This talk was given on Sangha Day, November 2011 at Cambridge Buddhist Centre.
The Buddha often talked about the importance of Spiritual Community. Before he died he talked to his disciples about the conditions for the stability and continuity of the Sangha and on another occasion he exhorted them to look after each other as if they were family and early on he sent them out to spread the Dharma far and wide for the welfare of the many. His vision for the spiritual community was a vision of a community of people who made continuous efforts to transform themselves , who took his teaching out into the world and who were supportive of each other. So the Spiritual community is both a condition for spiritual practice and a spiritual practice in itself. We need the support of others in order to practice and we need to support others in order for them to practice effectively.
In the Dhammapada that vision is given in a very condensed form in the following three verses:
“Happy indeed we live, friendly amid the haters. Among men who hate we dwell free from hate.
Happy indeed we live, healthy amid the sick. Among men who are sick we dwell free from sickness.
Happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy. Among men who are greedy we dwell free from greed. “
I will look into these three verses and try to draw out their relevance to us as a spiritual community here in Cambridge. All three verses speak about being happy in the midst of or among those who are greedy, sick and given to hatred. The ideal being put forward is not one of complete withdrawal from the world but of being in the world and unsullied by it. Being in the world but not being worldly. It is an ideal of remaining in positive and skilful mental states even when surrounded by those who are predominantly negative and unskilful. The reason for being in the world in this way is to spread the truth of the Dharma out of compassion for the suffering caused by spiritual ignorance. This is what came to be known later as the Bodhisattva ideal. So that is the first thing to note about the spiritual community – to be an effective spiritual community it has to be in the midst of the world and working for the welfare of all. This is not to say that individual members of the spiritual community should not withdraw from the world from time to time. It is important that we all have the opportunity to withdraw from the world and be alone on occasions. In fact it is probably not possible to attain to the state of being happy among those who are unskilful and negative unless we do withdraw into retreat quite frequently.
Each of the verses begins with “Happy indeed we live”. The word for 'happy' here is 'susukham'. 'Sukha' is the word for 'happy' – we use it sometimes in the mantra 'sabbe satha sukhi hontu', meaning 'may all beings be happy'. Adding the prefix 'su' intensifies the word – 'sukha ' is happy, and 'susukha' is something like 'very happy'. In other words this is not just ordinary happiness, it is an intense happiness, a deep happiness and given the context it is an unshakeable happiness. It is a kind of equanimity. So this is a very high ideal. This happiness is not a fleeting ephemeral thing,it is not a good mood, it is a deep river of positivity flowing right through our whole being continuously. So for most of us this is something yet to be achieved. This is what we are aiming for. This does not of course mean that the verses have no relevance for us. The verses give us a sense of the direction in which we are heading both individually and collectively. We are aiming for this deep integrated happiness – 'susukha' – which will enable us to be an effective spiritual community easing the suffering of the world and deepening our own insights.
Then the verses talk about what that looks like in practice – friendly amid the haters, healthy amid the sick and content amid the greedy. This gives us an idea of how to practice to achieve the state of happiness. When we are happy in this sense we will be friendly amid the haters, healthy amid the sick and content amid the greedy and so in order to get to the state of happiness we can practice these things that are manifestations of that particular consciousness. This is the same principle that applies to ethical practice. The precepts are a description of how one who is Enlightened acts spontaneously and in order for us to be able to attain to the same experience we practice the precepts as a discipline.
How then do we practice being 'friendly amid the haters'? There are various elements to friendliness and various levels of friendliness. Friendliness includes hospitality, being interested in others, listening to others, being a friend in the sense of befriending others and it also includes Metta, Karuna, and Mudita. And as with the Metta Bhavana we can practice friendliness towards ourselves, our friends, our families, our work colleagues, the local community, the rest of the city, the whole country, all other countries and all other forms of life.
The practice of hospitality for us as sangha members should involve making any new person feel welcome here in the Buddhist Centre, whether they are a visiting Order Member or mitra who is new to this centre or someone who has come in out of curiosity or those who have booked on a course. Hospitality also means being welcoming and friendly even to those who we are familiar with. Many of us may be shy or introverts and therefore have a tendency to sit quietly in the background and others of us may have our own set of friends whom we want to chat with, but we need to always try to be aware of others and be friendly and welcoming to them. This means going beyond our comfort zone sometimes, but it is a necessary stage on the way to being so lacking in ego that we are deeply happy all the time. If we are to become the sort of people who can be friendly amid the haters, we need to start by being friendly amid the friendly and that means being hospitable and welcoming in the first instance.
To engage more deeply with the Spiritual community we need to be interested in others and we need to listen to them . Being aware of others and taking an interest in them is a training on the path to compassionate involvement in the world. The most practical way to develop this faculty is by learning to listen – listening to what is being said and being aware of what is being communicated non-verbally too. In the Sangha we will have some friendships which are much more intimate, where we share ourselves more fully. It is important for our spiritual and psychological welfare that we have good friends and the only way to have good friends is by befriending people. Friendship is active; it is something we do rather than something that happens to us.
To work on this ideal of being 'friendly amid the haters', we need to make an effort to be friendly in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We can try to be friendly with our family for instance and friendly with our work colleagues. These are two arenas that can often bring out the worst in us and sometimes we have to make a special effort to maintain awareness of our aspirations – to be happy and friendly in the midst of the world. The reason why these situations – especially perhaps the family – can be especially difficult is because we have roles that can be limiting. We may be a husband or wife, a mother or father, a daughter or son, a grandfather or grandmother and sometimes these roles can be a hindrance to being a human being in relationship with other human beings in the family context. We have to make an effort to see our mother as another person in her own right or we have to make an effort to relate our son as a person independent of us. But this is the sort of effort in awareness and friendliness that will lead us in the direction of our ideal.
Friendliness in relation to the wider community is a matter of taking an interest and supporting positive initiatives that encourage the values of kindness, generosity and awareness. There are many positive things happening here in Cambridge, whether in the area of the arts or ecology or caring for the elderly and less fortunate and as a sangha we need to be aware of what's going and and co-operate with and encourage what is positive and life enhancing when and where we can. Perhaps the very least we can do is to rejoice in what is well done, whether it has been done by a local politician or business person or artist or whoever.
Being 'friendly amid the haters' means above all that we do not take sides in any acrimonious disputes and where possible we try to calm troubled waters, if not build bridges over them.
The next verse is a little more difficult to understand – it exhorts us to be 'healthy among those who are sick'. Now we could take this literally, because research has shown that those who are happy are generally healthier and live longer than those who are not happy. And the Buddha speaks about non-violence, (another way of talking about friendliness), as being beneficial to health in the Culakammavibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (no.135). Also in the Anguttara Nikaya there are eleven positive results of practising Loving Kindness, some of which would be very health giving, such as sleeping well, not having bad dreams, not being injured by weapons or poison, having a serene complexion and not being confused when death approaches.
However, you can also take this verse about being healthy among those who are sick in a more poetic way. In the Maagandiya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (75), the Buddha meets a wanderer who doesn't like him called Maagandhiya and in the course of their discussion the Buddha recites a little verse and then proceeds to explain it. The verse is “The greatest of all gains is health. Nibbana is the greatest bliss, The eightfold path is the best of paths, For it leads to the deathless”. He goes on to explain what he means by sickness and health. He talks about clinging to the five skandhas as the disease and the cessation of clinging as health. Clinging to the five skandhas is another way of talking about clinging to a fixed self-view, or clinging to ego. So being healthy among those who are sick comes to mean being egoless among those who are egotistic, or more simply being selfless among those who are selfish. This verse of the Dhammapada is about overcoming the delusion which binds us to selfishness through fear and ignorance. Being deeply happy and therefore being able to let go of self-centredness becomes easier if we are able to realise on a deep level that we are constantly changing beings and that all around us is also constantly changing so that the attempt to shore up our security by grasping and clinging on to our sense of self or to possessions or people will only cause pain and suffering. In case this all sounds a bit abstract, here is a quote from Bhante Sangharakshita that gets to the heart of the matter in a very direct way.
“A common misapprehension is to think of Insight and egolessness in abstract, even metaphysical, terms rather than as comprising concretely-lived attitudes and behaviour. But realizing the truth of egolessness simply means being truly and deeply unselfish. To contemplate the principle of egolessness as some special principle that is somehow separate from our actual behaviour will leave it as far away as ever. If we find it difficult to realize the ultimate emptiness of self, the solution is to try to be a little less selfish. The understanding comes after the experience, not before.” Living with Kindness, p.134.
It is worth noting that most of us probably have some experience of being selfless on occasion and are therefore not completely at sea when it comes to having some understanding of the truth of egolessness.
Let's have a look at what some of those concretely-lived attitudes might be if we want to be 'healthy amid the sick'. Well firstly it is important that we look after our physical health, so that we can practise the Dharma and be of use to others. In the Bodhiraajakumaara Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 85) the Buddha outlines five things that enable someone to practise the Dharma and the first is “being free from illness and affliction, possessing a good digestion “.
So, eating nourishing food and taking exercise are part of our spiritual practice and as well as helping ourselves can have a positive influence on others.
If we look at some of the unhealthy delusions that we could be prone to, this might enable us to see what it would be like to have healthy attitudes and behaviour. Here then are some of the things that come to mind when I think about our delusions:
the delusion that we can have a perfect life
the delusion that anything will last forever
that material things bring lasting satisfaction
that we are victims and others are to blame for our dissatisfaction
that security is a matter of money or housing
that we can control the future
that we know what other people are thinking (especially about us)
the delusion that we are not dependant on others
If we are to have 'concretely-lived attitudes and behaviours' that lead us to being 'happy indeed- healthy amid the sick' , we will need to try to let go of our delusions- there are many more than I have mentioned.
Becoming even more practical, we could start by looking at our relationships with other people and consider how we might be more wise and less deluded in those. For instance, we could ask are we possessive in relation to partners or lovers ? do we allow them the freedom to live their own lives and be themselves or are we trying to mould and change them to suit ourselves? In relation to parents – do we expect them to take responsibility for us and always be there for us or can we see them as individuals who have their own needs and desires? In relation to children – de we feel that we own them or do we let them go at the appropriate age? In relation to friends – do we treat them as supports to lean on all the time or do we also provide them with the warmth and support they need? In relation to the wider sangha – do we think in terms of what we can get for ourselves or do we think about what we can contribute? And similarly in relation to the local community or the country – do we expect to be provided for without having to contribute? Do we think in terms of our rights only or do we also think in terms of our duties?
The third verse of the Dhammapada that we are looking at is “happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy.”
The word used for greed here, ' ussuka', has a sense of restless longing to it. Sometimes it is translated as restlessness. So contentment has the sense of not being restless. Contentment manifests in non-attachment, which could be more positively described as generosity and a sense of abundance. Contentment also expresses itself as living a simple life, with few possessions and taking joy in ordinary beauty. Contentment allows us to be generous and think of others.
To develop contentment we need to learn to find enjoyment and satisfaction in simple things – the colours of the leaves, the lights of cars on a wet street, rain falling in puddles, flowers, pebbles, a wrinkled face, a smile. Or the pleasure of sitting still, or walking or the sound of voices in the street, or the taste of water. There are so many things that we can enjoy if we can relax into being aware of them. If we can relax into the present free of restlessness we can get even greater enjoyment from chatting with friends or seeing a painting or listening to the wind.
Contentment can also be cultivated by focussing on what is positive in our lives and cultivating a sense of gratitude for all that we have. We could reflect at the end of each day on what enjoyment and pleasure there has been during the day. It might be the pleasure of seeing a happy child or the evening light on the autumn leaves or it might be a chat we've had or a friendly interaction with a shop assistant or even our usual breakfast. It's a matter of noticing what is good and pleasing in life and one effect of making the effort to do that is that you start to notice more and more things that you enjoy.
Another aspect of contentment is having a bigger perspective on our lives and the events and people we encounter. If we place ourselves in a context of vast time and cosmic space, or in the context of the great Freedom envisaged by the Dharma, we can start to see that our worries and stresses are perhaps not as significant as we take them to be when we are without any bigger perspective.
Contentment is the opposite to greed, because it is the absence of a restless longing for more stimulation. Generosity is the natural activity of contentment and acting generously can help to cultivate contentment, as we go beyond a narrow self-focus again and again. There are no shortage of outlets for generosity within the sangha and beyond the sangha.
The most obvious way to be generous is to give money to our Buddhist Centre, which is the institution that fosters the growth of the local sangha. People have all sorts of conditioning and emotions around money and it is an area where a great deal of attachment and delusion can be experienced. Because of that it is an area in which we can learn a great deal about ourselves and our deepest motivations. Issues of security and identity are often experienced in our attitudes to money. If we want to make spiritual progress then a thorough exploration of our relationship to money will be very helpful. And it will be even more helpful if we do it in the context of the sangha – exploring with others what money means to us, what our conditioning around money is, how our attitudes to money affect the rest of our lives, and what is real or delusional in our relation to money. It is even worth trying to understand what money is. All of that could help us to be less neurotic and more generous with money and all that it represents and symbolises in our lives.
Other areas for the expression of generosity are volunteering, whether within the sangha or outside, and in our personal practice of ecological awareness. We can volunteer to help out at the Buddhist centre, something which we would probably gain a great deal from as well as benefiting the Centre. We can also volunteer in the local community as some of our friends do. I have known people in the sangha who volunteer at a night shelter or for the Samaritans or to write letters for Amnesty International. All very positive contributions to the community.
Ecological awareness is a matter of extending the meaning of the first precept-the precept of non-violence or loving kindness – to all aspects of our relationship with the world around us. It is necessary that we come to see clearly that we are not separate from our environment, but that we are intimately bound up with it. It is not the case that we have humanity on one side and the natural environment on the other side. We are an intrinsic part of the natural environment. So, in order to practise loving kindness even towards ourselves we need also to practise loving kindness towards the whole natural environment.
I have been talking about these three verses of the Dhammapada:
“Happy indeed we live, friendly amid the haters. Among men who hate we dwell free form hate.
Happy indeed we live, healthy amid the sick. Among men who are sick we dwell free from sickness.
Happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy. Among men who are greedy we dwell free from greed. “
I have been talking about these verses as an expression of the Buddha's vision for the Sangha. I said at the beginning that the Buddha's vision of the spiritual community was a vision of a community of people who worked on themselves to develop positive mental states and go beyond selfishness completely, a community of people who would go out into the world and share the Dharma with others, for the welfare of the many and a community of people who would befriend and support each other in these endeavours. This is what spiritual community is about in the Buddhist tradition and this is what the Triratna Buddhist Community is about too.
The Triratna Buddhist Community is a community of people who want to grow in awareness and kindness, a community of people who want to share the message of that awareness and kindness with others and a community of people who are willing to befriend and support each other in all of this.
We grow in awareness and kindness by meditating, going on retreat, being ethical, reflecting on the Dharma and communicating with our friends.
We share the message of awareness and kindness, the message of the Dharma, by living it, teaching it, and helping those who are able to live it and teach it more fully than we can as yet.
We can support each other by being friendly, by taking responsibility for our own mental states, both positive and negative (not attributing them to or blaming them on others) and by giving encouragement, money and a helping hand where needed..
A Sangha that is effective will have a positive affect on the world around it; it will be a beacon of sanity in a deluded world. We can be that Sangha at the local level here in Cambridge and on a much larger scale by integrating as fully as possible with the wider Triratna Buddhist Community throughout the country and throughout the world.