The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

If you were to ask me what could save this planet Earth I would say not eating meat, not using fossil fuels — but only if based on sisterhood and brotherhood. Sisterhood and brotherhood come first. Whatever we do we should do as a Sangha, as a community. First we look deeply as a community then we come to a consensus on how we should act, and then we act as a community. Our community wants to establish sisterhood and brotherhood within itself and then within society and in the world. As a monk or nun our community is the one into which we have been ordained. As a layperson your community is your family, your church or local Sangha, and possibly also your work place. Having established brotherhood and sisterhood here, you can also bring sisterhood and brotherhood into the society.

Your spouse, your children, your parents and siblings are all your brothers and sisters. To the best of your ability you can practice looking deeply together, come to a consensus, and act together. Children from five years or seven years old can be encouraged to share their views, listen to the views of others that can be simply expressed, and play a role in family decision-making. Teachers and pupils in the school also practice sisterhood and brotherhood in this way. Sisterhood and brotherhood is not just reaching consensus and acting together. It is also communication: listening deeply and speaking lovingly. We should all train in expressing our sincere appreciation of each other; expressing our regret when we do something hurtful; asking others if we have done anything to hurt them; and expressing mindfully and without blame or resentment when we have been hurt.


You may say this is wonderful but it is unrealistic. Yet others have done it and you should make your best effort for the sake of the planet Earth. I have faith in it and I will go on singing my song until this body disintegrates — and the song will continue.

About which programmes you will watch on the television, parents share and children share. If we do decide to watch a programme that is not wholesome, it is not the end of the world, but having watched it we share how it affected each one of us. What seeds were watered, how tired or otherwise we felt afterwards.

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

There are more than 84,000 things we can choose from to do to save this planet Earth from global warming, from toxic wastes, from running out of drinking water — we have to choose for our own community what is realistic. We do as much as we can and we learn from what other communities are doing but we do not force our ideas on other communities. We encourage them to do what is best for the planet in the context of the appropriateness of their own situation. This is the practice of the Third of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, “Freedom of Thought” [see below].

Once we embark on this path, we feel safe. We are living in a time where the challenges are great, but we face the challenge with compassion and resolution. Knowing that we are doing our best we do not despair. Our minds are at peace and if our efforts to save our planet fail, we will accept to offer up the merit of what we have done for a new civilization that could arise millions of years from now. After all, all civilizations are impermanent. In past lives we have died with our civilization and in future lives we shall die with our civilization. The important thing is the heritage we leave behind us with the actions of our body, speech, and mind.

The Mindfulness Trainings are there to guide us. They are our contribution to a global ethic. They are a living reality. They come alive when we bring them into our daily life. Every day new situations will arise for us to find new ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice. When we see the different situations that arise we shall know how to revise the Trainings every twenty years. The cultural and social situation is constantly changing. There are new challenges that arise and need to be faced. The spirit of the Trainings is clear and they need to be appropriately worded in order to help guide us in the new challenges that are arising.

Buddha Shakyamuni said this clearly, “Ananda, the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time.” When Ananda reported this to the elders, they asked, “But Ananda, did the Buddha say what are the minor precepts? Which precepts specifically can be revised?” Ananda said no and as a result no one ever revised the monastic pratimoksha for 2,600 years. Certain avenues have been opened up by technology that can lead to real corruption of the monastic order, but these cannot be dealt with, because the precepts cannot be changed. When the Buddha said minor precepts he said we can add precepts that are needed because of the time and the culture. We can word precepts in such a way that keeps the spirit of the vinaya but gives concrete guidance where it is needed. The major precepts: not killing, not stealing, keeping celibacy, not lying about our attainments. The minor precepts are there to help us observe the major precepts. If we break them we have not broken the major precepts but we may be on the way to doing so. Technological advances such as the Internet, telephone, and e-mail can be means that take us in the direction of breaking the major precepts. The revised pratimoksha that has been recited and practised in Plum Village and affiliated monasteries since 2000 guide us so that we use these things skillfully in a way that benefits society and our community and not for our corruption as a monk or a nun.

Stopping vs. Acting

We can analyse the Mindfulness Trainings according to the three different actions of body, speech, and mind. We can also analyse them according to the two aspects, stopping and doing. Mindfulness Trainings are not just to remind us to refrain from unskillful actions, they also encourage us to replace unskillful with skillful — in other words, to transform unskillful into skillful energy. If we look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we see how the First Training is to stop the principally physical action of killing and replace it with action that protects life. It is mainly a Mindfulness Training encouraging bodily action but in a minor way it includes speech and thought action — “I am determined not to condone any act of killing in my thinking and in my way of life.” We condone by our way of thinking and speaking. At this point, mind and speech action are involved.

Here we can digress a little to see how the aspect of doing has gained importance in the wording of the Plum Village versions of the lay Mindfulness Trainings. In the revised pratimoksha the prescriptive aspect of the Trainings is a little more prominent than in the classical pratimoksha, but it is still of comparatively minor importance. Master Chih I, founder of the Tendai school (late 6) was already discussing Mindfulness Trainings in terms of stopping and acting. He discusses the ten wholesome action trainings (dasakusala-karmani.) These ten trainings that belong to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions include three trainings for body action, four for speech action, and three for mind action. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a revolutionary continuation of the ten wholesome trainings. The ten wholesome trainings were as follows:

1. Refraining from killing (stopping)
Protecting life (acting)

2. Not stealing (stopping)
Practicing generosity (acting)

3. Refraining from sexual misconduct (stopping)
Protecting the good name, happiness, respectability and commitments of others and oneself (acting)

4. Not speaking falsehood (stopping)
Speaking of things as they are (acting)

5. Not speaking divisively (stopping)
Speaking constructively and to bring about reconciliation (acting)

6. Not insulting or denigrating others (stopping)
Speaking gently, respectfully and with compassion (acting)

7. Not exaggerating (stopping)
Speaking words that give rise to confidence and respect (acting)

8. Not being carried away by craving (stopping)
Living simply (acting)

9. Refraining from anger and enmity (stopping)
Developing compassion (acting)

10. Not holding on to prejudices, preconceived ideas (stopping)
Being open and ready to exchange ideas (acting)

If we examine these ten traditional trainings and their continuation in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, we shall see that the fifty-fifty stopping and acting ratio has been maintained. What is different in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is the ratio of trainings concerning mind action in comparison with those concerning speech and body action. At least half of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings concern mind action. The tenth training of the ten has become the first three trainings of the Fourteen.

The Six Harmonies

Our next link is the Six Harmonies or Togethernesses — how to live in harmony with each other. If we analyse these six we shall see that one is for the body, one for speech, and two for mind action. The remaining two are for body, speech, and mind. Here are the Six Harmonies:

  1. The harmony of the body, to perform bodily actions that promote harmony (body).
  2. The harmony of sharing – to share equally and according to need, benefits that accrue to the individual or the Sangha (body, speech, and mind)
  3. The harmony of speech – speech to promote harmony (speech).
  4. The harmony of thought – thought that promotes harmony (mind).
  5. The harmony of views – resolving questions by harmonizing views (mind).
  6. The harmony of the mindfulness trainings the whole community practises the same mindfulness trainings (body, speech, and mind).

Thus we see that mind is involved in four of the harmonies, body in three, and speech in three.

The Six Harmonies are guides to practicing sisterhood and brotherhood. It is clear that mind action is the overriding practice.

What is it that our world needs? The happiness brought about by sisterhood and brotherhood. We need mind action to bring this about. One right thought can heal the person and heal the world. We should give greater emphasis to mind because mind action can also be very harmful. Mind action can be violent and destructive both to the thinker and to the world. How we think matters. Thinking produces karma; it is not only bodily and speech actions that produce karma. Right thinking is a basic need in order for harmony, sisterhood, and brotherhood to be possible. Right thinking can make harmony of the bodily action possible.

The Buddha gave the example that a monk sees a bowl that has not been washed. He thinks to himself: “The owner of the bowl must have been called away on urgent business to help someone. Why do I not wash his bowl for him?” Thinking like that he washes the bowl, feeling joy in his heart. Or the monk thinks: “What scoundrel left his bowl lying here, unwashed?!” And feeling irritated he turns his back on the bowl. Or the monk thinks: “It is not correct practice to leave the bowl unwashed, but there are demanding circumstances. I have time now, let me wash his bowl.” This shows how right thinking makes right action possible and the feeling of joy that comes with right thinking.

Right thinking also makes right speech possible. The Buddha gives this example. Suppose you want to say something to someone in a discussion or meeting. The situation could be delicate and you want to have a positive outcome from your words. So, before speaking you stop and ask yourself: “If I were to say this, would it make the other(s) happy?” Having breathed mindfully you can either feel a near certainty that it will bring happiness or unhappiness (in which case you do not say it) or you feel unsure and in this case you do not say it. The harmony of mind is the way of thought that produces harmony. When we are thinking negatively about a person we are mindful of our thinking and change the thought as we would a television channel we do not want to watch. We change the thought for a positive thought about the other person. That is how to practice harmony of thought.

Harmony of views depends on mind action. When we hear an item on the agenda to be discussed, our mind may immediately have a view about that item. There is nothing wrong about that. We can share our view, but we are not caught in it. We listen to everyone who has a different view. We feel happy when we hear a view that is more sensible than our own, and immediately let go of our view. When we have listened to everyone’s view and we still like our own idea, we ask ourselves what it is that we like about it and try to see how we can synthesize part of our idea to arrive at consensus, only maintaining our own view if we see it is a matter of life and death — a real danger to body or mind could exist if our own idea is not heeded.

Letting Go of a Separate Self

When I first came to Plum Village twenty-four years ago, it was not a practice centre as it is now. Thay and Sister Chan Khong sponsored refugees from the boat people who were held in refugee camps. They stayed here until they were ready to go out into French society and work. I, too, was a refugee from England from a difficult teaching job. Since we were not yet a practice centre we made our living by agriculture. We were quite poor if you compare it to our community now. We did not have the money to mend the roof in the Lower Hamlet and it needed mending. Our cultivation of soya beans, colza, oats, and vegetables was important to us as a source of revenue. Apart from that there was only the one month summer-retreat.

My mind was shocked to see that the cultivation was not organic. Thay taught me to practice the harmony of views, which is also to practice the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I was somewhat surprised that Thay did not agree that we must cultivate our land organically and impose this idea on the other refugees. Thay told me: you must sit down together and decide as a community how you are going to cultivate. We did this and I was the only one who wanted to go organic. When I told Thay he said that if I wished I could make a small organic garden, cultivate a few plum trees organically, and see how it worked. If it worked well it would be a good argument for increasing the percentage of organic cultivation. I still feel strongly sometimes about certain matters, but I remind myself to practice harmony of views and the first of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. If we are not careful, something like organic gardening can become an –ism or ideology rather than a collective action by the community for the common good.

In practicing letting go of our views and perceptions, we are practicing letting go of our separate self. There is no single pair of eyes that can see as clearly as the Sangha eyes. Working with mind consciousness we are beginning to work with manas. Manas is the layer of consciousness that lies below mind consciousness. It is not as conscious as mind consciousness. It has an energy of its own that seldom rests. It is the energy of cogitation. This cogitation produces and preserves a separate self idea. Sometimes in deep sleep manas is inactive, no longer producing the idea of a separate self. On awakening it immediately comes into action, preserving the idea of self. We could explain this as a primitive survival mechanism. We need to ask, is survival possible without the idea of a separate self? If we can wake up and follow our breathing without needing the idea of a separate self, we are safe. We do not need any other survival mechanism.

The Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also concerns thought action. It concerns not avoiding suffering. It is the natural tendency of manas to run away from suffering and seek pleasure. In transforming this natural tendency we are mindful of cogitation and can transform manas along with its four mental formations of self — self-love, self-ignorance, self-view, and self complex. Self-love is what makes us feel that suffering is bad and fail to see that suffering is necessary and can also be good. The Fourth Training is to learn to face suffering, accept it, and use it as the mud upon which lotuses can grow. The wording of this Training may also be revised to help us see more clearly the interbeing nature of suffering and happiness.

The transformation of manas does not take place through ideas. In the beginning we hear the teachings on no-self, we meditate on them, and we put them into practice. In order to transform manas we have to practice no-self. What better place than in a practice community? Sitting together, walking together we entrust ourselves to the Sangha body. In the case of personal needs we can bring them to the Sangha body. If the Sangha sees fit and possible the Sangha will help. It is by living no-self that we transform manas. The experience will penetrate down into the deeper levels of consciousness but not the intellectual ideas of no-self.

Education as Key

People have conducted surveys in the United States and Europe to find out what percentage of the population lives in a relatively awakened way — caring for the environment, open to multicultural experience, giving importance to a spiritual dimension in life, living simply in order to have time to share with family and follow the pursuits that nourish oneself, devoting time to helping society, wanting to transform self more than demanding that others transform. What percentage of the population would you think lives this way? Somewhere between seventeen and twenty percent. People such as this are open to a global ethic. They want to live in an ethical way but are not interested in political or moral authorities. When we talk of a global ethic we are talking of something that does not belong to any particular creed or faith but can be accepted by anyone whether he has a creed or not. Such people can easily accept the precepts of the Order of Interbeing.

mb51-TheCollective2We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking. Education will help more than political or moral authority. Education is to discover, to make known, and to participate. In some schools now children participate, growing and cooking their food in the school garden. It is not only children who need education, we all need it, and it is quite possible to educate without imposing our ideas on others. You can tell your children that they cannot watch television or eat junk food but they might go to their friends’ houses and do just that. The question is how to communicate about toxic foods and allow the children to discover for themselves what is harmful for their minds. Some parents have succeeded in following this middle way.

Education takes place in the framework of the Sangha of sisterhood and brotherhood. If parents are able to educate their children in how to watch television healthily, that is because they have the support of Sangha friends and because the children are able to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness where there is a children’s programme. We educate each other through the wonderful practice of Dharma discussion. What could be more beautiful than the scene at large retreats of many small groups sitting in circles and listening deeply to learn from each other?

Enlightenment is no longer (or was it ever?) an individual matter. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body. We wake up and help others to wake up together. We are a collective  bodhisattva.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, resides in Waldbröl, Germany where she is helping Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.


  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger.

  1. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. We will practice generosity by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness

of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

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