When the Buddha told Ananda that the entirety of the practice lay in having an admirable friend, he wasn’t saying something warm and reassuring about the compassion of others. He was pointing out three uncomfortable truths—about delusion and trust—that call for clear powers of judgment.
The first truth is that you can’t really trust yourself to see through your delusion on your own. When you’re deluded, you don’t know you’re deluded. You need some trustworthy outside help to point it out to you. This is why, when the Buddha advised the Kalamas to know for themselves, one of the things he told them to know for themselves was how wise people would judge their behavior. When he advised his son, Rahula, to examine his own actions as he would his face in a mirror, he said that if Rahula saw that his actions had caused any harm, he should talk it over with a knowledgeable friend on the path. That way he could learn how to be open with others—and himself—about his mistakes and at the same time tap into the knowledge that his friend had gained. He wouldn’t have to keep reinventing the dharma wheel on his own.
So if you really want to become skillful in your thoughts, words, and deeds, you need a trustworthy friend to point out your blind spots. And because those spots are blindest around your unskillful habits, the primary duty of a trustworthy friend is to point out your faults—for only when you see your faults can you correct them; only when you correct them are you benefiting from your friend’s compassion in pointing them out.
Regard him as one who points out treasure, the wise one who seeing your faults rebukes you.
Stay with this sort of sage.
For the one who stays with a sage of this sort, things get better, not worse. —Dhammapada 76
In passing judgment on your faults, an admirable friend is like a trainer. Once, when a horse trainer came to see the Buddha, the Buddha asked him how he trained his horses. The trainer said that some horses responded to gentle training, others to harsh training, others required both harsh and gentle training; but if a horse didn’t respond to either type of training, he’d kill the horse to maintain the reputation of his teachers’ lineage. Then the trainer asked the Buddha how he trained his students, and the Buddha replied, “In the same way.” Some students responded to gentle criticism, others to harsh criticism, others to a mixture of the two, but if a student didn’t respond to either type of criticism, he’d kill the student. This shocked the horse trainer, until the Buddha explained what he meant by “killing”: He wouldn’t train the student any further, which essentially killed the student’s opportunity to grow in the practice.
So the first prerequisite in maintaining an admirable friend is being willing to take criticism, both gentle and harsh. This is why the Buddha told his disciples not to teach for money, for the person paying is the one who determines what’s taught, and people rarely pay for the criticism they need to hear. But even if the teacher is teaching for free, you run into the Buddha’s second uncomfortable truth: You can’t open your heart to just anyone. Our powers of judgment really do have power, and because that power can cause long-term help or harm, you have to take care in choosing your friend. Don’t fall into the easy trap of being judgmental or nonjudgmental—judgmental in trusting your knee-jerk likes or dislikes, nonjudgmental in trusting that every dharma teacher would be equally beneficial as a guide. Instead, be judicious in choosing the person whose judgments you’re going to take on as your own.
This, of course, sounds like a catch-22: You need a good teacher to help develop your powers of judgment, but welldeveloped powers of judgment to recognize who a good teacher might be. And even though there’s no foolproof way out of the catch—after all, you can master a foolproof way and still be a fool—there is a way if you’re willing to learn from experience. And fortunately the Buddha gave advice about how to develop your powers of judgment, so that you know what to look for along the way. In fact, his recommendations for how to choose an admirable friend are a preliminary exercise in discernment: learning how to develop judicious powers of judgment so that you, too, can become an admirable friend, first to yourself and then to the people around you.
The first step in being judicious is understanding what it means to judge in a helpful way. Think not of a justice sitting on her bench, passing a verdict of guilt or innocence, but of a piano teacher listening to you play. She’s not passing a final verdict on your potential as a pianist. Instead, she’s judging a work in progress: listening to your intention for the performance, listening to your execution of that intention, and then deciding whether it works. If it doesn’t, she has to figure out if the problem is with the intention or the execution, make helpful suggestions, and then let you try again. She keeps this up until she’s satisfied with your performance. The important principle is that she never directs her judgments at you as a person. Instead she has to stay focused on your actions, to keep looking for better ways to raise them to higher and higher standards.
At the same time, you’re learning from her how to judge your own playing: thinking more carefully about your intention, listening more carefully to your execution, developing higher standards for what works, and learning to think outside the box for ways to improve. Most important of all, you’re learning to focus your judgment on your performance, and not on yourself. This way—when there’s less you invested in your habits—you’re more willing to recognize unskillful habits and to drop them in favor of more skillful ones.
Of course, when you and your teacher are judging your improvement on a particular piece, it’s part of a longer process of judging how well the relationship is working. She has to judge, over time, if you’re benefiting from her guidance, and so do you. But again, neither of you is judging the worth of the other person. She’s simply deciding—based on your progress—whether it’s worth her while to continue taking you on as a student. You’re judging the extent to which her recommendations are actually helping you perform more effectively. If either of you decides to terminate the relationship, it shouldn’t be because she’s a bad teacher or you’re a bad student, but simply that she’s not the teacher for you, or you’re not the student for her.
In the same way, when you’re evaluating a potential dharma teacher, remember that there’s no Final Judgment in Buddhism. When looking for a teacher, you want someone who will evaluate your actions as a work in progress, and you have to apply the same standard to him or her. And you’re not trying to take on the superhuman role of evaluating that person’s essential worth. You’re simply judging whether his or her actions embody the kinds of skills you’d like to develop and the types of mental qualities—which are also a kind of action—that you’d trust in a trainer or guide. After all, the only way we know anything about other people is through their actions, so that’s as far as our judgments can fairly extend. At the same time, though, because we’re judging whether we want to internalize another person’s standards, it’s not unfair to pass judgment on what they’re doing. It’s for our own protection. And it’s for the sake of our protection that the Buddha recommended looking for two qualities in a teacher: wisdom and integrity. To gauge these qualities, though, takes time and sensitivity, which is why the Buddha also advised that you be willing to spend time with the person and try to be really observant of how that person acts.