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Nagabodhi, London, UK
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Candradasa, FBA Team
Vajratara, Sheffield, UK
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Padmavajri, East Sussex
Eric, FBA Team
Creating Sangha and Changing the World
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM566
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2002
This weekend we are looking at what is so special about the Western Buddhist Order –
what are its distinctive features and characteristics. We're trying to see what – in the
approach of the Order, the movement – what in its emphases might make it a particularly
appropriate vehicle for the transmission of the Dharma, the practice of the Dharma, in our
increasingly Westernised world of today; in this remarkable world we find ourselves in at
the start of the twenty-first century.
With Padmavajra we have looked at how Bhante – Urgyen Sangharakshita – has sought
to get back to the fundamentals of Buddhism, to the heart of the matter, and at the
significance he has given to the act of 'going for refuge' in his teaching. And with
Ratnaprabha we looked at the system of practice we follow, and took an overview of the
method of spiritual development; we heard about the five great Stages of the Path and
their connection with the five Spiritual Faculties, the five Jinas, and so on.
I am going to continue today by speaking on creating spiritual community and
transforming the world. I am going to be talking about Sangha, spiritual friendship,
kalyana mitrata... familiar words, familiar territory, but it's a matter with which we really
can't be too familiar, because to really know them – to have penetrated behind the words,
to have really entered deeply into the teachings these words indicate – would be to be a
Bodhisattva; would be to live in the Bodhicitta.
So, Bhante's teachings on spiritual friendship and spiritual community – as unfolded by
him over the years and now being further explored by Subhuti and other of his most
experienced disciples – these teachings are easily... well... not so much 'misunderstood',
though that is possible and does happen... not so much misunderstood as superficially
understood, understood in a limited way... which is fair enough.
The teachings – if you remember what we heard read out this morning by Gunapala
before we chanted the Triratna Gandhara – the teachings are progressive, to be
understood individually by the wise.
We have probably all had the experience of thinking we have understood something, you
know, like the Five Precepts – we've understood what ethics is all about – but then a year
or two later, having studied and practiced a bit more fully, a bit more deeply, it's now as
if we've really understood. Before, we didn't understand at all, but now, now we do
understand what ethics is really all about; another dimension of understanding opens up...
...But then, another year or two later, it's as if now, now we really DO understand!... and
so it can go on.
I am reminded here of Bhante's aphorism: 'there are no higher teachings, just deeper
So, inevitably our understanding of the Dharma is initially superficial, but that superficial
understanding suffices for a while. It is enough to get us moving, practicing, changing, up
to the point where we come up against the limits of our present understanding – and then
we need to go deeper if we are going to continue to progress on the path.
The important thing is perhaps not to think we know, to think we've understood; just to
realise that our present understandings, however useful, are provisional.
Bearing that in mind... initially we might see Sangha as being all about being 'friendly';
about our Centres being welcoming, inviting places where people can contact the Dharma
in spite of the nervousness and fear that might have held them back. We can see Sangha
as being about creating a positive context for our spiritual practice; about mixing with a
bunch of people who are very friendly, warm, encouraging, supportive – of course,
sometimes challenging – but often stimulating and inspiring. ...Well, that's fine, as far as
Others might see Sangha as a sort of spiritual support group, so there's always a friendly
ear to bend when you're in difficulties; a sort of safety net. There is always a spiritual
friend there to pick you up and dust you down, put you back on your feet when you take a
tumble. Well – again – fair enough, as far as it goes.
And it might even be that even at this level there is something fairly distinctive in the
FWBO... I wouldn't like to say – I haven't enough experience of other Buddhist
organisations and movements – but there is certainly more emphasis than most placed on
friendship, on creating community within our Order and movement, even at this level,
you could say, of a 'positive group'.
But we need to go a lot further, a lot deeper, to really begin to understand what we are
trying to do – however inadequate our efforts might often be in creating the Sangha of the
Western Buddhist Order – and what you, therefore, are engaging with in moving towards
In a number of talks that we study here on Going For Refuge retreats, Subhuti goes into
the idea of the Order as a spiritual practice, the idea of the creation of Sangha as a
spiritual practice. So we are now not just talking about Sangha as a context for practice;
not just about establishing a very positive and supportive environment in which to deepen
our Buddhist practice, to study, meditate and so on. It's much more than that. We are
talking about creating Sangha as a practice in its own right.
So creating Sangha, creating the Order, is an integral part of our practice. It is part of the
process of self-transformation, of bringing about that fundamental shift in our being that
sees us living more in accord with the way things really are.
To join the Western Buddhist Order means entering into – helping to create – an ever-
expanding network of trust and friendship built around shared ideals, a shared vision of
what we can be as human beings, and transforming ourselves as part of that very process
of creating Sangha.
You won't find other Buddhists speaking in this way. Here we are, now, in the distinctive
approach of the Western Buddhist Order of Sangharakshita... and it is worth
remembering this. If you start chatting and speaking with other Buddhists, they may not
understand what you are talking about if you start straight away speaking in this way; you
may actually need to take a few steps back and establish a more obvious common ground,
and start from there.
So: the Order as a practice... Put simply, the spiritual life in Buddhism is about
overcoming the illusion of a self – of a 'me'. A big 'ME', standing at the centre of the
universe, surrounded by a myriad of 'OTHER'!
If we are working to overcome 'self', it stands to reason the spiritual life can't be lived out
selfishly. That would be only to reinforce, however subtly, that sense of self. To practice
the spiritual life just for yourself is a contradiction in terms.
So when we join with others in creating Sangha we actually try quite deliberately to put
aside self-interest and enter into a process of mutual self-transcendence. There are many
levels and dimensions to this work of mutual self-transcendence, and I am going to note
and comment just very briefly on a few.
Creating Sangha, creating the Order, means learning to be a friend. It means cultivating
the art of friendship. Again, this has a number of sides.
It means learning to value vertical friendship, in the sense of learning to be able to
appreciate the qualities of those who have a deeper understanding and experience of the
path than ourselves.
It means being able to put aside pride, arrogance, and so on; to develop receptivity,
appreciation, gratitude, a readiness to learn – not thinking we know it all already, but
quite the opposite – an open-heartedness towards others and their qualities.
On the level of horizontal friendship it means learning to value and engage with all sorts
of different people, not just those who look like or dress like the sort of people we
naturally, instinctively like, but actually learning to be able to appreciate and value
people who at first sight would be the last sort of people we would want to have anything
to do with. Really learning, again, to be open to the deeper qualities, the truer qualities, in
all sorts of people.
And then vertical friendship, again: in the sense of learning to befriend and offer
encouragement and help to others who are coming into the Dharma, who have less
experience than us. Again, really learning to be able to put our own interests aside and go
out to others.
And all of this involves much more than just walk and talk and earnest chats over cups of
coffee... despite appearances at times to the contrary... [LAUGHTER]
...There is a lot to learn. Initially, I remember having very much the sense of, 'everybody
else has got something and I haven't!' – you know, all these people giving each other hugs
and going ...