There is a great monk currently leading a course at the IMS Forest Refuge. Bhante Khippapanno, alternatively known as Hòa thượng Kim Triệu (his lay name), is a well known meditation teacher in the Vietnamese Theravada community. A year ago when we started this blog, I’d never even heard of Vietnamese Theravada monks in the United States. But because of my post on this topic, one of the Dharma Folk pointed me to a local Southern California center. I went there and found that most of the monks, though Vietnamese, spend significant time studying meditation in Burma. So my own journey comes full-circle.
I’ve since developed friendships with some of the monks and practitioners at this temple. It’s a bit out of the way, but I try to go there every other month. A friend who had done a retreat there with Bhante Khippapanno encouraged me to go visit, and Bhante gave a valuable lesson on friends and practice.
There are four important factors the lay person can use to structure his practice, but it’s the first two that have to do with friends. In short, you should have good friends and you should listen to them. This advice may not sound particularly earth shattering, but it points to an area of my life that I haven’t worked on much.
The term good friends may be better known by its Pali equivalent, kalyanamitta. Your good friends are the ones who have admirable qualities that you can aspire to. Just as we imbibe bad habits when we hang out in the wrong crowd, so too hanging out with good friends leads to acquiring good habits without much conscious effort. The second factor is to listen to these friends. It’s not enough to just absorb their good traits. Your good friends are the ones with the proper discernment to point out the blind spots of your mind. We all have these blind spots, the habits that you don’t notice in your daily speech and actions. By listening, we’re allowing ourselves to turn and see them.
I’ve had great teachers and been part of good communities, but I’ve been pretty lousy at keeping in touch with the good friends that I’ve met. Beyond this simple advice, Bhante talked at length about meditation and qualities of concentration, but the advice on friends was a good reminder that I won’t make my life better just by sitting on my ass (so to speak).
I don’t know if there still spots open for the July retreat, but if you have the time and interest, you should definitely consider going.
Bhante Khippapanno is a very special monk, held in high esteem. Other monks and laypersons refer to him as ngài, which is a term of extremely high respect in Vietnamese, usually not used for your everyday monk. And when I talked to him, he first referred to me as em, which is perhaps the most kind and gracious term that any senior monk has ever used with me. For me this says a lot about both how he’s looked up to, and also about his down-to-earth qualities.
On a side note, the Forest Refuge refers to Bhante Khippapanno as Vietnamese, but anyone who’s spoken with him will quickly pick up on his accent. Although he speaks fluent Vietnamese, Bhante is actually Lao Khmer. But this gets me thinking again about identity. How is he not Vietnamese? He is a senior monk in the Vietnamese Theravada sangha, his dominant language is Vietnamese, and Vietnamese people refer to him with one of their highest terms of respect. Perhaps even seemingly rigid “ethnic” categories like Vietnamese and Chinese are much more fluid than we’re used to viewing them as being…
Update: No one’s called me on this (yet), but I do actually happen to believe that just meditating (above I wrote, “just sitting on my ass”) definitely can make life better. But good friends help a lot too.