Sunday, 17 November 2013

An Ever Widening Circle

This talk was given on Sangha Day at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre November 2013

I became a Buddhist one afternoon in August 1983 (30 years ago!). I was living in Berlin at the time (what was then known as West Berlin) I was about to leave Berlin and just a week before I left I went to visit the Buddhist Temple in the suburb of Frohnau. I had been there several times before, just to use the garden and the library. On this particular occasion one of the monks came up to me as I was sitting in the library reading and asked me, without any preliminaries – "do you meditate?". At the time I had learned the om mani padme hum mantra from a book and I used to chant it every day – so I replied that I did meditate. The monk, who was from Sri Lanka, dismissed my mantra chanting and sat down at the table and proceeded to teach me the Metta Bhavana with the aid of pen and paper and also to teach me the five precepts.

I didn't really get the Metta Bhavana, but the precepts appealed to me. What I was most struck by and what brought about my more or less instant conversion to Buddhism, was the monk himself. He was 63 years old and had been a monk for 12 years and what came across to me very strongly was the congruency between what he was saying and what he was doing with his life and how he was as a man. His kindness and awareness were palpable and left a deep impression on me. I had the experience of knowing that I was a Buddhist and would dedicate myself to Buddhist practice. The monk's name was Maha Dhammanisanthi and I never saw him again after that afternoon. He did ask me to send him a photograph of myself so that he could put me in his Metta Bhavana practice and I did send him a photograph.

A year later, in London I picked up Subhuti's book "Buddhism for today" in Swiss Cottage library. It's a book that was published in 1983 and was about the history of our Triratna movement up until then. I was immediately struck by what I read about Spiritual Community and the New Society, about people living and working together and I decided there and then that I was going to get involved with these people – that was May 1984 and I'm still here and have no regrets.

I want to pick up on a few things from this story of my first steps on the Buddhist path and contrast them with my own view of the Buddhist path at the time. The things that made the biggest impression on me were the five precepts, which give very helpful guidelines for the relationships between people, the monk Maha Dhammanisanthi, who impressed me because of his warmth and kindness and awareness of me. And I was impressed by what I read in Subhuti's book about spiritual community, the new Society and people living in communities and working together right livelihood businesses.

However, although everything that made an impression on me was to do with other people and community I didn't really realise that at the time. At the time, my view of the Buddhist path was that it was mainly about meditation and everything else was there to create conditions for meditation. And I also assumed that if I was going to be a real Buddhist I would go off somewhere – into the mountains preferably – and meditate alone until I was ready to come down – like Zarathustra and dispense wisdom to the ordinary folk. So in my imagination – Buddhism was about meditation and meditation was about having some kind of experience that would immediately endow me with wisdom, which I could then dispense.

Now after 30 years as a Buddhist that seems to me to be a naive and very limited vision of Buddhist practice and the Buddhist path. However it is not an uncommon view and even in our own Triratna movement you will still find people referring to Buddhist practice but meaning meditation, as if meditation and Buddhist practice were synonymous.

But for me things have worked out in practice very different and I have to say that it has taken me a long time to appreciate what Buddhism is really about and I am still learning and discovering it now.

Of course when I became involved with Triratna, I encountered Bhante Sangharakshita's teachings about spiritual friendship and I came across the Buddha's teaching that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. This is a teaching that comes out in a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda and later in another conversation between the Buddha and Sariputta.

"Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Shakyans where there was a town of the Shakyans named Nagaraka. Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side and said to him . Venerable sire, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.


"Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. Samyutta Nikaya.


The Buddha says quite clearly Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the spiritual life.

Now I knew this teaching, I repeated this teaching, I accepted this teaching, I probably gave talks about this teaching – spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life – but I don't think I really believed it. I think what I really believed – in my guts – so to speak, is that meditation is the whole of the spiritual life and that what I really needed to do was to have that experience that will transform me into the person who could dispense wisdom to the masses. I think that for my first 10 or 15 years as a Buddhist that's what I really believed, often without even fully realising it.

However, my life didn't happen like that. For a start I was rubbish at meditation. When I first started, I was so restless that I would find myself in the kitchen making tea after 10 minutes, without even noticing that I had got up from my cushion. Later I could sit for longer, but my mind was up and about doing other things. Then I started getting headaches whenever I meditated and for many years the clash between my view that meditation is the most important practice and my experience of not making much progress in meditation, was a source of distress and even despair for me.

Somewhere during the 1990s I managed to change my attitude and relax about meditation. And also I did begin to understand more and more deeply that spiritual friendship might indeed be the whole of the spiritual life. I do of course meditate on a daily basis – and I believe meditation is very important, but it has to take its place among all the other practices.

If it is true, as the Buddha said to Ananda and Sariputta, that Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the spiritual life, then of course it must follow that the practice of spiritual friendship is the most important spiritual practice on the Buddhist path and since the practice of spiritual friendship implies the creation of spiritual community, it follows that the creation of spiritual community is of paramount importance for Buddhists. Buddhism has at its heart the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – not the one jewel of Buddha, not the two jewels of Buddha and Dharma but the three jewels of  Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

We have had the year of Kalyana Mitrata here at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre and we have explored the theme in many ways with talks and workshops and now we are going on to the year of spiritual community. The two are of course closely related – spiritual friendship is the practice at the heart of spiritual community. But when we talk about spiritual friendship there might be a tendency to take a narrow view and to think in terms of me and my close friends and then we could start to see the practice of spiritual friendship as being about the creation of a little clique of me and my friends.

So we need to broaden out from the view that the spiritual life is about me , me having a big experience. We also need to broaden out from the view that the spiritual life is about me and my close friends, me and my close friends having a great experience of spiritual friendship. We can broaden out from that and see our spiritual life in terms of creating and developing a spiritual community. We can see our spiritual life in terms of creating and developing a local spiritual community here in Cambridge and in terms of contributing to the creation and development of a worldwide spiritual community.

To get a deeper understanding of the importance of spiritual community we need to revisit the topic of spiritual friendship briefly and understand again why the Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. I explored this theme in a talk I gave here earlier this year – the talk was titled The Reality of Spiritual Friendship and can be found on Ratanaghosha Blog.

I won't go into all that again. Instead I will just give you a quote from Bhante that states quite succinctly why spiritual friendship is so important.

"The Brahmacarya or spiritual life is that way of life that leads to the Brahmaloka or spiritual world. But how is it able to do this? To fully answer we must turn to yet another early Buddhist text: in the MahaGovinda sutta we find in it this very question being asked: "how does a mortal reach the immortal Brahma world?" In other words how can one cross from the transient to the eternal? And the answer given is short and simple. "One reaches the Brahma world by giving up all possessive thoughts, all thoughts of me and mine." In other words, one reaches the Brahmaloka by giving up egotism and selfishness, by giving up all sense of I. Thus the intimate connection between spiritual friendship and spiritual life starts to come into focus. Spiritual friendship is a training in unselfishness, in egolessness. You share everything with your friend or friends. You speak to them kindly and affectionately, and show concern for their welfare, especially their spiritual welfare. You treat them in the same way you treat yourself – that is, you treat them as being equal with yourself. You relate to them with an attitude of Metta, not according to where the power between you lies. Learning to relate to our friends in this way, we will gradually learn to respond to the whole world with Metta, with unselfishness. It is in this way that spiritual friendship is indeed the whole of the spiritual life." The Essential Sangharakshita, p. 511 & 512

And of course this is why spiritual friendship is the most important practice in Buddhism. The Sangha or spiritual community consists in the coming together of all those who are aiming their lives at the ideal of Buddhahood, by practising the Dharma as taught by the Buddha. The Triratna Sangha – the Triratna Community and Order consists in all those who are aiming their lives towards the ideal of Buddhahood, by practising the Dharma as elucidated by Sangharakshita and Sangharakshita's disciples.

These are the principal elements to any particular spiritual community – there is the common ideal – in this case the ideal of Buddhahood, the ideal of human enlightenment. And secondly there is a common set of practices and thirdly, a common way of talking about spiritual practice, a common language of practice.

So if you are involved with a Soto Zen community you will have a particular set of practices and a particular language of practice. If you are involved with a Tibetan Buddhist community you will have a completely different set of practices and a different way of talking about practice. If you are involved with a Theravadin Buddhist community you will have yet another different set of practices and yet another mode of communication. Or if you are involved with any of the more Western Buddhist communities – such as the Order of Inter Being or the communities of Joseph Goldstein or Reginald Ray or others – they will all have their own discourse, their own emphasis and their main practices. To be able to take communication deeper we need a common language of practice and a common experience of practice as well as a common spiritual ideal. So these are the elements that characterise any particular spiritual community.

One of the teachings and practices that characterises the Triratna community and Order is the emphasis on spiritual friendship and spiritual community. So because this practice of spiritual friendship and spiritual community was emphasised by the Buddha and has been repeatedly emphasised by our own teacher Sangharakshita, it seems important that we do explore it thoroughly. That is what we have been doing this year with the Year of Kalyana Mitrata and that is what we will be doing during the coming year with the Year of Spiritual Community.

How can we make spiritual community into a more central practice? How can we move from the natural tendency to view the spiritual life as something personal, primarily about my experience, to seeing the spiritual life as something collective and primarily about going beyond self and going beyond the seeking after personal experiences?

Well it isn't easy. We quite naturally want something out of spiritual practice for ourselves – whether it's peace of mind, ecstatic experiences or profound wisdom – we would like to be rewarded for our efforts and why not. It is best to accept that we are creatures of desire and then to look at how we can channel our desires most appropriately and effectively. So in order to motivate ourselves to engage with the practice of spiritual community, we need to convince ourselves that it is beneficial to us as well as others. If we have strong faith in the Buddha it may be enough for us to know that the Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life and that the Sangha should come together regularly and in large numbers or that in the Sedaka Sutta he says
Looking after oneself, one looks after others. Looking after others, one looks after oneself. And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others). (Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others; and looking after others, one looks after oneself. Sedaka Sutta, Samyuta Nikaya 47.19

Or if we have a strong faith in our teacher, Bhante Sangharakshita – it may be enough for us that he said – "you cannot help yourself without helping others and you cannot help others without helping yourself." Or you might be inspired by the Mahayana teacher Shantideva who says – "all those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others." Bodhocaryavatara, chapter 8, verse 129.

All of these teachings could convince you that you need to throw yourself into the practice of spiritual community very wholeheartedly. But we can be convinced and not convinced at the same time. We can agree with the teachings, we can think that the teachings are wonderful and we love to hear them and feel uplifted and inspired by them – but at the same time not act on them. This is a common enough experience. So what are we to do?

Well a lot of spiritual practice is simply a matter of discipline – at least initially. You need the inspiration, the emotional connection that motivates you but then it is like anything else that we want to learn or achieve – we have to put in the effort even when we don't want to, we have to traverse the early stages in order to experience the fruits of the later stages. This is true of learning a musical instrument, studying mathematics, becoming an athlete, learning a language et cetera sometimes we just have to do what is recommended, even if we don't find it immediately satisfying and enjoyable. But of course when we do what needs to be done, we often find that the rewards come quite quickly and our motivation grows.

What do we need to do in order to practice spiritual community? Well the first thing is relatively simple – we just need to be friendly. I say it's simple but of course it may not be so simple for everyone. Apparently the majority of people involved with spiritual groups are introverts by temperament. And of course some people can be very shy as well and I can tell you from experience that if you are a very shy introvert, then being friendly may not be at all easy. I myself was extremely shy and quite socially awkward when I first got involved withTriratna and I feel very fortunate others befriended me so that I was able to learn gradually how to be friendly and relate to people without so much awkwardness. Then some people are more prone to irritation and anger and may have to make a conscious effort to be friendly and cooperative rather than critical and spiky.

Another aspect of being friendly is hospitality. When you have been coming along to the Centre for a while it is a good practice to look out for new people and make them feel welcome. Especially if you are naturally sociable and outgoing you can do a great service to more shy and retiring people by being welcoming. Even if you're not naturally outgoing you can help yourself by thinking of others and making them feel welcome.

The second practice that helps to create and build spiritual community is the practice of friendship. Friendship is something more than friendliness. It is a matter of taking communication deeper – opening up to another person, being aware of them, listening to them and regarding them with kindness and in time being willing to confide and confess with them and being able and willing to accept their confidences and confessions. Spiritual friendship is at the heart of spiritual community and it is our network of friendships that in the end constitutes the spiritual community.

Then there is the practice of generosity. Ideally in a spiritual community everything works on the basis of generosity. It would ideally be what we might call a Dana society, a world in which we all gave what we could in terms of time and money and energy to the collective efforts and we all got what we needed in terms of guidance, friendship and help. Of course, our spiritual community is probably not ideal or perfect, but that is all the more reason why we need to practice generosity and support each other and support the collective work that is channelled through the Buddhist centre. In this context generosity means giving time and energy and money to help the centre with its work of teaching the Dharma and building Sangha. It also means participating in the Centre's activities, not just for your own sake, but for the sake of others too. It means being willing to help out. It means contributing our skills and abilities to help the collective efforts. Just now there is a particular opportunity because the Centre is going through a period of transition - Vajradevi is leaving and Taradasa is training up to take on some of the work she did. But during this time of change there will be extra pressure on all of the team here - Abhayamati who does an enormous amount behind the scenes, Lee who keeps tab on the finances and Liz who has made a huge difference to the property maintenance and safety. All of them - Taradasa, Abhayamati, Lee and Liz , will need our help and support and goodwill. If we see something is not happening as it used to - don't complain just find a way to help. Generosity is a key practice in Buddhism, because it contains the seeds of the Great Compassion, which is Nirvana. By practising generosity we are very directly beginning the process of dissolving egotism and simultaneously developing the positive mental state of non-attachment which is the ground from which the Great Compassion grows.

The fourth practice that helps to create and develop spiritual community is the practice of awareness, especially in this context awareness of other people. Communication only really works when there is awareness and one of the best ways of being aware of others is to listen to them. You have to listen with your eyes as well as your ears, because so much of communication is wordless. Perhaps in this year of Spiritual Community we should pay particular attention to awareness of others.

Following on from these four practices – friendliness, friendship, generosity and awareness – there is one more practice – perhaps a higher practice, which is both crucial to the creation of spiritual community and to the spiritual community expressing itself in the world.

This is the practice of co-operation– which is both simple and profound. The main thing the spiritual community is trying to do in the world is to create the conditions for more and more people to live meaningful lives, imbued with the values of kindness and awareness and to create opportunities for those who wish to, to join the spiritual community.

In order to create the conditions for more and more people to live full lives, imbued with the values of awareness and kindness and in order to create opportunities for people to join the spiritual community – it is not enough for us to talk about Metta and mindfulness, it's not enough for us to talk about spiritual community – we have to live it, to exemplify it to some degree, to embody it.

Just as in my case it was meeting with the monk – Maha Dhammanisanthi – and having a strong sense of the way he embodied what he talked about that changed my life, so in the case of any of us who practises we need to allow the Dharma to transform us into kind, aware and cooperative people. That transformation will convey the spirit of the Dharma to others. If we want to share the Dharma with others we have to live it. If we don't live the Dharma, we can't share it, we can only talk about it. If we do live the Dharma we will be sharing and giving it whether we talk about it are not. The spirit of the Dharma and the spirit of Sangha is mutual helpfulness.

Mutual helpfulness manifests in cooperation. Sometimes we want to do things in our own way. Even quite ordinary things like washing the dishes, vacuuming the floor – we may have our own way of doing it and we may want everyone else to do it in the same way and if they don't we may become quite irritated and critical. When it comes to things like creating a shrine or giving a talk we may also have our own way and want others to do it in the same way. It can be quite hard to co-operate, to bear in mind the objective needs of the task in hand rather than our own subjective preferences. We are of course going to have preferences and the spiritual work is in trying not to overly identify with those preferences – not to overly identify with our subjectivity, our feelings about things. Instead we try to co-operate and allow space to others – to their ideas and their methods.

So in terms of creating and developing spiritual community one of the best things we can do is to join in with all sorts of projects and do our best to co-operate with others. It could be running a jumble sale, supporting a class or weekend retreat, painting the centre, clearing up after a festival day. The main thing is to get involved and practice co-operating. The key to spiritual community is participation - that could be our catchphrase for this year - participation, participation, participation. When this works well we can get to a point where people are working together almost telepathically. There is so much awareness of others and of the task in hand that very little needs to be said and the energy just flows. When that happens there is an experience of what spiritual community can really be like – energies intermingling without obstruction and a joyful sense of achievement.

Looked at from one point of view the spiritual life is all about the dissolving of egotism and coming to a realisation that there is no fixed and separate self or ego. It is about seeing through the deluded nature of most of our views and the actions that follow from those views. Looked at from another point of view the spiritual life is all about developing spiritual friendships and creating the spiritual community.

It is necessary to look at the spiritual life from both of these standpoints and to practise from both of these standpoints. If we do that we will be aiming our lives at both wisdom and compassion. By practising from both standpoints we will eventually see and experience that wisdom and compassion are one – not two.

Today I want to emphasise the practice of spiritual community as a path to transcendent insight. With many meditation and contemplation practices we approach the question of self and other from the angle of seeing through self. With the practices of spiritual friendship and spiritual community we approach the problem of self and other from the angle of other. We approach so close to other that the boundaries start to dissolve and we arrive at a beautiful intermingling of energies that naturally dissolves away our fixed self delusion.

For this to happen our engagement with spiritual friendship and spiritual community has to be quite intense and ongoing. Meeting for a coffee once a week probably wouldn't be enough – no more than meditating once a week is enough. Some people solve this by living with other Sangha members and/or working alongside other Sangha members. This is not going to be possible for everyone. However if your circumstances do allow you to change your living arrangements, then I would encourage you to consider experimenting with communal living. You don't need to think in terms of joining some existing set-up. You could just think in terms of sharing a flat or house with some Buddhist friends. First you need to get to know people as well as you can and then together lay down some basic ground rules such as perhaps being vegetarian and taking turns to cook and so on. If your circumstances are such that living with friends from the Sangha is just not possible then you will need to try to share your life with your Sangha friends as much as possible, visiting each other's houses, sharing activities, helping each other out and so on.

As regards working together – this again may not be possible – but there may be a number of people in the Sangha who work in the same profession – for example, teaching, medicine, social work, construction or whatever – and it may be beneficial to get together sometimes with people who work in the same profession to explore how best to practice in that particular world. How do you bring the precepts in? how do you deal with office politics and gossiping? how do you keep up a meditation practice? how do you communicate your Buddhist values without alienating or annoying your colleagues? Perhaps some people may even be able to work for the same institution and support each other in that way.

The practice of spiritual community can be very challenging if it is engaged with intensely, and also very rewarding. This can lead to a lived experience of transcendence.

Before I finish I would like to touch on some specific things in relation to our year of spiritual community. How can we make the most of this year for exploring the practice of spiritual community?

Of course there are many things that we are already doing that contribute hugely to developing the spirit and practice of spiritual community among us. There are the courses and classes at the centre, the festival days, the Mitra study groups and Mitra evening's, going for refuge groups, order chapters, outreach groups and so on. I would just like to encourage us to participate as fully as possible in the activities of the Centre as part of our year of spiritual community. As I said participation is the key to building spiritual community among us. I would like to especially emphasise retreats. This is because I have noticed over the years that deeper friendships are more likely to develop on retreats – and historically it was the experience of enjoying being on retreat together that led people to experiment with communal living.

Other things that are already happening which enrich Sangha life are the young people's group and the choir. It would be great to see more people coming together to enjoy films or poetry and drama or some other cultural activities that stimulate thought and discussion and also build more bonds between us. There are also other interests such as ecology or veganism which it is good to explore in the Sangha context. Perhaps money and economics would be another topic to explore in the sangha context.

During the coming year, as well as the existing Sangha building activities there will be some special events. We don't know yet what all of them will be, but one thing that will happen is that Arthapriya will explore the whole theme of spiritual community with a series of talks. I'm sure others will want to contribute to the year in other ways.

The main point I want to leave you with is that spiritual community is a practice in itself, as well as being a context that supports our practice. It is the practice of participating and co-operating in our collective work and activities. It is the practice of going beyond narrow self interest and developing kindness and compassion. It is a practice that is not divorced from the realities of life. You can meditate and have your head in the clouds. It is possible to become deluded about your depth of compassion or your great awareness. But when you meet people and communicate in an honest, open and authentic way, then you have to be present, you have to have your feet on the ground.

In the end Buddhism is all about practice – Buddhist compassion is not an idea – it is something you do. Buddhist awareness is not an idea – it is something you do. Buddhist ethics are not pleasant ideas, they are practices that you are trying to do all the time. The Sangha is the context in which we can learn to put Buddhism into practice more and more thoroughly and creating Sangha is the practice of putting our Buddhist ideas into action. The Buddha spent his whole life teaching the Dharma, sharing his understanding of life with others. By doing this he gradually created a spiritual community.


Because of this the Dharma has come to us as a living tradition. The Sangha embodies the Dharma and keeps it alive. We are the Sangha and our task is to embody the Dharma and keep it alive and share our understandings with others so that the Sangha continues to grow – an ever widening circle – that can be the catalyst and the context for the spiritual transformation of more and more individuals and in that way be a tremendous force for good in the world.

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