Bodhilila’s Appreciation of the Sangha
This week Bodhilila talks about what it means to ‘Go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’ and shows appreciation for her teacher Sangharakshita, founder of the Triratna Buddhist Movement and Order, who passed away on Tuesday 30th October.
Recent weeks have been challenging for me, particularly last week – in Buddhist terms I’ve been working with a strong experience of dukkha. (‘Dukkha’ is usually translated as ‘suffering’ although it encompasses any unwanted, unpleasant or painful experience, including dissatisfaction, boredom, even mild discomfort). As a result, I’ve found myself going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in a very direct way, really appreciating that I have a spiritual practice, a spiritual context and a spiritual community.
I’ve felt tremendous gratitude to Sangharakshita (the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community and Triratna Buddhist Order) as I know that without him none of these would exist. There wouldn’t be a West London Buddhist Centre or any of the other Buddhist centres, groups and individual practitioners that make up the Triratna community. And I might never have encountered the Buddha and his teachings, never discovered it was possible to practise the Dharma while living a western lifestyle, never experienced the challenge and joy of being part of a Buddhist sangha.
Sangharakshita died on Tuesday 30 October and even though I didn’t have a close relationship with him I did meet up with him a few times (most recently in July) so I felt a personal connection, had started to write a letter to him which now will never be sent.
For many years I have regarded him as my teacher and spiritual guide, getting to know him through reading his books and listening to his talks. I’ve appreciated the clarity and insight of his teaching, the breadth and depth of his vision, especially his realisation that although Buddhism has taken different forms over time, in different cultures what unifies Dharma practitioners is that we are all ‘going for refuge to the three jewels’ even though we each do this in our own way.
I remember that when I first began attending the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green I didn’t understand what this phrase meant; when I heard people talking about ‘Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’ it just seemed like jargon. I knew very little about the Buddha, was unfamiliar with basic Dharma teachings and couldn’t understand how either of these could be ‘a refuge’. People referred to the spiritual community as the sangha and I guessed that for those who felt they belonged it could be supportive but again I couldn’t imagine how this sangha could be a refuge.
At that time I had a deep distrust of anyone I perceived as an authority figure, was wary of organisations and groups and had a very judgemental attitude, constantly criticising anyone who fell short of my spiritual ideals. I hadn’t yet made the distinction between the aspiring sangha of flawed and imperfect practitioners like myself and the arya sangha of enlightened beings and the archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Long after I found myself inspired by the Buddha and his teachings I still found it hard to connect to either of these sanghas.
Looking back I can see that it was when I was able to do this that my commitment and spiritual practice went much deeper. Up until then I’d been holding back, trying just to focus on the Buddha and Dharma but there is a reason that there are three jewels, not two. The Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are interconnected, and exploring any one of them will inevitably lead to the others. It may be that we find ourselves drawn to one more strongly but they are all central to the Buddhist path.
And actually it is very hard to practise without a sangha, however imperfect it may be.
Once I recognised that the Triratna community was a good enough context for my Buddhist practice I was able to engage more fully with sangha. I could acknowledge that it had provided a context that enabled me to to make many positive changes in my life and also to transform many negative habits, behaviours and mental states. I could see that the same was true of many of the people I had been practising alongside.
As time goes by my appreciation of sangha grows more and more. I now realise that ‘going for refuge to the sangha’ means connecting with the aspiring sangha of fellow practitioners not only through collective meditation and devotional practice in the shrine room but also through developing friendships. Creating sangha is a practice just as important as practising meditation or ethics.
However, it doesn’t have to be hard work, sangha building can be fun. Whenever we come together as a community we create sangha. Coming along to a meditation drop in class, Sangha Night or going on a retreat all provide opportunities for developing sangha. But so too do fun activities like our arts events. Why not come along to our monthly film club, the upcoming play, Are Strings Attached? or the next Sangha Soiree or one of our concerts? Hearing live music performed close up by world class musicians is not only an enjoyable experience for me personally but I also love it as a collective experience. I highly recommend the Viola and Piano recital which I know will be wonderful performance.
And above all I encourage you to come to our Sangha Day Festival on Sunday 18 November.