deep practice

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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Beloved Dharma Teacher Karl Schmied Passes Away

On May 7, 2006, Brother Karl Schmied, True Dharma Eye, a senior OI member and Dharma teacher from Germany, passed away. Karl was a very active Sangha builder and also did a lot of work for the Hungry Children’s Program in Vietnam. Some of you may have met him recently when on tour with Thây inVietnam. With Karl and Helga Riedl, he started Intersein Zentrum (Haus Maitreya), a residential practice and retreat center in the tradition of Plum Village. He also founded “Intersein,” the German magazine for the Sangha. On Sunday, May 14th, after returning to Plum Village, Thây spoke quite a bit about Karl in what was a tribute to this OI member. Here is an excerpt from this Dharma talk (listen to the whole talk at www.deerparkmonastery.org). mb43-Beloved1

Last week during the teaching tour in Holland and Belgium, I learned that Karl Schmied, a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, passed away in his home in Fischbachau, in southern Germany. We decided that a number of brother and sister monastics would go from Plum Village and take care of the funeral. In Plum Village we are very grateful to that delegation who went to Germany to take care of the funeral of Karl Schmied.

This is an excerpt from what Sister Bi Nghiem, a member of the delegation, wrote Thây:

“On Wednesday we brought some white flowers and came to Karl’s house around 9 a.m. He was lying in his meditation room in front of the altar surrounded by Buddha statues in the windows. Several big photos of Thây were around him, as well as candles, burning incense, and flowers. We put a photocopy of Thây’s fax, “no coming, no going,” directly beside him.

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Usually the dead are dressed in formal wear—a black suit and white shirt. But Karl was dressed in his Order of Interbeing jacket with brown pants and a yellow turtleneck sweater, just like when he used to come to Plum Village. But his clothes were the only thing that were the way he used to be. Not only had Karl lost much weight but he had gone through a great transformation. His face showed a quality I hardly can describe. He showed a great inner freedom that comes from letting go. I felt a deep spiritual quality in him which I had never seen in him before, like a monk, is the only way I can describe it, like a real monk. I have seen dead people before but never anything like this. It was obviously the result of his life-long practice, of his trust in the Dharma, of his service to the poor in Vietnam. While I was sitting there, I felt it help me overcome my own fear of dying.”

Karl Schmied began his studies with Lama Govinda and he became a Dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He was a successful businessman and his first contact with Plum Village was in a retreat that Thây offered in Germany. Our publisher in Germany wanted him to come and see Thây but he refused. “I have seen many monks before and don’t need to see one more.” “But this monk is different, you should come to see him.” So he came to the retreat. That began a new chapter of his life. He began to practice according to the Plum Village teaching, became a Dharma teacher of Plum Village, a very happy Dharma teacher. He also went to Vietnam and taught, gave Dharma talks on mindfulness and how to practice. He helped the poor, the hungry children in Vietnam at a time when Thây and Sister Chan Khong could not go to Vietnam and do these things.

I remember one day after he had completed one retreat in Germany, he said good-bye and went to the south for a meeting for his business. I asked him whether he could release that meeting in order to come to our second retreat. He said, “That meeting is very important in my business.” So we went to the second retreat without him. The next morning at the sitting meditation session I looked down and saw him sitting. He told me afterward that while he was driving south at one point he was able to release that cow and make a u-turn and go back to the second retreat.

He had suffered from cancer for about eight years and this morning when I read Sister Bi Nghiem’s letter I saw that that cancer was a gift for him. Because with that cancer he started to practice more deeply, more wholeheartedly. That’s why he got the freedom that was expressed so clearly in Sister Bi Nghiem’s observation. About a month ago Sister Chan Khong and I went to Germany because we learned he was dying. We spent three days and three nights with him, and he was very happy during that time. We practiced together and he was able to accompany us to the airport when we went back to France.

When you know that you don’t have a lot of time to live, you know that you should use that time to practice deeply for your release, for your freedom. You don’t think of any other things. You don’t think of money, power, fame, or sex anymore. You are free. That is why Thây said that the cancer is a gift. You get freedom.

Sister Bi Nghiem wrote that while she was sitting there looking at his dead body she overcame her fear of dying. Because if you can die like that it is wonderful, you are free. Freedom is the greatest gift and freedom is the fruit of the practice. Without freedom you cannot die happily, you cannot live happily. And the way True Dharma Eyes, Karl’s Dharma name, the way he lived during the last few months before he died gave us a lot of confidence in the Dharma, in the practice. If you have the true practice usually you get the freedom that he got. There’s no doubt about it.

About 30 years ago a practitioner coming from the United Kingdom asked me, “Dear Thây, when do you think we are ready to be a teacher? When do you know you can be a good teacher?” And Thây said, when you are happy; because if you are not happy you cannot be a teacher. When you are happy, you are nourished by happiness and you nourish the people around you with happiness. This is real happiness. Many of us think of happiness in terms of power, fame, money, success, sex, because we have desire in us and happiness is the satisfaction of this desire. Many of us have been running after these objects of desire and we continue to suffer deeply by doing so.

In the teaching of the Buddha there is the expression “joy and happiness.” The practice should bring us joy and happiness. How to be joyful, how to be happy—the kind of joy and happiness that nourishes us and nourishes the world—that is the true question. In Plum Village we remind each other that life is available. With the true practice we can get in touch with the wonders of life in us and around us, so that we can be nourished, so that we can be healed, so that we can help nourish other people around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh Lower Hamlet, May 14, 2006

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