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

By | 6/20/2023

Many years ago, in the 1980s, when Goenkaji was first appointing Assistant Teachers, he was asked about the qualities needed for this position. His answer surprised me. He could have said, “The person must have deep meditation, must have a good understanding of Dhamma…”– all those kinds of things. But he didn’t. He said the single most important thing was for an AT to not develop or nurture a group of students around him who would admire him, support him whatever he does, and follow him everywhere. In other words, no groupism. If an AT is trying to do that, they are not practicing Dhamma.

There is an incident that illustrates how dangerous groupism can be. The story is one of a major split in the Sangha during the Buddha’s lifetime. It happened at Kosambi, a provincial capital on the Ganges, a little way up from Varanasi. There were several monasteries there including Gosita’s monastery, which is where the trouble started. In that monastery, there were two senior monks. One was the meditation teacher. He taught meditation, gave the discourses, and had a group who followed him. The other was the preceptor, who was responsible for the discipline in the monastery. He would induct the new monks and look after the discipline of the Vinaya. He had his own following. Patrick Given-Wilson

It all started with a trivial incident. One day, the meditation teacher went into the bathroom and eased himself. In the bathroom was a pitcher of water. This was always left there for washing oneself and flushing the toilet. It was meant to be refilled and left for the next person afterwards. The teacher forgot to refill the pitcher of water and left it without any water in it, or very little. Patrick Given-Wilson

The next person in the bathroom was the preceptor. He eased himself, but noticed that the pitcher of water was not full. So, he went to the teacher and asked, “Were you the last person in the bathroom?”

The teacher said yes.

“Do you realize you didn’t refill the pitcher of water?”

“It was unintentional. I didn’t realize. I forgot.”

“Do you realize that’s an offence against the Vinaya, not to refill the water?”

“I’ll make amends for it.”

“But if it was unintentional, then it’s not an offence.”

“Good,” said the teacher. “That’s fine.”

They then departed.

So far so good. The preceptor had gone directly to the teacher. They sorted it out, and that should have been the end of the story. But then the wrong speech started. The preceptor went to his group of followers and said to his group something different from what he said to the teacher. Instead, he said, “This teacher has committed an offence, and he’s not admitting it! This is very wrong!” The preceptor’s group then went to the teacher’s group and said, “Your teacher went to the toilet, committed this offence, and he’s not admitting to it!” Of course, the teacher’s group told the teacher what the preceptor was saying.

The teacher was very upset and offended, and said, “The preceptor told me that because it was unintentional, which it was, it’s not an offence. There’s no offence committed. He’s a liar!” Now the teacher was calling the preceptor a liar. The teacher’s students reported this back to the preceptor’s students. Thus, a totally trivial incident got blown up.

Then it got worse. The preceptor said, “The teacher has committed an offence, but he is not admitting it, which is a worse offence. I am going to pronounce a sentence of excommunication of the teacher.” The preceptor then declared that the teacher was no longer a monk, could no longer live in the monastery, and had to leave. A sentence of excommunication was passed, which the preceptor was entitled to do. But the teacher’s students didn’t accept it. They said there was no offence committed–the order was invalid. Now these two groups of monks in the same monastery were fighting, arguing, as the Sutta puts it, “stabbing each other with verbal daggers,” and it even came to physical blows.

One of the monks went to the Buddha, who was staying nearby, and told him what was going on. The Buddha sent a message back, “Stop quarrelling, stop arguing.” But they didn’t listen. The monk returned to the Buddha, who sent a second message saying “Stop arguing! Stop quarrelling! Your Teacher, the Buddha, is telling you to stop this behaviour, it is so damaging for you!” His words had no impact.

So the Buddha personally went to the monastery where he gave them a Dhamma talk, whose primary message was to stop quarrelling. At the end of this talk, one of the monks got up and said, “Sir, Master of Dhamma, please live at your ease. Remain inactive. Enjoy the fruits of your meditation! We’ll sort this out.” In other words, he was telling the Buddha to go away! The Buddha tried again by giving another discourse—the same thing happened. By now, the Buddha was repulsed by this unwholesome behaviour. The next morning, he walked out of the monastery completely on his own, uttering a famous verse, “If you don’t have good companions, it’s better to be on your own.” He took his bowl and robe, and went away to the nearby forest. It was now the rainy season, and he spent the entire rainy season happily in the forest, meditating. And the monks were still quarrelling…

By this time the householders in Kosambi had realised that the Buddha had gone. They went to the monks and asked where the Buddha was, and what had happened. The monks told them the story, “We’ve had an argument. The Buddha asked us to stop arguing. We didn’t stop arguing. And so, he left.” The householders were so disgusted, they said, “Because of your argument, we’ve lost having the Buddha among us!” Then they went away and agreed among themselves. “Because these monks are quarrelling so much, they’re bringing disrepute to the Saṅgha. We will no longer pay respects nor will we feed them!”

The next day, the monks went out with their alms bowls, but no food came. No one even paid them any attention. And they were stuck—since it was the rainy season, they couldn’t travel. The next day, they went out again, but still no food was offered to them. And that continued to happen each day, which brought them to their senses. They went back and said, “We’ve patched it up now.” But the householders asked, “Have you sought the Buddha’s pardon for what you’ve said to him?” They replied, “No, we can’t. He is in the forest somewhere. We don’t know where he is. And we are not permitted to leave the monastery until the end of the rainy season.” The householders retorted, “Well, we’re not going to feed you!” So, a very uncomfortable rainy season passed for these monks, who came close to starvation.

After the rainy season, the Buddha traveled to the Jetavana monastery in Savatthi. The Kosambi monks, who were contrite and upset, went to visit him there to apologise for their disrespectful and shameful behaviour. When King Pasenadi heard that the monks would be passing through his kingdom, he told the Buddha, “I will not let these monks pass through my kingdom!” But the Buddha said, “No. Let them. They’re coming to seek pardon.”

As they got closer to the monastery, Anāthapiṇḍika, the donor of the monastery, came to the Buddha and said, “I’m not letting these dreadful, argumentative monks into my monastery!” Similarly, the Buddha said, “No, no. Let them come.”

Upon their arrival at the monastery, Sāriputta asked the Buddha, “Should we let these people in? What are we going to do with them?” And the Buddha said, “Let them stay, but keep the two groups separate. Do not permit them to sit in the refectory together.”

By now, the meditation teacher had come to his senses. He understood that he had committed an offence and that the preceptor was right. He went to his group, admitted the offence, and that the sentence of expulsion was correct. He asked them to rehabilitate him. So, the meditation teacher and his group went to the Buddha, and told him the whole story. The Buddha permitted the rehabilitation.

Then they went to the other group and said, “Our teacher realised that he’s made a mistake. We’ve rehabilitated him. Let’s go to the Buddha, all of us, and perform a Saṅgha reunification,” which they did, and then the whole story was over. The Buddha gave them a discourse, and after that they all progressed very well.

So that is how dangerous wrong speech can be, and that is how to make amends.

There is another, connected incident. After the Buddha left Kosambi in disgust, before he went to the forest, he visited one of his leading disciples, Anuruddha. At that time, Anuruddha was living in a park, meditating with two of his friends. The parkkeeper knew they were practicing seriously. Not knowing that the visitor was the Buddha, he said, “Don’t come here! Don’t disturb these serious monks!” Luckily, Anuruddha overheard, and said, “No, no, no, parkkeeper, this is our Teacher. Let him in!” So, the Buddha entered their dwelling and questioned the three friends.

“Are you living cordially, in harmony, blending like milk and water, with loving eyes?”

These are beautiful words. Piyacakkhū, “with loving eyes”. Cakkhu means eye. Piya is something dear or something you love. If you’re looking at another person like that, there is no problem. And khīrodakībhūtā, “milk and water blended.”

Anuruddha said, “Yes, Sir, we are!”

The Buddha questioned him, “And, how are you doing that?”

“First of all, I think to myself, what a great gain this is for me, to have two such wonderful companions. I try not to think what will suit me best, but what will suit them best. And I know that they’re thinking the same thing.”

The Buddha asked, “How do you do what suits them best?”

Anuruddha described their situation. They’re meditating very seriously, in silence, not talking to each other. Every day they go out for their alms. As is their habit, the first person who returns sets the table, places the chairs, fills the water pitcher, sweeps the floor, and gets everything ready for their daily meal. He eats his meal, and leaves anything he doesn’t want as leftovers. The second person comes back. Then the last one to return eats any leftovers that he wants, plus his own, of course. Then he tidies up, sweeps the place, refills the water pitchers, resets the table, sets it all in very good order. If any of the water pitchers need refilling, and are too heavy for him, he goes to a companion and quietly using hand gestures, asks for help. They lift the water pitcher together and refill it. Thus, they live, for five days in total silence, just meditating, and on the fifth night, they sit up all night discussing the Dhamma.

The Buddha said, “sadhu, sadhu sadhu! This will make for good progress.” After discussing their meditation with them, he left.

Some months later the Buddha returned, and again, asked them the same questions.

As previously, they replied that they were living in harmony, with loving eyes, blended like milk and water. Again, he questioned them about their meditation, and their experiences. Anuruddha answered for them, and it turned out they had all become arahants. The Buddha went away, pleased with his students.

After the Buddha left, one of the monks asked Anuruddha, “How did you know I was an arahant? How is it that you answered for me?” Anuruddha replied, “I could encompass your mind with mine, and I could see there was no impurity in it, and so I understood.”

So where does that leave us today? We have both a responsibility and an opportunity. The responsibility is twofold. First, to maintain the purity of this practice exactly as we received it, and to continue to pass it along to others. As Goenkaji puts it, “I myself will maintain the purity of this technique and I will not allow, encourage or support anyone else to pollute the purity of this technique.” Whether one is an Assistant Teacher, or a Dhamma worker, it’s exactly the same.

Second, every action of mine should give others confidence in the Dhamma. If they don’t have confidence, my actions should give them confidence. If they already have confidence, my actions should increase their confidence. And of course, one of the best ways of doing that is to maintain harmony and unity within the tradition itself. Otherwise, if we go around telling people, “Dhamma is wonderful! You must try a 10-day Vipassana course,” the first thing they will do is look at this finger of mine that is pointing towards Dhamma—if it’s dirty, if it’s stained, no one will come. So, if we wish for the Dhamma to spread, it will be by our own actions.

And the opportunity we have is enormous: to repay the debt of gratitude for what we have received from our Teacher, Goenkaji. And the only way we can repay it is by sharing the Dhamma with others. As Buddha said, “Caratha, bhikkhave, cārikaṃ, bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya …” “Go forth…” – and when he says bhikkhus, he doesn’t just mean monks, it can be householders as well – “…for the good of many, for the benefit of many, out of compassion for the world…” not for any other reason, not for our own egos, not for any kind of gain at all, just for the benefit of all. And remembering that this gift which we can give is far higher than any other gift, “Sabbadānaṃ dhammadānaṃ jināti …” Dhamma is the highest gift of all

The above essay is an edited transcript of a Dhamma Talk given at Dhamma Aloka in Victoria, Australia on November 27th, 2022.

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