Friday, 24 June 2011

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.

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