Let me first read some lines from the old Navaho chant. Many of you will know this.
…All day long may I walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk…
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen …
With grasshoppers…(and) dew about my feet
may I walk…
With beauty before me … behind me … above me … all around me …
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk…
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty.
Life could be a path of beauty, into old age, both in its start and in its finish. For everyone: all of us could be valuing our lives in that way. This person singing is so aware of everything around: the seasons changing, changing into old age; the flowers, birds, grasshoppers and the dewy trail itself. And really all this rich range of experience – because it is alive and because we are connected to it – is community. It’s certainly acknowledged as community for indigenous peoples like the Navaho, but the reality of it affects everyone whether or not they know it or want it.
The environment is our community. All beings and all things are in relationship and they always have been. Of course we generally ignore this so we fall into a network of betrayal – of unknown other people, animals and other local beings, vegetation, of the earth itself and of other great elemental realities like water and space. If you multiply that by the total population of the western world over recent centuries you realise how vast the damage to the greater community has been.
We have managed to create a world which is for human beings only, in which other kinds of beings are regarded as second class, expendible, mere commodities. And the human beings benefitting from this – the very few human beings who benefit from this – are, perhaps not surprisingly, getting increasingly disconnected from these less important other beings. Obviously, it’s a two way process! We are also getting more and more disconnected from one another, preferring to live in smaller and smaller units, sometimes just a couple, very often entirely alone. And we are even becoming increasingly disconnected from ourselves. Because we have so little time, we tend to identify with a mere surface awareness, with a shifting complex of likes and dislikes, perceptions and prejudices. As a result the deeper inner world of feeling, empathy, ethical sensibility, clear thinking and hearfelt communication is just not available to so many people.
From a Buddhist point of view this is highly undesirable. Of course it’s easy to see Buddhism as a way for individuals only – to develop and grow quite separate and disconnected from others. After all, the Dharma is a path for the individual person struggling with his or her own particular conditioning. Yet that path always refers to others, learns from others, gives to others, collaborates and shares with others. Ultimately the path is for others as well as for oneself. And this implies community. It implies that relationship with others is vital for the path to awakening.
The Buddha himself went forth on his quest for awakening because of other people. It was seeing that sickness, aging, and death are inescapable, and then seeing a spiritual practitioner, that prompted him to so radically change his way of life. Our own reasons for starting to meditate and wanting to gain some kind of insight might have a lot more to do with our own suffering than the suffering of others, but sooner or later we come up against the fact that other people actually do exist and that their sufferings and their perceptions of things are at least as important as ours. This is compassion, or the beginnings of it, and compassion is inseparable from insight. In other words community is an essential part of the process of getting more real, more aware of the context in which we exist.
This is why it’s important to stretch our idea of our community to include all beings. For indigenous peoples, it’s good to be aware of all the non-human beings because it reduces human pride and arrogance. Witnessing their special concerns, troubles and joys brings us down to earth, reminds us of our place in this world. We may be at the top of the tree evolutionarily speaking, well, along with chimpanzees – but there are many other intelligent animals, and there are stronger ones, more sensitive ones, more industrious and persistent ones. If we observe how they live, we learn so much from them – but only if we acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters whom we need to take care of. It is our disdainful view of all other beings, including other humans, that keeps us in so much ignorance of ourselves. Because the essence of community is bearing others in mind. The great value of community is that it provides us with other people who can act as mirrors.
Let’s look at one important way that communities bear their members in mind. One thing we do is to create a shrine of some kind. Shrines help maintain a community’s collective memory. You can imagine a shrine of some kind, maybe set up to the Buddha in a shrine room, but then it could could just as well be up on a kitchen shelf to the local spirits, or again it could be outside under a tree, or even built by the side of the road. Each acts as a kind of focus for the community. And by dedicating a special shrine to these beings, people turn them into special members of the community. The shrine gives us a way to connect to them.
For example we have graves and war memorials. These are community shrines and people make offerings to them. By the roadside sometimes you see these very poignant bunches of flowers tied up, still in their cellophane wrapping, for someone who died right there in an accident. Sad, transient and beautiful. Shrines are beautiful things, even when they are messy and disorganised like that. They are beautiful because they express something beyond this world. We can enhance that beauty with lovely arrangements of flowers, skilful woodwork, silk hangings and golden images. That can be inspiring but we can sometimes overdo the aesthetics and lose the connection with the other world. A shrine can’t just be a decorative feature or an art object. It is a portal to another world: it give us access to the world of the Buddhas, the spirits and the ancestors.
But how do we feel about our ancestors? To us, our ancestors are not just dead people; I mean, they’re certainly dead, but they are still part of our lives. On our last Buddhafield retreat we built quite a large shrine to the ancestors. We were reflecting on all the influences we have received in our lives and we all realised that a huge influence on what has brought us to the Dharma, positive and negative, has been our own family – not to mention all our forebears going back into history. We wanted to acknowledge their influence on us and bring them into our sense of community. In some meditation practices you visualise not only the Buddha in front of you, but all around you you imagine all beings starting with your own mother and father. If we all lived together in some west african village as members of a tribe who’d inhabited that area for millennia, or if we were part of an indigenous Buddhist community in Burma or Tibet, say, we’d all share the same ancestors and the memory of a relatively small number of ancestors would be powerfully evocative for every single person in our village. However for most of us in the west life is inconceivably more complex. Over the centuries billions of us have migrated throughout the world again and again and we generally have little knowledge of our grandparents or great grandparents’ lives. In fact we tend to feel that life began with us. In our mind, the past easily becomes something merely quaint, something irrelevant – like a fading black and white photograph.
This loss of the past that we have is a sign of our disconnection from our community. How lonely it seems we are these days. But I think we needn’t be: the ancestors are still there, even in the complexity of modern life, and they can still be a source of deep inspiration for us. In our culture for example we have a lot of myth and written history. Reading it, we open a channel for the influence of the ancestors. Malidoma Some, a West African shamanic teacher, says that we in the west need to acknowledge as ancestors major cultural figures like Shakespeare and Socrates, and other poets, writers, philosophers, teachers, artists and social activists. That brings it right home for me.
I didn’t grasp how important the ancestors are till I realised that our ancestors shrine was affecting everyone on our retreat. First there was just a bit of mossy tree trunk but soon people added bits of wood with written appreciations of deceased family members, then all kinds of offerings started appearing – flowers, stones, more bits of wood, drawings, carvings, then a model boat and some paper fish appeared and then someone dug a well and filled it with water, and then people floated things in that and dropped stones in it. Everyone found they wanted to contribute something to the shrine, and sit by it. In just a few days it developed a really evocative, slightly eerie atmosphere.
Maybe it’s strong for us because we badly need to feel proud of our human inheritance, to feel that our life is worthwhile. Honouring the ancestors helps remind us that they, at least, had some kind of faith in us and the lives we might live after them. The ancestors play an important part as mentors, the people who encourage us, encourage us to activate what is good and creative in us. We have been given their blessing.
This is why in spiritual traditions everywhere in the world, it’s considered vital to connect to spiritual ancestry. This is not an easy idea for us in the west. In Buddhism practices like guru yoga, and visualisation of a Refuge Tree containing all the teachers of the past is considered essential, really quite basic to the path. Though we do that in FWBO, I think it’s not so clear to us that its so very essential. We still can’t help asking, ‘what’s the point?’
It’s because of our disconnected society. For someone living in a more connected kind of world, it is clearly understood, without even thinking about it, that to connect with everyone else and create community, people need to share their lives with their ancestors, with their elders and mentors. And that doing that brings the blessing of community. Indeed the main role of spiritual community could be said to serve as a channel for blessings to flow from the ancestors. This flow of inspiration is channeled especially through our mentors. In Buddhist terminology it is adhisthana, the blessing or ‘grace-waves’ of the tradition and the culture of dharma. Or you could say it’s the atmosphere or the vibe of awakening. It’s the living influence on us coming from ancestral Buddhas like Sakyamuni, who actually existed in history and whose teachings we have actually received, and the whole mentoring tradition that has flowed from people following his teachings.
A realistic appreciation of this is going to take time to develop in western Buddhism. It’s a big transition for us. Nowadays spiritual groups everywhere are finding themselves having to adapt the customs we inherit from eastern traditions to our very different attitudes and problems regarding how we approach spiritual teachings and spiritual teachers. For example there’s the common expectation that a teacher should be perfect and the outrage people sometimes feel when in fact they turn out to be imperfect. But teachers are always imperfect in one way or another.
Malidoma Some has some amusing stories about his relationship with his own spiritual mentor, his uncle Guisso, and how irritating he found him. ‘I remember more vividly the times when I yearned to kill him than… when I wanted him.. for my own sake. Almost every time I was with him, something he did or said, something he did not do or failed to say, irritated me profoundly and stole …curses out of my mouth. I must confess that though he is still alive, I can’t standseeing him because our conversation is almost always a slippery journey into the sticky mud of disappointment. Yet I love my mentor beyond what I can say’
Mentorship is often deeply challenging. This reminds me so much of Buddhist mentoring, where the teacher is always stretching the students, even embarrassing and pissing them off because everything he or she does challenges their expectations. Bhante can be like that can't he — constantly criticising, no let up. Plenty of encouragement to individuals here and there, but to the general Sangha, mostly swingeing challenge. I’ve been in meetings where after he’s gone out of the room everyone is gobsmacked: ‘oh no, what are we going to do with that?!’ Yet for some reason I can’t help opening up to him when we meet, and I owe him everything of significance in my life. He’s done so much for so many people. So just think of all those who’ve got you on a spiritual path: human beings with very human qualities.
In Tibetan traditions the lama is the root of all blessings. In the ordination ceremony the teacher initiates by pouring a little water on your crown. This flows down and fills you with the water of adhisthana.
As we sit here we are in the presence of the Buddhas and the lineage of teachers above, we are literally surrounded by all beings on this earth, and maybe we can feel the presence of all the ancestors beneath us in the earth. We feel the blessing coming from above, below and in all directions. We feel our practice witnessed by the whole community of beings.
In any indigenous community, in any pre-modern community, the knowledge of the elders may be vital for everyone’s survival. No one else may be old enough to remember how to survive a difficult set of conditions that last happened fifty years ago. So in our own far more expanded, globalised society, it is tragic that we tend to think of old people as useless and that so many people will do anything to stave off the appearance of agint because they feel they will increasingly be seen, not only as not sexy, but as an embarrassment. Useless and slow, in the way, disgusting clothes, bad hair and, worst of all, bad glasses. This is part of the great mutual betrayal that has happened in our community.
We really need to get beyond this. Why should this happen? All of us are on our way to becoming elders. And our elders are on their way to becoming ancestors. An elders’ life experience is deeply valuable. Elders are generally good listeners. They get used to hearing about all the problems encountered by younger people. Their words are worth listening to and they do not need to raise their voices to be heard. Their good wishes profoundly change the lives of others, and after death, their memory is kept alive as they become ancestors.
Each of us has our own very different life experience to offer as a resource for others. In fact this in particular is what Buddhist practice does for us. I mean, what essentially do Buddhist practices do? They deepen our life experience. Practising awareness, practising mindfulness, greatly deepens the extent to which we experience the detail of our lives. Truthful communication and the other training precepts put us to a continual test and greatly deepen our life experience. That is what Buddhism is really about. It leads to a deepening understanding, to insight into our existence, into life and into death. And it is a collective practice, for even if sometimes we practice alone in solitude we still take others into account. This shared practice is what creates our community. It is what gives us a sense of belonging. And it connects us directly to our spiritual ancestors on the refuge tree – the human practitioners who struggled just as we do, that we call the teachers of the past and the present. In our fledgeling FWBO tradition we call on Sangharakshita’s spiritual ancestry in particular.
When we call on our family ancestors, our cultural ancestors, and our spiritual ancestors – we can feel a confidence that they are actually there, because it is clear that their influence lives on. I suppose that’s fairly clear, but is there any other sense in which we can say they are present, here and now? Indigenous people such as those in Buddhist countries, believe that their family ancestors and spiritual ancestors like Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – are actually present in some way. Malidoma Some’s tribe would say they exist in the Other World. To be honest I think most of us find it hard really to swallow that. But think more deeply for a moment about what it means for anyone to be present – even when they are alive. What does it mean that I am present here? What is really happening with us, with all these bodies and minds here? It all seems so normal and straightforward – I am me and you are you and there is this grass and sky, the former of which is apparently green and the latter blue. But actually these are perceptions; they are partly just ideas laid over the raw experience of that green and blue. We do not really understand it at all, we’ve just got used to these rather strange experiences that we call our existence. The bare fact that we exist is actually so profound and mysterious that it is not really at all irrational to admit the possibility at least that the so called dead are also present, here, right now, in some way. But even if we can’t do that, it’s clear that the influence of our ancestors lives on in us – indeed we actually continue their living influence into the future.
Thus their influence is, or can be, a source of blessing. The main function of community, whether at this very expanded level I’ve been talking about or in the more immediate nitty gritty sense of the people we live with – is to act as a channel for blessing or empowerment. The word from Buddhist tradition, as I said, is adhisthana which means the blessing or the waves of grace or uplift which flow into us through a particular connection, whether the connection is family, or cultural, or spiritual lineage, or some combination of all three. To call on our family, cultural and spiritual ancestry is to seek their blessing and encouragement, their adhisthana. We may call this down with a mantra, say for example OM MANI PADME HUM, the mantra of Great Compassion.
It seems to me that this more expanded sense of community needs to be included if we are to make intentional communities work well in the west. There have been so many experiments over the years, and we in the FWBO have tried hard to make community living, especially single sex community living, the mainstay of our dharma practice. That approach has taken some knocks recently. There has arisen this far more individualistic and expensive culture which started somewhere in the 90s; a culture which now has most able bodied people using all their quality time raising unprecedented sums of money in order to live in a way that their children will find socially acceptable. This has drawn so many away from community life. Even so, there still remain quite a few FWBO communities.
The single sex approach is certainly in accordance with that of indigenous spiritual traditions like Malidoma Some’s Dagara tribe where initiations and rituals are often for one or the other of the two sexes. If you want to concentrate on pure spiritual practice, by and large, a single sex situation is going to be a good place to do it. Especially, I think, if you are in your teens, twenties or thirties when you have that ability to go very fully into just one thing and put everything else aside for a time. I know many of the women around Buddhafield, for example, really appreciate the opportunity to be in a women-only environment.
So even though in recent years many more people have followed that social trend, and moved out of single sex communities and in with a partner – indeed as I have done myself – there still survives a fairly thriving FWBO culture of community. I think community is a very radical feature of our movement and we can be proud of it. But there is a lot further to go. We certainly can’t sit on our laurels because there are so many people who don’t feel attracted to the current FWBO community models, yet could benefit hugely from a greater degree of community life. If you live in a community and share resources, the cost goes down. You need to work less and you have time to deepen your life experience in ways that the stress of most people’s working life makes quite impossible. I am generalising here, of course, and I know that some kinds of responsibility, even stressful responsibility, can be helpful spiritually, very formative in a positive sense. However for many people the stress they have to bear is formative in a negative sense and I would suggest that the great majority of people would benefit from a simpler life and especially one dedicated to spiritual awakening.
I think over the years since the seventies we have gathered quite a bit of experience of community issues, not always wisdom but a lot of experience that could be brought into looking at community in new ways. Because I do think we need to take a fresh look at community living. A lot of us feel we have done FWBO communities and we don’t want to do it that way any more. So many communities in the eighties and nineties became institutions, empty, on the whole friendly but still a bit cold and cramped somehow. And over those thirty years one can observe that the single sex thing doesn’t seem to work for most people for the whole of their lives – there are a few monastically inclined exceptions no doubt, but I’ve noticed that even some of them have been known to rush off with an overpowering urge to do something completely different.
Community life can be a challenge. It takes work to make a marriage successful, and it takes work to make a community successful, too. A lot of work, there’s no let up really, and I don’t think we’ve always realised that. Yet community living potentially offers the very best kind of life, something really worth working for, for the sake of our future. We really need to learn how to do this well. We just need to start, and then continue.
Personally I’d like a lifestyle that could contain more difference than our communities have done up to now. What I would like is a community so big, both in vision and in physical size, that people could be born there, grow up there, live love and practice there, and eventually die and become ancestors there. They could live in single sex houses, mixed houses, in family, couples, or alone. They wouldn’t need to live in houses actually. I’d hope that such a community would have plenty of land and trees, though the city is just as important as the country, arguably it’s more important. Community members’ spiritual practice could be very intense, medium intense, not at all intense, occasional, or almost nonexistent. What would unify this community would be a vision which everyone understood and kept evolving further through continual communication. Communication is key to all this.
This is obviously my fantasy, but I think as well as our semi monastic situations, we need something a bit closer to ordinary society, while being a very positive and inspiring alternative to it. The thing is, we could help a lot more people live a better kind of Buddhist life. Children for example, and the parents of children. But also those who for one reason or another don’t find single sex community inspiring. Or for people like me who have done that but now would like to live in a way that connects to a broader range of friends.
Its up to us to choose how we live and I’d really like to encourage you all to think how you could start living more communally than you already do, even if you already live in a community of some kind. It isnt easy but it is worth it. It has taken me quite a few years to get started, but now with Guhyapati, Yashobodhi and some other friends I’m involved now in setting up a land based community near the spanish Pyrenees called EcoDharma. We have a large amount of land, a collection of houses and cottages which are partly still in ruins, a few yurts and a very lively vegetable garden. We’re holding retreats, offering solitary retreat facilities, and have a working retreat in the autumn. Ecodharma is going to be a large, diverse community. For me, its somewhere I can practice meditation deeply and connect with people who want to be on retreat. For others, its an exciting social project where they can make deep friendships and work hard to create a really excellent community and retreat centre. Hopefully, it will put down roots deep enough so that eventually people can be born, grow old, die and become ancestors there. Or at least some of those things. These are hopes and wishes, and things never turn out quite the way you expect. But it is a hope for all of us. I hope each of us will find places that are good for a life of ever deepening experience of our existence in this world and appreciation of its significance and its beauty.