- A talk by Ajahn Viradhammo given at Bodhinyanarama on 13 December 1998
Good evening. It is nice to see so many people here to use this lovely space to sit quietly and contemplate Dhamma.We have just finished a ten day retreat with about thirty lay people and the monastic community. It is a privilege to live without competition, worldly things or the usual struggle of life. At times like these, one can just observe the way things are. One sees spaciousness, and a trusting and moral environment where silence is encouraged and the beauty of nature is present. To be in this environment is a great privilege.
What one develops in a period of time like that is a strong sense of community and of relating to people. There's a common activity because the life of community is cooperative not competitive. There is no 'I want to get to nibbana before you and if you get ahead of me I'm going to trip you.' I know that if I work on myself, practice in this particular way, live morally and uphold the principles of the retreat and the teaching, then that encourages you to do the same thing. And if you do that too it encourages me. There's a reciprocity of encouragement, affection and aspiration.
This of course is something that is often lacking in a society which is geared to competition, money and ease, where life is a vicarious existence of watching rugby games or other forms of entertainment. Community life is I think an art form which is being much lost these days. It is hard to do if one has been conditioned to individuality. I certainly was. I had my own room. My brother had his own room. I had my records. He had his records. If he touched my records he'd be finished. The life of community is something that I have learned by being a Buddhist monk. As you know, we chant 'Sangha vandeh / I revere the Sangha'. In Buddhism 'Sangha vandeh/ I revere the Sangha' is seen to be the 'Sangha of Enlightened Beings'. Where do you find one of those these days? But if you bring Sangha to the ordinariness of life, you contemplate community.
To me community implies a sense of affection for one's place, for the trees, for the water one uses, for the air one breathes, for the food one eats, for governance, for the street one uses, for one's neighbour, for the shoemaker, for the greengrocer and so on. A Buddhist culture implies the sense of developing community by being responsible for all these very real things.
To live and work in community requires us to give. One of the great virtues of a Buddhist culture is dana, giving. Sometimes there can be a form of spiritual materialism, where giving is linked to a better material status in the next life. We need to think about what dana, or generosity, actually implies. What does metta, the idea of kindness and compassion imply other than being nice to my dog or my kids? Like community, metta also implies a deep commitment to affection at a very real and pervasive level. Affection for one's roads, for the air. For New Zealand. This monastery of course brings that up. When you come to this environment you notice the affection; affection for architecture, for workmanship, for a path which is laid out with beautiful stones you can walk along, There is also a sense of responsibility for the overall harmony of the community. For me to see it's not for you to make me happy but rather for me to try to participate with affection in your life, my own life and in our community life in order to create harmony. That's what an elder does.
The school of Buddhism this monastery is a part of is called 'Theravada' which means 'The Way of the Elders'. Of course traditionally that means the elder members of the ordained Sangha who have much wisdom and so on. All of us are moving towards that because one of the developments of a spiritual life is a movement to maturity and the taking of responsibility for one's community. That includes the family and all our associations.
Often the problems of society are pronounced in terms of a global or national problem. But there are no national problems, just individual problems. It's always individuals disagreeing or individuals fighting. That can be a national problem if the whole national psyche is geared towards that. But the solutions are always individual. They are about you and I working together with each other. People often say 'well I'm gonna wait for the other guy to recycle the plastic and then I'll start'. But why wait? Why not begin oneself?
The Buddhist teaching around compassion and empathy and affectionate participation in life puts up strong mirrors. We try to have universal empathy but it can be a challenge. The first monk I met said to me 'don't worry about the parts of Buddhism you agree with. It is the bits you find difficult to follow which are the tough ones'. These are like mirrors which present a challenge to the mind. So if I have a disagreement with someone or if I hate the polluters and I dwell in continual hatred for even that which is evil, then the Buddha's teaching says 'no that's not my teaching. You can call yourself a Buddhist but that's not what I'm teaching'. Then we can look inwards and ask 'why can't I live up to those high standards, what is it about my life that I am unable to do that?' Participation in the difficulties of the community as a spiritual practice is the great challenge. To use the committee meeting as your monastery or to use your adversary as your teacher is a way of introducing spiritual practice into problem solving. This is very rewarding. It's hard work. It's much easier to slope off and say 'well let them do it I'm going to watch the ball game tonight'. Sometimes we need to do that but that kind of participation in community where we think we'll let someone else take care of the trees or the water, doesn't bring many rewards.
Sometimes Buddhism can seem to involve an attitude of 'leave me alone I'm trying to get enlightened'. Even metta practice can be like that. You can be sitting there saying 'may all beings be well, may they be free from suffering', when someone interrupts your meditation and you snap at them. It's easier to idealise universal compassion than to actually live it. To be in a relationship with someone who really presses your buttons and to be aware of that is a spiritual practice. Now that doesn't mean that we don't feel alienation, resentments, anger or fear. These are natural conditions of the human heart. But to take alienation or resentment as my refuge or as something that I pursue, of course defeats community. It also defeats my own spiritual practice.
So what does a Buddhist have faith in? A Buddhist has faith in goodness and in virtue. You might say I didn't have to become a monk to do that. But to witness that which is unwholesome and unskilful in an affectionate way is the Buddhist path. Because we have both in our hearts; that which is divisive and that which is unifying. We have both because we're human beings and to have affection for one's inner worlds means to take responsibility for the whole business. But we don't have to take refuge in it all.
Sometimes when we do metta bhavana practices of loving kindness we begin with ourselves and our loved ones, then we radiate that love outwards to more neutral kinds of people and then we try to bring up into consciousness beings we think are our enemies. That can be hard because it's tied into memory. It's very interesting how memory works. When you mention someone who has harmed you, your memory pattern goes right to that doesn't it? To not pursue or feed that memory pattern is a way of ending the whole sense of alienation and separation.
The monastery I come from has about fifty people resident, often another fifty on retreat and maybe another hundred for a meal. So it's a pretty big outfit. Sometimes you get a clique of whingers. They're usually the behind the woodshed smoker types, complaining that the Abbot talks too much or that the monks took all the cakes again. They usually walk out the door and are never seen again. That's not how you form community.
When one hears that kind of divisive speech, maybe we can listen without buying into it. We can say 'yeah it sounds like you've got a problem'. To disagree is fine but we want to avoid feeding that continual tendency of the human mind to become negative.
To take responsibility in community for right speech is again one of these mirrors that the Buddha's teaching is presenting to us. Right speech is speech which is in concord, brings harmony, is truthful, beautiful and according to Dhamma. Wrong speech is speech which is divisive, untruthful, ugly, cruel, harsh or swearing and speech which is just foolish. If we're really working with Buddhism as a spiritual teaching then when our speech enters into disharmony and divisiveness we'll awaken to that because we're taking this training seriously. We'll say 'why do I need to do that? Why do I need to create disharmony?' Inherent in this is a joyous awakening to the peacefulness of relating and to intimacy. Intimacy isn't just about a relationship between two people. It's more than that. It's about non-alienation with and affection for all sentient beings. It's not an easy thing to do but that noble aspiration is worth it because it does bring joy. Not the joy of consumerism or the easy way out. It's a deeper sense of nobility in the human heart.
Community takes a lot of work. I've lived in community for 25 years and the image Ajahn Sumedho uses is of fifty rough green stones in one of these polishing machines. They come out all nice and shiny and you can buy them in the shop. The process is grinding. It's like being with someone you find irksome and with whom it's ok to disagree, but taking responsibility for that. Or like being with someone you find intimidating and working with that. It is a kind of a grinding which requires time, stability and commitment.
We have to ask ourselves why there is so much depression and suicide in our society. For me it seems the problem is that we don't have community and that we don't relate in a non-alienating way. We relate in a competitive way. We cut the trees down in order to use the land. We become alienated from our own bodies and they become bloated, overfed things that we have to carry around. What is a body? It is one of the environments we live in. What does it feel like? What kind of food does it need? A life of affection for your community of emotional beings, for what you're putting into your body and into your mind is a more complete way of living your life.
But what is the affectionate relationship to the emotions? Even within a spiritual practice we can have a cruel self hating attitude towards the very real difficulties that we face. We expect ourselves to love, or forgive. The spiritual part of community also includes an affectionate participation in one's own inner being and an understanding of one's own emotions. Within that inner affection or inner awareness one sees all kinds of limitations. One sees that one does resent, get angry and have fears.
This is a more complete, integrated way of living your life. A life lived for a weekend of golf doesn't make sense to me. To push one's body hard in some way and then have a few hours of pleasure a week seems to me to be disassociated and alienated from life. But a life of immediacy where we're living moment by moment in this kind of affectionate and caring way makes a lot of sense and has very good results.
This can lend a new quality to one's existence, because the process of existence is just as important as any other goal we might have. The doing is important because the doing involves affection for all the little things.
If the means are right the ends will be right. If the way I'm living this moment now is not conjoined with affection then how can I have affection later on? If my spiritual contemplations are bound by self hatred and self judgment and put downs of myself and all that, how can there be affectionate love at the end of the road? There can't be. It just doesn't work. The law of karma doesn't work that way. So this life of Buddhism is a life of responsibility, maturity and affection. A life of caring for oneself and for one's community.
I wish you well in your own spiritual journey and I hope this place is helpful for you in this way of developing community in your own spiritual life. Thank you for your attention.