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The Individual the Group and the Community

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 91: The Individual, the Group, and the Community

Friends, as we know, as we all have experienced from time to time, people ask all sorts of questions about Buddhism, about the Dharma. They ask all sorts of questions about the Buddhist life, what is its nature, what are its characteristics, in what does it essentially consist. And if we consider these questions, if we try to answer these questions then the most that we can say in a few words is that the Buddhist life above all else is a committed life. Now what is it committed to? It is committed first and foremost to three things, or rather we should say it is committed to three ideals. In the first place there is the ideal of enlightenment, the ideal of a transcendental state, of wisdom which is one with compassion, compassion which is one with wisdom, a state of intuitive apprehension of what we can only describe as ultimate reality in its absolute depth and in all its manifestations. The Buddhist life is also committed to the ideal of the path to enlightenment, by path meaning the sum total of all those practices, all those procedures, all those methods, all those helps, all those exercises, which conduce in one way or another to the realisation of enlightenment, in other words what we also call the process or the path of higher evolution. And thirdly the Buddhist life is committed to the ideal of what we call spiritual community, which we can also call spiritual fellowship, the fellowship which consists in following in principle, in essence, the same path, and aiming ultimately in the same goal. And in traditional Buddhist terms, these three great ideals, through the realisation of which we are committed, are known as the ideal of the Buddha, the enlightened one, or if you like of Buddhahood-, the ideal of the Dharma, the path, the way, the truth, the teaching-, and the ideal of the Sangha, the order, the spiritual community.

Now it isn't very difficult to commit oneself or at least to think that one has committed oneself, even to believe that one has committed oneself, or even to commit oneself actually to some extent, but it is by no means easy to remain faithful to that commitment over a considerable period. There are so many difficulties, there are so many distractions, there are so many obstacles, there is so much of weakness and imperfection even within oneself, constantly getting in the way, so backsliding, recession from the original commitment only to easily happens. So to safeguard against this, to help prevent this if possible, constant reminders to ourselves and to others, to all of us, of our original basic commitment to these three ideals, are absolutely necessary.

Now we can remind ourselves in various ways. We can perhaps pin up a slogan on our shaving mirror, or put it on our desk, or hang it above our kitchen stove to remind us, or we can read something every day.

There are various ways in which we can remind ourselves of our original commitment. But one of the best known, most time-honoured, and also most useful and effectual ways of reminding ourselves, and also a very popular and very enjoyable way, is with the help of, through the medium of festivals and celebrations.

So in the course of the Buddhist year we find a number of festivals and celebration which, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, remind us of our original commitment. And in the Buddhist year there are three Buddhist festivals that stand out as the most important, and they all happen to fall on a day or a night of the full moon. First of all we have the festival of the Buddha, the festival of the enlightened one, and this of course reminds us of the ideal of enlightenment, reminds us of the Buddha's spiritual attainment, reminds us that we too can attain, that we too can progress, that we too can evolve, that we too can in the end realise, and this great festival, the festival of the Buddha, the festival of the Buddha's enlightenment, is celebrated on the full-moon day of the Indian month Vaisaka, or Wesaka, or Wesak in Singhalese, corresponding to our month or months April to May.

Secondly, in the Buddhist year we celebrate the festival of the Dharma, the festival of the truth, or the festival of the teaching. And this serves to remind us of the second ideal, the ideal of the path to enlightenment, the path of the higher evolution. And this is celebrated on the full-moon day of the Indian month Asala, which corresponds to our June to July.

And then thirdly and lastly dedicated to the third ideal, there is the festival of the Sangha or the order, and this reminds us of the ideal of spiritual community or spiritual fellowship, the treading of the path together towards a common spiritual goal, and this is celebrated on the full-moon day of the month Kartika, corresponding to our October to November. Now, this year we are keeping up with our festivals rather well, and we have already celebrated the first two of these great days. And today, tonight especially, we are celebrating the third. And as part of our celebration we are considering the question of the individual, the group, and the spiritual community.

Now we notice that the first two of the three great festivals which I have described are associated with definite events in the life of Sakyamuni, the Buddha, the human historical Buddha who lived 2500 years ago. Buddha Day, Vaisaka, or Buddhajayanti as it's also called, is associated with the Buddha's attainment of enlightenment, sitting beneath the Bodhi tree according to tradition, at Buddhagaya when he was 35 years of age. And Dharma Day is associated with the giving of the Buddha's first discourse, his first explicit teaching to humanity in the deer park at Saranath near Benares. But we find that the third great day, Sangha Day, is not so associated. It's not connected with any single one event in the life, in the career, of the Buddha. So what is it associated with? Why do we celebrate Sangha day on this particular full-moon day? Now in order to answer this question we shall have to go back somewhat in time, we shall have to go back right to the very origins of Buddhism, back not just to the life of the Buddha himself, but to the life of the Buddha and his disciples. And it's interesting in this connection to recall that the Buddha himself always gave great importance to his disciples, especially his enlightened disciples. There's one particular incident where someone wanted to make an offering of some rather valuable robes to the Buddha, and the Buddha said, "No, don't offer them to me, offer them to the Sangha," that is to say offer them to a number of my disciples, perhaps enlightened disciples. He said, "if you offer them to them the merit will be greater." So you can see the position the Buddha gave to his disciples. He certainly didn't claim all the credit, as it were, for himself So this evening in this connection, we're going back not just to the life of the Buddha, but to the life of the Buddha and his disciples, his personal disciples. We're going back in imagination back to the jungles of India, to the villages and towns of India in those days, back to the early, the first, spiritual community that gathered around, that sprang up around, the Buddha. And as we go back, as perhaps we find ourselves there in the midst of those disciples and the Buddha, we find, we discover, that in those days the spiritual community around the Buddha, of which the Buddha was the centre, was divided into two great sections. We can give them any names that we like. There are traditional names, Pali and Sanskrit names, but I'm not going to use those names this evening. I'm going to call these two sections the sections of the full-timers and the part-timers. So who or what were the full-timers? The full- timers were those followers, those disciples, who'd cut off all connection with home, who'd left family, left secular employment, left civic responsibility, left political duties, had left it all, and they wore a distinctive dress, usually what we would call a saffron dress. It wasn't a robe. It was just the ordinary dress stained saffron with earth, with what is called geruamati. And they wore this dress so that as they went around from place to place people would be able to recognise them as people who'd given up the household life, and they subsisted on alms. They just stood each day with their begging bowl at the door of one house or another until they had collected enough food for their one or at most two meals of the day.

And they spent all their time in study, meditation, discussion, and general practice of the Dharma. When I say study, it wasn't that they studied books because there were no books. If you wanted to study the Dharma you had to get hold of a monk, a full-timer, who'd heard it all, and who could repeat it, recite it, and you'd listen and you'd get it in that way from his mouth, and you maybe would commit it to memory, you'd become a sort of living book, a walking book, because there were no books of any other kind in those days. In other words we find the full-timers entirely and exclusively devoted to the higher evolution.

They had no other care, no other thought, no other interest, no other enthusiasm, and these full-timers, as I've called them, later on in the course of Buddhist history, developed into what we now call monks and nuns.

Now who or what were the part-timers? The part-timers were those who remained at home. They married, they brought up families, they worked, they had civic and political responsibilities, but nevertheless they studied and practised the Dharma as best they could in their spare time. Other factors being equal, they didn't develop perhaps so rapidly as the full-timers, but at least they made some progress, in some cases even considerable progress. And in later days, at the later stage in the evolution of Buddhism ...

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