Dharma is the spirit of the age
About the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community
Founded by Sangharakshita in 1967, the Triratna Buddhist Community offers an approach to Buddhism for the modern world, where conditions are so different from the traditional East. We are part of a dialogue happening throughout Buddhism about the significance in our time of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the three 'jewels' Buddhists all have in common.
['Triratna' = 'Three Jewels'.]
All Buddhists honour the historical Buddha. The entire tradition derives from Sakyamuni, who rediscovered and proclaimed the truth. The historical fact of his life reminds us that the Buddha was human – so what he did, we can also do.
His teaching, the Dharma, which was followed by all Buddhists after him, provides a touchstone for testing later teachings. This Dharma is the way things really are beyond ordinary understanding, something that can be realised and lived. The Dharma is also the body of teachings, practices and institutions that bring about that realisation. But which of the thousands of practices and institutions developed throughout the ancient East are relevant to us in the contemporary world? Modern scholarship shows that Buddhism has never been a closed, holy book but continually diversified over its 2500 years. The greatest teachers unfolded new, creative ways of teaching, adapted to the circumstances of their times. This is what Triratna and other modern Buddhist movements are engaged with now. We are discovering what works best out of the long, rich history of Dharma practice.
It is vital that our adaptations conform with what the Buddha taught, which emerged out of his central realisation of pratityasamutpada or dependent arising. This is a vision of how the whole of reality (the nature of our existence, the goal of liberation, and the path leading to it) emerges from underlying conditions. It is a unique and radical understanding, a hallmark that stamps all genuine Buddhist teachings. To realise it ourselves we need to grasp its overall idea correctly. There is a strong tendency in us all to interpret our experience of the world falsely, in a way that is either 'eternalistic' or nihilistic. So at one extreme people tend to think there is some kind of enduring reality behind everything; at the other, that people do not really matter or even exist individually. We all have some variant on these unconscious views and need to look more deeply inside to change them. This is what Dharma enables us to do.
Practically, Dharma entails a range of methods, summed up in three main trainings: ethical practice, meditation exercises and direct investigation of reality. These methods need to be practised in an integrated way: the quest for insight must go hand in hand with ethical, unselfish actions, and be supported by meditation that digs deep and cultivates the rich soil of our mind. Since our unconscious views are also affected by how we imagine our existence, our practice needs to acknowledge the inner imaginative landscape formed by the culture we grew up in. This involves a vast range of artistic, aesthetic, linguistic and ethical sensibilities. Buddhist practices stimulate these sensibilities; at the same time all artistic creation works as Dharma practice too, transforming heart and mind. Connecting our culture to our Buddhist practice in this way is essential for it to be part of contemporary life. Dharma discourse also needs to speak modern language, so we can talk about what our practice reveals. It reveals for example worlds of experience beyond the senses, but how are we to discuss the significance of that? By employing language that avoids both the superstition of some ethnic Buddhist cultures and the extreme materialist views often found in modern science, we are co-creating a new Buddhist tradition.
Sangha is the community of practitioners working this way. There is first the Noble or Arya Sangha, who have fully realised the Dharma and whose guidance is completely reliable. More immediately, ‘Sangha’ is friends and connections in the Dharma life, very important for our support in an unsympathetic world. It has a distinctive atmosphere of spiritual friendship that is a source of joy, the example of others continually helping us let go our self clinging. We live and work with, learn from and open our hearts to friends in the Sangha. Whether more, less or equally experienced, all Sangha members have this relationship: teachers, students and peers all relate in a spirit of friendship.
In Triratna we feel there should be no sense of superiority based on organisational position, gender, or monastic vows. Sangha need not be organised at all, though it can be, and some organisation is essential for spreading the Dharma. However, unless Dharma organisations are grounded in the spirit of Sangha they will be ineffective. As stated, monastics are not seen as superior: the spirit of renunciation and simple living is for all practitioners. However monastic life offers special opportunities, as exemplified by the Buddha's own lifestyle. It is characterised by a happy state of chastity, few possessions, a simple lifestyle, not having a career, and living communally. Yet everyone can practise these to some extent. Full celibacy will not suit many people, but modern conditions allow the possibility of practising intensively without it, even if that imposes a limitation for some. The simplicity and sharing of community living can make practice easier and many, especially the young, can benefit from single sex communities. Individuals living alone, as well as couples and families, can also find ways to practice the Dharma under their particular set of conditions. In this way all Buddhists can cultivate simpler lifestyles, contributing to the wider society a helpful alternative to consumer and disconnected family living.
Living together helps address the unhelpful economic and social concerns that tend to dominate so much of modern living. Businesses, for example, can incorporate principles of Sangha by contributing to the world, operating ethically and providing a context that makes the work itself a means of Dharma practice. Buddhist centres are community and cultural venues that can offer along with Dharma teaching community living and work, as well as films, plays, poetry, music and visual art that ‘reveals more of the real nature of things.’ Sangha can act as a transforming agent in society, ideally creating what the Mahayana traditions called Pure Land, an environment in which Dharma practice can become completely unobstructed. This is brought about by first addressing local needs, advancing their welfare with the help of the Dharma, and continuing out from there.
The Dharma breathes the spirit of the age, and the Triratna community, like other Buddhists, wish to make it available as clearly, accessibly and widely as possible. People want answers to fundamental questions and feel an urge for more meaning. At the same time people everywhere suffer from injustice, poverty, exclusion, and prejudice. These needs can both be helped by the principles of Dharma. And despite what one reads in the media, human society is affected much more by the values of its influential citizens than its governing systems. If we live and promote our understanding of the moral principles of cause and effect, and the potential for spiritual growth we all have, we can radically improve the quality of all life on earth.
Freely adapted from Dharmachari Subhuti's Buddhist Manifesto