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The Importance of Friendship, Harmony and Right Speech, Part 1 of 2

By | 4/29/2023

There is a famous anecdote by the Buddha about friendship. One day he was sitting quietly with Ānanda, his personal secretary, and with great enthusiasm, Ānanda said to him, “Lord, this is half of the holy Path! Dhamma friendship, Dhamma comrades, and Dhamma companions.” The Buddha corrected him by saying, “No Ānanda, don’t say that. Don’t say that. Good friendship, good companions, and good comrades are the whole of the holy path. Because if someone has good friends, good companions, and good comrades, then it can be fully expected that they will develop and come to fruition on the Eightfold Noble path.” The word the Buddha used was kalyāṇa – meaning good, beautiful, morally wholesome – that kind of a friend. Goenkaji himself sometimes used to describe his own role as a kalyāṇa-mitta, a good friend to us. Friendship leads to harmony, which leads to unity. Patrick Given-Wilson

There is another story, an old story from China. It is about unity. An old man had many sons but knew that he would soon pass away. Before passing, he called one final meeting of all his sons. First, he called his servant and said, “I want you to collect one stick for each of my sons. Collect them into a great bundle and tie it tightly.” The servant did as he was told. The meeting started with all the sons present. The old man said to the servant, “Give that bundle to my oldest son.” The old man then said to the eldest son, “Now break it.” The son tried to break it, and of course he couldn’t. The bundle of sticks was tied together far too tightly. Then, the old man said, “Give it to the second son.” The second son tried, but he couldn’t break it. Then the third son and the fourth son, and so on, all the way through. They were all strong men, but none of them could break the bundle. At the end of this performance, the old man said to the servant, “Now untie the bundle, and give one stick to each son.” Then he said to the sons, “Now break your sticks.” Of course, they snapped easily. The old man said, “In the same way, if you remain united, no one can break you! No one can separate you! But if you don’t – if you quarrel, if you argue – anybody who wants to break you, will do so easily!”

Whenever any great, inspirational leader passes away, there is always a danger. And now it is nearly ten years since Goenkaji passed away. He was our inspiration, our Dhamma father, our Teacher, our kalyāṇa-mitta. He gave us Dhamma. The danger is that the followers will start disagreeing. You can see this kind of danger at any level, in any organisation. For instance, we remember the great emperor Ashoka and what a wonderful Dhamma ruler he was. Thirty years passed of a golden period in India, with no hint of any insurrection, no civil strife, no wars, nothing. Yet within ten years after his death, his whole empire had split into several fractions. We see it again and again in political organisations, countries, empires, businesses, and social organisations. And of course, it can happen even in spiritual organisations.

The Buddha himself gave us a remedy for how to stop this kind of occurrence. It comes in the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, which describes the last three months of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha was living in the Kingdom of Magadha and only had three months to go before passing away. The king of Magadha at that time was Ajātasattu, who had murdered his father to get the throne. He was very powerful, but also quite fearful and suspicious. Anybody who kills his father for worldly gain will always be afraid that someone will come and do the same to him.

Next to Magadha was a small republic called the Republic of the Vajjians. Although small, it was united. Ajātasattu resented their independence and one day called his chief minister, Vassakāra, a very clever and cunning man. He told Vassakāra that he intended to invade the Vajjians, to destroy them and bring them to ruin. He instructed his minister, “I want you to go to the Buddha, tell him this, listen to what he says, and come back and tell me – because a Buddha never lies.”

Vassakāra went to the Buddha to pass along the message. It would have been very easy for the Buddha to say that he should not do that because there would be so much death and destruction, and that doing so would be a terrible breakage of sīla! But that would have had no impact at all since Ajātasattu had met the Buddha before, and knew what he would say. So, the Buddha took a different approach. He didn’t address Vassakāra directly. Instead, he turned to Ānanda, who was standing beside him and said, “Ānanda, these Vajjians, do they meet often and regularly? Do they hold their assemblies often, and regularly?”

Ānanda said, “Yes, Lord, they do.”

“Do they meet in harmony? Do they break up in harmony? Do they conduct their business in harmony?”

“Yes, Lord, they do.”

 “Do they respect, honour, revere their elders and consider them worth listening to, and give weight to their words?”

“Yes, Lord, they do.”

“Do they maintain their established laws?”

“Yes, Lord, they do.”

“Do they treat their women properly, not abducting the wives and daughters of others, forcing them to live with them?”

“Yes, Lord, they treat their women properly.”

“Do they look after their sacred places? Do they revere, respect, honour and support them?”

“Yes, Lord, they do.”

“Do they look after the Arahants that live among them, so that they can live in comfort and in safety?”

“Yes, Lord, they do.”

“In that case, Ānanda, they can be expected to prosper and not to decline.”

Vassakāra was a very intelligent man. He understood and said to the Buddha, “Sir, thank you! Now I understand. If the Vajjians did even one of these things, no one could conquer them!

He went back to Ajātasattu, told him what the Buddha had said, and advised him not to invade, as he would not succeed. The invasion was averted. Unfortunately, the story has a bad ending. Later, after the Buddha passed away, Vassakāra, being a cunning man, came to Ajātasattu and said, “Sir, if you like, now I will go to the Vajjians and I will sow disunity among them.” And so, they concocted a plot. There was a big fuss about something in Ajātasattu’s court. Ajātasattu pretended to get very angry and said to Vassakāra, “Get out of my kingdom! Get out of my court! I never want to see you again!” It was all pretend. Vassakāra left, went to the Vajjians, and said, “May I live among you? I’ve been exiled by Ajātasattu.” And they said, “Yes, of course you can.”

And then he started his work. He went to Person A and said, “Do you know what Person B said about you?” He told him some terrible lie, and A says, “What! …he said that? He’s horrible!” And so Vassakāra went back to Person B and said, “You know what A said about you?” He started spreading discord and disunity all the way through the Vajjian kingdom. Within a short time, the Vajjians were all at odds with each other. They didn’t hold their assemblies regularly. Many of them didn’t even bother to go anymore because they’re so unpleasant. Then, Vassakāra sent a secret message to Ajātasattu saying “Sir, now’s the time! Now’s the time you will conquer them easily!” Ajātasattu sent his army in and conquered them easily. Unity is so important!

A long time ago, before Goenkaji died, an elder of our tradition said, “I see no threat to this tradition from anything external.” In other words, from anything like Ajātasattu. Of course, there will be hostile politics, hostile politicians, disease, disasters, and all these things, but they will not stop the spread of Dhamma. Nothing external is any threat. Every real threat is internal and internal means disputes. We must be so careful to maintain this unity.

Goenkaji gave us a remedy. He talked about it many times in his talks at Dhamma Giri over the years. It is right speech. If we maintain right speech, there will be no trouble at all. For example, suppose you see a fault in someone else. Quite possibly there is some fault. We are not perfect and we all have our faults. Goenkaji said, “Don’t run to the teacher.” Of course, he was alive at the time, but it is the same today. Don’t run to the teacher, or to someone else. Go directly, politely and kindly to that person, with mettā, and tell them, “Look, I think this is a fault in you which you need to fix. It’s not according to Dhamma as I understand it.” Then there is no problem. You have gone directly to that person.

Everyone is subject to criticism, including teachers and trustees. If they are not practicing Dhamma properly, they will get annoyed. “Why is this person telling me what to do! I’m OK! What’s their problem?” If that’s the attitude, you’re not practicing Dhamma! So Goenkaji’s advice is to go away, and reflect – carefully and quietly, and meditate on it – “Is there this fault in me?” And you’re not trying to justify yourself now – you’re just looking – is there? And maybe there is, and if so, you should be very grateful to that person. They have pointed out a hidden treasure to you. There is so much good in you and this fault is covering it and preventing it from coming out. When our mettā gets covered by our impurities, we should take them out. Similarly, now, “This person has pointed out a hidden treasure to me. I should be so grateful. I can amend the fault and then all my good qualities can come out.” Of course, if having examined yourself, you feel that this person is actually wrong, there’s a misunderstanding here, that you are not at fault, then you can go very rationally, quietly, with mettā to that person and point out the misunderstanding, and you sort it out. But it’s always direct.

But again, if you’re pointing out a fault to someone else, the attitude should never be one of superiority – ‘I’m very high! I’m wonderful! This person doesn’t understand!’ If that’s the attitude, there’s no mettā there and it won’t work.

This is the procedure that Goenkaji gave us. It is not easy because our own attachments come into play. The single biggest attachment we have is to our own egos. I remember so many times sitting in front of Goenkaji, with many other ATs, as he hammered our egos. Wonderful! That is what he had to do. For instance, if an assistant teacher is giving a course somewhere that is flowing very well starts thinking, “Oh, I’m such a wonderful teacher and this course is flowing so well! The students are so good! No one’s leaving. The servers are so wonderful,” then this is all ego!

When you listen to the Tikapaṭṭhāna, the chanting on the morning of Day 5 on a 10-day Vipassana course, you might hear these words: kusala (wholesome) and akusala (unwholesome). We are apparently doing something kusala. We’re giving a course, or serving on a course, and it looks very kusala, wholesome. But inside, we’re developing ego, and that is akusala, unwholesome. We must be very careful. Maybe some other AT has had a problem on their course. They say ‘Oh, so many people left my course!’ and ‘It was so difficult’ and so forth. Are we sympathetic or are we thinking ‘Oh, I’m superior! That wouldn’t happen on my course!’ We have to be very careful. If someone gets a promotion, if someone is appointed a trustee, an AT, an SAT, or a Teacher, are we happy for that person? Or are we thinking ‘Oh why not I? Why aren’t I being appointed?’ We must be so careful!

Of course, we are not perfect. We are learning how to practice and how to serve. But the more we maintain awareness, the more we practice properly with our sensations, understanding them as anicca, the more we will keep taking out these impurities, and the wiser we get, the more we understand that we are just instruments of Dhamma. Then ego has no place and happiness keeps on growing, becoming inseparable from us, like our own shadows.

[To be continued]

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