Number 11 
 January  1990   2533 

Sangha & the Basis of Community; Ajahn Santacitto
Accepting the Way Things Are; Sister Thanissara
Declan's Gift; Venerable Kovido
In the Footsteps of the Wise; Ajahn Liam
Question Time; Than Ajahn Sumedho
The Dhamma of Relationship; Ajahn Sucitto

Three Poems:

Sangha and the Basis of Community

Ajahn Santacitto shares some reflections on the workings and nature of community.

An order of monks and nuns is an example of a diverse community brought together by commitment to a shared aspiration. The aspiration is to follow the heart's call to discover the truth through unselfish living. This common intention, to dedicate oneself through service to what is true, is the key to the transforming power of community.

Free of political devices and ideologies, a monastic community experiences on the one hand the communal purification which lies at the heart of communism, and on the other hand the respect for individual human potential that forms the basis of democracy. A monk or a nun discovers how peace within community arises from peace within oneself; and peace becomes real when there is a willingness to give up selfish impulses. In practice, this supports the harmonious sharing of food, clothes, work and shelter. In doing so one offers one's life as an experimental laboratory to creatively rediscover, in evernew conditions, the validity of Buddha's 2,500-year-old experiment in community living called 'Sangha'.

This is my global vision for the future. I believe the ongoing, ongrowing extension of this Sangha experiment to ever wider human territory offers our mature human community a vision of hope. It provides practical guidelines on how to make this vision real through the creative power of skilful living.

 The Buddha highly praised coming together to share our perceptions and experience of how to apply the skilful means of personal and communal development.
Being a monk in Thailand for 12 years was a constant source of reflection on what Sangha expressed and offered society. The relationship between the monastic Sangha and Thai society is based on mutual dependence - the Sangha providing spiritual support, teaching and guidance, and the society providing the material support of the Sangha's basic physical needs. One sees how beautifully Thai society has used the joy of giving as a means of training - both communal and individual. Children learn happily by joining in; as, for instance, when praised for their respectful putting of cake in a monk's almsbowl. It is heart-warming to see a whole cross-section of society encouraging each other in celebrating communal generosity. This social unblocking of the hindrance of greed, so especially relevant to our highly materialistic society, opens channels that lead to a society rooted in what we can offer each other, and can bring very real happiness and harmony.

Indeed, the Thais' joy in giving is contagious. When they gather together with other South-East Asian Buddhists at Amaravati, the more reserved Westerners present are often drawn to share in this joy. Making a beautiful tradition a source of celebration is one of the ways the Thai people live the Buddha's ancient teaching for developing and maintaining a strong happy society.

To help accomplish this, the Buddha offered a specific teaching, which would always lead to welfare and prosperity and never to decline. Paraphrased, and in words intelligible to Westerners, this instructs us:

  • to meet together regularly and often, always meeting and dispersing in harmony, and to carry that harmony into all our duties ad dealings with each other;
  • not to overthrow the established principles, or introduce new ones but to accept and abide by the original and fundamental ones;
  • to honour and respect the elders and deem them worthy of being listened to;
  • to ensure that women and girls can dwell in safety and without fear of being molested or exploited;
  • to honour and respect shrines, images and other symbolic objects (of communal and individual devotion), and not to neglect or undervalue participation in ceremonies, which can help us reaffirm our right intention and establish our right effort;
  • to provide rightful protection, shelter and support for those living the Holy Life and to be glad to be near them.

  • The last one of these is another example of how Thai society uses the Triple Gem to socialise forces for peace and happiness. This is in the ceremony of reaffirming and mutually supporting the development of the unselfish heart, individually and communally - through the five precepts. These precepts are guidelines and principles for restraining unskilful impulses - of taking life; stealing; committing adultery; engaging in harmful speech; and indulging in intoxication. They open channels for the flowing forth of the unhindered human heart's nature to be kindly and loving to all life (empathy); to be generous and respectful of property; to accept family responsibility; to preserve and encourage harmony through speech; and to value clarity of mind. This is the fundamental basis for genuine peace and harmony arising in any human community.

    The Buddha highly praised coming together to share our perceptions and experience of how to apply the skilful means of personal and communal development.

    During the time I was preparing a talk on 'A Global Vision', with monks and lay guests of our monastery gathered together one day, a group discussion developed. From this shared offering came many worthwhile ideas - growing into a veritable edifice! This sincere sharing also showed, with quite unexpected vividness, how the human relationship of Sangha as community provided a real example of how we can actually live our vision.

    Sangha working well
    I offer some of the reflections that arose:
  • How can we help people to go beyond self-indulgent pleasure to realise their potential for inner happiness?
  • Can people be helped to appreciate or discover how the Five Guidelines (described earlier) can greatly aid accomplishing this?
  • Selfishness seems to be strengthened by some of the unwholesome social values absorbed in the socialisation process. How do we encourage generosity, a universal humanistic and spiritual teaching?
  • Generosity is the opening of a closed heart. It is the open heart that will communicate and transform. If we can somehow help others to taste calm and peace, then generosity naturally blossoms.
  • In our honestly practising, and manifesting it (especially in the catalyst of the monastic environment) others can experience recognition in their own hearts of the joy, the peace and the generosity.
  • I mentioned how contagious joy can be, such as when Thais offer food. This is an instance when lay people are reminded how they can nurture the quality of generosity in their children at home - particularly by encouraging them to serve food to others.
  • Can education in such values be encouraged - how can more training in generosity and more guidelines be brought into the system? For example: could children be involved more in moulding the school environment (cleaning it up, contributing cooking and serving), so that they would respect it more?
  • Can educators be encouraged to find practical ways of transforming an institution into a community? For example: by encouraging teachers as well as students to develop a sense of community; by giving attention to environment and aesthetics conducive to community values; by having the classroom better reflect the world (having handicapped children participate, for example); by setting priorities carefully (already there are too many pressures on educators to get children to achieve worldly goals).

    Interestingly, the discussion - in process, experience and in suggestions proposed - pointed very directly to a fundamental consideration in realising a global vision. As a Sangha, as a dynamic community, our personal responsibility to each other is in educating, encouraging and supporting each other towards practical manifestations of unselfishness, to experience the happiness and joy in generosity, in giving guidelines for conduct, and in developing the heart of kindness and a clearly alert and aware mind.

    In our innermost hearts we know, feel or sense that, from the enlightened perspective, everything is basically already perfect - so there really is no need to struggle for, or force change; nor a need to resist it. Yet a seeming paradox is that emanating from the heart of this perfect vision is the radiance of compassion, which manifests spontaneous purity (of behaviour and relationship). In practical terms, this means one is still continually functioning towards the well-being of all. This action is not motivated by hopes or expectations to make the world become like one's ideals, but by a totally selfless offering in response to the living need - a fluid vision of this living moment, evoking an immediacy of the spontaneous action. Through our ever stepping into the unknown - the future blossoming into The Now - we can be fully responsible for it; and we know what needs to be done, in the very act of doing it. Such wise living is the natural functioning of genuine faith.

    In Buddhism we call this awareness 'mindfulness' -'mind fullness'. This fills both the world within and the world around with that which heals our inner fragmentation and the false vision of our outer separateness from one another. The vision of this noble truth, and the way of manifesting it practically, is the Buddha's compassionate dispensation ('prescription') for the illusions of the world's problems ad the sense of dis-ease we experience through our being born, not just physically but also mentally and spiritually, into such problems. Through it we are given the grace of discovering ourselves and developing skill in mindful living. This enables us to serve more wholly the world without, while making more whole (more holy) the world within.

    Such a noble vision of mutual reflectiveness between the inner and the outer world is the keystone to our success in both inner and outer action. It is the natural root for the blossoming forth of personal responsibility and commitment to blessing the communion of our common humanity. In so touching each other, community becomes real and tangible, from the household up to the global family. In the well-rooted love, miracles and wonders arise in the ordinary. And in the mutually reflective vision, unifying the world within and without, self and other, the wondrous and the ordinary, we find the miracle of mindfulness has the power to dissolve all problems in our return to their source.

    Though I have offered reflections from the perspective of a monastic community, offering humanistic and spiritual reflections on a global vision for the future, obviously it is not special to Buddhism or monasticism. All the great religious traditions have a tremendous wealth of wisdom, and skilful means and experience from which untold benefit can be drawn. But each of us must be willing to strive, offering ourselves individually and communally, as a courageous experiment to explore how these timeless teachings apply. Only by our living them can they become relevant and be communicated to the people of the world, both present and future.