A Response to:
"Living Buddha, Living Christ"
Copyright 1999-2002 by John WorldPeace
All rights reserved
CHAPTER FIVE: COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
A. Mindfulness of Working
St. Gregory of Nyssa taught that the contemplative life is heavenly and cannot be lived in the world, that whenever a monk has to leave the monastery to do some apostolic work, he mustlament. Many monks do in fact cry when they have to leave their monasteries for an apostolic ministry. Other teachers, like St. Basil, said that it is possible to pray as you work. But he did not mean that we can pray with our actions. He meant pray with our mouths and our hearts. In Vietnam, we invested "engaged Buddhism" so we could continue our contemplative life while in the midst of helping the victims of war. There must be ways for monks to continue their contemplative lives while engaging in society. In Vietnam, we did not try to avoid the suffering. We worked to relieve the suffering while, at the same time, trying to maintain our mindfulness.
Even in monasteries, we have to cook, clean, sweep, and wash. How can we avoid these? Is there a way to work in a meditative mood? The answer is clearly yes. We practice mindfulness of cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing. When we work this way, we touch the ultimate dimension of reality. But we need training to do this, and it helps very much to have a community in which all the members are sharing the same practice. In fact, it is crucial to be with a Sangha or a church where everyone practices together, or dwells mindfully in the Spirit. We need to create such communities for our own benefit.
B. Monastic Culture
Thomas Merton wrote about monastic culture. A monastery or practice center is a place where insight is transformed into action. The monastery should be an expression of our insight, our peace, and our joy, a place where peace and beauty are possible. The way the monks and nuns there walk, eat, and work expresses their insight and their joy.
When someone from the city arrives in a monastery compound, just seeing the trees and gardens and hearing the sounds of the bell can calm him down. When he meets a monk walking peacefully, his tension may wash away. The environment, the sights, and the sounds of the monastery being to work in him for healing and transformation, even before he listens to any liturgy or teaching. Through their true practice and genuine insight, those who live in monasteries, temples, and practice centers offer us a way to obtain peace, joy, and freedom.
When monks offer retreats, they initiate people into the practice of mindfulness, of touching the best things within themselves and touching the ultimate dimension. They know the time is limited, so they offer only practices that retreatants can bring home and continue in their daily lives. If someone is too busy for a week-long retreat, it is still helpful to come for a weekend or a day of mindfulness, or even half a day. The monks and nuns can offer the peace, joy, and stability they have obtained through the practice. This kind of life can be described as monastic culture.
When you practice with others, it is much easier to obtain stability, joy, and freedom. If you have a chance to visit a retreat center, I hope you enjoy your time there sitting, walking, breathing, praying, and doing everything in mindfulness. The seeds are being watered, and the fruit, transformation, will reveal itself.
C. Community as a Refuge
In Christianity, the church is the crown of the path of practice, the true teaching authority. It is often said that there is no salvation outside the church. In Buddhism, a Sangha is a group of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who practice together to encourage the best qualities in each other. Some Buddhists respect only the Holy Sangha, the actual disciples of the Buddha during his lifetime. But they are already gone. To me, to practice with the Sangha means to practice with those who are with you now and with those you love. It may not be a Holy Sangha, but if it moves in the direction of trasformation, it is a real Sangha. We do not need a perfect or a Holy Sangha to practice. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. We can help build and improve the Sangha by practicing mindfully, step by step, encouraging each other. There is a saying: If a tiger comes down off his mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. It means if a practitioner leaves his or her Sangha, it becomes difficult to continue the pracitce. Taking refuge in the Sangha is not a matter of devotion. It is a matter of practice. The Buddhist Sangha includes Arhats, those who have overcome all afflictions, and Stream-enterers, those who have entered the stream that will surely lead them to enlightenment. Stream-enterers, those who have entered the stream that will surely lead them to enlightenment. Stream-enterers, have no doubt that the practice will transform their suffering. In Christianity, some people have been declared saints or holy persons. Perhaps they are similar to Arhats and Stream-enterers, but I must confess I don't understand how it is decided who is a saint.
D. Community as a Body
In John 15, Jesus says, "I am the true vine...Abide in me as I abide in you. Must as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." This is close to Buddhism. Without mindfulness, we cannot bear the fruit of love, understanding, and liberation. We must bring forth the Buddha in ourselves. We have to evoke the living Buddha in ourselves in order to become more understanding and more loving. Jesus said, "Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there I am." In Buddhism, it takes at least four persons practicing together to be called a Sangha. That allows the Sanghakarma, the legal procedure for making decisions in community life, to be possible.
When we live as a Sangha, we regard each other as brothers and sisters, and we practice the Six Concords -- sharing space, sharing the essentials of daily life, observing the same precepts, using only words that contribute to harmony, sharing our insights and understanding, and respecting each other's viewpoints. A community that follows these principles always lives happily and at peace.
When we gather together to form a Sangha, we practice opening up the confines of our separate self and become a large body of love and understanding. We and our brothers and sisters are one. This idea of salvation is echoed in the Easter Orthodox church, which has even more of a sense of togetherness -- you can only be saved as a community.
E. The Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Church
When you hammer a nail into a board and accidentally strike your finger, you take care of the injury immediately. The right hand never says to the left hand, "I am doing charitable work for you." It just does whatever it can to help -- giving first aid, compassion, and concern. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the practice of dana, generosity, is like this. We do whatever we can to benefit others without seeing ourselves as helpers and the others as the helped. This is the spirit of non-self.
In Christianity, every member of the church is said to be a part of the body of Christ. In Buddhism, we say that each Sangha member is like a hand or a leg of the Buddha. When we live in accord with the teachings of the Buddha, we are members of one body. If we practice the precepts well and realize deep concentration and understanding, our Sangha can arrive at liberation from afflictions. Even when liberation is not yet total, people can look at our community and appreciate the loving and harmonious atmosphere. When we practice understanding and love, we are a real Sangha, a fertile field in which good seeds will surely flower.
If there are too many misunderstandings, disputes, and rivalries among members, a Sangha cannot be called a real Sangha, even if it is in a beautiful temple or famous practice center. A church or community that is not filled with the Holy Spirit is not alive. A Sangha that is not pervaded by the energy of mindfulness is not authentic. For a community to be a real place of practice or worship, its members have to cultivate mindfulness, understanding, and love. A church where people are unkind to each other or suppress each other is not a true church. The Holy Spirit is not there. If you want to renew your church, bring the energy of the Holy Spirit into it. When people appreciate each other as brothers and sisters and smile, the Holy Spirit is there. When mindfulness is present, understanding (prajna) and love (maitri and karuna) are there, also.
F. The Holy Spirit is the Energy of Love and Understanding
To have a good Sangha, the members must live in a way that helps them generate more understanding and more love. If a Sangha is having difficulties, the way to transform it is to begin by transforming yourself, to go back to your island of self and become more refreshed and more understanding. You will be like the first candle that lights the second that lights the third, fourth, and fifth. But if you try your best to practice in this way and the people in the community still have no light, it may be necessary to find another Sangha or even start a new one. But don't give up too easily. Perhaps you have not practiced deeply enough to transform yourself into a living candle capable of lighting all the other candles. Only when you are convinced that creating a new Sangha is the only alternative to giving up is it time to go ahead and create a new Sangha. Any Sangha is better than a non-Sangha. Without a Sangha, you will be lost.
The same is true within a church. If you see that the Holy Spirit is not present in your church, first make the effort to bring the Holy Spirit in by living deeply the teachings of Jesus. But if you have no impact, if the practice in the church is not in accord with the life and teachings of Jesus, you may wish to gather those who share your conviction and set up another church, where you can invite the Holy Spirit to enter. To be a real help to your church or Sangha, you must first light your own fire of understanding, love, solidity, and stillness. Then you will be able to inspire others, whether in an existing group or one you are helping establish. Please don't practice "religious imperialism." Even if you have a beautiful temple or church with fine decorations and artwork, if inside there is no tolerance, happiness, understanding, or love, it is a false Sangha, a false church. Please continue to make an effort to do better.
G. To be Real Salt
The living teaching expressed by the lives of the Buddha and Jesus should always be the models for our practice. The sutras are not the living teachings of the Buddha. To receive the true teaching, we must emulate the life and work of the Buddha himself. The same is true of Christianity. The Gospels in their written or even oral form are not the living teaching of Jesus. The teachings must be practiced as they were lived by Jesus.
The church is the vehicle that allows us to realize those teachings. The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha is the hope of the Buddha. It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings come alive. Communities of practice, with all their shortcomings, are the best way to make the teachings available to people. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit need the church in order to be manifested. ("Wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am.") People can touch the Father and the Son through the church. That is why we say that the church is the mystical body of Christ. Jesus was very clear about the need to practice the teaching and to do so in community. He told His disciples to be the light of the world. For a Buddhist, that means mindfulness. The Buddha said that we must each be our own torch. Jesus also told His disciples to be the salt of the world, to be real salt. His teaching was clear and strong. If the church practices well the teachings of Jesus, the Trinity will always be present and the church will have a healing power to transform all that it touches.
H. Are we Practicing the true Teaching?
Are we making Jesus' presence real in our churches today? Are we making the Buddha's presence real in our Sanghas? The Buddha and the monks and nuns of his time were in continuous dialogue with those of other religious faiths, especially the Brahmans. Are we in dialogue with other religions? The Buddha made every effort to remove the barriers between classes. He accepted untouchables and other outcasts into his holy community. Are we doing the same with the poor and oppressed of our day? Are we bringing the service of the Sangha and the church to those who suffer, to those who are discriminated against politically, racially, and economically?
The Buddha accepted women into his Sangha and they became teachers, transmitters of precepts, playing the same roles as the monks. Jesus also taught women freely. The first person Jesus revealed Himself to after His resurrection was a woman. Are we allowing women to be ordained priests and teachers?
The Buddha and his monks and nuns practiced voluntary poverty. They owned only three robes, one bowl, and one water filter. Are we able to live simply, content with just what we nee? Or are our religious institutions simply building and acquiring more and more? The Buddha and his monks and nuns went begging every day to pracitce humility and to remain in contact with people in their society. Jesus in His time did very much the same. He did not own anything. He always made Himself available to people. He reached out and touched others in order to understand, to help, and to heal. The people He touched were mostly those who were suffering. Are the Sangha and the church of today in real touch with people? Are the churches today touching the poor and oppressed, or do they prefer to touch only the wealthy and powerful?
The Buddha always resisted violence and immorality. He withdrew his support from King Ajattasatru when the latter assassinated his father in order to ascend the throne. He tried to stop King Ajattasatru's efforts to start a war with the neighboring country of Vajji. Are our Sanghas doing the same -- opposing social injustice and violence -- or are we blessing wars and sending priests along with our armies to support the efforts of war? With utmost courage, Jesus taught a gospel of nonviolence. Is the church today practicing the same by its presence and behavior? Do the churches practice nonviolence and social justice, or do they align themselves with governments that practice violence and hatred? During the Vietnam War, the city of Ben Tre was destroyed in the name of salvation. The commander of the operation said, "We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it." Is it possible that a servant of the church blessed the troops being sent to such a war?
J. Jesus Needs Christians
For the Budha to be present in the Sangha, we must practice in a way that keeps his teachings alive, and not confined to sermons and scriptures. The best way a Buddhist can keep the teachings of the Buddha alive is to live mindfully in the way the Buddha and his community lived. For Christians, the way to make the Holy Spirit truly present in the church is to practice thoroughly what Jesus lied and taught. It is not only true that Christians need Jesus, but Jesus needs Christians also for His energy to continue in this world.
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