|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1994|
Lay Practice: Buddhism in Essex
As is so often the case, Nature provides us with the tools to evolve. In my case these were: a life with often quite intense suffering, the guidance of skilful teachers, a strong sense of determination and an enquiring mind, so I guess in many respects I had ideal raw material for Dhamma practice.
How can we understand anything unless we firstly understand ourselves?
Throughout the years I spent
with Dhammapalo (I stayed with him until his death at Amaravati in 1987)
I learned many lessons. Often this was an extremely painful process, but
he was a strong, sensitive person with a seemingly uncanny sense of time
and place. If an opportunity arose to point something out to me, he never
let it drift by, and gradually things began to change. As this happened
I became less angry, frightened and defensive; consequently my relationships
with people - particularly my wife and children - started to improve. My
involvement with the group increased and I realised that I had an ability
to organise, something which had gone largely unrecognised until then. Many
of the activities of the Harlow group - for example entering in the Local
Annual Town Show, fund raising activities like jumble sales and fetes -
obviously relied on good organisation to be successful, and I found myself
involved in a whole range of different things. This was ideal practice for
a person bereft of tact and patience. Yes, there were casualties along the
way, but the most regular casualty was of course myself, not to mention
my wife and anybody else that happened to be around at the time.
Many people who came along during these early years wanted to know if the Harlow group was a Zen, Theravadan or Tibetan group. Dhammapalo would say, "we are a Noble Truths and Eightfold Path group". He never formally embraced any particular school, and consistently pointed us towards the five precepts and the first aspect of the Eightfold Path, namely right understanding, more specifically of oneself. "How can we understand anything unless we firstly understand ourselves?" he would say time and time again. He would then go on and explain that people were made up of mind and body, and point out that we must understand the relationship between these two. Understand the influence of emotions, instincts, likes and dislikes.... always the same teaching, year in and year out. Being able to offer a religious message in such a practical and dynamic way helped to establish the foundations of practice which still support my endeavours to this day.
Dhammapalo never saw human development
as being something which should be kept to oneself (I hasten to add that
he did not advocate the evangelistic approach either). Consequently, as
the Harlow group started to become a little more mature, we began a self-help
therapy group, relaxation and non-religious beginner's meditation classes.
All of these were seen as ways to offer Dhamma to a wider section of people
whilst providing the members of the group with an opportunity to work more
closely in these various projects.
In 1977 it was decided that we try to find premises in which our activities could be brought together. We eventually secured a small detached three-bedroom house from the local authority. By this time I had been around for about 10 years and Dhammapalo's health had begun to decline; in 1978 he formally passed the day-to-day responsibility of the group to myself and my wife. He gradually became less able to participate, but still continued to provide sound guidance on many of the important issues and attend whenever his health permitted.
The move into premises took place early in 1979 and triggered a whole range of difficulties - not least the differing views people had about many things. We were constantly having to adjust and adapt the way in which things were approached, trying to strike a balance between spiritual practice and the need for a stable financial situation. We decided that no charges would be made for Dhamma activities and that the members would generate the necessary funds for the group's continuance. Obviously people were made aware that we accepted donations, but no pressure was brought to bear. So anyone could and still can attend, use the shrine room, borrow books and cassettes from our library, free of charge regardless of their financial situation. All this was offered as dana by the group. Hence our house came to be called 'Dana House' - the House of Selfless Giving. This calls for an unswerving commitment to the group and its activities by the members. It is to my mind no accident that dana appears at the top of the list of paramita. According to the Buddha it is the most difficult paramita for human beings to develop. We can all give, you know, on flag days or when something pricks us into doing so - but is this generosity? We only really practise generosity when we feel it. If I have a hundred pounds and give five pounds away, it is giving - but I still have ninety five pounds for myself. If I give fifty or sixty pounds from my hundred then that is generosity, because I really feel it. Maybe I feel joy or regret afterwards, but whatever, I do know something has happened. This is what is taking place at Dana House and has been for nearly sixteen years, not only in relation to money, but also time, material and personal support.
With a centre to focus our practice
on, it became inevitable that the group members spent more time in each
other's company. In order for things to run evenly, responsibilities and
decision-making needed to be more clearly defined. Could we learn to disagree
with each other and resolve differences more skilfully?
It was now around 1980, and, having heard about the Chithurst project, I decided to spend a weekend there. I had never been involved with monks and nuns at such close quarters, and it became obvious to me that a real parallel to our endeavours in Harlow existed. I had a number of chats with Ajahn Sumedho and before leaving invited him to visit us in Harlow. I think it was in 1981 when he was able to spend a weekend with us. I picked him up from Chithurst and arrived at Dana House in the afternoon; I remember the two of us sitting alone in the shrine room at Dana House for about 2 hours. Ajahn wanted the complete picture - who taught us, where did we get our funds from, how had we secured these premises - everything seemed to interest him. I explained how the group had started in 1969, who our teacher was, how we approached our practice; to be honest I felt a little bemused by his total interest. We had a marvellous weekend with the Ajahn, one of several over the years. When we arrived back at Chithurst, I recall him telling Ajahn Sucitto all about Dana House and how he felt it could be something other lay groups might consider.
Over the next few years, and in particular when Amaravati opened, I became much more involved in various ways with the Sangha. As I got closer to the actual mechanics of the Sangha, I was intrigued by many things which were not immediately apparent on first contact. I saw how, through wisdom and compassion, it is possible to resolve many day-to-day issues; how the question of seniority works; the use of patience and seeking to be open with each other. I wondered if some of the approaches used by the monks and nuns could be tailored to fit a lay group - not for the sake of emulation, but because of the need to regulate and steer our activities at Dana House.
In July 1987 Dhammapalo died from cancer, having gone to Amaravati a few weeks prior to his death. After this our group went through a period during which people felt quite low, but we recovered and carried on.
As the dust settled after Dhammapalo's death, I began to reflect on a number of quite important issues, discussing with those members who had been around the longest what their thoughts were. The result of much discussion and consideration was that a number of approaches, similar to those of the monastic Sangha, but adjusted for a lay group, would be embraced for a period of six months to see what effect might occur. In the first instance these were not referred to as precepts. After the six months had passed, it was plain to see how helpful it was to regulate our practice together with the use of training and observance rules. Further discussion resulted in a certain route being agreed as and when new rules are to be considered:
To my mind what has taken place over the years is that quite organically the Harlow group has evolved from a group meeting together once a week into a lay Sangha. This is a very difficult transition to make and requires much understanding and patience from the people involved. The Sangha members tend to see each other on different occasions outside of the activities of Dana House, and consequently meaningful friendships have grown. We try to bear in mind the needs of people that come along, whatever their background or creed, adjusting our pattern of events and meetings wherever possible. After all, what is needed is pretty much the same for everybody. We all need affection - to be accepted - to be appreciated. These are basic to all human beings, and it is the acknowledgment of this which is the bed-rock for Sangha. Sangha is a state of mind which arises as our understanding of ourselves deepens. When we truly understand our own needs then we can truly respond to the needs of others, learning how to express true friendship with each other. Sangha then begins to be expressed in ways which are appropriate to a given set of circumstances or situation.
Over the years different people (some of them quite strong-minded individuals) have wanted the group to go along a particular route. During our decision making process we ask, "Is this an appropriate direction to be taking at this time?", "Does it fit with our original purpose for being together?" We try, wherever we can, not to lose sight of the basics, and seek always to focus our endeavours around the needs of the many and not the wants of the few.
We try to bear in mind that the members of the Harlow Sangha are like gatekeepers. We keep open the gates for people to come in and try whatever is being offered, and then to stay or leave as they wish; making everybody welcome, without any pressure to take part in anything, and getting them to feel comfortable. If people want to join us for a cup of tea and a chat at the end of the evening, that's fine by us. In other words: "We are here if people need us - and if people don't need us, we are still here."
P.S. I speak of "my teacher", but I have had many teachers in my life and still do: my wife and children, the Sangha, work, home life - in fact, on reflection I cannot bring to mind anything which is not in some way linked to practice. Sometimes I look back at that sensitive young man mentioned above that felt so unloved and afraid, and feel so much gratitude for the fact that I have been able to understand something of the great and profoundly simple Dhamma.