Refuge and Robes

I made a new friend on almsround today. He’s been in Massachusetts working for the summer, and was due to return back out west in a few days. On the eve of his departure, he noticed me talking with a friend outside the country store and approached. He showed extraordinary good instincts for a young man, and after talking for a bit asked, “If you had just one piece of advice for me to take as I go, what would it be?”

There are those out there who are young and old, learned and unlearned, wise and foolish. This question could be pitched to any of them, and they’d each have an answer. There’s no wrong answer either, but as a dhamma practitioner one feels a sense of responsibility. There’s a saying in Thailand that every tiger is karmically fated to encounter a buddhist monk at least once in its life. Likewise, if this would be this young man’s one opportunity to meet a buddhist monk, what would he take away from the experience?

“The Buddha said,” I responded, “that good friendship is the whole of the holy life.” And so it was that the best I could think to send him off with was the encouragement to incline towards spiritual friends, those devoted to the cultivation of the heart. “When we don’t have comforts, we work hard to attain them, and when we do have comforts we relax. Such is human life, and it goes round and round. Whether we succeed or fail in that, it ends in death. But the spiritual life is for the purpose of developing those qualities of heart which we take with us. Then, whether we are comfortable or not, we can be at peace with it.”

I could have encouraged him to read dhamma books, or give money to charity, or start a meditation practice. And if he does any of those things, that would be for his benefit. But if I really want him to succeed, then I’d say he should incline towards the people who do these things. If he does something once that will be nice, but if he sees it done a thousand times it’s much more likely to stick.

I’ve come to accept the fact that nothing I say will change someone’s life. I’ve had thousands of conversations on the dhamma, and while I may have inspired, delighted, or informed, I never feel I’ve been the agent of change. People don’t change from a conversation or an idea; they don’t change just from making a point or even from having a particular experience. I’ve known people to go on months-long retreats or barely survive an encounter with death, and still return to their same practices a short time later. Our habits have incredible inertia. Change is truly, truly hard.

Yet if there’s one thing I have put my faith in, I can say it is change. Despite the difficulties the opportunity to change and learn is one of the most fundamental truths of spiritual practice. It is the Refuge in Buddha, the faith in the possibility of enlightenment. But when we begin we are utterly dependent on others to reveal it to us. They point us in the right direction and their confidence gives us stability when times are hard. A good friend hears our struggles time and time again and never judges us. They just shine the light of mindfulness on the source of our problems and encourage us to look. Over and over they teach us the principles of change.

Once the Buddha admonished his attendant Ānanda for neglecting his meditation practice, and Ānanda became annoyed. The Buddha saw the annoyance and Ānanda’s attachments, but like a good friend and teacher he bore the brunt of the annoyance and projections. He didn’t try to change Ānanda or set down rules against the things he was using as distractions. Instead he continued to instruct and encourage as he always had, for the path forward hadn’t changed even if Ānanda’s feelings towards it temporarily had. “I will not grab you and mold you like the potter does his wet clay,” the Buddha said compassionately. “By repeatedly restraining you, by repeatedly admonishing you, that’s how I’ll train you. Your sturdy core can stand the test.”

The calm, wise guidance of those who walk the path is the best condition for growth we can find in this human realm. Nevertheless, neither the Buddha nor any wise teacher intends for the student to be dependent on them. The restraining and admonishing only deals with those unwholesome states which have arisen or will arise. As for those states which are wholesome and pleasant, those are the property of the person themselves, and when there is nothing left to restrain and only wholesome states, there is no longer a need for admonishment or guidance. No longer a need for a guide even.

This is the curious difference of the friendship of noble beings. The more we value Sangha, the community of good people, the more we incline towards associating with those people who walk the path. But our goal and our aspiration is always that we grow to a state of independence of each other, that we learn to walk the path and to practice ourselves.

I have faith that when someone encounters a monk, they see the practice behind the robe. “It instantly conveys a sense of trust,” a friend said today. The robe is not just clothing – it symbolizes the aspiration towards purity, and those who’ve seen us walking down American roads have often commented how just the sight of a monastic leaves them feeling just a bit lighter, just a bit happier. A moment’s association with a monk is a moment of good friendship and a moment of associating with Sangha. But it takes more than one meeting to lay the groundwork for someone to practice and grow and change by their own volition. And so, more and more these days, as one overt Buddhist in a vast and diverse country, the wholesome condition I try to inspire in others is to seek that next meeting. Find a good friend and draw closer. A teacher, a mentor, a peer, a friend. The more that happens, the more likely they are to see truth for themselves.

Friendship is not limited to spiritual practice; people the world over take refuge in friends. They pray to all sorts of figures to help them when times are tough. What’s different is that people in the world look to their friend to help them get through a problem. They see the problem as outside themselves. But the true refuge comes at that point of spiritual maturity when we see the true problem is within us, and that’s where the work will need to be done. At that point the refuge changes – we’re not seeing the friend as salvation, but as a companion to help us work salvation out for ourselves.

How does this work in real life? The other day I saw a long-time friend turn to another monastic and ask them a dhamma question they previously would have waited to ask me. It’s as simple as that and filled me with joy to behold. At last!, I thought, I am not needed! When the trust and confidence is placed in the robe and in the practice, rather than the person, then wherever that person goes they will succeed in finding the help they need. This is taking Refuge in Sangha.