Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

The Meaning of Sangha

Talk one of two on the spiritual community or sangha

The title of this talk is a quote from William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was first brought to my attention by Bhante (Sangharakshita) at the time of my ordination – ten years ago. At the time of my ordination I took a meditation practice focusing on Ratnasambhava – the archetypal Buddha of Beauty. And because I was meditating on this Buddha figure, Sangharakshita quoted this line to me from Blake. I have never quite understood it. What does exuberance mean in this context and how does it relate to Beauty? What, for that matter, is meant by Beauty? So now, ten years later, I’m still exploring this question and I don’t know whether I’m any clearer, but we’ll see what happens. This talk is not really meant to address these questions anyway. The ancient Greeks spoke of the Good, the True and the Beautiful as the highest meaning in life. In Buddhism too we can speak of the Path of Goodness, the Path of Truth and the Path of Beauty – all three need to be followed but different people may put the emphasis on one or other of these paths. Goodness is concerned with ethics and purity, Truth is concerned with wisdom and, in The Religion of Art, Bhante speaks of the Path of Beauty as the way of the artist. So here Beauty is seen in terms of creativity – artistic creativity even. But art in this context has a very specific meaning – it must be both beautiful and meaningful in a universal sense – it must embody values that have the power to transform the individual for the better. So clearly this definition of art will exclude certain things which might be called art under other less stringent definitions. On the other hand, it might include some things which would not normally be considered works of art. For example, Sangharakshita himself has created the FWBO and I think the FWBO could perhaps, at a stretch, be considered a work of art according to this definition. The important factors are the beauty, the meaningfulness and the creative energy that is applied. Creativity is a focussed application of energy. Energy is emotion. “Energy”, to paraphrase another quote from Sangharakshita, is nothing but “the rhythm of delight in your own experience”. Energy is the rhythm of delight in your own experience. Exuberance is a movement of energy – exuberance is a creative movement of energy and exuberance is Beauty. Beauty is a creative movement of energy; that rhythm of delight in your own experience. Your own experience, of course, is an experience of the world, an experience of other people, an experience of responses to everything and everybody you come into contact with. The Path of Beauty involves taking delight in your responses to everything and everybody – it involves creativity; transforming and beautifying your responses to everything and everybody. In this sense, exuberance is Beauty. The Sangha is characterised by “unfailing mutual delight”. Sangharakshita says – Communication and taking Delight are of the essence of friendship – Sangha. The Sangha, we could say, is characterised by exuberance, an overflowing of energy into creative activity that is saturated with meaning and beauty. This is the vitality of Sangha, this is what gives life to our common pursuit, this energy, exuberance, delight that flows, pours forth in constant creative activity, creative activity that transforms ourselves and transforms the world, into something beautiful, something that is permeated by truly human values. This overflowing of energy into creative activity – this exuberance – transforms ourselves and the world into works of art. The true artist is engaged in self-transformation which has universal application and is a source of inspiration and even admonishment to others. The Path of Beauty is the path of energy, of exuberance. Energy in Buddhist terms is Virya – energy in pursuit of the Good. Virya is exuberance. Virya is essential to spiritual practice – it moves us from the realm of thinking it’s a good idea, to actually doing it. Actually transforming ourselves. A spiritual practitioner is energetic, exuberant, creative. A spiritual practitioner is becoming beautiful by endeavouring to embody the Good and the True. A spiritual practitioner is someone whose energy is in exuberant pursuit of the Good, the wholesome, the pure. Someone who delights in the adventure of evolving consciousness – someone who works like an artist, always making creative effort to transform their responses into something meaningful and beautiful. This is the opposite of self-obsession. There is a teaching in the Abhidharma of the Pali Canon about ‘unwise attention’. To give unwise attention to something means to focus on an object that will lead us into unskilful mental states or to focus on an object in such a way that it will lead us into unskilful mental states. Sometimes we do this with our responses to people or events. We maybe feel a bit inadequate or shy and we focus on it in such a way as to render us almost immobile – we increase our feelings of inadequacy or shyness by giving them unwise attention. Or we might feel a bit resentful and by getting obsessed with it, we develop it into a rage or fury, again giving ‘unwise attention’. We give wise attention by focussing on how to change our response – how to change our feelings of inadequacy and resentment or whatever – we take a creative approach. We also give wise attention by choosing to focus on something in our experience that is more positive. We are not 100% inadequate or resentful or unconfident – there are other aspects to our experience that we can focus on and by giving them attention they start to predominate. So I think when we are tempted to spend time poking around in our own psyche, analysing our moods and so on, we should bear in mind this teaching about ‘unwise attention’ and ‘wise attention’ and ask ourselves are we doing something creative? Is our energy moving in the direction of the good and the beautiful? Are there aspects of our experience that we could delight in? Most people have a positive response to something – whether it’s music, painting, poetry, trees, animals, the sea, mountains or whatever. So sometimes it may be necessary to turn your attention deliberately to something you enjoy, something you have a good response to, and that will introduce another element into your experience. A more energetic, exuberant element that will help you to take a more creative approach to life’s ups and downs. Exuberance is not boisterousness, it’s not just mindless activity. Exuberance in this context is an attitude and a tendency. It’s an attitude of abundance, an attitude of plenty and it’s a tendency to optimism. An exuberant attitude is optimistic about the universe, the law of Karma is operative, it sees the universe as basically benign. And following on from this is optimism about people and optimism about oneself. It’s a ‘can do’ attitude, a ‘get up and go’ attitude, an attitude that delights in a challenge. An attitude that sees possibilities and opportunities. And the greatest challenge, the greatest adventure that faces us at this point in human history, is the challenge of (conscious) evolution of consciousness. This is not just a Buddhist idea. This is recognised by many thinking people, the world over. Here for example is a quote from the American anthropologist – Loren Eiseley: “The need is not really for more brains, the need is for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger and the bear. The hand that hefted the axe, out of some old blind allegiance to the past, fondles the machine gun as lovingly. It is a habit man will have to break, but the roots go very deep.” The Immense Journey – page 140 Loren Eiseley – Anthropologist/Naturalist The triumph of evolution is the brain of mankind, a brain that increases in size by a multiple of 3 shortly after birth. This brain is an extraordinary phenomenon and it has made us the lords of nature. However, the survival needs of mankind are now of a completely different kind and they necessitate a growth in awareness, in wisdom and compassion, which is as yet only scantily present in the world. As Loren Eiseley said, “the need is for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger and the bear”. The need now is for a recognition, an insight into our essential interconnectedness, the need is for a transcendence of selfishness, a transcendence of even the notion of self. The need is for a transcendence of egotism, and a wholehearted embracing of egolessness – a wholehearted venture into the unknown realms of experience beyond separateness, beyond selfishness, beyond egotism. “Egotism”, according to Sangharakshita, is “a centripetal tendency, a movement of contraction”. “Egolessness”, on the other hand, “is a centrifugal tendency, a movement of expansion towards something absolutely outside the orbit of its own being”. “Something absolutely outside the orbit of our own being” is vast unknown territory for us and this is where we must go. We must venture forth on this quest for egolessness – this is what the higher evolution of consciousness demands of us. And like all great adventures, all great endeavours, we must go alone, we must decide in our own hearts to take up the staff of spiritual practice and enter upon the path of self-transformation. Others may be travelling in the same direction, they may help us and encourage us, but in the end we must travel that path ourselves. In plain words – we have to change ourselves. This movement of expansion towards what is beyond us, towards the unknown, is a description of the spiritual life. Expansiveness is characteristic of the spiritual life. Expansiveness is energy moving out beyond self-concern. It is above all an attitude of generosity. It is a renunciation of narrow self-interest and an understanding of the close, inseparable nature of the interests of both self and other. When we understand and recognise this truth, that our real interests and the real interests of others are identical, then there is no difficulty in being expansive, no difficulty in being generous. The path of the higher evolution of consciousness is a path that leads us from a more thorough awareness of ourselves, a more thorough integration of our selves out to a greater and ever greater awareness and understanding of others and of the interconnectedness of all life. The path of the higher evolution of consciousness, this conscious effort to change and grow and transform ourselves; this is what life is about. This is the meaning of life. Life must live. Life must expand and grow. Life is inherently exuberant. Life is energy and we humans, with our marvellously developed brain and our capacity for self-awareness, can marshall that energy and move it ever outwards in a “centrifugal movement towards something absolutely outside the orbit of our own being”. This is truly the great wonder of this world and our dignity as human beings and possibly even our survival, depends on us individually making the decision to take up the challenge and act accordingly. The teaching of the Buddha gives us a detailed method and the teaching of Sangharakshita further clarifies and elucidates that to make it more applicable to our particular context and circumstances here in late 20th century Britain. It’s a heroic task. The alternative is to live an escapist life, burying our heads beneath the trivia of a materialistic world or putting our faith blindly in some god or messiah to do our living for us. Let us then take up the challenge. Let us decide to transform ourselves. Let us allow ourselves to become part of the fabric of this exuberant, expansive life that flows through the universe. Let us give scope to our energy and creativity. Let us create ourselves anew. Let us engender in ourselves this exuberant attitude of abundance and plenty – this attitude of optimism – get up and go – can do. Let us build something beautiful together. A Sangha and the delights of a Sangha – the creations of a Sangha – beautiful spaces for meditation, beautiful spaces for living and working in. Beauty and refinement. Joyful relationships, rich and loving friendships. Let’s not complain and fight a quarrel. Life is really too short for that (Dhammapada). Let’s not be fearful – there is nothing to be afraid of. Let’s not have miserly, pessimistic attitudes – let’s have an attitude of abundance and optimism. Let us not spend too much time wandering in the labyrinth of our own minds – let us engage with those things of beauty which will create for us new, mental states, new minds. Let us be creative, dynamic, energetic, exuberant – and let’s take delight in the Buddha – for giving meaning to our lives – for revealing the meaning of our lives, let’s delight in the Dharma for allowing us to change and grow and let’s delight in the Sangha simply for being there. Let us delight in each other for being a living, breathing, aspiring Sangha, intent on the highest ideals and willing to wholeheartedly practice what we believe. In practice then, here at the London Buddhist Centre, let us practice hospitality to a much greater degree. Let us be welcoming to anyone we don’t know – let no one remain a stranger for long. Even if we’ve only been coming along for a relatively short time, let us welcome those who are newer. It is my heartfelt wish that the LBC have a reputation for simple hospitality – a welcoming, friendly, warm atmosphere. We do well in this area but I think we could do better. I had a letter from someone a while back, saying that a visitor from America who came to part of our Wesak festival in May didn’t feel at all welcomed – in fact, felt excluded by a sort of cliquishness. So by all means enjoy your friends and your chats but please look out for those who are alone or who don’t know anyone. Let’s be welcoming and hospitable. And going further than that, as we get more involved, let’s make an effort to build friendships. Let’s befriend someone. Don’t wait until someone befriends you, take the initiative, go out and make friends. It requires patience, it takes time and requires commitment, but it is worth the effort. the Sangha is simply, and wholly a network of friendships. A loving, trusting friendship between two people is the basic unit of our Dharmic society. It is sometimes said that the family is the basic unit of society – perhaps it is, but friendship is the basic unit of Sangha. Without genuine friendships, the Sangha becomes a horrible, ecclesiastical shell administering meaningless institutions. With friendship the Sangha is very much part of the self-transcending path of Beauty – encouraging expansiveness, energy and an exuberant outward movement into the realms of non-separation, the realms of higher states of consciousness where the designation of yours and mine becomes increasingly meaningless and insight is no longer just an idea. So let’s work at making friends – let us seek to love rather than look for love. We will be loved if we love – we will have friends if we make friends. And this year and for 2 years here at the LBC we have a campaign to create a new retreat centre for our benefit and above all for the benefit of future generations. Let us have an optimistic, energetic, outgoing response to this vision of a new Retreat Centre, Vajrasana. Some people immediately feel a bit overwhelmed by mention of large sums of money (although what a large sum of money is, is a very relative matter) and they immediately say, “oh, it’s too much – it can’t be done, oh dear do we really need it” and so on. That is a sure way to failure. But we can do it. Of course we can. We just need to raise about £300,000 between us in 2 years. That’s not outlandish, that’s not fantastical, it’s well within the realms of possibility. And our attitude makes a big difference. If we have an exuberant, energetic, optimistic, abundant attitude, then we can create wealth and abundance. If we think creatively and in a spirit of optimism, we create an atmosphere of abundance. How we think influences how we speak and how we act and it also influences other people. Our actions obviously influence others - our words influence others – what we say creates the flavour of our world. And our thoughts influence others too. We are not totally separate entities. Consciousness influences consciousness, thoughts have an effect. So we need to be aware of this and if we can’t, for instance, support Vajrasana and the appeal for help and funds, with our actions – then let us support it with our speech and our thoughts. Let us give the project, the vision, air to breathe in. The air of optimism and energy and abundance is the atmosphere in which Vajrasana will grow into a reality and manifest in our world as a beautiful retreat centre. So if we don’t have money or time or anything else to give to this project, let us at the least be generous with our thoughts and our words and give birth to the atmosphere out of which the vision can take shape. So at the LBC let us practise hospitality to a greater degree and be welcoming to newer people. Let us take action to befriend people – build the friendships which go to make up the Sangha and let us support the Vajrasana retreat centre project with our energy, our encouragement and our optimistic thoughts. There are a great many conventions, assumptions and mores in the world around us and we are affected by these conventions and assumptions. Often we are quite unconsciously affected by the ideas, views and assumptions that are so much part of the fabric of the world we live in. We can have very conventional attitudes and beliefs, without even realising it. Exuberant, expansive, joyful, optimistic idealism is not very conventional. Cynicism is conventional. Those who regard themselves as sophisticated and worldly wise can be quite cynical and pessimistic. They can regard all idealism as fantasy, pie in the sky, never stopping to consider what the ideals actually are and how they are being put into practice. Because, of course, idealism can be pie in the sky unless it is being put into practice and unless the way it is being put into practice is permeated with the values of the ideal. For life to be at all meaningful we need to have ideals – and high ideals. Some people’s ideal stops short at a good job and plenty of money. That is a disgraceful waste of human potential. We need to have high ideals – the highest ideals – of Wisdom and Compassion perfected – and we need to put ourselves wholeheartedly into making those ideals more and more of an everyday reality. Cynicism is conventional, it is even seen as wisdom sometimes. Idealism is not so acceptable. Let us not be conventional, let’s be unconventional – let’s be notoriously idealistic and strive with all our hearts to practice what we believe in. And again, materialism and consumerism are conventional. Many people see their salvation in terms of shopping. Happiness and contentment can be purchased – you just have to shop around. The more we can accumulate the safer and happier we will be. Wealth brings security and pleasure. What more could you want? It’s pathetic! It is pathetic that such a large chunk of humanity spends so much of its time accumulating worthless things and destroying the environment and making life miserable for another large chunk of humanity at the same time. And we are all strongly affected by the materialistic convention of the world around us. We all want to go shopping – into those brightly lit, enticing, places of comfort and salvation. We want to be saved – from our emptiness and loneliness – and we go shopping. We pray to GAP or NEXT or M & S. We pray to designer labels – and our prayers are never answered, but hope springs eternal in the true believer – and we go shopping – again. Living a simple life, with few possessions is less conventional. But a simple life, with few possessions, is much more conducive to spiritual practice, it is a spiritual practice and if it leaves us with surplus money we can give it away – which is another spiritual practice. Materialism and consumerism are conventional. Living a simple life as a spiritual discipline is not. Let us not be conventional, let’s be unconventional – let’s stop paying obeisance to the false gods of the shopping precinct and live simply – for our own benefit and the benefit of others. It is conventional to find fault with great individuals, to debunk them, to topple them from their heights. Especially it is popular on T.V., in newspapers or biographies to delve into the private lives of individuals and find bits of gossip – worthy stories that bring the great down a peg or two and show that we are all equal after all. But some people are greater than others. Some people have made a greater contribution to the life of humanity, some people have more ability, more intelligence, more talent. Some people are gifted, some people are truly great. Greatness should be recognised and applauded. We should be grateful to those who have excelled in any field. Plato, Einstein, Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela, Michelangelo and so on – there are many, many great and worthy people who deserve our gratitude and praise. Let us recognise a hierarchy of merit, a hierarchy of ability and, of course, a spiritual hierarchy and not go along with the current practice of finding fault with the great men and women of past and present. Madeleine Bunting, the religious correspondent of The Guardian, echoes this in a recent article: “There is a curious late 20th century obsession with destroying reputations. Something almost patricidal as we metaphorically murder the figures who have framed our history and culture. Something akin to a witch-hunt about how we search out contradictions and weaknesses in people and seize upon them as evidence of hypocrisy. Finding out such things is a legitimate pursuit of knowledge, but it is done with a judgmentalism which has echoes of bitter disillusionment.” This metaphorical murder etc is conventional. It is conventional to debunk, to bring everyone down to the same mediocre level. Hierarchies of merit, ability and spiritual insight are not so readily acceptable. Let us not be conventional, let us be unconventional. Let us recognise greatness and revere the great of past and present. It is conventional to not take any active part in public life. Society is atomised, individuals feel powerless and are apathetic. The motto is to look after number one. There is an emphasis on the private, personal world. We can have our computer at home, our T.V., video player, hi-fi – we are becoming more and more self-sufficient, isolated units in society and leaving public life to the few. This is bad for democracy and in the long run bad for the society we live in. At the election and referendum last May, only 35% of the electorate in Tower Hamlets voted – it was even less in some places. This is not a good sign. We should at least vote. But we should do more than that, we should take an interest in our local community. We should be part of the community and encourage community spirit, encourage mutual helpfulness and neighbourliness. We should not go along with the convention of self-centredness and apathy which undermines democratic public life. Let’s not be conventional, let us be unconventional. Let us be outgoing, sociable, neighbourly, let us encourage and engender community spirit and a healthy public life. This is a very natural extension of the practice of loving kindness. It is conventional to be nationalistic or to identify with some particular group. Nationalism and groupism of all kinds are more in favour than simple humanism. We hear of the gay community, the Black community, the Irish community, the business community, the countryside lobby and so on. And usually identity in terms of one group is at the expense of conflict with other groups. Nationalism is a stark example – in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in the Middle East. This is humanity still functioning very much on a level of lower evolution – “the hand that hefted the axe” – conflict and competition to ensure survival. This is also totally stupid. Breaking into mutually exclusive groups and threatening each other is more likely to lead to human extinction than human survival. But this madness goes on. This is the depth of spiritual ignorance in the world. And we need to turn our backs on this. We need to give up identifying with little bits of humanity – we shouldn’t even identify with Buddhism, as a group in opposition to others. We need to identify with humanity, we are human beings first and foremost – that is enough – where we were born, what we look like, our gender, our sexuality, our religion – all these are secondary. And we should not be content even to identify with the human race, let us identify with all that lives, let’s be sensitive to life wherever and however it manifests. Let us not be conventional, let us be unconventional. Let us give up all allegiance to groups and identify with humanity and all sentient life. It is conventional to value the romantic, sexual partnership as the most important of human relationships. It is even considered to be the basic unit of society, albeit a rather unstable basic unit. The romantic, sexual partnership – the couple – is considered to be the closest, most intimate human relationship. It is considered to be the most fulfilling, most desirable human relationship. To be not part of a couple is to be a social misfit; you must be part of a couple or wanting to be part of a couple. This is the conventional norm. In the Sangha we value friendship more highly than the romantic, sexual relationship. We value same sex friendship as the most important and highest human relationship and we encourage and praise friendship. It is not that it is bad or wrong or unspiritual to be in a romantic couple relationship, it is just that friendship, same sex friendship is a higher form of human relationship. It is the basic unit of our society – the basic unit of the Sangha. So let’s not be conventional, let’s be unconventional. Let’s give highest priority to our friendships, let’s give more time and energy to our friendships and let our sexual coupledom take second place, or even third place. There are no doubt many more conventions, assumptions and commonly held views that are all around us all the time – and we hardly notice. For instance, there’s the conventional notion of social drinking – drinking alcohol to be sociable. Alcohol makes you drunk not sociable! There’s a big difference between being sociable and being intoxicated. But the convention has it that you must drink to be sociable. What a sham! It’s a very counterfeit sociability you get when people drink alcohol. There is in fact no good reason for drinking alcohol unless getting drunk is essential to your wellbeing. There are many good reasons for not drinking alcohol – social reasons, economic reasons, health reasons, ecological reasons, and even spiritual reasons. So again let us not be conventional, let’s be unconventional. Let’s be genuinely sociable and friendly and not intoxicated. No doubt you can think of more areas of conventional behaviour and ideas which we could throw out and be happier and healthier for it. So let us not be satisfied with dull, conventional lives that have nothing of the adventurous spirit of exploring the heights of consciousness, the frontiers of consciousness. Let us be unconventional. Let us have faith in great and glorious ideals, let us have big ideas. Let’s have a vision of a better world. Let’s value the spiritual above the material, a simple life of few possessions above consumerism. Let’s value great men and women who give substance to a vision of humanity’s potential. Let’s value public life and community spirit and don’t shut ourselves away in atomised apathy. Let’s identify with humanity rather than with any particular group. Let’s value friendship above romantic, sexual relationships and let’s be sociable rather than drunk. Let’s break free of the bonds of convention. Let’s break free of the narrow confines of accepted ideas and norms of behaviour. Let’s set our sights on a vision of beauty. Let’s be creative and allow our energy to expand outwards beyond narrow self-interest, beyond narrow self-concern, beyond egotism, out beyond the orbit of what is known and comfortable. Let us be exuberant in our pursuit of the good. Let us be optimistic and exuberant. Exuberantly generous. Let’s be hospitable and welcoming to strangers. Let’s give time and energy to creating loving, deep friendships and let’s create an atmosphere in which Sangha flourishes, an atmosphere in which the work of the Sangha flourishes – such as the Vajrasana retreat centre – an atmosphere of optimism and abundance. Let’s not stop there. Let’s be even more radical – let us not accept the world as it is at all. Let’s change the world – let’s create a world more worthy of us, more in keeping with human dignity – a world that recognises the absurdity of nationalism, the absurdity of racism, the absurdity of materialism. The absurdity of human beings destroying or harming each other. Let’s create a world that is saturated with the Wisdom of the Buddha. The Insight and Vision of the Buddha which sees clearly the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life. Let us not be conventional, let us be unconventional. Let’s be radical, let’s practice the Dharma wholeheartedly. Let’s build Sangha – a beautiful tapestry of friendships – and let us engage in the great adventure of the Higher Evolution of consciousness, this great, optimistic, exuberant, expansive, beautiful adventure that gives meaning to Life and to our lives.