I’m back! First of all, I’m very excited to report that I did successfully cross the 50,000-word finish line of NaNoWriMo on November 20th. My novel still has a ways to go before completion, but I’ve made an excellent start and look forward to a collaborative finish with my husband’s assistance; we make an excellent writing team. Secondly, I want to say that while it was very useful to prewrite blogs so that I could focus on my noveling, I actually did miss the more spontaneous approach of writing a blog the same week as I posted it, which is so much more in keeping with the present moment. So I’m glad to get back to something a little closer to “real time” blogging.
Throughout November I’ve thought about what I’d like to write about on my return. I strongly considered Grasping, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Hopefulness, and Hopelessness – each of which may make an appearance in blogs to come. However, ultimately, I decided on Community. In particular, I want to focus on the Buddhist word for spiritual community: sangha.
Back in January, nearly a year ago, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the Plum Village mindfulness practice tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Making the decision to receive the trainings felt very momentous at the time. My Buddhist foundations are in the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, but I’ve struggled to find a nearby affiliated sangha at which I felt at home. I felt some trepidation about transitioning to mindfulness practice, even though all of my experiences with the Still Water Mindfulness Community had been very positive. At base, I was worried about making spiritual commitments to a different tradition. However, I knew that my practice was faltering because I did not have the support of a sangha, and I knew that the Five Mindfulness Trainings were rooted in the Five Precepts, which I already had committed to when I formally became a Buddhist. I decided that this was the right step for me to take.
However, I was still torn about whether I should take a new refuge name as part of the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmission ceremony. A refuge name is a special name given when you formally become a Buddhist by taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I expressed my concerns to Still Water’s senior teacher, Mitchell Ratner, who asked me what my Tibetan refuge name was. I told him and he then proceeded to do the most remarkable thing. He contacted someone who knew Tibetan, had my Tibetan refuge name translated into English, and then arranged to have my new refuge name be based on that translation. His extra effort on my behalf was so kind and considerate that tears came to my eyes when I heard my refuge name announced at the transmission ceremony. I felt so welcomed.
Throughout this year, I have felt that I am a member of a community that is very supportive of its members and has its arms open to all. Many members come from, or continue to practice in, other religious traditions. This is a sangha that cares and listens; a sangha that is willing to make changes right now in the present moment in order to be more inclusive. Among other activities this year, I have participated in one family retreat, attended two mindful family gatherings and hosted one, taken part in a wonderful two-week intensive to strengthen my practice with the support of other sangha members, and attended a Fearless Compassion class where we learned from each other about being with grief, loss, and death. With my community, I have meditated and participated in dharma discussion – not as often as I would like, but far more regularly than ever before. And when I felt overwhelmed with life and was unable to maintain commitments to attend certain events, I felt immeasurable relief at the graceful response I always received. This is a community that strives to inspire and support, not guilt.
I have been equally fortunate to have been a part of another spiritual community, right in my own house. Beginning this summer, my mother and I have been supporting each other in our practice. We have meditated together (both in community with others and with only ourselves), discussed dharma together, and are slowly working our way through reading aloud Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s three-volume masterwork on the complete Buddhist path: The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma. We’re still on volume 1: The Path of Individual Liberation, which covers the Hinayana path, and at the rate I seem to make time to read, we won’t reach the Vajrayana for another decade. That’s okay. Together we are reading it; together we are practicing. The path is the goal.
In the Upaddha Sutta, the Buddha tells his faithful attendant, Ananda, “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.” Not only monks benefit from community; all of us are stronger in our commitments and aspirations with the right support.
Thay talks a lot about the importance of sangha. In his book Cultivating the Mind of Love he writes “If you have a supportive sangha, it’s easy to nourish your bodhicitta, the seeds of enlightenment. If you don’t have anyone who understands you, who encourages you in the practice of the living dharma, your desire to practice may wither. Your sangha—family, friends, and copractitioners—is the soil, and you are the seed. No matter how vigorous the seed is, if the soil does not provide nourishment, your seed will die. A good sangha is crucial for the practice. . . If you have a sangha that is joyful, animated by the desire to practice and help, you will mature as a bodhisattva.”
Of course, finding that support, a community that fits, can be a very difficult challenge for many people. I struggled with it for decades. I think the biggest lessons that I have learned in regards to finding sangha are: don’t give up and don’t limit yourself. The community that best supports you may not be the community you thought you were looking for. And if you can’t find, or don’t have access to, the sangha you need – establish one. Still Water’s senior teacher has said that in founding Still Water his goal was to establish a community that he would want to belong to.
I am so very grateful to be in community.
I have arrived. I am home.
In the here. In the now.
I am solid. I am free.
In the ultimate I dwell.
–Thich Nhat Hanh