Following this path is not easy. Anyone who has done so for more than a week will know that. Not only do we have the grimacing mountain of greed, hatred and delusion to conquer, but we also have to climb it in the midst of a society that is founded on those same defilements.
So our task is not an easy one. But wouldn’t it be a thousand times more difficult if we were climbing this mountain alone? I don’t know if many of us could do it. The doubts would probably engulf us: ‘Is this path right? Why is no one else following it? Am I mad?’ And even if the commitment remained, there are many wrong turns we might take. Our attempts at discovering the truth could thus be very easily snuffed out, and the mountain’s grimace would grow even wider.
But luckily, we are not alone. We have our fellow Dhamma strivers – wherever they may be – committed to forging a way that is different from that of the masses; a way that is dedicated to the practice of harmlessness, non-attachment and to the discovery of truth. Associating with these people – even knowing they are around – is a tremendous source of inspiration, strength and wisdom. And when we recognise how easily we are influenced by everything and everyone we encounter, then associating with the right people becomes a matter of necessity.
The Buddha understood the importance of noble companionship. Once, the Venerable Ananda said to the Buddha that he believed noble friendship to be half of the holy-life. But the Buddha said that this is not so: “Noble friendship, Ananda, is the whole of the holy-life.”
It doesn’t take much to see how a good Dhamma companion helps us. They will encourage us when we say the path is too steep. They will keep us in check when we proclaim it’s downhill from now on. They will nudge us to the left when we have gone too far right. And they will nudge us to the right when we have gone too far left. And, when we are chugging along nicely, they will chug along nicely with us.
But they will also affect us for the better in ways we do not always appreciate. Living in a monastery it is very easy to take for granted the steady stream of support that flows naturally from being among virtuous people. It is only once I step outside of these walls that I recognise its value: ‘Ha!’, I think, ‘What a difference it makes living with people who do not lie, who are always sober, and who are dedicated to doing no harm!” I recognise this because I see the opposite at work. Many people easily lie; they can’t understand why anyone would not want to get plastered at least three times a week; and they are careless with their words and actions. A tight circle of Dhamma friends will thus provide you with support, often in ways you only notice when you are outside of it.
There is one particular thing that a noble companion can do for us, something that is of inestimable value, and something that – by its nature – cannot come from ourselves. That is the ability to see our blind-spots. And then, at the right time and with loving-kindness, to point them out.
A friend in the Dhamma is thus indispensable. For some people, however, that friend might be a hundred miles away. In these cases we move to the phone, the pen, the web, books and newsletters. Just reading about others who are practising the Dhamma pulls us a little closer to the goal.
A word of warning though: we have to be careful. Unenlightened people are prone to spout rubbish, myself included. Look at many of these online Buddhist forums (or don’t): tangled thickets of views, opinions and misinformation! Sometimes they can be useful, but exercise your wisdom and don’t be dragged down the plug-hole. I personally wouldn’t touch them with a barge-pole.
So a noble friend will ensure our eyes remain fixed on the mountain’s summit, and that we are not too perturbed when our defilements and the pressures of a culture that basks in the burning glare of greed, hatred and delusion try to knock us off.
I’d like to finish with a little story. It relates an occasion last year which helped me to realise how indispensable friendship on this path really is.
Following on from the success of our Mount Snowdon expedition of 2007, we thought we’d organise another arduous walk. So, four of us slipped on our boots and went and had a reconnoitre of the local Battlefields Walk, a twenty mile slog that leads through and skirts three sites of major historical battles: the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, and the Battle of Edgcote. A strange route for Buddhists, you may think. Well, we thought we’d turn it into a walk of loving-kindness, by stopping and radiating thoughts of metta at each of those places that had seen so much blood and had heard so many screams.
After about fourteen or so miles one of my knees gave in, but I struggled on. Then, as we were hauling ourselves up this long and steep hill, I looked around me and saw my three companions. It was as if we were all connected by an invisible cord – each of us helping to pull one another up. And then it hit me: ‘Doing this walk is tough. But how much tougher would it have been if I was on my own!’
The next teaching will be on:
the New-Moon Day, Tuesday 17 November.