Anagarika Manjuvajra can be considered as the main founder of Triratna here in the USA. He was the founding Order Member of Aryaloka the Triratna retreat center in New Hampshire.
Urgyen Sangharakshita visited the Usa on four occasions between 1990 and 1997. He promoted one of his books, ‘The Drama of Cosmic Enlightenment’, ordained the first members of the the Triratna Buddhist Order in the Us and visited Triratna Centres and other Buddhist centres and teachers. He talked at a Conference on ‘The Nature of Reality’ in Tucson, and toured the Western States extensively. This is a record of these visits by Manjuvajra who organized them and accompanied his teacher.
“Sangha” can be literally translated to mean “group or an assemblage”. In modern Indian languages it is used in the sense of society or organisation. In Buddhism, Sangharakshita says that what we mean by Sangha in the spiritual sense is “primarily a group or an assemblage of those having certain spiritual experience or certain spiritual attainments in common.”
Having recently moved to NYC with my husband from Vancouver, Canada, the subject of Sangha/Spiritual Community is salient.
Not having any family or friends on the East Coast, I was relieved and excited to learn that Triratna had an established group in the city. I joined the Triratna Vancouver Sangha 5 years ago, and became a Mitra in 2012.
Before I even arrived in NYC, my teachers in Canada had introduced me via email to the Order Members and Mitras here. The welcome emails I received from them were heart-warming and I felt much less alone and anxious about the move.
Fast forward to a month after my arrival.
I’d attended a couple of Friend’s nights and had been warmly welcomed both times. However, I realized that the NYC Sangha was small and there were already established friendships. And people in NYC seem generally very, very busy. So while I felt welcomed, I didn’t feel ‘connected’, if that makes any sense.
So, the next Tuesday rolls around. It’s cold and miserable weather outside. My (unskillful) thoughts: “no one will even notice if I’m there. There’s a movie night this coming Friday and no one has even emailed me to let me know where it is. Am I supposed to ask to be on a mailing list? When I show up and say I’m new in town and I’m here to join in, why wouldn’t someone just add me to the email list? Do I actually have to specifically ASK to be added? …..And on, and on, and on……..”
So I didn’t go.
And I felt bad. And alone.
And then I remembered a question that my therapist back in Canada asked when I was complaining about a retreat leader who “didn’t make an effort to include me in discussions, and didn’t seem to notice that I hadn’t contributed”.
– Whose Responsibility is Participation?
It was like a huge hole opened above me and the beautiful light of perspective flowed down.
I wish I could say things changed overnight and that I participated fully right away. J
And slowly, I did start to get more involved in our Sangha.
I pushed myself to attend the next Tuesday Friend’s night. Arriving early, I met a couple of people for tea before the meditation/class.
I asked to be added to the mailing list.
I helped set up the chairs, mats, tea and coffee for the evening. This made me feel ‘part of’.
At the break, I forced myself to go up to one lady and ask her about having tea and we made a date for lunch the next week. Bonus – turns out she works at The Met. A favorite place of mine. Lunch was awesome as I got to eat with her in the Staff Cafeteria. Cool!
Slowly I’ve increased my involvement in the Sangha. This blog posting is an example.
It feels good to be “part of”. And it takes effort and commitment on my part to maintain this connection.
Coming back to our current study series, my own spiritual development depends on me participating in Sangha.
Sangharakshita states “the real significance of the deep individual-to-individual contact that going for refuge to the Sangha involves, lies in a simple psychological fact: we get to know ourselves best in relation to other people.”
He says that the Sangha is there to help us in understanding ourselves.
Some people may “bring out the worst in us” and we may act unskillfully towards them. This, he argues, can be highly spiritually beneficial, as these people “introduce us to ourselves. We cannot transform ourselves unless we have a full sense of what lies within us”.
Conversely, other people may “bring out the best in us”, activating kindness, generosity and providing an opportunity to be of service to others.
Therefore, Sangha is necessary because personal relationships are necessary for our development. He says “we generally need stimulation, reassurance, and the enthusiasm of others who are going in the same direction as we are.”
So while we can learn a lot through reading books and meditating, Sangharakshita makes a strong case that “if we are to grow spiritually in a fully rounded way, we eventually have to experience the vital part that communication has to play in our spiritual life……and when Buddhists do come together in the true spirit of the Sangha, there is then the possibility of inhabiting…..the realm of the Dharma. In this realm, all we do is practice the Dharma, all we talk about is the Dharma, and when we are still and silent, we enjoy the Dharma is stillness and silence together. The clouds of stress and anxiety that so often hang over mundane life are dispersed, and the fountains of inspiration within our hearts are renewed.”
I guess I have my Answer: PARTICIPATION IS MY RESPONSIBILITY.
My shrine at home is pretty standard for the most part. There’s a Buddha statue, with right hand raised and facing outward in the protection mudra. There’s also a bowl cradled in the left hand, which I think is characteristic of the Medicine Buddha, signifying healing. There are some candles and a bowl where I burn stick incense. The one piece of (I think) original flair is my “precept stone” bowl, although to be honest I have no idea if this was an innovation, or something I had seen somewhere and forgot about.
We’ve talked about the Five Precepts before, and anyone familiar with Buddhism knows them by heart and strives to live by them. They’re not commandments, but voluntary choices, a code of ethical conduct closely tied to the Right Action component of the Eightfold Path. There are a lot of English translations of the original, but they all go something like this:
I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life.
I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not given.
I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake to abstain from false speech.
I undertake to abstain from intoxicants, which cloud the mind.
At Triratna we also add a positive counterpart to each of the traditional precepts. If the negative formulations listed above remind us of unskillful behavior that we want to avoid, the positive formulations remind us of skillful behavior that we want to cultivate.
With deeds of loving-kindness, I purify my body.
With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
With stillness, simplicity, and contentment, I purify my body.
With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.
A lot can be said about each precept, and some of them mean different things to different people. The first precept, for example, clearly suggests that we not go around killing people, but many Buddhists also extend that to animals, and so they are vegetarians or vegans. The one about sexual misconduct shouldn’t be confused with some sort of moralistic “sex is sinful” commandment; instead it means that sexual behavior should not be used to harm anyone, for example by interfering in a couple’s committed relationship or entering into sexual relationships that aren’t equal and consensual. The fifth precept, for some, means total abstinence from alcohol, but for others it means simply stopping after a glass or two of wine, or at least striving to remain mindful – in control, moderate – when drinking. There’s a great quote by Triratna’s founder, Sangharakshita, in his book Vision and Transformation, about the fifth precept:
“If you can drink without impairing your mindfulness (it might be said), then drink; but if you can’t, then don’t. However, one must be quite honest with oneself, and not pretend that one is mindful when one is merely merry.”
Back to my gemstones, part of my practice is, when I sit to meditate, to take each stone out of the bowl, hold it and look at its color, feel its weight, and recite the negative formulation of the precept. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the gemstones I chose, but they made sense as visual representations of each precept to me. The first precept is a lustrous silver, signifying that life is precious and not to be taken. The second precept is green, probably jade, because at least in the English language green is associated with envy, something that might lead to taking the not-given. The third precept is rose quartz, I think. Red is the color of passion, and the softened, gentle color of the rose quartz is a softer, gentler form of sexual energy. The fourth precept is the black stone, onyx I believe, and it reminds me that unskillful speech is dark and negative. The fifth precept is blue – no idea what kind of gem – and blue is the color of calm water or a clear sky, so a mindful, responsible, disciplined state. As I say each precept aloud, I place its stone in front of me. If I feel that I’m in a relatively safe place in regard to each particular precept, I put it to the left. If I’m in a state where I might risk unskillful behavior related to a particular precept, I put it on the right, as a reminder to be careful.
After I’ve finished my meditation, I gather up each stone, and recite the positive formulation, again trying to focus on the color and weight. Then I place it back in its bowl. Sometimes, if I think I really need the reminder, I put the stone in my pocket and keep it there for the day. I’ve gone to more than one party with the blue stone!
I don’t think this is standard practice in Buddhism, but it’s got meaning for me. Of course the particular ritual is unimportant, as long as it helps us act skillfully, and remain mindful.
One of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.
Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.
The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.
While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.
Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.
All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.