Harmony in the Sangha

By Annabel Laity This story is adapted from Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh' s recently released biography of the Buddha (Parallax Press, 1990). Annabel Laity's commentary on the Buddha's Six Principles of Harmony follows the excerpt. At monasteries during the life of the Buddha, certain monks were assigned the task of memorizing the teachings of the Buddha. In addition, there were precept masters, who were experts in the rules for novices and ordained monks.

One year at Ghosira, a conflict arose between a sutra master and a precept master. Their argument stemmed from a small event, but ended up creating a sharp division in the sangha. A sutra master forgot to clean out the wash basin he had used and was charged with a violation of a lesser precept by a precept master. The sutra master was a proud person and contended that since he had not intentionally left the basin dirty, he was not to blame. Students of each monk took the side of their own teacher, and the argument escalated. One side accused the other of slander, while the other side accused their opponents of acting foolishly. Finally, the precept master publicly announced the sutra master's transgression and forbade him from attending the bi-weekly precepts recitation ceremony until he formally confessed before the sangha.

The situation grew more and more intense. Both sides spoke ill of each other. Their words flew like poisoned arrows. Most of the other monks took sides, although naturally there were some who refused to take either side. They realized that this conflict was creating a harmful division in the sangha.

At that time, the Buddha was residing not far from Ghosira monastery, but he was unaware of the conflict. One day a delegation of concerned monks visited him, told him of it, and asked him to intervene. The Buddha went right away to meet with the precept master, and he told him, "We should not become too attached to our own viewpoint. We should listen carefully in order to understand others' viewpoints. We should seek all means to prevent the community from breaking." Then he went to the sutra master and said the same thing. Returning to his hut, he was hopeful that the two men would reconcile.

But the Buddha's intervention had almost no effect. Too many ill words had already been spoken, too many wounds had already been inflicted. The monks who remained impartial did not have enough influence to bring the two sides together. The conflict reached the ears of the lay disciples, and before long, even other religious sects had heard of the trouble in the Buddha's sangha. It was a serious blow to the integrity of the sangha. Nagita, the Buddha's attendant at the time, was unable to endure the situation anymore. He discussed the matter with the Buddha, beseeching him to intervene once again.


The Buddha put on his outer robe and went at once to the monastery's meeting hall. Nagita rang the bell to summon the community. When all were present, the Buddha said, "Please stop arguing. It is only creating division in the community. Please return to your practice. If we truly follow our practice, we will not be victims of pride or anger."

But one monk stood up and said, "Master, please don't involve yourself in this matter. Return and dwell peacefully in your meditation. This matter does not concern you at all. We are adults and capable of resolving this on our own."

Dead silence followed the monk's words. The Buddha stood up and left the meeting hall. He returned to his hut, picked up his bowl, and walked down into Kosambi to beg. When he was finished begging, he entered the forest to eat alone. Then he stood up and walked out of Kosambi. He headed for the river. He did not tell anyone of his departure, not even his attendant, Nagita, or Venerable Ananda.

The Buddha walked until he reached the town of Balakalonakaragama. There he met his disciple, the Venerable Bhagu. Bhagu invited him into the forest where he dwelled alone. He offered the Buddha a towel and wash basin to wash his face and hands. The Buddha asked Bhagu how his practice was going. Bhagu replied that he found great ease and joy in the practice, even though he was presently dwelling all alone. The Buddha remarked, "Sometimes it is more pleasant to live alone than with many people."

After bidding Bhagu farewell, the Buddha headed for Eastern Bamboo Forest, which was not far way. As he was about to enter the forest. the groundskeeper stopped him and said, "Monk, don't go in there or you may disturb the monks who are practicing in there."

Before the Buddha could think of a response, Venerable Anuruddha appeared. He happily greeted the Buddha and said to the groundskeeper, 'This is my own teacher. Please allow him to enter."

Anuruddha led the Buddha into the forest where he lived with two other bhikkhus, Nandiya and Kimbila. They were very happy to see the Buddha. Nandiya took the Buddha's bowl and Kimbila took his outer robe, and they cleared a place for him to sit by a thicket of gold bamboo. They brought a towel and wash basin. The three bhikkhus joined their palms and bowed to the Buddha. The Buddha asked them to be seated and he asked, "Are you content here? How is your practice going? Do you encounter any difficulties in begging or sharing the teaching in this region?"

Anuruddha answered, "Lord, we are very content here. It is calm and peaceful. We receive ample food offerings and are able to share the dharma. We are all making progress in our practice."

The Buddha asked, "Do you live in harmony with one another?"

Anuruddha said, "Lord, we care deeply for each other. We live in harmony like milk and honey. I consider living with Nandiya and Kimbila a great blessing. I treasure their friendship. Before I say or do anything, whether they are present or not. I stop and ask myself what their reaction will be. Will my words or actions disappoint my brothers in any way? If I feel any doubts, I refrain from the words or actions intended. Lord, although we are three persons, we are also one."

The Buddha nodded his approval. He looked at the other two bhikkhus. Kimbila said, "Anuruddha speaks the truth. We live in harmony and care deeply for each other." Nandiya added. "We share all things, from our food to our insight and experience."

The Buddha praised them, "Excellent! I am most pleased to see how you live in harmony. A sangha is only a true sangha when such harmony exists. You have experienced real awakening and that is why you have realized such harmony."

The Buddha spent a month with these three monks. He observed how they went begging every morning after meditation. Whichever monk returned first from begging always prepared a place for the others to sit, gathered water for washing, and set out an empty bowl. Before he ate anything, he would place some of his food into the empty bowl in case one of his brothers had not received any food. After they had all finished eating. they placed any leftover food on the ground or in the stream, careful not to harm any creatures that lived there. Then they washed their bowls together. Whoever saw that the toilet needed scrubbing did it at once. They joined together to do any tasks that required more than one person. They sat down regularly to share insights and experiences.

Before the Buddha left the three monks, he spoke to them, "Monks, the very nature of a sangha is harmony. I believe harmony can be realized by following these principles:

"I. Sharing a common space such as a forest or home.

"2. Sharing the essentials of daily life together.

"3. Observing the precepts together.

"4. Using only words that contribute to harmony, avoiding all words that can cause the community to break.

"5. Sharing insights and understanding together.

"6. Respecting others' viewpoints and not forcing another to follow your own viewpoint.

"A sangha that follows these principles will have happiness and harmony. Monks. let us always observe these six principles. "

The monks were happy to receive this teaching from the Buddha. The Buddha bid them farewell and walked until he reached Rakkhita Forest, near Parileyyaka. After sitting in meditation beneath a lush sal tree, he decided to spend the approaching rainy season alone in the forest.


After seeing how Anuruddha, Kimbila and Nandiya lived, the Buddha arrived at the Six Principles of Being Happy Together.

The first is called "the body as the principle of harmony." Although in a community, we share a common space, we have to take into account that we are many different bodies. Although everybody has to be treated as a member of the family, we each have a responsibility to look after our own health, so that we won't be a burden on the community. In the winter at Plum Village, we remind everyone to keep warm. If someone gets a cold, we worry about him or her. So we give people all sorts of advice on how to stay healthy. That helps us keep harmony and happiness in the community. If one person gets a little sick, everybody else feels a little sick as well.

We also learn how to breathe together. Everyone's breath is a little different. Sometimes if we are sensitive to another person, we can breathe with him or her. Sometimes rather than talking with the person, this is a wonderful way to communicate with them. People who work with the dying often harmonize their breath with the person who is dying. When I see a member of the community who isn't very happy, I sometimes synchronize my breath with his or hers. It is a wonderful practice. When we do slow walking meditation, sometimes someone at the beginning says, ''In ... Out ... '' and everybody breathes in and out together. Living in a community, we try to learn how to be both individuals and members of the community at the same time. In the West, we over-stress individualism. What we are trying to do at Plum Village is to learn how to diminish our individualism and, at the same time, learn how to practice in a very creative way that is full of our own initiative.

The second principle is called "the sharing principle," about sharing material things with the community. The Buddha saw this principle at work when he noticed how the monks, upon returning from their alms round, would always leave some food for the monk who returned last.

Even if you don't know how to share, you can very quickly transform and learn how to share things. The Buddha wanted to say that you don't need to worry too much about how you are, because you can transform that. Sharing is one of the most beautiful things in the community. Sometimes we may think that if we offer something to another person they won't want it. But that does not matter. You offer it just the same. If you want to share, you share. Children are naturally very good at sharing. They don't need to be told too much about it.

The third principle of harmony is sharing the same precepts in our practice. In Plum Village, we ask that everyone who joins the community as a permanent resident should keep the Five Precepts (See Mindfulness Bell No. 2). When we work in the plum orchard, or when we work in the garden, we are very aware of the first precept--not to kill. We try not to use any products that will result in killing, or come from killing. It means that we need more time. But if we know how to live simply, we will have more time. The slugs are really a problem, so every day we go around with a little tin can, pick up the slugs, and transport them to some ground where they won't eat the vegetables.

We observe the first precept in regard to all life. We are particularly concerned about the trees, so we plant a lot of trees to replace the ones that are dying. All this comes from the first precept. The Five Precepts are necessary for the wholesomeness of the community.

The fourth principle of harmony has speech as its basis. A lot of our speech comes from patterns, from things we have said before, or from what people have said to us. Maybe when we were children our parent said certain things to us over and over again, and their habits may have become pan of our own pattern of talking to other people. We need to find new patterns of speech, ways we can keep harmony by means of speech. When Anuruddha and the other two monks told the Buddha that before they said anything they would ask themselves, "If I say this, will it make my other two brothers happy?" That has to do with breaking the pattern of speech. If we stop and follow our breathing, there is a sort of renewal, and a new kind of speaking comes out. Before speaking, we ask ourselves, "Will it make the other person happy? Will it help the other members of my community?"

The fifth principle is the harmony of views. This may be the most important principle. We have to learn to water down our individualism . Each of us has strong views. Each of us has an innate feeling that "I am right and others are wrong." When we hear someone say something, our immediate reaction is, "That's what I think. They must be right" or, "That's not what I think. They must be wrong." In Plum Village, when we have a discussion and someone offers an idea, we listen to that idea and then say that idea is the basis from which we are going to work. If somebody else disagrees with that idea, the work is to try and see how the two can both be taken care of. We have the principle and we have the negation of the principle. After that, our work is to try and integrate the two, to make them both possible. This is how we discuss what we ought to do in the community.

Sharing views is also sharing our experience in the practice. It 's very important--not just sharing the good things that are happening to us in the practice, but sharing the mistakes we make, and asking for other people's help. Saying, ''I'm going through this as well. I make these mistakes as well." So you don't have to worry too much. If we have something good coming out of our practice we share it straight away. We don't think, ''I'm more advanced I than other people. Maybe they're not quite up to sharing this practice yet." We share it with them in the best way we can.

Words are our vehicle. Yet the essence of what is happening in the practice can never be described in words. When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and reached enlightenment, it wasn't that he actually saw the twelve links in the chain of causation and how they work. For seven weeks after that experience, he didn't know what to say. He felt he had nothing to communicate. It was only when he came into contact with the five ascetics that he felt deeply into their own suffering and confusion. Then the words to describe what he had experienced came to him and he was able to formulate interdependent origin and the Middle Way. The Middle Way was an obvious thing to talk about to those who had been going to the extreme of trying to escape from life. The other extreme was wanting to be involved too much with the sensual pleasures of life. The Buddha taught how to take the Middle Way. That teaching did not come from the Buddha having a certain view. It came from seeing how the wrong view of the ascetics was leading them to suffer more.

In a dharma discussion, when we present our ideas on the practice, it is partly to see how we can best talk about our experience in a way that is helpful to ourselves and to others in the community. If, for example, we talk about our own experience when we are doing walking meditation, and then after that we remember the words we said and we are doing walking meditation again, we may find that we can go even deeper into that walking meditation. So, to express our views of the practice in a dharma discussion helps us too. Our deeply held views are our greatest obstacle in practice. Slowly, with the help of others, we learn how to let them go.

The sixth principle of harmony has the mind as its basis. We use our mind, our thinking, to help others in the community. We think about the welfare of others. For instance, if we are aware that someone has some physical suffering, we keep a note of that in our minds. We might even write it down. It is as if we keep a file on other people in our community. We see what causes them to suffer. If, for instance, they tell us a story about their past, that becomes part of that file. Gradually we learn more and more about that person. In learning more about that person we are able to see how we can practice meditation to love them more. That is how we keep the harmony by means of the mind. We are aware and thinking about the welfare of the other people in our community. We keep it always in our mind. Just as Ananda always kept the welfare of the Buddha in his mind, so we do that for other members of our community.

Editor's Note: About the conflict at Ghosira Monastery: Eventually the community's lay supporters threatened to withhold donations of food and the monks got the message. So the sutra and vinaya masters went to the Buddha, and, using the Seven Techniques of Reconciliation, easily resolved their conflict.

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