Autumn is now fully upon us, and we are quickly approaching the Kattika full moon of October. This moon is particularly significant for monastics. It marks the end of our three month rains retreat, a time when we commit to live in a shelter, often communally with the same group. Before this moon preparations are already underway for what will come after: the kathina festival is offered, cloth is gathered and made into robes, and then the group splits up. Monks depart for other monasteries or places to practice.
To mark this occasion, the community has the option to gather for a special observance – a formal offering of invitation for feedback on their conduct over the last three months. This invitation, called the ‘Pavārana”, reflects one of the core values of the monastic order so different from the ways of the world. In the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha’s, there is no greater failure than to be seen as uninstructable, and no greater punishment than for the community to refuse to admonish and teach one. As the Buddha puts it in the paṭimokkha: “For this is growth in this dispensation – namely, mutual pointing out of faults and mutual rehabilitation.”
There are relationships within the sangha where feedback and even criticism are inherently permitted, such as in the relationship of a teacher to a student, but for the most part the feelings of goodwill and harmony among fellow monastics is protected. Monks are not meant to just indiscriminately criticize each other but to determine if they have permission to offer feedback, and ask for it if unsure. So on the Pavarana night this channel for mutual reflection is ceremonially opened between all members of the community. Recognizing the group will soon split up, everyone seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and growth, so that should they come together again in the future it will be in kindness.
The way of the world is to seek praise and avoid blame, even blame for misdeeds actually committed. But admonishment to a practitioner on the path is the catalyst for growth, and one who offers it is ‘like a guide to buried treasure’. Still, when we feel called to point out anothers faults, there is a further list of five criteria the Buddha encouraged us to reflect on first.
We should ask, “Is what I am about the say Factual? Will it be Beneficial? Can I speak with Goodwill? Can I speak Kindly so my words are heard? Is this the right time?”
Where is our criticism coming from? What exactly was done? All too often we feel slighted and a story starts to form in our mind, but if we go back to the facts of the matter we may see the response we felt was based on our own hang-ups and wounds rather than what was actually done. If we feel anger or resentment arising, or the urge to make the other experience some sort of punishment for the hurt we felt, its often a sign that the fault is not entirely in the other person. Carelessness is blameworthy, sure, but anger is much more so. Merely venting our grievances might feel good temporarily but ultimately won’t yield the results we desire.
Sometimes one of the most important factors is checking to see that our motivation is to benefit the other. Can we see a situation in which our feedback will help them grow? And is it a feasible vision or just a hope? If we do, then even if our words are difficult to hear they may be received with gratitude. But stopping to check this might inform us that the most beneficial thing to do is to not speak up right then. Maybe the person is stressed, or maybe they are holding a grudge that is closing their ears to us. We may be guilty of the same fault we are about to point out. Or we might simply not know enough about the situation to see what their motivations we in that instant.
The skillful giving and receiving of feedback is exquisitely hard, but like all other skills we don’t improve if we don’t practice. We needn’t be downhearted if we don’t get the response we were hoping for – sometimes it takes a long time to process and make a change. Most people have difficulty hearing criticism, but the wise will learn from it. The idea that we are all capable of change and growth is the very refuge in Buddha, refuge in Awakening, and the reason why cutting someone off is only used as a last resort. For those among us willing to train and grow, or at the very least not unwilling to hear or speak difficult truths from time to time, a Pavarana is a great chance to explore this rare skill. Start by considering whose feedback you would really value, and then set the conditions to open the dialogue and keep a receptive mind.