By Jack Lawlor
After returning from this year’s meeting in Plum Village, I was immersed in gratitude for the mindfulness practices we share, and for the efforts of Thay, Sister True Emptiness, and the growing community of monks and nuns. I am also in awe of the spiritual growth and maturity in the Order since its first international meeting in 1992.
This collective deepening of our practice may be due to the steady growth of healthy Sanghas in over 20 countries during the past four years. When we met in 1992, there were many lay Order members who were not closely connected with a Sangha-apart from Plum Village-which could nourish their practice. As a result, our practice may have been wobbly and intermittent. More and more of us have begun to hear Thay’s gentle and consistent reminders about the value of practice with our home Sangha, however small it may be. The fruits are obvious-regular practice of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and the use of gathas is resulting in more stability and peace in our lives. We have become better listeners and communicators, though there is always room for improvement. In our daily verses, we vow to “practice wholeheartedly so that understanding and compassion will flower.” The quality of dialogue in the small group discussions held during the meeting showed that members have been practicing in this way.
During the meeting, we shared a moment of silent gratitude for the support of members of the extended community. Even though many in the extended community may not be able to afford the time necessary to practice as a formal member of the Order or the expense of going to Plum Village, they practice mindfulness diligently and to the best of their ability, consistent with their family responsibilities. Thus, it makes little sense to pursue the creation of an organization based solely on the thin reeds of certificates and robes. Both members of the Order and the extended community aspire instead to create genuine networks of spiritual communities which enable us to learn from each other in a warm, tolerant, and open-hearted atmosphere. Those who choose to ordain in the Order simply commit to make extraordinary efforts to help these community-building efforts succeed. When we do so, we may find that our wisdom and compassion flourish simultaneously in ways we could not foresee, and that our ability to understand, love, and help others is much deeper and more resilient than we had suspected. If the Order is to act consistently with its lineage and manifest the Bodhisattva ideal of “working mindfully and joyfully” for the sake of others, we must have a deep commitment to service, not only for the Order, but also for the extended community, for our blood families, and for our communities and biosphere.
As we learn the value of community, fewer people view the one-year waiting period before joining the Order as a barrier. In many countries, this time is being transformed from a negative source of impatience and frustration to an immensely positive period of spiritual training and friendship in the company of Sangha members who have gone before. If we rush into the Order, there should be little surprise that we feel a bit disoriented once we are ordained. But if we join after a period of spiritual friendship with a fellow Dharma brother or sister in the company of an accessible Sangha, the value of the Order and the extended community has been experienced through our pores, and there is little need for further written explanation.
A remarkable degree of experimentation is taking place within the Sangha to meet the needs of local culture and temperament. At this meeting, it was agreed to retain the guidelines for initiation into the Order. (See Charter of the Order of Interbeing in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Interbeing.) However, it was also agreed to emphasize the mutual benefits of the one-year mentoring period for both the aspirant and the Sangha in each country or region, stressing the need to nourish the bodhichiua of each aspirant, and allowing local Sanghas to embellish the admission process to reflect local culture, geography, and circumstances.
This experimentation has already resulted in the creation of several resources: the Sangha in the United Kingdom has developed extensive written materials about the ordination process; I have written the book Sangha Building to encourage the growth of new Sanghas and maintain the health of existing ones in the face of challenges which sometimes arise from excessive weariness or zeal. A number of Dharma teachers and Sanghas are developing explanations of how one may join the Order, which we hope will suit the needs of people in our regions.
There is much more work to be done. The Order has organized itself into committees of monks, nuns, and laypeople to enhance Sangha building, social action, youth and adult education, the development of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the Charter, and communication within the Sangha. Everyone is encouraged to incorporate these efforts into practice, to accept help offered by others, and to know how and when to ask for help when needed. We’ ll undoubtedly make mistakes, but even mistakes are a healthy part of the beautiful maturation process which makes both the Order and the extended community so relevant to the transformation of human society.
Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, is one of the founders of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and a newly elected co-director of the Order of Interbeing.