community, freedom, Insight Meditation Society, love, Sangha / Community, spiritual friendship, Triple Gem, Uncategorized

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.  Continue reading “June 2016 full moon – Inspiration and taking refuge in sangha/community”

community, daily life, lay sangha, Noble Eightfold Path, sangha, spiritual friendship

April 2015 full moon – “awakening community” *

Spiritual friendship one-day workshop 29 March 2015 Auckland, New Zealand

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 http://www.tricycle.com/feature/living-buddhism?page=0,0 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)

daily life, Determination - aditthana, joy - mudita, retreat, Wisdom - pañña

Welcoming the New Year

20140102-114225.jpg

Greetings from snowy Massachusetts! I intended to write this post a few days ago, but I’ve been under the weather with a combination of jet lag, a head cold, AND a gastro bug. So I wasn’t exactly the life of the party on New Year’s Eve, but being forced to take time out has given me the chance to reflect on this transition from one year to the next.

Last Sunday I was able to visit the prison that I used to volunteer at when I lived in Massachusetts. It was a real delight to reconnect with that sangha, some of whom have been attending the group regularly for five years now. Because it was almost the New Year, I invited the men to reflect on their aspirations for the year ahead. I can’t share the details of what they said because of confidentiality issues, but I felt privileged to hear so many heart-felt expressions of the desire to change, and to live in alignment with a deeper truth.

Right now I’m at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies with a group of friends who are also experienced meditators, neuroscience researchers, and comparative religion scholars. This is the third time that we’ve gathered over the New Year for a week of peer-led meditation, interspersed with formal presentations on neuroscience research and explorations of different meditative traditions.

On New Year’s Eve we sat in a circle at midnight, and – similar to the prison visit – spoke out loud our aspirations for the coming year. And again, I was inspired to hear the depth and range and beauty of what people aspired to for themselves and others.

I look forward to continuing our dharma adventures together in 2014. May this new year bring you closer to your deepest aspirations.

With bows of gratitude,
Jill