Among the many narratives in the Karmashataka Sutra, a collection of teaching stories, there is a tale of the Buddha appearing as a friend to a young boy who is desperately in need of friendship. The text describes the child, born to wealthy householders, as “ugly in eighteen different ways” and as having suffered intense discrimination on account of his unattractive appearance.
When his parents saw him they were wracked with suffering. “Though a son has finally been born to us,” they thought, “what good is he, with such singular flaws? He’d be better off dead— when night falls, we’ll toss him out and feed him to the dogs.”
The boy’s mother selfishly feared the potential repercussions of their actions—not the painful death of their innocent newborn but the karmic results for her husband and herself. She proposed that instead they raise the baby somewhere outside the city. “Then when he’s grown,” she suggested, “we’ll throw him out of the house to seek his pitiful livelihood.” And this is what they did. They called him Virupa, which means “ugly,” and as soon as he reached adolescence, they banished him.
Virupa had no means of providing for himself. He was forced to spend his days begging for food. Lugging a walking stick and pot behind him, he grew emaciated from neglect. Strangers mistook him for a ghost, and, imagining he would attack them, they beat him, pelted him with dirt, and chased him away. Despairing for his own safety, Virupa hid deep in the forest. He snuck out only at night, subsisting on food that had fallen to the ground from trees in nearby gardens.
The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, recognized that the key to alleviating Virupa’s suffering lay not only in his receiving food and water but also in his being known. Up until that moment, Virupa had only experienced stigmatization, abuse, misunderstanding, and shame.
Knowing the depth of Virupa’s poverty, the Buddha brought food and drink. But despite the Buddha’s gentle intentions, Virupa was startled by his approach. He had endured too much abuse to believe that the Buddha was anything but another person coming to hurt him. Flooded with helplessness, he started to run. The story tells us that a literal miracle was needed to change Virupa’s perception. To reassure Virupa, the Buddha had emanated into a form even more off-putting than Virupa’s. In this way, the Buddha could slip undetected past his psychological defenses and invite a breakthrough:
The Blessed One performed a miracle that prevented young Virupa from fleeing and caused him to wish to see the Blessed One.“I would like to know who that is,” Virupa thought, and he came walking back. As soon as young Virupa saw the emanation’s extraordinarily ugly features he began to wonder, “Who could this be?” So he went to where the Buddha’s emanation stood. The Buddha’s emanation saw young Virupa and made as if to run away.
Virupa had never seen anything like this. He had not met another person who shared the fear that had lived inside him for so long.
In the teachings on karma, the Buddha is careful never to shame a person for their circumstances. The purpose is not to dwell upon the past but to point the way forward. Virupa saw himself in the Buddha, who had assumed a form similar to his own. No longer isolated, he was able to receive what Buddha said and apply it to his own life without shame.
“Because of my unattractive features my parents threw me out of the house. As I went wherever I could for alms, I was chased away. . . In terror of being beaten by people, I went into the thick of the forest, and there I have stayed—that is, until you came along.” [author’s emphasis]
There are interactions that have unique and special power because they occur between friends. Admissions of shame, confessions of jealousy, and disclosures of trauma, when received with tenderness by a loving friend, can become the basis for change. They flower into empathy, compassion, and insight, respectively. A close friend reminds us that we are more than our mistakes, conflicts, and the things that have been done to us. We are also our freedom, our wisdom, and the full range of our lived experience.
We can be Virupa and receive the things we need from friends. But we can also be the Buddha and use the miracle of friendship to point the way to healing. We can engage our friends in trust, reflect with them about the challenges they’re facing, and nurture them with love and compassion. When two people reach out in mutual vulnerability, love’s power shines in the simplest gestures.
“Let’s be friends and make our way together,” Virupa said. “Let’s do that,” the Buddha said, and he sat down and divided his food with Virupa.
How can we be a good dharma friend to others?
Be open and vulnerable. When you share, you signal to others that you’re open to receiving. Authentic connection is a two-way street.
Know when to wait and listen. Especially when we’re excited about the buddhadharma, the urge can arise to fill a friend’s head with quotes from last week’s teaching. Take a beat; give them space to speak.
Understand that connection can be elusive. Genuine connection can be like a rainbow—to go charging at it, or even to grasp at it, can make it dissolve. Cheerful patience is essential.
Have fun together. There can be a tendency to want to always be “doing the work,” but enjoyment and appreciation of one another are key. Part of being a good attachment figure is being fun.
Let yourselves be friends. It’s OK not to have immediate answers. Let go of the urge to edify or instruct, and know that friendship itself is medicine.
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