Gifts of Community

"Whoever steps beyond individual self and connects with eternity is naturally drawn back to community" -Jack Kornfield

Many Brothers & Sisters

— Jack Kornfield

The following text is an excerpt from “After the Ecstacy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path” by Jack Kornfield. While written from a Buddhist perspective, it is easy to see that the needs of the people to gather in community is undeniably universal. Jack writes:

The jewel of community, of the Sangha, is to be held equal to the Buddha and the Dharma… Indeed, the whole of holy life is fulfilled through spiritual friendship. – Buddha

Saints are what they are not because of their sanctity but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everyone else. – Thomas Merton

The stories of Jesus and Buddha, of shamans and sages, may initially emphasize their solitary quest, alone in the desert or forest, seeking a holy understanding of our human dilemma. But then the stories go on. Whoever steps beyond individual self and connects with eternity is naturally drawn back to community. This is how we express the heart’s realization, by bringing it to maturity with others.

In Buddhism, the practitioner is offered sustenance from what is called the Triple Treasure: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Sustenance comes from the Buddha because his awakening represents the potential for awakening in each being. The Dharma, which represents the eternal truth and the teachings that can bring liberation, is the second source of sustenance. The third and equal treasure, the Sangha, is the community of awakened beings and all who practice the dharma.

Sangha means spiritual community and it is treasured because without it awakening cannot be sustained. The Sangha carries the teachings and acknowledges that we cannot awaken alone. The world of spiritual prayer and practice is sustained through teachers, spiritual friends, and community. As we practice we become part ol the process of nourishing the awakening of others. Every moment of compassion or understanding that we awaken spills from us to our families, our community, our world.

The community of the sacred is revered in Judaism as the minyan, the minimum number of Jews needed for a prayer service. It is the sacred communion of the Sufis, the satsang of Hinduism, and the holy Christian love, “whenever two or more are gathered in His name.” However it may be expressed, true community is central to spiritual life.

From Isolation to Community

One old Hasidic rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun, for that is the time for certain holy prayers. “Is it,” proposed one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Is it when you can clearly see the lines on your own palm?” “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell if it is a fig or a pear tree?” “No,” answered the rabbi each time. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that they are your sister or brother. Until then it is still night.”

In the maturing of spiritual life, we move from the wisdom of transcendence— that spiritual illumination beyond the world— to the wisdom of immanence. We discover that the sacred is always here. The natural cycles of spiritual life that carry us away to mystic solitude eventually return us to some form of community. Just in this way, the one who has sought and tamed the sacred ox in the Zen accounts must inevitably return with their gifts to the world.

This return can be difficult, especially because so much of the spirit of true community has been lost in our times, lost even to ourselves. Contemporary life is marked by atomization, where each individual is hurrying, spinning in his or her own direction. One can literally see the individualistic forces in modern society: each person in a car, houses with separate rooms for each person, offices where each works at a computer terminal, children raised in front of a television. Modern American individualism too often entails what Marian Wright Edelman calls “the sacrifice of our community and our children.” How can we return to such a marketplace with, as the ox-herding story suggests, “gift-bestowing hands”? It is not easy.

To sustain spiritual life, we need one another’s eyes and hearts as surely as we need help creating food and shelter. This reflection and encouragement is no small thing. As Adrienne Rich says, “Truthfulness, honor, is not something that springs ablaze of itself, it has to be created between people.”

Sangha and spiritual friendship appear in surprising forms. Over the years I have participated in a series of retreats for young men from the inner cities. Most of these youth are former gang members who are finding their way back from an environment of despair, racism, poverty, and violence. Invariably what begins their return is a friend, a mentor, a benefactor. Even for a moment, there had to be someone who saw their beauty, their possibility. It may have been a grandmother, a custodian at school, a teacher, or an uncle in the neighborhood. The experience of being truly seen and honored by another reminds us of who we are. We cannot underestimate the importance of the awakening we bring to one another.

It is not only street youth who need companionship on the path. Several monastics who run retreat centers spoke of how hungry their guests are for spiritual friendship, and how this makes the monks and nuns even more grateful for their own community. Community is a blessing.

A Western lama describes this aspect of practice:

In the three-year retreat we were thrown together in our tiny retreat compound, fifteen of us, as if we were married and dropped into a war zone. It was that intense. Living closely with others rounds off your rough edges; you can’t fool yourself, because others see you more clearly than you allow yourself to see. It was a very bonding time. In a way, living collectively was as valuable as all of the other meditations. It brought alive the teachings of compassion moment to moment.

Now my main practice has become communion, to recognize the living spirit in everyone, in everything, not just in peaceful people. If you look in anybody’s eyes, the light is shining there; also in every animal, every leaf, every flower and dewdrop, in every clod of earth. People are no more enlightened in the monasteries than out in the world. It’s the same everywhere. Spirituality is not about the mountaintops. It is seeing the sacred, right here, celebrating and affirming perfection just now. Even our enemies show us how to awaken if we recognize the truth.

Community Is Also Difficult

Community, however important to a full human life, is not easy. Living with others evokes all kinds of difficulties. When we get close enough to one another to offer love and support in an intimate way, our old family patterns, our fears, our needs, our limitations show up as well. They’re all right there in front of our nose. We may be able to avoid conflict in our prayer and meditation, but in community we might as well not try—conflict will come.

A few ancient accounts of spiritual community speak of harmony, “living together like milk and water, regarding each other with kindly eyes.” But more frequently the ancient texts are filled with accounts of problems. Hasidic tales recount many conflicts among community members and between teachers and students. The early Christian stories tell of conflicts and struggles in the community, and the epistles of Paul are filled with advice on resolving these difficulties. The first seven volumes of the Buddhist scriptures, devoted entirely to the topic of spiritual community, spell out hundreds of tales of the conflicts, misdeeds, and difficulties that arose among the monks and nuns even while the Buddha was still alive. There was the Buddha’s jealous cousin who tried to have the Buddha murdered. And then later a quarrel among the obstinate monks at Kosambi got so bad that they would not even listen to the Buddha. Finally he threw up his hands and left to live among the peaceable animals of the forest, leaving the monks for a time to work things out on their own.

If we expect community relationships to be ideal, spiritual, friendly, and enlightened, we are seeking what we can’t even expect of our own minds. To want the company of others without suffering is unrealistic. But if we avoid close relationships, we will also suffer. In a wise spiritual community we acknowledge our difficulties and choose to help one another anyway. Sometimes we will be the one to carry the blessings of spaciousness and love. Sometimes it is we who will carry conflict and trouble to the group. This too is a gift others can learn from. We play both roles in this plot, switching periodically.

If we go to spiritual community in search of perfect peace, we will inevitably meet failure. But if we understand community as a place to mature our practice of steadiness, patience, and compassion, to become conscious together with others, then we have the fertile soil of awakening. One Korean Zen master told students that their communal practice was like putting potatoes in a pot and spinning them around together long enough to rub off all the peels.

We judge each other so quickly, yet know so little about what another carries in his or her heart. To truly awaken to grace and sacred presence, we must offer to all the same respect we would give a great teacher. The sloppy, angry, inconvenient, hurried, difficult Buddhas around us can teach us steadiness, equanimity, and compassion. We are the grist for one another’s mill.

We are all children of the Great Spirit

A close friend, the psychiatrist and consciousness researcher Stan Grot, tells a story of one such teaching that took place soon after he arrived in the United States. Through his work at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Stan met with a psychiatrist of Native American origin, who offered to arrange a visit for Stan and several other staff members to his traditional peyote circle in Kansas.

When they arrived they were driven far out onto the plains to meet the Road Chief, the elder who runs the ceremonies for the Native American Church. Although the chief had previously agreed to include the visitors, the other Indians who saw these white men balked, and it took a good deal of persuasion to allow this unusual participation. The history of anti-Indian prejudice, the monumental losses of Indian culture, the genocide at the hands of white people were still painful, but because the Johns Hopkins doctors had come a long distance, they were finally permitted to join the circle. Still, one man clung stubbornly to his anger at the white men who had come to “steal” this last Indian treasure, their spiritual gold. All through the nightlong ceremony, his mood only amplified by the peyote and drumming; this angry man sat silently, glaring at Stan, who sat opposite him in the circle. By morning he had not softened, even after a whole night of prayers. It seemed as if this was how it would end—in an angry standoff.

Finally, on the last round of blessings, the host psychiatrist thanked the tribe for being willing to include these white healers in their midst, especially Stan, who was living in exile because the Communists were preventing his return to his native Czechoslovakia. All at once the angry man’s lace changed. He leapt to his feet, crossed the fire, and fell into Stan’s lap sobbing. For many minutes he hugged Stan and the others nearby, apologizing for his misguided hatred.

As he wept, his story poured out. He had flown a bomber in the air force during World War II. In the last weeks of the war, as the Nazis withdrew, his plane had bombed and unnecessarily destroyed Pilsen, one of Czechoslovakia’s most beautiful cities, even though Czechoslovakia had been anti-Nazi and forcibly occupied by Germany.

Now the tables had turned. Not only did Stan and the Czechs never steal Indian land, but he, a Patowatame Indian, had helped destroy Stan’s homeland. He was the perpetrator and Stan’s people were the victims. This realization was more than he could bear. He kept embracing Stan, begging forgiveness, apologizing for his behavior during the sacred ceremony. Then he paused to say what he had learned: “I see now that there can be no hope for the world if we carry hatred for deeds committed by our ancestors. I know now you are not my enemies but my brothers. All that happened long ago was in the time of our ancestors. Who knows— at that time I might have been on the other side. We are all children of the Great Spirit. Our Mother Earth is in trouble, and if we do not work together we will die.”

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