Monday, 30 November 2015

The Greater Mandala of the Spiritual Community

This talk was given on 28th November 2015 (Sangha Day) at Cambridge Buddhist Centre

As many of you will know the CBC has been taking part in the international urban retreat for the past week. The theme of the international urban retreat has been the greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. This is a teaching from Bhante which can be found in his book Wisdom beyond Words.

The phrase “aesthetic appreciation” was how the German scholar Herbert Guenther translated the Sanskrit term Vidya. Vidya is the opposite of Avidya – avidya is the term for ignorance – spiritual ignorance, so Vidya is the opposite of spiritual ignorance which you would expect to be knowledge or wisdom and indeed Vidya is often translated as wisdom. However, Bhante thinks this translation by Mr Guenther – ‘aesthetic appreciation’ is much closer to the real meaning of the term. So this should give us something to think about – the opposite of ignorance is aesthetic appreciation – appreciation of beauty is being equated with wisdom.

The contrast that Bhante is making is the contrast between seeing things, people, seeing the world in terms of usefulness and seeing it in terms of beauty. What is being said is that an enlightened person would see the world, things, people, everything as beautiful, as aesthetically valuable rather than as useful, or in terms of their usefulness. The implication is that we who are not enlightened tend to regard the world in a utilitarian way, in terms of usefulness. And another implication is that in order to awake to Buddhahood, to attain enlightenment we need to move in the direction of aesthetic appreciation. We need to move from an attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’? to one of simple appreciation.

Enlightened consciousness has gone beyond all sense of a permanent, fixed and separate self – it has transcended all sense of self and other and therefore there is no craving to protect, defend, secure or build up a self, an identity, a me – so there is no tendency to regard things or people or the environment or anything in terms of how it can be used to enhance self.

This is not to say that an enlightened person doesn’t use things – of course, some basic needs are still to be fulfilled – food, clothing, shelter, medicine – but all is within a much larger perspective, the perspective of aesthetic appreciation.

Our state of mind influences how we experience the world. We could even say that when we think we are experiencing the world we are really experiencing our own mind.When we are in a state of depression everything around us takes on a particular flavour and is unsatisfactory. When we are in a state of anger everything around us takes on a different aspect. When we are in state of restless craving everything takes on yet another feeling. And if we are in love, or have just been on retreat or have passed an exam – everything takes on a more rosy hue.

Our state of mind affects how we see the world, how we experience to world. An Enlightened mind experiences the world as beautiful –a  pure land. In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, a text of Mahayana Buddhism, Sariputra asks the question  – “If the buddha-field is pure only to the extent that the mind of the bodhisattva is pure, then, when Shakyamuni was engaged in the career of the bodhisattva, his mind must have been impure. Otherwise how could this buddha-field appear to be so impure? “ The Buddha replies “ Sariputra, the fact that some living beings do not behold the splendid display of virtues of the buddha-field of the Tathagata is due to their own ignorance. It is not the fault of the Tathagata.  Shariputra, the buddha-field of the Tathagata is pure, but you do not see it.” (Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimlakirti, p.18)  The text goes on to talk about the work of a Buddha or a bodhisattva as being to build a Buddhaland. A Buddhaland it says is built of living beings all co-operating together. In other words a Buddhaland is a spiritual community and the work of every Buddha and bodhisattva is to build a spiritual community. The spiritual community is a Buddhaland, which is a pure land, which is Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. Enlightened consciousness manifests in this Mandala of aesthetic appreciation, the Buddhaland, the pure land, the spiritual community.

A Mandala is a symbol of wholeness, completeness. The spiritual community is a Mandala of beauty, at its best. A mandala with commitment to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha at it’s centre. It radiates the beauty of love, Metta, friendship, of generosity, of wisdom, of aesthetic appreciation.  A simple definition of a spiritual community might be that a spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness with a common objective. I want to talk now about spiritual community in terms of harmony, mutual helpfulness and common objective.

I will start at the end of this definition of spiritual community and work back to the beginning – so I’ll talk first about the common objective of spiritual community, then about mutual helpfulness and then about harmony and finish by coming back to the mandala.

The common objective of the spiritual community is to create a spiritual community – to create, develop and maintain vigourous, vibrant, effective spiritual community. The purpose of Sangha is Sangha. This is not to say that spiritual community is an end in itself, but that it is a necessary condition for the spiritual development of individuals on the Path.

Everything arises in dependence upon conditions and one of the most crucial and indispensable conditions for the arising of awakened consciousness is spiritual community. An Awakened or Enlightened mind, a Buddha, transcends all sense of self and other and the context in which we practice towards this transcendence is Sangha. As Bhante and Subhuti put it in their paper on a Supra-personal force : “When people come together who deeply share a common vision and purpose, their efforts combine in a momentum that draws them all onward, beyond themselves. This is Sangha. If they are able to join in real harmony, with openness and mutual trust, then the weaknesses of each are obviated and their strengths contribute selflessly to their shared Dharma service. Between them they set up a powerful current, by which they are all simultaneously carried along.” (Sangharakshita and Subhuti, Seven Papers, p. 185)

We may start our spiritual life by thinking in terms of improving ourselves – becoming happier, more relaxed, more confident and to that end we practice meditation, we try to keep the precepts, we study the Dharma and we engage in Puja. And it works – we do  become happier and so on. But very quickly we also see the importance of other people – the support of meditating with others is quite obvious from the beginning, then studying the Dharma with others means we can benefit from hearing different viewpoints and from the greater experience of our teachers. We begin to develop friendships and enjoy the support and encouragement of a positive and friendly group of people.

As we progress on the path we gradually realise that there is much more to the spiritual path then becoming happier, more relaxed and confident. We realise that it is not in fact all about me and my practice, my meditation, my spiritual life, my friends – no, we realise that the whole point of spiritual life is much more expansive, more altruistic. When we see this, we also begin to see the real significance of the spiritual community. The spiritual community provides the framework, the context, the institutions and the opportunities for us to give full expression to the altruistic dimension of spiritual practice. It is where our generosity and kindness and all our other regarding impulses can be given full expression.

By engaging and participating in the spiritual community – by befriending others, by helping out, by giving time, giving energy, giving money, giving ourselves – we help ourselves to grow and develop, we become bigger people, more expansive and alive and begin to experience, to taste, the bodhisattva life – the life of compassionate activity based in awareness. This practice of spiritual community is a practice of kusala karma, skilful action, at ever higher levels – increasing our capacity to give and then giving more and more. And this is how we come to realise the joy of egolessness, the happiness of serving the Dharma wholeheartedly, the fulfilment of allowing ourselves to be used for the sake of living beings. Spiritual Community can give rise to what Bhante has called the ‘third order of consciousness’. Page 121 A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition.

When this ‘coincidence of wills’ happens, when something akin to a ‘third order of consciousness’ arises it manifests as an atmosphere of co-operation and friendliness, a spirit of generosity and goodwill, even something quite mysterious and indefinable that we can experience, but can’t quite pin down. Bhante mentioned this at the end of an interview he gave six years ago about the nature of the Order. He said : P 36, Seven Papers …

And all this is made possible by the existence of a spiritual community that we can immerse ourselves in. A spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness with a common objective. When I say the common objective of all of us in the spiritual community is to create spiritual community, I don’t mean that we are somehow turned in on ourselves and obsessed with our little group. Creating spiritual community is an expansive, outgoing activity. We create spiritual community by being welcoming, friendly and helpful to all who wish to be part of it. This is mutual helpfulness. Those who can teach the Dharma,  teach. Those whose talents lie in other directions will do other things or support those who teach. Teaching the Dharma is in any case, not just a matter of talking about the Dharma, it’s not just a matter of giving talks and leading groups and classes. It is primarily about exemplification and about sharing our experience. I think Vimalabandhu is a very good example of an Order Member who teaches the Dharma by exemplification. He is consistently generous and good humoured and really gives of himself wholeheartedly – cooking and in many other ways, as well as befriending all and sundry. So yes, teaching the Dharma is also about listening to and befriending those who need guidance on the path. Those who are not yet ready to give talks and lead groups can do all of this. We can all co-operate together to create and develop the Sangha, sharing our experience, being friendly and giving generously. We can all be examples of a life well lived.

Mutual helpfulness is a practical thing, an activity. For instance, this building is a focal point for our local Sangha – it has many needs. If it could speak it would say – I need your love and attention, I need to be cleaned and made beautiful; I am old and sometimes I don’t function so well – help me. If this building could speak it would also give 1000 thanks to all the volunteers and the centre team who do strive to keep it clean and beautify it.

The centre team, the class leaders and retreat leaders and our volunteer receptionists and school visit leaders and other volunteers are all working at the coal face of providing the conditions for the spiritual community to flourish. They all need support, they need encouragement, they need to be rejoiced in, they need to be thanked and praised. People like Nene, Kenny, Steve (reception), Jan and Anne, Mij and Richard, Ann Blyth, Eileen, Tim, Nick, Ian, Alison, Mary and many more. But I think Taradasa should get a special mention and be given a medal of honour for the huge amount he puts into keeping everything running smoothly – too often he is on the receiving end of grumbles and complaints. Before Aryajaya and Amalasiddhi came to work at the Centre Taradasa was stretched to his limits and beyond and he could have collapsed I think if we hadn’t been able to get some help. Do feel free to praise him and express gratitude to him. Tejasiddhi and Abhayamati are also key to keeping the engines running, so to speak. It is easy to fall into an attitude of thinking of the Buddhist Centre as a service provider – like the library, post office, town hall or Citizens Advice Bureau. But the Centre is not really about providing a service – it is about facilitating the development of Spiritual Community.

You can support those working at the coal face of creating the conditions for spiritual community by giving money, time and energy. Money helps support the people who keep the show on the road and it helps to keep this creaking old building in good repair. Giving time to volunteer helps the centre team enormously – manning reception, cleaning, replacing flowers, working on the allotment, painting and decorating, looking after shrines and shrine cloths, cleaning candleholders, school visits, supporting classes. There are a whole host of ways in which people do give time and if more people come forward we can do more – clean the places we never get to,  get all our shrine gear spick and span and so on. But also if volunteers work together they can have a tangible experience of spiritual community. From January Tejasiddhi will be starting a Friday morning Sangha event to keep the Centre clean,  which will also involve meditation and the possibility of staying on for a study session at lunch time.

By giving energy to the situation we create an atmosphere of aliveness that everyone can enjoy. The primary way to give energy is simply to turn up to events. Last year in a talk I said Sangha needed participation, participation, participation and that is still the case. If I am giving a talk and only 5 people turn up that is  demoralising for me and for everyone else and it’s harder to generate energy. If 50 people turn up there is a buzz and I’ll probably give a better talk and everyone will enjoy the positive atmosphere even if the talk is average. You can also give energy by getting involved with special events like Buddhist action month, open days, the winter fair, the opera, Festival days and so on. Or get involved with the choir. And of course we give energy to the situation simply by doing things together – whether it’s meditating together, going on retreat together, studying together, working together on a project or just hanging out together – going to the cinema or an art gallery or going for a walk – all of this gives energy to the spiritual community – all helps to create Sangha. It is all helping to build the Buddhaland. And of course in relation to those who are new we can give hospitality – welcoming them and making them feel comfortable – even if you’ve only been here twice yourself, you can still welcome someone who is completely new. I have been to quite a number of Triratna centres and have experienced a lot of friendliness and hospitality. I don’t think Cambridge is at the top of the league when it comes to hospitality – I think we could do more. It can be quite daunting for some people to come into the foyer and encounter lots of people who already know each other chatting away. So it’s good for all of us to be aware of new people coming into the centre and make an effort to make them feel welcome and comfortable.So I have been speaking about giving money, giving time and giving energy under the heading of mutual helpfulness. All giving is good. Generosity is the basic Buddhist virtue – generosity of any kind foreshadows the great compassion of a Buddha. In generosity are the seeds of the bodhisattva ideal – the aspiration to attain awakening for the sake of all beings.

Generosity is not listed as a mental event or mental state in the 51 mental events of the Abhidharma. Generosity is an activity and the mental state is one of non-attachment. Non-attachment to our money allows us to give money. Non-attachment to our possessions allows us to give things. Non-attachment to our time (my weekend, my evening, my space) allows us to give time. Non-attachment to our energy allows us to give energy. Non-attachment to our ego identity eventually allows us to give ourselves fully without even thinking or noticing that we are giving. Attachment to an ego identity, to a sense of separate and permanent selfhood, is the key delusion which the Dharma is designed to undermine. We can help the process by working on becoming less attached to those things which are extensions of our ego identity; money, possessions, time and personal space. Or putting it more positively we can help the process of dismantling the delusion of a fixed and separate self by training ourselves in egolessness through the practice of generosity.

The spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness united by a common objective. So I’ve talked about the common objective of the spiritual community being the creation, development and maintenance of the spiritual community, building a Buddhaland, a pure land, a Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. I have spoken about mutual helpfulness in terms of giving money, time and energy. So that leaves harmony – the spiritual community is a harmonious community. What is harmony? According to the dictionary to be harmonious means to form a pleasing are consistent whole. This is more or less the definition of a Mandala. Bhante has said that “To make a Mandala is to take any prominent aspect of reality and surround it with beauty – so as to make a harmonious and pleasing configuration.” A spiritual community if it is in harmony is a pleasing and consistent whole – it is a Mandala with the three jewels at its centre and those who practice the Dharma or aspire to be awakened are the beauty arranged around it.

But how do we achieve harmony? How do we take our discordant notes and gradually harmonise them into a beautiful Mandala?

Perhaps we can learn from the choir – how does a group of people with different voices, different ranges, different capacities, different temperaments, different tastes – how does this group gradually become a harmonious singing unit – a choir- able to produce beautiful sounds.

Well the first thing is that they have to want to be a choir – they have to want to come into musical harmony. Then they need a choirmaster, a teacher, a guide. Then they need to be willing to listen to the guide and practice as he or she asks. Then there may be some instances where particular people need individual mentoring to give them confidence. Assuming that we all want to be in harmony as a spiritual community then we need to be willing to listen to our guide – Sangharakshita – and put into practice what he teaches us –Generosity, ethics( especially the 4 speech precepts, which anyone can practice – truthful, kindly, helpful and harmonising speech), meditation, study, going on retreat and friendship. If we do that we will largely be in harmony – doing the same practices, having the same language to talk about practice and progressing on the path together.

Personalities are very different from each other – like voices – but unlike voices they can’t be moulded so easily and sometimes personalities clash, they are discordant and that can be painful and even unpleasant. In that case for harmony to be restored, both parties will need to recognise, become aware, that this is a clash of personalities and not necessarily about right and wrong. If there is that recognition then some sort of truce or modus operandi can usually be agreed. If the discordance is not about personalities but about ideas – then that may be much more serious. If the ideas are of great importance to spiritual life and practice then at some point the teacher may have to adjudicate. If the ideas are not so significant for spiritual life then one or the other of the parties just has to back down or both have to see that the argument has little significance.


When we have a harmonious spiritual community that is vibrantly alive and effective, then to use Bhante’s  words “we can think of ourselves as living within a greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation, in which all our practical mundane affairs, and the fulfilment of all our non-neurotic needs and wants, occupy just a tiny corner. The real values are aesthetic, not utilitarian.” Or to put it another way, in the spiritual community we are in the world of our highest values and to the extent that we really fully engage in spiritual community then the worry and stress of mundane affairs loses its potency and has less and less of a hold on our imagination. We have the bigger and wiser perspective of the greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation.

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