Kalyanamitra

Building a Healthy Sangha

By Jack Lawlor If we reflect on the life story of the Buddha, we see that the Buddha sank deep and broad roots in community, both before and after his enlightenment. His success at Sangha building was phenomenal. He brought together people from every level of a highly stratified society-kings and queens, wealthy merchants, warriors, farmers, prostitutes, the poor, families attempting to live moral and religious lives, the widowed, parents distraught at the loss of a child, religious seekers, criminals, and those lusting after power and wealth. People who ordinarily would have nothing to do with one another came together to form a healthy practice community. The Buddha was always looking and listening intently, and learning from others.

As we read the story of the Buddha, we see that one cannot go far on the path of spiritual practice without the support of good friends. Although the Buddha is usually depicted at the moment of his enlightenment alone beneath the Bo tree, it might be more accurate to show him surrounded by all those who contributed to his enlightenment: his father with one-pointed sense of purpose and service, his teachers who candidly and sincerely offered what they could, and his five friends who encouraged and challenged him along the path. Viewed in this way, the Buddha's enlightenment is a collective achievement, the result of the efforts of many.

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In Buddhism there is a term for this kind of spiritual friendship, kalyana mitra, or "good friend." Being present, looking and listening deeply, is at the foundation of any spiritual friendship. When we become the spiritual friend of another, we become a link in a long interdependent chain going back to the friendships that supported the Buddha himself. They remain alive and present in us. Being a kalyana mitra means being totally attentive to the needs of the person we are with. When we practice in this way, profound compassion arises.

In the Four Exertions of Buddhism, a practitioner strives to prevent the arising of unwholesome mental states, to eradicate unwholesome states that have already arisen, to develop unarisen wholesome mental states, and to maintain arisen wholesome mental states. Good spiritual friends can do the same for one another. We bring out the best in each other by practicing Right Speech consistently and lovingly, and by pursuing healthy pastimes that do not lead to craving or lust We each have Buddha nature, the ability to come into contact not only with what is wrong, but what is soothing and supportive in our environment. Some people have not had the opportunity to get in touch with this ability, but a good spiritual friend can lead them to a direct experience of it. In Buddhism, the preeminent skillful means for making this discovery are the mindfulness practices of sitting and walking meditation. Good spiritual friends introduce their friends to these simple practices. Many spiritual benefits follow from this.

If a healthy Sangha is available, our first exposure to the calm of meditation can be as memorable as a first love. Our first insights into the needs of others, borne of meditation, can be a revelation. When we seek refuge in our local Sangha and practice together, we can transform the wobbly way we sometimes feel into calm, centeredness, peace, and a quiet spiritual resolve.

Although we need the support of others, we may resist the idea of practicing together in a group for many reasons. We prefer our privacy. The intimacy of a small Sangha may frighten us. We may fear that it will become cliquish or political. Many of us .have witnessed arguments in the churches or synagogues we left behind, and we know that there is nothing worse than the kind of strife that arises in religious or charitable organizations.

Within the Buddhist community, there have been teachers culpable of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and questionable financial practices. There are frequently interpersonal disputes over personality differences, power, or which way the group should be "led." We sometimes think that a legalistic solution or bylaw provision can prevent or solve these problems. But I have found that it is often misleading to rely much on the written form of an organization. If you were to read the constitution of many nations, you would be quite impressed by their idealism and concern for society and the rights of its citizens. But the reality can be much different. So while words and procedures may be helpful, they are not enough. A healthy Sangha is not a matter of words or a particular structure or form, but practice.

When we concentrate on sitting and walking meditation, the incorporation of gathas into our daily life, and regular attendance and participation with the Sangha, our practice deepens and we make a healthy Sangha possible. Our practice transforms the Sangha in this way, not through words and form.

When Thay urges us to "look with Sangha eyes," he is asking us to look at the needs of the collective practice body. When we practice as a healthy Sangha, we find it easier to let go of the view of self and join others in practicing mindfulness and insight. We not only have to let go of our view of self, we also have to let go of some of our favorite baggage-our fixed ideas, including those about what the Sangha should be like. Nirvana is sometimes described as the absence of greed, anger, and delusion. Concepts of happiness, of "what is good for me" and "what is good for the Sangha" can limit our flexibility and isolate us from others, because we are not really in contact with them or the present moment. Instead, we are judging, weighing, and measuring what seems to be going on in comparison to our ideal of a perfect Sangha.

We should not leave a Sangha merely because it uses a few skillful means that do not appeal to us. We should be grateful to be exposed to new forms of practice from time to time, whether it is a new breathing exercise, the use of mindfulness verses in conjunction with conscious breathing, or sutra or precept recitation. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future, for we change over time, and our circumstances change.

In Buddhism, concepts that bind us are called "fetters." In contrast, the Diamond Sutra declares, "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free of ideas." Some years ago, one of our Sangha members proposed an invention similar to the metal detectors at airports. A "fetter detector" could be conveniently placed at the entrance to Dharma discussion groups. People would be invited to leave their prejudices, preconceptions, and mental formations at the door. If they forget, the fetter detector will go off. If they choose to bring their fetters into the Dharma discussion, at least they will be aware that they are carrying this extra baggage.

There are certainly times when we don't feel ourselves, and may not feel like meeting with spiritual friends. But the happiness of a healthy Sangha of spiritual friends is contagious. The familiar faces, the glow of candles, the chanting-all are like bread crumbs leading us back to the miracle of mindfulness. We are invited to come to the S~ngha with an open mind and heart. When we practice in thiS way, we practice not only for ourselves, but for one another, much as the Buddha did.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained as a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. He is a founding member of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha and practices law in Chicago.

A tape set of the Dharma talks on which this article is based is available for $15 (postage included). Checks may be made payable to "The Lakeside Buddha Sangha" and sent to P.o. Box 7067. Evanston, 1L 60201.

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Order of Interbeing Training and Mentoring

"I heard these words of the Buddha one time when he was staying in Savatthi in the Eastern Park with many well-known and accomplished disciples .... The senior bhikkhus in the community were diligently instructing bhikkhus who were new to the practice-some instructing ten students, some twenty, some thirty, and some forty; and in this way the bhikkhus new to the practice gradually made great progress .... " - The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing

The Greek hero Odysseus had a loyal friend and advisor named Mentor, who was also the teacher of his son. Thus we have the word "mentor" for a wise and loyal teacher and friend. In Buddhism, the word kalyanamitra (good friend) is used in the same way.

My grandfather was my first mentor. When I was eight, he spent many hours with me in his garden, explaining the ways of compost, gathering rainwater, and mUlching. During family gatherings, he would turn to me with full confidence and ask me to go and harvest the vegetables for our meal. Eventually, he would hand over the care of his whole garden when he went out of town.

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So happy was I in this loving mentors hip, I worked hard to establish relationships with  all the elderly people in our neighborhood. How wonderful it was to sit in this woman's parlor and learn the art of conversation; to visit that woman's cellar and marvel at all her hanging herbs and onions; to laugh at that man's stories. Such ease with mentoring made it easy for me in Catholic school to engage with the nuns inside and outside of class and to learn from them.

This tendency to engage with my elders has continued. In my 30s, I entered a comprehensive mentoring relationship with author and patroness of Zen in America, Nancy Wilson Ross. During our five years working together, Nancy taught me much about how to take someone into my consciousness and care about their entire being.

After that, I mustered the courage to ask for a closer mentorship with my root teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, when I asked to be his assistant. "Why do you want such a position?" he inquired. "I want to get to know you better," I replied. I was Roshi's attendant for a year and learned directly with him an immense amount about myself and life. Most importantly, I discovered how basic are honesty and compassion in the mentoring relationship.

For the past 15 years, I have been very fortunate to learn from two extraordinary mentors: Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong. I have studied "the art of mindful living" with them in so many ways. Seeing how That loved Arnie as a student and friend helped me learn how to love him as a Dharma friend and husband. Watching Thay go back to his "island of self" on many occasions helped me see how I could protect my mindfulness in order to be truly present for myself and others. Sister Chan Khong taught me ways to engage people in an empowering way when I saw how she asked those she helped in Vietnam to tell her of someone who had even less. Being with Thay and Sister Chan Khong, I have learned new ways of being. At the Lamp Transmission Ceremony at Plum Village in 1994, Thay told us, "Dharma transmission takes place in every moment, 'notjust in a ceremony. When I walk with you, I am transmitting the Dharma."

In this section of The Mindfulness Bell, we share working documents from the Order of Interbeing Education and Training Committee, and accounts from many Order members and aspirants on their experiences of mentoring together. -Therese Fitzgerald, Senior Editor

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Walking on Ice

 By Jack Lawlor Even the Buddha's Sangha experienced difficulties. His cousin, Devadatta, once attempted to divide the Sangha and lead it himself. And the Buddha himself could not mediate the dispute over etiquette between the Precept master and the Sutra master at Kosambi-at least, not initially. The Upakkilesa Sutta describes how the bhikkhus at Kosambi were "quarreling and brawling and deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers." The Buddha's verse on this dispute reveals how keenly he observed what was happening:

When many voices shout at once None considers himself a fool; Though this Sangha is being split None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech, They talk obsessed by words alone. Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will; None knows what will lead him to so act.

"He abused me, he struck me, He defeated me, he robbed me"- In those who harbor thoughts like these Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world, hatred is never Allayed by further acts of hate. It is allayed by non-hatred: That is the fixed and ageless law. Those others do not recognize That here we should restrain ourselves. But those wise ones who realize this At once end all their enmity.

Many Western Sanghas have also experienced difficulty. Ordained teachers in various traditions have engaged in sexual misconduct and selfish financial practices, and disputes have arisen out of personality differences and opinions on how the Sangha should be "led." In response, we often want to reach beyond basic mindfulness practices to resources from other venues, such as conflict resolution techniques used by businesses or other spiritual traditions. If carefully modified to address the people involved, these can sometimes help lessen difficulty in a Sangha, but there are limitations on how much relief we can reasonably expect from organizational solutions, except with respect to extreme behavior and abuses. A healthy, happy Sangha ultimately depends less on structures than on consistent mindfulness practice.

Simple practice helps us penetrate the limits of conceptual thought by deepening our insight into our own and others' motivations and needs, thus enabling us to transform our behavior and nourish the Sangha. Practicing in a Sangha that concentrates wholeheartedly on basic practice, it becomes easier to let go of some of our favorite baggage our ideology and concepts, including our concepts of what Sangha should be like. The Diamond Sutra boldly asserts that "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free from ideas."

We are invited to participate in a Sangha with an open mind and heart. We should not leave a Sangha merely because it occasionally uses practices that do not appeal to us. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future. Practicing as a healthy Sangha involves a collective decision to practice wholeherutedly each time the Sangha convenes. As Thay reminds us, happiness is not an individual matter.

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The calm and peace produced by our mindfulness practice provides insight when uncertainty, impatience, or anger arise in us. With mindfulness, we are better equipped to watch these states arise and fall within us. We are able to respond to the actual circumstances we are in, rather than react as if compelled by habit energy. From this space, this freedom, the practice of Right Speech-so critical to any healthy Sangha-becomes possible. We find little use for gossipy or sarcastic speech, which causes so much suffering in a Sangha.

During last fall's tele-Dharma talk to North American members of the Order of Interbeing, Thay reflected:

Causing division, juggling for power, juggling for influence, opposing each other are just the symptoms of lack of practice. You can apply mindfulness in every moment of your daily life. We should not put a lot of energy into how to organize or structure or how to settle things, as in politics. The main thing is the practice. The practice is the first thing. We should set up organizations on the basis of our practice, not the other way around. If we use our intelligence to organize our daily practice, we can get nourishment, healing, and transformation every day, and we can help our brothers and sisters do the same.

Following this advice can be difficult. It is more entertaining to play with ideas about how to graft Western organizational models onto Buddhist life. This type of integration will indeed happen. Buddhism and Western culture already interpenetrate and inform each other. But successful integration will happen more as the result of our collective experimentation with living mindfully and practicing in small local Sanghas, than as the result of structure imposed by hierarchy. We must not get lost in concepts as we work with our precious local Sanghas. Some folks get so caught up in ideas and concepts, that they slowly abandon their own daily mindfulness practices due to all the time-pressure and excitement. Even veteran practitioners cannot bargain with the essentials of mindfulness practice. We cannot cheat on our daily practice and hope to remain mindful--even in the name of Sanghabuilding, or spreading the Dharma in the West.

Balancing mindfulness practices and the desire to help is like walking on ice. Sometimes the ice is hidden or even invisible-in the Midwest, we call this "black ice." In some places it is safe to walk, but inches away it is extremely slippery. If you fall, you learn the true meaning of dispersion! But, despite the difficulty, I recommend walking on ice as a mindfulness practice. It teaches us something about life as a layperson, as an organizer and facilitator of a local Sangha. Sometimes conditions are ideal, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we can see the obstacles and difficulties, sometimes--even if we try to look with our Sangha eyes they are hidden. When the going is slippery, it is best to slow down and return to the basics of breathing and walking. When we do, those with us are much safer, and we become less dangerous and less frustrated with the slippery, uncontrollable conditions of daily life.

When a lake freezes before a snowfall, you can sometimes look deeply into it, through the ice, and see the lily pads and roots of last summer smiling at you from below the frozen surface. When we slow down and face our difficulties, illuminating them with mindfulness before we speak or act, we may also find that much below the surface is revealed.

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The Buddha never lost faith in Sangha practice. Not long after his enlightenment, he built his first Sangha, and he continued Sangha building for forty-five years. His life reads like a Tolstoy novel. He interacted with Sangha members from every stratum of society: kings, princes, princesses, wealthy men and women and their overprivileged children, paupers, outcasts, and criminals. But, he learned from all of them, and this learning is evident in the deepening of his teachings as his Sangha practice continued. The wisdom body we share today as "Buddhism" is a result of this collective interaction.

In the wake of the difficulties of the Sangha at Kosambi, the Buddha found three monks practicing as a small Sangha in the Eastern Bamboo Park. He was favorably impressed with how considerate they were of each other, and asked how they succeeded in "living in concord, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes." The monks' response, recorded in the Upakkilesa Sutra, inspires us even today:

Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: "It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life." I maintain bodily acts of lovingkindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: "Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?" Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind. Whichever of us returns first from the village with almsfood prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing, or the latrines are low and empty, takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out in speech. But, every fIve days, we sit together all night discussing the Dharma. This is how we abide diligent, ardent, mindful, and resolute.

The living Dharma is in the details of living mindfully and attentively, aware of the needs of others and allowing our understanding to bloom into direct manifestations of wisdom and compassion. In the classic Mahaya text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva advises:

Those desiring speedily to be A refuge for themselves and other beings, Should interchange the terms "I" and "other," And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

When we practice this way, and recognize that others share our spiritual aspirations, it is easy to truly be present with others and to regard them as our kalyanamitra, our spiritual friends. Ananda once remarked to the Buddha, "Half of this holy life, Lord, is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good." The Buddha reflected for a moment and then responded, "Do not say that, Ananda. Do not say that. It is the whole of this holy life." When faced with disputes within our Sanghas, we must return to the basic practices of mindful breathing and walking, and ask ourselves the question the Buddha posed to the bhikkhus at Kosambi:

Breakers of bones and murderers, Those who steal cattle, horses, and wealth, Those who pillage the entire realm-- When even these can act together Why can you not do so too?

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, has practiced law for twenty-three years and is the author of the book, Sangha Building. The book is available directly from Jack, c/o Lakeside Buddha Sangha, P.O. Box 7077, Evanston, IL 60201.

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