Last weekend I ran a one-day workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, on the theme of “spiritual friendship,” and just a few days ago I facilitated a small group discussion in Australia at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, on the theme of “awakening community.”
These two topics feel very alive for me at the moment, partly because of spending so much time visiting different insight meditation groups in different parts of the world. I’ve noticed that when a group is well-established and healthy, the level of dharma practice in those communities feels much stronger, yet in many of the places I visit, access to teachers and good dharma friends is not always easy to find.
This may be because historically, within the Western insight meditation “tradition,” there’s been a strong emphasis on offering silent individual meditation retreats as the main form of dharma practice, so it’s still quite rare to find opportunities for people to engage with each other outside of formal retreat. Yet throughout the suttas, there’s a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship as being foundational to the development of the whole path to freedom. Here’s just one example:
“If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.'” AN9.1
Then there’s the often-quoted exchange between the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, and the Buddha, where Ananda has a sudden realisation of the importance of spiritual friendship. He goes to the Buddha and tells him how he’s just recognised that spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, but the Buddha disagrees with him quite emphatically:
“Don’t say that, Ananada. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” SN 45.2
The Buddha then states that when someone has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, they can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. This path is the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and consists of eight factors: Right View, Right Intention or Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Of those eight factors, only the last one, right concentration, needs to be specifically cultivated in meditation practice. All the others can be developed in daily life, in relational and social contexts.
I wonder then, if by putting so much emphasis on solitary, silent retreat practice, we may have developed an unbalanced approach to the Buddha’s teachings – one that reduces his holistic path to a set of meditation techniques, done mostly for our own individual improvement.
A few years ago, the US dharma teacher David Brazier wrote an article in Tricycle magazine that pointed out some common cultural biases in the way Westerners have tended to approach dharma practice. I found his critique quite revealing – and a little bit painful – but it’s also inspired me to want to explore more relational and socially-engaged forms of practice alongside traditional silent meditation. He says:
For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. …
The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have — that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume.
Going hand in hand with the idea of context-free meditation is the view, not uncommon in Western convert Buddhist circles, that Buddhism and meditation are virtually synonymous. But the vast majority of Asian Buddhists, now as throughout history, do not meditate, or only do so on rare occasions, and when they do, do so as part of a collective ritual rather than as a personal improvement method. …
This self-focused, technological model of Buddhist practice is not without its virtues. It has made Buddhism widely approachable in a new cultural setting. It has highlighted the richness of its meditative traditions. But a decontextualized dharma can put the spotlight on the private subject in a manner that is quite in line with the alienated, isolated, choice-making individual that is the primary model of the person in our capitalistic society. Is this really what we want? It also makes Buddhism into a set of commodities that can be purchased, and reduces practitioners to economic units. This is dharma that reinforces, rather than challenges, many tendencies in Western societies that are anything but emancipatory. …
Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. … [Ultimately] Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life.
Living Buddhism November 2011
In many of the communities I’ve been visiting recently, people often express a desire to feel more connected to others, but don’t know how to help that happen. And without some degree of conscious effort and commitment, the default seems to be just a group of individuals who sit together in silence on a regular basis, perhaps having a cup of tea with each other afterwards, and that’s about it. Maybe that’s more than enough for many people, but somehow, when the Buddha talks about spiritual friendship being “the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to awakening,” I think he was referring to a bit more than that!
It also feels important to acknowledge that many people have experienced hurt through their involvement with – and/or exclusion by – various kinds of communities, and every one of us has known the pain of a broken friendship. So what might it take for any group of meditators to move closer to being an insight meditation community – a group founded in spiritual friendship, that supports all of its members to deepen their practice, both on and off the meditation cushion?
I don’t have answers, but I do look forward to continuing to explore these questions with whoever might be interested.
(* with thanks to Yael at BMIMC for suggesting this title)