ve heard the simile of the hundred wells? “Which is more likely to find water: digging one hundred one-foot wells or one, one-hundred foot well?” The answer is fairly obvious. Picking and choosing will make us a very balanced practitioner on the surface, but as the goal of the practice leads in the direction of learning from discomfort and relinquishing preferences, forever shopping around will prevent us from reaching the deeper truths each tradition seeks.

Yet plugging away at a practice that doesn’t suit us for decades is no more likely to bear fruit. This is the balance we strike, the ever-evolving Middle Way. We can be clear about which teachers we choose, which practices, which colors and bells and bows – all without being attached. Neither clinging to, nor pushing away. We trust ourselves; we trust what works for us.

This is the simplest advice to offer one trying to find their place in the world of spiritual practice: Your seeking for the right conditions and right fit for you is actually part of the practice. Learning both to let go and to devote yourself fully will develop your faith and wisdom. So don’t be afraid to try new things – the Buddhist world is vast – but when you find something that works, go for it.

Three Refuges and Eight Precepts

This is one example of the formal ceremony for requesting the Three Refuges and Eight Precepts, as is done every Uposatha observance.  A representative of the gathered community will make the Request of the ceremeony leader, who may be a monastic or respected lay practitioner.  The Leader will then guide the community through the ceremony through call and response.

Aṭṭhaṅga‧Sīla‧Yācanā (Request)

Community Representative: Okāsa mayaṃ Bhante* tisaraṇena saha aṭṭha‧sīlāni yācāma

Dutiyam pi okāsa … (repeat above)

Tatiyam pi okāsa … (repeat above)

Tisaraṇa (Refuges)

Leader: Yam ahaṃ vadāmi taṃ vadetha.**( Singular: vadesi)

Community: Āma Bhante*

Leader: Namo tassa Bhagavato arahato sammā‧sambuddhassa.

(Leader says once alone, Community repeats 3 times)

Leader, followed by Community:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Dutiyam pi Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Dutiyam pi Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Dutiyam pi Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Tatiyam pi Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Tatiyam pi Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

Tatiyam pi Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.4

Leader: Tisaraṇa‧gamanaṃ sampuṇṇaṃ.

Community: Āma Bhante*

* Chant Bhante for a Bhikkhu, Ayye from a Bhikkhuni, Mitte (friend) for a layperson.

 

Aṭṭhaṅga‧Sīla (Eight Precepts)

Leader, then repeated by Community:

1. Pāṇātipātā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

2. Adinnādānā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

3. Abrahmacariyā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

4. Musā vādā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

5. Surā ‧ meraya ‧ majja ‧ pamādaṭṭhānā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

6. Vikāla bhojanā ‧ veramaṇī‧sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

7. Nacca ‧ gīta ‧ vādita ‧ visūka dassana ‧ mālā ‧ gandha ‧ vilepana‧

dhāraṇa ‧ maṇḍana ‧ vibhūsanaṭṭhānā ‧ veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

8. Uccā sayana ‧ mahā sayanā ‧ veramaṇī‧sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

Leader:

Imāni aṭṭha sikkhāpadāni samādiyāmi.

Sīlena sugatiṃ yanti,

Sīlena bhoga‧sampadā,

Sīlena nibbutiṃ yanti,

Tasmā sīlaṃ visodhaye.

Community: Sādhu! Sādhu! Sādhu!

 

Requesting a Dhamma Talk

(After bowing three times, with hands joined in añjali, recite the following:)

Brahmā ca lokādhipati Sahampati

Katañjali andhivaraṃ ayācatha

Santīdha sattāpparajakkha-jātikā

Desetu dhammaṃ anukampimaṃ pajaṃ

The Brahma Sahampati, Lord of the World,

With hands palm to palm before his heart, requested a blessing:

“There are beings here with only a little dust in their eyes.

Please, out of compassion, teach the dhamma.”

 

(English) Request for the Three Refuges & Eight Precepts 

Community: Permit us, Bhante*,  to ask for the three refuges together with the Eight precepts.

A second time permit us … (repeat above)

A third time permit us … (repeat above)

The Three Refuges

Leader: Repeat after me.

Community: Yes, Bhante*

Leader/Community: Homage to the Sublime One, the Worthy One, the Fully  Enlightened One. (Monk says once alone, Laity repeats 3 times)

Leader: followed by Community:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.

I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

I go to the Sangha for refuge.

A second time I go to the Buddha for refuge.

A second time I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

A second time I go to the Sangha for refuge.

A third time I go to the Buddha for refuge.

A third time I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

A third time I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Leader: The three refuges are complete.

Community: Yes, Bhante*

 

The Eight Precepts 

Leader, then repeated by Community:

1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.

2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from all sexual activity. 4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.

5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicating drinks and   drugs causing heedlessness.

6. I undertake the training rule to abstain from eating at improper times.

7. I undertake the training rule to abstain from dancing, singing, music, shows, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and

beautifying with cosmetics.

8. I undertake the training rule to abstain from the use of high and large seats and beds.

Leader/ Community: I undertake this set of eight precepts.   (Monastic says once, Laity repeats 3 times)

Community: Yes, Bhante/Ayya.

Leader: With morality, good rebirth is gained;

With morality, wealth is achieved;

With morality, perfect peace is attained.

Therefore, morality should be purified.

Community: Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!

Practice with Family

At times it feels like there are two different narratives going on around spiritual practice – the clear, direct, meditative path of becoming peaceful and serene like a Buddha statue; and then what practice is actually like day to day.  One is an ideal that we get to strive for whenever we have time to ourselves and a meditation cushion.  But the other is a reality shared by everyone.  We are not already enlightened – we have attachments, delusions, and expectations, and even if we didn’t we would inevitably be surrounded by people who do!

While it might seem like the interactions with others are the most difficult part of practice, they are also the most visibly rewarding.  Over time we can really see how we start the practice opinionated, controlling and resentful, only to blossom into a caring and empathetic human being.  Nowhere is the transformation more apparent than in our relationship to our family.

Who knows us better, or can push our buttons as well?  The day we were born there were bonds of relationship formed with parents, siblings, and relatives that will endure our entire lives.  And no matter how much we may want the best for them, push our buttons they will!  For if we have found ourselves born into a group of people in this endless swirl of samsara then we have probably been going round and round in family relationships with them for a long, long time, trying to find love and acceptance but often creating divisions.

Last night for the Uposatha, Tahn Pamutto was inspired by the ‘small talk’ conversations of Buddhist practice, the ones that have been overlooked and abbreviated in the major Buddhist texts.  What is the best thing we can do for our family, and how do we understand these seemingly unbreakable bonds so that we can love and let go?

Can Laypeople Become Enlightened?

Recently I was traveling with a friend when I was asked a perennial Theravada Buddhist question – “Can laypeople become arahants?” It’s a fairly sophisticated question, requiring a knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and a familiarity with the monastic order, at least enough to recognize the esteem monastics are usually held in.

Like most teachers asked the question, I usually dance around the matter a bit. You see, the definitions are wrong. While it’s true, the number of historic lay arahants number in the single digits, the actual form of monasticism available to or practiced by all the other arahants has differed wildly through the centuries. Sometimes ordination wasn’t even possible … but still, the goal was reached.

The first arahants were beckoned into the dispensation of their teacher, the Buddha, with the words, “Come, bhikkhu.” Modern day arahants, however, have usually been ordained in one form or another for decades before their full awakening. Seeing the difference, one is forced to conclude it’s not the ordination itself that conveys the possibility of enlightenment.

It might be a radical notion, but I ask you to consider: is there some other way to look at the question of what is needed to become an arahant? While it’s true, the overwhelming majority of enlightened beings have worn the robes of a monastic, there IS something they have shared with the lay arahants.

“Just as a glow on the horizon is a harbinger of the rising of the sun, so one thing is a harbinger of the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path. What one thing? Good friendship.” (SN 45:56–62)

Suppose you turn the question around, and instead ask, “What is it monasticism provides that supports the “utter destruction of craving”, the “unsurpassed liberation of the heart through non-clinging.”? Most lay people know monasticism only by its chafing surface features – the renunciation, the rules, the ceremony and etiquette. Thus, the question of lay arahants arises as a reaction to the things they feel they are being asked to give up.

And yet, past those obvious features of monasticism, I am aware of no arahant who attained enlightenement without friends. Teachers, peers, companions, and students. Even the Buddha himself, upon hav

ing reached his goal, thought with fondness to repaying the kindness of his meditation teachers Alara and Udaka.

When we think about those things monasticism provides and what it demands, we can look past the shaven heads, the ocher robes, the rules and meditation and discipline. All of those things have changed and evolved through history. But the essence of the Going Forth, its real heart, has not changed in 2600 years. It’s still summed up in the image of the Buddha’s first urging – “Come, bhikkhu.”

No arahant reaches the final goal of spiritual practice alone. Whether or not a practitioner says, “No,” to shaven heads, to fasting, to celibacy – do they say “Yes” to being part of something bigger than themselves? Can they agree to heeding the wise counsel of another, to accepting assistance on this difficult journey? For those committed to the utmost, this is what the taking of ordination vows represents.

Even if there is renunciation, and ritual, and rules, there is something the monastic is seeking when they take the Going Forth beyond all that. They are surrendering to the acceptance that they themselves need help and support. While Good Friendship is not only found in monastics, it’s what we seek when we take this step. We’re not seeking to rise triumphant to the top of some peak. We’re merely wanting to claim a seat beside the greats who have come before. The ordination is the chance to join a community of noble people.

Seeing this, hopefully, one can settle this long-running debate in their heart. Cultivate a love of good friends, and an inclination towards fellowship with the wise and noble. If this ripens in monasticism, so be it. But it will certainly serve you very well on your path.