Have you noticed how we always see Asian Buddha images alone, on its own? Count on your fingers the number of Buddha images in which he’s with others. Sidhattha Gotama, the man we now know as the Buddha, was not a solitary practitioner though; for most of his 45 years as a teacher he was in community.
Secular buddhist community is spread thinly around this country. While a large number of people over the years have attended retreats, workshops and courses on meditation, developing a practice is so much easier when we don’t do it alone.
San Francisco insight meditation teacher Eugene Cash reorders the three jewels – from Buddha, dharma, sangha, to sangha, dharma, Buddha – because even though the Buddha was clear that these refuges arise and are dependent on each other, in our culture which ranks so many things, he wanted to put first what he considered the most valuable to us in the conditions under which we live.
Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh promotes the building of local and worldwide communities, and teaches a practice he calls ‘learning to see with sangha eyes’. He tells us that the next Buddha, the so-called Buddha of the West, will come as community.
In ‘The Suffering of Separation’, a wonderful article in Inquiring Mind, Janet Surrey writes: ‘The breakdown in community in the U.S. has been documented by many scholars, and the resultant loneliness and alienation are revealed in the high rates of depression, addiction, anxiety and violence… Particularly in the United States, our cultural ideals support individualism, competition, denial of vulnerability and independence.’
She describes how in the early years of her theravadan practice, the emphasis on individual solitary practice often seemed to be supporting the western value of of self-sufficiency as well as celebrating the heroic, solitary journey. ‘We practiced together in groups for weeks but never even learned each other’s names,’ she writes. The practitioners may have sensed the underlying power of community in practice, but they didn’t realise it in real relationship.
Creating community, offering people opportunities to connect with others, is an important part of my practice. Early in the last century it might have been termed civic duty.
So let’s get practical. What in my experience are the best ways to find other people to sit with, practice in community, and develop your understanding of the Buddha’s teachings?
¶ Set aside a regular time to sit with others. It may be once a week, or once a fortnight. Longer than that makes it hard to develop a sense of connection. It could be a weekday evening, or at the weekend.
¶ Realise that if you’re going to convene this group, then others are likely to be expecting you to offer them a sense of direction. Acknowledging this doesn’t make you ‘the teacher’, more of a community dharma leader.
¶ Decide on a place; imagine having two or three strangers come into your living room, sitting on your sofa or on cushions on the floor with their eyes closed. It’s a great place to start.
¶ Spread the word locally; let people know they’re welcome to meditate with you. I’ve found that placing flyers into the public library and the nearest organic store can be effective. And don’t be shy – tell your friends.
¶ Set up a group on Meetup.com. There’s not a lot of work involved, and it’s a great way to find new people.
¶ Act globally as well. Get involved in an online community by listing the possibility of sitting in your area on secularbuddhism.org.nz/resources/community (click on ‘send an email’ at the top of the page).
¶ Create a list of people who express an interest, with their names, email addresses and mobile numbers, and keep it up to date. While someone may come just once to the regular sit, they might be interested in a daylong or a structured course.
¶ From time to to time, remind everyone when the sit takes place, and send them all an email or a text them if you’re doing something special. If you get a reasonable number and want to send a regular email, I can highly recommend tinyletter – www.tinyletter.com. It’s a really simple way of sending out an email newsletter.
¶ Wonderfully inspiring audio recordings by buddhist teachers are to be found on dharmaseed.org and audiodharma.org; find a teacher whose teachings resonate with you and consider playing an occasional talk to the group, or part of one.
¶ When you have a reasonable number of people who come along regularly (of course, what’s reasonable to someone else may not be reasonable to you), find something that will involve everyone over several sessions a series of talks or a discussion around a series of articles perhaps. Publicise this series.
¶ Have fun! Organise a potluck, meet for lunch in a cafe together, go on an outing. Do the things that makes community, community.
The man who developed the practice of mindfulness based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, calls for building ‘communities of resistance’ to the powerful forces of materialism, alienation and violence in western culture. At the same time as nurturing healing, he argues that we nurture the conditions which will allow us to awaken. I don’t imagine this will be televised, or found on youtube.