Friday, 24 June 2011

Spiritual Community

A talk given at the UK Men's National Order weekend March 2008

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This is how Charles Dickens begins the Tale of Two Cities and he is referring to how the French Revolution was seen from Britain depending on the political views of the people speaking.

We could perhaps adapt this to looking at the Order and Movement at this time of our 40th anniversary. For some people it is closer to being the best of times and for others unfortunately the worst of times. Some of us think this is the best of Buddhist Movements and the best of Orders and Bhante is the best of teachers and the best of Kalyana mitras, Others, who are probably no longer with us, see us as the worst of Movements the worst of Orders and Bhante as the worst of teachers.

This is probably the subjective experience of almost everything in this world of ours – it is always the best of times and the worst of times, depending on where we are looking from.

For me it has been the best of times, our Movement and Order have been the best of Movements and Orders and Bhante has been the best of teachers. I have of course encountered difficulties- personal difficulties because of my own psychology and conditioning and difficulties with other people – which I have of course seen as being because of their psychology and conditioning.

Nevertheless it has been the best of times for me and that will inevitably colour whatever I say about spiritual community.

My conversion to Buddhism happened in 1983 as the result of meeting a Sri Lankan monk call the Ven. Maha Dhammanisanthi. I met him at the Buddhistisches Haus in Frohnau, West Berlin.

I had some previous knowledge of Buddhism from reading but it had not had a strong or life changing impact. So it was this encounter with a practising Buddhist that made all the difference to me. In meeting the Ven. Dhammanisanthi I experienced the congruency of words and a way of life. That is what he represented for me and after an hours conversation with him I knew that I was a Buddhist That I had found what I had been searching for.

So it was meeting with the spiritual community in the form of that Sri Lankan monk that was the crucial turning point for me.
When I cam across the FWBO about a year later through Subhuti’s book Buddhism for Today, it was the the fact that people were living and working together and trying to create the seeds of a new society that inspired me and drew me in. I interpreted this as a congruency between words and actions and I think anything less than this sort of active idealism would have just seemed like ordinary religious hypocrisy to me – something I was very familiar with from my upbringing in catholic Ireland.

All through my involvement with the Order and Movement what has been of most help to me is the other people around me. I have a depth of gratitude to people like Atula, Danavira, Dhammarati, Jayamati, Sumangala, Tejamati, Subhuti and many many more, who were so kind and patient with me in my first tottering steps on the spiritual path and who have helped me so much by befriending me, listening to me, exhorting me, drawing me out, and being examples to me.

And as I have learned to walk the path under my own steam, I have found that extending a helping hand to others has been a strong and transformative practice – which puts flesh on the bones of the Dharma.

The example of the lives of practitioners around me was important to me from the beginning – it strengthened my faith in the Dharma.

I had a strong faith in what was taught to me by Bhante and Subhuti, through their writings, about the importance of Spiritual Friendship, about the need to co-create the best conditions in which to experience friendship and transcend self-centredness, about the value of living and working together as a context for friendship and transcendence of egotism. I began with faith without very much experience, and now I can honestly say that after twenty four years of steady application, I have no doubts whatsoever about the truth of what Bhante has always asserted- spiritual friendship is of central importance to spiritual life and that communities and working situations provide excellent opportunities for working on dissolving the tight knot of egotism that is the motivating force for so much that we think, say and do.

Some of the institutions of the FWBO such as communities and right livelihood businesses have gone through difficult times during the past ten years and I think a lot of order members have lost faith in the spiritual efficacy of these contexts for practice. I would not try to persuade anyone from this view although I don’t share it – for me what is paramount is the spiritual friendship which is enabled by these situations rather than the institutions as ends in themselves. So what I would want to encourage is spiritual friendship and I would hope that if sufficient numbers of Order Members really took to heart the importance of spiritual friendship and the dependence of such friendship on conditions – conditions which involve spending time with other people, getting to know them intimately in different situations, engaging with them in many different ways- if as I say this was taken seriously then I feel sure that in time other contexts will develop that will enable and encourage spiritual friendship to flourish. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha says that to really know another person you need to live with them, have dealings with them, see them cope with misfortune and have conversation with them – So – a bit more than a weekly chat over a cup of coffee. If we focus on building friendships between us then the institutions which support those friendships will grow up naturally as they did in the past, because they will grow out of our need and our enthusiasm.

Something else which I learned from my teachers early on was that the Buddha insisted during the last weeks of his life that the health and well-being of the Spiritual community depended on coming together frequently and in large numbers. I have tried to practice this and I have found that it has become a great source of happiness in my life. By resisting my natural introverted tendency to steer clear of large numbers of people as frequently as possible, I feel I have come to a better understanding of what the Buddha was talking about and it seems to me to go to the heart of spiritual community.

Until we meet a person and experience their presence as a living consciousness, our experience of them is necessarily subjective – we relate to them in the privacy of our own mind as an idea of a person, even a fixed idea of a person, rather than as a real multi dimensional person in all their complexity and mysteriousness.

It is essential to meet people and to become more intensely aware of them – of their uniqueness and similarity- it is essential if we are to get any grasp on the notion of interconnectedness. It is essential to meet people and interact with them on as deep a level as possible if we are really to establish insight into the fluid, non-fixed, non-separate, interconnected nature of consciousness.

Bhante talks about this as ‘vital mutual responsiveness’ and the’ third order of consciousness’. I don’t believe the third order of consciousness can be experienced without very frequent personal face-to-face interactions. Communication via the internet won’t do it – it lacks too many dimensions, and communication via shabda is also not enough. What we need is face-to-face interaction. We need to spend time with some people on a daily or weekly basis and establish trust, understanding, friendship and mutual helpfulness. This forms a group which is an atom of the larger spiritual community and when all these atoms of friendship and mutual helpfulness come together the result can be very uplifting – approaching that third order consciousness – an inspiring spiritual community in which we are collectively our own teacher, our own guru – an embodiment of the Dharma that inspires us to more wholeheartedness. We become our own teacher and inspiration.

As I said, this fact of meeting other Order Members face to face and communicating with them and listening to them, being mutually aware is at the heart of what spiritual community is about. It is the meeting place of wisdom and compassion – where at best we can see through our own fixed self-view and it’s expression in selfishness and isolation and we can also see into the world of others and begin to erode barriers as we act on our natural impulses of generosity and kindness.

Within this ‘vital mutual responsiveness’, this ‘third order of consciousness’ the problems of spiritual hierarchy, of authority and autonomy are not problems. Spiritual hierarchy is only a problem if the spiritual community has degenerated into something less or is only a problem for those who perceive the spiritual community as having degenerated, as being a group. If we are aware of people as people, of order members as spiritual beings and if we come into contact with them personally, rather than relate to an idea of them which is simply a product of our imagination- then we can rely on spiritual hierarchy to manifest naturally in the course of our interactions. It is not something fixed or static and who will be in the position of learning and who will be in the position of being receptive to new or higher perspectives is not something that can be established by titles or badges or kesas or roles – it is fluid and changing as everything is. And to be paradoxical we could say that those who are likely to be higher in the spiritual hierarchy are those who are most receptive to learning.

Autonomy is an issue for some people. They experience their autonomy to make decisions about how they live as being under threat when they encounter someone speaking with confidence and authority.

This seems to me to be a psychological problem – the problem of lack of confidence or lack of self-esteem which can manifest as feeling inferior to others and sometimes manifests as compensating for those feelings of inferiority by acting in a superior way and being very critical of others.

It can also be an existential issue – in that our ego identity is threatened by our own idealistic response to the Dharma.

As far as life in the Triratna Community (FWBO) is concerned I always felt – from my earliest involvement that the FWBO and it’s institutions were something that we were creating together and therefore something I could have an influence on and an input into. It seemed to be a simple matter of being involved and engaged – like playing a game – you can’t score a goal unless you’re on the pitch.

From the first week of my involvement I threw myself into the collective work – I painted the windows of the LBC reception room, then I helped out with transcribing a seminar and within about 3 months I was working full time at the LBC. This all seemed very natural to me and still is. I have not found any reason to curtail my involvement and I still feel that the Movement and it’s institutions are in the process of being created and probably always will be. That is the nature of reality. Being involved is for me just a logical extension of what I have decided to do with my life – committing myself to the practice and sharing of the Dharma.

Although spiritual hierarchy is not a fixed and final thing – what is more an established fact is that some people have helped us and are helping us and when we see this, when we recognise that we are receiving something from others it is natural that we should experience gratitude and loyalty. Even if the situation changes and they fall from grace in our eyes – nevertheless the fact remains that we have been helped by them, we have benefited and it would be ungracious and dishonest for us to dismiss or denigrate what was given to us. Loyalty to our teachers, preceptors and Kalyana mitras is a matter of personal integrity and natural gratitude, not to mention good manners and propriety.

However, it is unfortunately a well established fact of human nature to be ungrateful and to denigrate those who have helped us. It is one of the ways in which egotism works. That is why Langritampa’s verses on mind training include one which says

Even if someone I have helped
And in whom I have placed my hopes
Does great wrong by harming me
May I see them as an excellent spiritual friend.

And of course the Buddha had to put up with this kind of thing too – his disciple Sunnakkhatta left the Order because the Buddha would not perform miracles for him and then he went around criticising the Buddha to others.

So although loyalty and gratitude to teachers is something quite natural it is also quite natural for some people to be ungrateful and critical and there is no need for us to be particularly surprised or even unhappy when it happens.

This Order of ours – this order of men and women who have made a commitment to live by the Dharma and to share the fruits of that life with others is a precious and fragile thing. It is not an organisation or corporation – it has no legal existence, it has no literal existence – it is a current of spiritual energy manifesting through the lives of individuals but given form and force by the power of collective practice and the power of imagination – as in the image of the 100 armed Avolokiteshvara.

It is fragile and precious – like a dream – and it’s survival and strength depends on our individual efforts:

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to come together frequently in large numbers

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to be aware – mutually aware

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to move from selfish self-interest to true self-interest

It’s survival and strength depends on the frequent expression of kindness and gratitude among ourselves and beyond

Above all the survival and strength of this precious and fragile order depends on the arising of knowledge and vision of things as they really are in a substantial number of Order members.

We could be well organised, we could have good ordination courses, we could come together frequently, we could be an exemplary body of people in all sorts of ways, but to really ensure our spiritual survival we need insight – we need the Bodhi heart to be manifest in our midst – then we will be able to withstand ‘the slings and arrows of misfortune’ and the constant blowing of the winds of materialism that would otherwise chill our hearts.

I was asked to say something about the order after Bhante’s death. However, I think that what applies to the order after Bhante’s death applies equally to the order now – namely that we need to give rise to insight, Bodhicitta, Knowledge and vision of things as they are – whatever phrase we want to use – we need to transcend any sense of fixed separate selves. The order is a means to that and in essence is the realisation of that transcendence.

Bhante is a great teacher and a man of profound insights, but as the Vimalakirti Nirdesa tells us a Buddhaland is built from living beings. A spiritual community is built from living beings and in creating the Order Bhante has needed willing, cooperative, energetic and capable beings – and if we are to continue to build our Buddhaland, continue to create the Order we need to be willing, cooperative, energetic and capable and we need to be welcoming to all those willing, cooperative energetic and capable beings who will want to be part of our Order as the years and generations come and go.

Bhante has already given us a legacy of teachings which is vast and deep. Buried within all those teachings are many treasures, termas to be unearthed by future generations and given life and form. We as an Order and Movement are very young, a mere speck on the radar of time. There is scope for developments beyond our current achievements and even beyond our current imagination.

But to come back to the present I will leave the last word to Bhante – at the end of the first chapter of ‘what is the sangha’ he says:

“There is no future for Buddhism without a truly united and committed spiritual community, dedicated to practising together. And when Buddhists do come together in the true spirit of sangha, there is then the possibility of inhabiting, for a while at least, the dharmadhatu, the realm of the Dharma. In this realm, all we do is practise the Dharma, all we talk about is the Dharma, and when we are still and silent, we enjoy the Dharma in stillness and silence together. The clouds of stress and anxiety that so often hang over mundane life are dispersed, and the fountains of inspiration within our hearts are renewed.”

Listening: the essence of communication

This was a short talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre in May 2011.

I have been asked to talk about Sangha and connect it with Wesak. I could just say that without the Buddha there would be no Sangha and leave it at that. But I think more is expected.

We are all part of the Mahasangha of Buddhist practitioners worldwide and we are also I assume part of the Triratna Sangha. The Triratna community is the community or sangha of all those who choose to live and practise the Dharma in accordance with the elucidation and recommendations of Bhante Sangharakshita. So those of us who make this choice – the choice to live and practice the Dharma according to the elucidation and recommendations of Bhante – we collectively make up the Triratna Community and the Triratna Order is at the heart of this community and is made up of all those who have made a specific commitment to observe the ten precepts and go for refuge in the context of Bhante’s teaching.

We are the Triratna Community. Community implies communication. Communication is what creates and maintains community. Mutually supportive communication is the essence of Sangha.

There can be no communication without listening. Occasionally I have done mediation work for people who have come into conflict and it is very noticeable in those situations that the missing ingredient is listening. Because one or both people are not listening there is no communication and when the ingredient of listening is brought back into the mix very often the problems diminish quite quickly. Ironically the only time when I’ve seen this fail completely was when one of the parties was someone who spent a lot of their time facilitating communication workshops.
There is no Communication without listening. There is no listening without interest. You have to be interested in the other person – in their life, in their point of view – if you are going to listen to them. If you are not interested in them or if your primary interest is in yourself and getting your opinion heard, then you won’t be able to listen.

Listening requires interest. There is no interest without awareness. In order to be interested in a person or in anything you have to be aware of that person or that thing. If you are not aware you can’t be interested and therefore can’t listen and therefore will not be in communication.

There is no awareness without silence. Silence, stillness, solitude, and reflection are what we need from time to time in order to allow our awareness to grow and expand and deepen. See Crossing the Stream by Sangharakshita –chapter on ‘Pauses’ and ‘Empty Spaces’. Sometimes people think of meditation in terms of getting into blissful states of mind, but what is really important about meditation is that it enables awareness to grow and expand and deepen. Regardless of whether we are able to get into the dhyanas or not, meditation is important because it allows us to sit still, be silent and experience the solitude of our own minds at least for a short time. And it is also important because it creates the conditions that allow us to reflect more deeply and continuously

Communication, paradoxically enough, is dependant on silence. You have to develop the ability to be silent if you want to communicate.

If you can be silent you can become aware of yourself and of others, if you become aware you can become interested, if you become interested you can listen and if you can listen you can communicate.

As well as being able to listen you have to learn to reflect. Reflecting on your experience in the light of the Dharma means being able to ask yourself questions and give frank, honest answers. It means seeing clearly how egotism operates in your thoughts and emotions, how it gets expressed in your words and actions. If you can see clearly how egotism operates in you and how you give expression to it, then you have greater self-knowledge. Greater self-knowledge opens up the possibility of greater empathy with others and therefore the possibility of deeper and more satisfying communication.
In this context then, meditating means taking the listening and the reflecting deeper so that you get more and more glimpses of the freedom that comes from going beyond ego-identity and self-concern.

I have been talking about community and communication in terms of listening, reflecting and meditating.

When through our reflections and meditation we experience letting go of the burden of self-centredness, when we experience laying down the burden of ego, even for a moment, there is a sense of relief, a sense of freedom and a feeling of release from confinement.

From silence we can learn awareness, from awareness interest can grow; from interest we find listening becomes easier. When we listen we gain food for reflection and our reflections can lead us deeper into contemplations that loosen our attachment to self-defending. This improves communication enormously and creates and develops sangha.

All these are elements of spiritual community – sangha.

Spiritual community can be experienced on different levels – all of which are important and essential. There are the four levels of social interaction, personal friendship, kalyana mitrata and the third order of consciousness.

Social interaction is a very important foundation and building block for spiritual community. In social interaction we experience the delights of human communication and the clash of egos and temperaments. The Buddha recommended that any society or sangha should come together frequently and in large numbers. There is something about seeing people, hearing them, touching them and being in the same physical space that cannot be in any way replicated by telephone, emails, facebook or online forums. If we don’t come into contact with people in this way we can only relate to the image of them we carry in our minds and that image can never adequately represent the person in all their complexity and changeability. This first level of social interaction is very important in creating any community.

The next level is the level of Personal friendships. We sometimes define the Order as a network of friendships and I think it is a very good definition. It is the personal friendships that give depth and life to our community. It is also personal friendships that make the spiritual life such a rich and pleasant experience. Nowadays there are many people in the Order who have close friendships, which have lasted for 20, 30 years or more. The health of our community depends on this tradition of deep personal friendships continuing and growing. When we develop a friendship we are doing something that is crucial to the effectiveness of our individual spiritual practice and also something that is crucial to the vitality and strength of the community as a whole.

The third level of spiritual community is kalyana mitrata or spiritual friendship. This obviously overlaps with personal friendship, but it is not the same thing. For instance I do not have a personal friendship with Bhante, but I have very much experienced him being a kalyana mitra to me. Usually, but not always, kalyana mitrata is about those who are more experienced on the spiritual path sharing that experience with those who are less experienced and those who are less experienced being receptive to what is being communicated. You do not have to have a personal friendship with someone in order to benefit from their experience or to share your experience with them. Kalayana mitrata has been spoken of as a flow – something that flows through the sangha. It flows down through the generations and it flows within a particular spiritual community. In order for it to flow it needs the receptivity of those who wish to learn and the generosity of those who have something to impart. The ultimate source from which all kalyana mitrata flows is the Buddha and his experience of Awakening, which he communicated to others as soon as he could. Kondanna was the first to understand. Kondanna’s receptivity to the Buddha’s message is in a sense the first instance of effective Kalyana mitrata in the wider Buddhist community. [See Gautama by Vishavapani Blomfield p.116] That example of kalyana mitrata and the communication that flowed between them was the beginning of the river of spiritual friendship that has continued to flow ever since and continues to flow today within our own Triratna Community.

The fourth level of spiritual community is what Bhante has called the ‘third order of consciousness’. The third order of consciousness is what happens when there is what Bhante calls a ‘coincidence of wills’ between those who are spiritually developed. This coincidence of wills leads to a very great harmony and fellowship within the spiritual community. It is this great harmony and fellowship which is the third order of consciousness. Bhante has used the image of the 1000-armed Avalokitesvara as a symbol of this where each hand holding it’s particular implement represents each individual Order member making their unique contribution in harmony with all the others. This is the level of communication you would expect of the Aryasangha – the noble sangha of Stream Entrants and beyond. This is an aspiration and sometimes a reality for our own Triratna Community.

I have talked about communication being essential to spiritual community and I have looked at some of the elements that go to make for good communication; saying that in the end silence and reflection were essential for communication and therefore for the creation and development of Spiritual Community. I have talked about four levels of spiritual community each of which is important and essential. For our Triratna Community to be a truly spiritual community it needs to embody all four levels of Sangha, gathering together in large numbers, a network of personal friendships, the constant flow of kalyana mitrata, and the deep and satisfying harmony of the ‘third order of consciousness’. I believe our Triratna community does embody all of these to some degree.


But all of this originates with the Buddha’s Awakening and his communication of his insight to others who in turn had their own experience of insight into the nature of Reality which they communicated and so on down to the present day. This phenomenon of communication giving rise to spiritual experience and spiritual experience being communicated is the flow of kalyana mitrata and is central to the Buddha’s experience of Awakening and his subsequent teaching. Within a very short time he was telling his disciples that they should go forth and wander and teach for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many. This is the essential activity of sangha, this is the flow of kalyana mitrata at work and this is what animates the whole Buddhist tradition and what has led to the creation of the Triratna community and what will lead to it’s continuation as a Sangha and an important spiritual tradition in the modern world.

If we continue to meet in friendly social gatherings, if we create among us deep and lasting friendships, if we have a flow of spiritual friendship and a deep and harmonious meeting of minds then we will thrive as a community.

And for that to happen we need to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our awareness of others through reflection, solitude and silence, we need to develop interest in others and listen to them. If we do this we will have Sangha, we will have Spiritual Community and we will be following the footsteps of the Buddha and Kondanna. Because the Buddha communicated his insight and because Kondanna listened the whole of Buddhism was possible. We will always benefit if, as well as trying to be Buddhists, we also do our best to be Kondannists.