Last week with started the theme of getting to know the sangha by hearing the answers different sangha members give to questions about what the three jewels mean to them. Now we’ll continue with Liesl’s answers.
What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally?
Any image of the Buddha is so peaceful and comforting to me, and given the popularity of this image in the west, I am afforded many opportunities to take refuge in the peace of his image daily. The statue on my personal shrine is a way for me to visually connect with my intention to wake up. I spend a minute or two before I start meditating, just looking at his calm face, his relaxed and confident posture, and I can connect with those qualities in myself.
What does ‘taking refuge in the Dharma’ mean to you personally?
There are many suttas and lists I’ve been exposed to since becoming a Buddhist, and they are all meaningful to me. The eightfold path and the four reminders are two teachings that I really find helpful. When I find myself suffering, which is daily, I can bring these to mind and know that this human life is precious and there is a path out of suffering if I choose to take it.
What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally?
The sangha is the jewel I take refuge in most tangibly at this time in my life. Moving to a new city that fortunately has a Triratna Buddhist community is a huge comfort and support. Sangha night, when we meet as a community to meditate and discuss the dharma is a highlight in my week. And I’ve made connections with some sangha members and we meet up on other days too. It’s like having an instant family of like-minded people.
[image] I recently got together with one of my sangha mates for a social visit, outside of the sangha, on the Upper West Side, for a snack-and-chat. (We’d intended to walk in Riverside Park, but it was a particularly sweltering day, so we opted to stay in the AC.) We caught up on various things in our personal lives, but since we share an interest in Buddhism and its expression in the Triratna-NYC sangha, we naturally discussed that. At some point he asked me a really interesting question, “What does taking refuge in the three jewels mean to you?”
It’s a great question, and really basic to Buddhism. The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is, well, the Buddha. The image of a compassionate being, the example of enlightenment, the embodiment of the goal of ‘waking up.’ Not a god, just a person who some 2500 years ago achieved something that all Buddhists aspire to achieve. The Dharma is the path and the teaching, either his or others’, that lead to compassion, enlightenment, seeing the truth of reality, figuring out a way to live in a world that is marked by suffering (along with happiness) and impermanence and loss. The Sangha is the community of others on the same path, in their different ways, toward that goal. It may be the small group of people you see regularly and meditate with, discuss the Dharma with, and hang out in Riverside Park with. And it is also the worldwide community of Buddhists who are on the same path.
When someone becomes a Buddhist, one of the things they do is to ‘take refuge in the three jewels.’ This is not an à la carte proposition. There’s a formula, a fixed and traditional meaning. But there’s a lot of room for interpretation in it. What exactly does the example or image of the Buddha mean to an individual? What type of relationship to the Dharma does an individual have? How do they experience and access it? What does the person consider to be the Dharma? Is it just the Pali canon, or is it more expansive, with other Buddhist traditions or even art, poetry, nature, or quantum physics? What is the Sangha? Is it a small group of people you see regularly? Is it a sense of a global community of people you don’t know personally? Or can the Sangha be an ad-hoc group that you suddenly see as instrumental in your personal spiritual path?
I thought about that great question and answered, and the idea also came to me that this would be really good material for this blog. Rather than sharing my answers, which I suppose I’ll do at some point (and sort-of have above), I emailed several of my sangha mates and asked them the same question. This is the first installment of answers. This first post comes from Gary. Others will follow.
What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally? Consideration and emulation. Holding the key characteristics of the Buddha in my mind, and using them to influence my own actions. Acknowledging that the Buddha found/rediscovered something powerful, a positive way to approach the universe and the human condition, and striving to live by his example.
What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally? Acknowledging that the community is a powerful and critical component in my practice. The support and acknowledgement I get from my Sangha-mates nurtures and sustains me. Knowing my community is out there, even when I can’t make it to Sangha night, helps me to maintain my commitment to practice. The love I feel from my Sangha mates just feels right.
A few weeks ago some of us in sangha were talking about vows. There were a lot of different ideas about their place and significance, from many angles – spiritual, psychological, physical, social – and one of the things we discussed was how a vow is different from, for example, a promise. We live in a society that involves a lot of promises, understandings, expectations, agreements and contracts – to pay the rent or mortgage, to drive (more or less) at the speed limit, to treat our friends a certain way, to reserve certain behavior for private spaces and adopt a whole range of other behaviors in public settings.
Of course none of that rises to the level of a vow. Even though there may be consequences, sometimes severe, for failing to act according to these promises, understandings, expectations, agreements, and contracts, there isn’t a sense of ‘sacred’ obligation. Even the Five Precepts, central to Buddhist ethical conduct, don’t start with the words “I vow to…” They start with “I undertake to…,” more of a very strong and solemn effort than a vow.
So what’s different about a vow? Of course we framed the question from the perspective of Buddhist practice, and we came up with something along these lines: a vow is something that you stake your sense of self and spiritual progress on, the “good” parts of ego that let us eventually get beyond ego; a vow is a promise you make to yourself and others that aims to push you further along the path of skillful practice. And the sangha is a great environment for the taking (and keeping) of vows.
Because a vow is a particularly serious commitment, it should not be made lightly. We shouldn’t make vows that we’re not fairly certain we’ll be able to keep, because the damage of breaking a vow can go far beyond paying a fine or making a sincere apology. It can set you back in your practice and progress. Within the context of a sangha, we can discuss our fears and level of readiness, and ask for honest and heartfelt feedback. Someone suggested that a vow should follow a “dry run,” a defined period of time when you make every effort to behave according to the vow you’ll take, before actually taking that vow. And of course the sangha can play a key role here, as well, whether it’s simply reporting in and sharing how we’re doing, or asking for help, advice, and encouragement. In this sense the sangha offers both a support system as well as some gentle accountability.
Triratna places great emphasis on the sangha jewel and the idea of spiritual friends, the community that a sangha is: a group of people who grow to know one another, to trust one another, to learn from and to teach one another, to be honest with one another, even if it’s uncomfortable. So a few of us have really taken to this idea of making vows – even simple ones – to one another at sangha night, and then checking in during the week to offer encouragement. The vows themselves are certainly helping us along with our individual spiritual practice, but something else is happening as well. The sangha is becoming closer, more creative and nurturing, more of what a sangha can be. It wasn’t the initial aim at the beginning, but it certainly is a happy benefit!
When I stumbled across Triratna-NYC a while back and enrolled in a beginners’ course in meditation and Buddhism, I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully that didn’t stop me, but some people might feel more comfortable with a little bit of a taste of how things operate. So, here goes…
The courses are currently running on Tuesdays, from 7pm to 9pm, on 14th Street. More details here. Each course has four sessions. The first hour is dedicated to meditation practice. Newcomers learn what meditation is, and are led through two of the basic meditations, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana. We also talk about setting up a regular meditation practice at home, finding the right posture, dealing with the Five Hindrances, and any other issues that come up through questions and discussion. There’s no chanting of mantras or full-lotus-position sitting in the beginners’ group. It’s all in plain English, and people sit in chairs, unless of course they prefer the floor or a cushion.
There’s a tea break after the meditation portion, where people in the beginners’ group can mingle with mitras and friends of Triratna who have had more experience with the dharma. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the meditation portion of the evening gives way to laughter and conversation, some announcements of upcoming events are made, and then the two groups go back to their spaces. The main sangha of mitras and friends goes back to its dharma study, and the beginners go back to their own introductory dharma study.
The dharma study portion of the beginners’ course focuses on four topics, each one running a four-week cycle. The topics are the basic foundations of Buddhism, including of course the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The other two cycles cover the Wheel of Life and the Six Perfections. These are not exhaustive seminars, but rather introductions to the key components of Buddhist thought and tradition. We read relevant material taken from books, articles, the internet, and the Pāli Canon. Attendees get handouts, and the handouts have material to be read and reflected upon, as well as workbook-like exercises that people can complete during the week, away from the course and immersed in their daily lives. There’s no required homework, but many people find that the readings and exercises offer them a way to slowly integrate the dharma into their lives.
People come to the introductory courses with all sorts of backgrounds, in life as well as in meditation and Buddhism. Some have been meditating for years on their own, but haven’t explored the sangha jewel, the practice of Buddhism in the context of a community of spiritual friends all seeking to deepen their practice together. Some have meditated a few times in the past, and want to make meditation a larger part of their lives. Most have had no experience with meditation or Buddhism, and are curious, and perhaps a bit shy at first.
The atmosphere is ideal for any background. It’s casual and welcoming, and quickly a sense of community and friendliness – the seeds of sangha – develops. Everyone in my beginners’ group was friendly, but I became particularly close to a few people who I now count as dear friends, both within the context of our sangha and outside of it. During the tea breaks, and then when I “graduated” from the four cycles and joined the main sangha, I became close with mitras and friends who have been with Triratna for years. Many of them, too, have become dear friends, but I feel a deep sense of community with all of them. I find myself these days with dinner plans and other social engagements not only with friends I’ve had for years and years, but also with the new(ish) friends I’ve made at Triratna. That all started when I googled “meditation classes in New York,” and I couldn’t be more thankful. A few years ago I had never heard the word sangha. Now it’s something that has complemented and enriched my life.
“Through the eyes of a real friendship an individual is larger than their everyday actions, and through the eyes of another we receive a greater sense of a self we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding, not only of self and other, but of a possible future.
– David Whyte: Excerpt from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Friendship”
I’m always conscious of the need to keep my practice alive and connected to the endeavor to wake up, and it is the Sangha jewel that remains always the most relevant and potent in this journey. That’s because the practice of Sangha, rather than the theory of Sangha, requires reaching beyond myself in so many ways.
Within the confines of my meditation practice and study, it can all become a bit self-centred, or to use a phrase of Bhante’s, it can become superficial. I can study in order to be more knowledgeable; I can meditate to have strong experiences; I can even practice ethics to be looked upon as a good person. But what this path is truly about is becoming more aware and more compassionate – and ultimately trying to undermine selfishness and harshness and gain more wisdom and equanimity.
When I’m engaged regularly in working on teams and supporting classes, I’m rubbing up against my limitations endlessly. I love that. It keeps it real and keeps my feet on the ground. So whilst sometimes it seems that the biggest trials I meet on the spiritual path are the people around me; they are in fact my greatest teachers. And if I’m honest I can feel sometimes I’d be better off without all the emotional messiness of my interaction with others.
Yet without communication with my friends in the Sangha, even ones that have been painful and challenging, there would be no path and no progress. The path is not distinct from the people in it, and it is the communication between us that keeps the teachings of Buddhism alive and fully embodied, both as the way of compassion and the way of Wisdom.
It is in the practice of creating and maintaining spiritual community that ego transcendence is most potently and directly approached. And of course we are going to be hindered and sometimes disappointed by the expectations we hold of ourselves and others. Yet for Sangha to function and remain potent, it requires enough of us to take that leap into the unknown and risk what friendship can reveal.
To take that leap, we need to hold in our minds and hearts the twin realities of a spiritual community that is imperfect, inadequate, stumbling and struggling, alongside a spiritual community that is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Ideal – a manifestation of the compassion of Avalokitesvara. These two realities are the same reality – one is trapped in time and the literal mindedness of self-centredness, and the other is free of the limitations of time and always creating itself anew in the free space of imagination.
As we move into a new year, let’s celebrate this precious jewel of Sangha. Let us celebrate this, “moving frontier of understanding… of a possible future.” To acknowledge the love that can be expressed through the generosity of giving and sharing with others; to work together to bring into existence the possibility of growth and of awakening. Make a New Year’s resolution to, “love where there is no reason to love.”
We’ve been talking about a blog for a while now, and as Buddhists trying to live by the old saying “there’s no time like the present,” we figured we’d better get to it. So, welcome to our first blog post.
First a little bit about us. Triratna NYC is part of the worldwide Triratna Buddhist movement. We’re a growing sangha (a community of Buddhist practitioners) in New York City, with members from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, and all around the NY metropolitan area. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, something we like about ourselves. We’re women and men, old and young, straight and gay, black and white and brown and everything in between. Some of us are professionals, some are artists, some are students, some are retired. Some of us have been Buddhists for decades, and some have just found the dharma. We all support and learn from one another.
We meet for sangha nights on Tuesdays in Manhattan, but we also have practice days, retreats, sangha dinners, outings, study groups, and all sorts of other things. Look for events on our site, but if anything particularly interesting is coming up, we’ll let you know here.
With this blog we hope to share a bit about ourselves and our sangha – our personalities, our interests, our individual experiences with the dharma. We also want to share our experiences with a Buddhist lifestyle, so you’ll find tips on meditation and posture, book recommendations, Buddhist resources on and offline, vegetarian restaurant reviews and recipes, film recommendations, information on museum exhibits… anything that one of us finds interesting from our individual Buddhist perspective.
So, again, welcome, and we hope to see you online or in person if you’re in the area.