“Retreating to safe harbor” is a theme Ajahn Buddhad?sa employed to caution against mindless progress. Careening forward out of habit is never wise. There are many times when we must pause and take stock. He borrowed the term from Southern Thai culture: toi lang kao klong, literally “back up into the river.” Klong, in the South, are both human dug canals, as in the rest of Thailand, and the rivers that descend from the mountainous spine of the peninsula to make their brief runs to the Gulf of Siam. The fisherfolk where he grew up would bring their boats up into the local Klong Pum Riang when storms were brewing. Here, there was more protection from strong winds and wave surges.
There are times to venture forth for earning a living, learning about the world, seeking Dhamma training, and otherwise engaging with the outside world. And there are also times for seeking refuge from storms such as social strife, widespread immorality, wars, and pandemics. Wisdom discerns when it is time to toi lang kao klong.
Like the breathing there is a natural rhythm and balance between our outer activities and inner spiritual work. Students of Buddhism heed this need and take the opportunities that life presents for periods of quiet, solitude, and contemplation, whether 30 minutes in a busy day, a weekly wan phra (sabbath), or days of retreat. With the Covid-19 strictures that health officials are recommending and governments are enforcing, we can make this a voluntary toi lang kao klong. This is wiser than chaffing at the restrictions.
In this physical, social, and economic world there is no ultimate safety. For that we turn to nibb?na, the ultimate refuge. The Three Refuges of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha guide us to such safety, if we truly take refuge in them. We toi lang kao klong to seek the inspiration and guidance of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and cultivate the noble path of freedom from suffering.
Spiritually, we retreat into the safe harbor of our practice of ethics, meditation, and insight. Dhamma practice is not meant to be easy and it will challenge us deeply, even shake us at the core, but it never harms us. Rather, it frees us from the mistaken beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that actually harm us.
May each of us retreat into our safe harbors and help our sanghas, communities, and societies begin to understand Dhammic Safe Harbor.