June 2016 full moon – Inspiration and taking refuge in sangha/community

graduation group by Ben MarshallGraduates of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock four-year teacher training programme, 10 June 2016 – photo by Ben Marshall

In my last international newsletter back in April, I wrote about inspiration, an aspect of spiritual practice that surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be talked about very often.  As I discovered back then,

“… the root of the word “inspiration” comes from late Latin, and it’s related to the act of breathing, specifically breathing in, in the sense of giving life to, or animating – just as expiring is related to breathing out, and dying …
Inspiration, then, is literally life-giving.  When I feel most inspired, I feel most alive, in touch with some kind of life-energy that feels much vaster than just my own individual human vitality.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been appreciating the power of community to help kindle that sense of inspiration and connection to an energy bigger than just my own.  And I feel to have understood a little more clearly why the Buddha referred to sangha or community as the third of three jewels, three treasures that we can “take refuge” in. 

This “going for refuge” is a traditional aspect of Buddhist practice, but for many people, it can seem like quite an alien concept.  Many of us are brought up to value independence and self-reliance, and we can have an unconscious fear of becoming somehow indebted to others, or beholden to them in some way.

Just recently though, I’ve come to understand the idea of taking refuge as a two-way process: we can “take” refuge in community, but we can also “give” refuge.  Because just as with every other aspect of life, there has to be give and take for something to be sustainable.  When I relate to sangha or community in this way, as something I can contribute to as well as something to draw support from, it makes more sense to me and I feel inspired to participate in this reciprocal flow of giving and receiving.

I had a beautiful experience of this recently, spending a week in San Francisco with the teacher trainees in the photo above, right before our graduation ceremony on 10 June.  As we prepared for this ceremony together, there was a powerful sense of being able to give  and receive support within this community of twenty-six trainees, and I experienced the refuge aspect of sangha in a whole new way.

At the graduation ceremony, each teacher-trainee was invited to give a one-minute speech to express their aspiration in taking up the teaching role.  I chose to read a poem that has been a source of inspiration for me for several years now, by the Australian poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig.

There are only two feelings
Love and fear
There are only two languages
Love and fear
There are only two activities
Love and fear
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results
Love and fear
Love and fear

Emerging from the feeling of refuge during that week, it was even more jarring to hear the news of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in addition to less well-publicised acts of violence and terrorism in so many other parts of the world.  At first, I felt quite overwhelmed and powerless.  Then, remembering the spirit of refuge that I’d just experienced so strongly, there was even more determination to try to offer the deepest possible safety to all, through my commitment to non-harming.

Even as I’m about to write this, I notice a twinge of fear, but I will write it anyway!
My aspiration is to release fear and embody love as deeply as possible in this lifetime, because as one saying from the Tibetan tradition goes:
“The true gift of the teacher is their fearlessness.”

May all beings be happy and peaceful
(free from suffering and distress)
May all beings be safe and secure
(free from fear and harm)
May all beings be healthy and prosperous
(free from pain, illness, and lack)
May all beings live joyfully and with ease
(free from struggle and conflict)


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