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In the Refuge of Sangha

Bikkhu Amaro

From a talk given at Chithurst, U.K., during the winter retreat, February 1991

THE BUDDHA'S FIRST DISCOURSE after the enlightenment, which we recited this evening, the Dhammacakka Sutta, is something which always touches my heart. There is something moving and significant about the recreation of that moment when the Buddha's dispensation began. In the chant itself it describes how, after the Buddha had given this talk, the earth quaked and the "ten thousand-fold universal system shook and quaked and rocked and a great measureless light surpassing the beauty of the gods spread throughout the world." We can feel a small echo of this in our own heart when we go back to that moment of the first transmission, the first conveying of the Buddha's insight to other people. Because at that moment the Buddha realised that one of the bhikkhus with him, Kondañña, had understood the Teaching; the eye of Dhamma had opened, he saw the Truth, the Path. The Buddha then exclaimed, "Kondañña knows!" So from that time forth, the monk's name was changed from Kondañña to Anna-Kondañña -- 'Kondañña who knows'.

That night in the deer park in Benares, these half dozen wandering monks sitting gathered together, what an earth-shattering little scene that was, unbeknownst to the people just half a mile away. But at that moment, something happened that has since transformed the lives of millions of people. We in this little group of people gathered here, we inherit the result of that moment. That was the moment the Sangha began, because Kondañña's response to the eye of Dhamma opening was immediate: "I would like to become your disciple." He asked to be accepted as a disciple, one of the Buddha's children. He was born of the Dhamma.

So, all these centuries further on, we are part of that family and we inherit the blessings, the benefits, the treasures of it. We are children of the Buddha and we inherit the Buddha's legacy.

The Sangha is something we describe in the daily chanting as "giving occasion for incomparable goodness to arise in the world." This is something that is good to contemplate: why is existing together as a group so important? Why such a big deal about it? How come a group of people who live a simple life together, who observe kindness and restraint and so forth, how come this is such a blessing? Why is this an incomparable field of merit, a fertile ground for goodness to develop in? Why is it such an important thing for the world?

For myself, I can see that if I didn't have like-minded companions to help me in the spiritual life, I never would have gained remotely the understanding or the peace of mind that there is in my life; it would have been impossible to develop any kind of spiritual qualities without the presence of such companionship.

When I was growing up I was always very interested in mystical things, the inner aspects of religion and understanding. It was tremendously important to me to understand what lay behind everything, to understand the meaning. I thought about these things often and felt that I had figured out a lot. I would get into intense discussions on esoteric, profound, obtuse philosophical points for hours on end, ablaze with interest and an emergent understanding. Alongside that, however, there was also tremendous emotional turbulence; uncontrolled anxieties, fears and passions were all swishing around in my mind along with everything else.

Even though there was a strong spiritual impulse from a young age, still the confusion coming from instinctual desires, fears and insecurities meant that all the attraction towards Truth, wisdom and understanding that was there, the valid insight that was there became confused, corrupted and sidetracked and taken up with secondary things, or got drawn into being lazy or choosing oblivion rather than true knowledge of the spiritual Way.

I had been studying at London University. When my degree was finished I took the opportunity to leave England and head off into the East, on my spiritual quest. Up until that point I had always felt that making my own piecemeal spiritual path was quite sufficient; I wasn't consciously looking for any kind of institution of group to belong to. In fact I had quite strong anti-establishment feelings, I always felt that to just to be a free spirit was the ideal: "When love beckons to you, follow him . . . when he speaks to you believe in him," as Kahil Ghibran put it. Well, 'love' was leading me to some disastrous places.

Even though I made efforts to live a free and spiritual existence, trying to maximise on the qualities that I respected -- being a harmless, friendly, kind, generous etc. person -- this didn't seem to help me a great deal with the confusion that was in my mind. Also spending time amongst people whose values were very worldly and were based upon distraction had a very negative effect. It became clear that just having a nice philosophy and nice principles but without having something that helped that to be actualised, led to a place where I found all of my ideas and aspirations were wasted, burned up. I began to feel a lot of despair. I seemed to be doing all of the right things according to my own formula, yet the result was extremely painful and disappointing.

One of the things that I had always cherished was the quality of harmony and friendship. I found that being a force of concord between people was an important ethic in my life. I always felt very hurt by people who were determined to conflict. When coming into contact with the Sangha in Thailand, I found that the quality of harmony or friendship was the very basis of that community. The word 'Sangha' means "those that are together". Its whole essence is in being separate individual people joined together in harmony: "As friendly and undisputing as milk with water, looking upon each other with kindly eyes."

The initial attraction towards the Sangha was the realisation that, "Here is a group of people who are putting into action the spirit of what I respect and find most important and precious in life. Here are people who are learning to live harmoniously with each other." The other aspects of Sangha life, the qualities of renunciation and devotional practices, adherence to rules and so forth, those things were all very secondary to me. I didn't really take them in at first, because what was most important was the communal spirit, the training of the heart to live harmoniously with others. This is what caught my interest and drew me into the community. This was slightly unusual because most of the other people in the Sangha were people interested in meditation, who had wanted to find a teacher, who had studied Buddhism and wanted to try and experience life as a monastic. For me all of that was stuff that came later -- the spirit of community was what I really longed for.

I suppose I knew in my heart that what I needed more than anything else was an environment in which to make use of the potential that was there within myself. I could see that a lot of the good things that were within me and other people were just being wasted. And I could see that this was a tragedy, and would only lead to sorrow in the end.

So the beauty of the Sangha is that we have people around us who are like-minded who can support us in our spiritual life and encourage us with their presence. I remember being at Wat Pah Nanachat, the international monastery, in Thailand and my mind being incessantly filled with unspeakable thoughts -- steamy passions and worries -- my imagination would go wild thinking about this and that. I used to feel guilty about receiving people's offerings. As a western monk, even as a novice, people were very devoted, kind and generous, so I would think, "If they knew what was going on in my mind, they would be horrorstruck." I would express these reservations and feelings to the monks there and say, "You know I feel this is a bit of a sham, these people think we are all so pure and holy. What is going on in my mind is pretty profane!"

Then when the monks explained, I realised that a monastery is not for 'saints', it is for 'sinners'. If we were all pure, enlightened beings there wouldn't be any need for monasteries. Monasteries are here for those that have potential and a lot of defilements and confusion. Monasteries exist so that the potential that is there has a chance to ripen, to develop. If we feel that as soon as we shave our head or come and stay in a monastery we are supposed to be absolutely bereft of unwholesome or anxious neurotic feelings, or anything less than totally pure radiant love, wisdom etc., then we create a lot of problems and confusion for ourselves.

A monastery is a place where we allow our confusion and our defilements to be understood. We allow into consciousness all the habits of our mind that we have lived with through our lifetime. A monastery is where we study these, where we look at them; we learn to see what these are. Where do they come from? What is that which is good? How do we develop it? How do we bring that to fruition? What is there that is bad or unproductive? How do we let it end? How do we allow it to go to cessation. A monastery is where we learn to do these things, that is what it is for.

So the point is not to feel guilty if we are not thinking beautiful thoughts but to be able to reflect upon the whole -- the faults and the problems along with that which is beautiful, loving and wise.

As I began to understand this, I began to see that the people supporting us didn't expect us to have totally pure minds or to be without faults or problems. They were glad that there were human beings who were ready to lay aside choice, worldly joys and comforts, and who were ready to search within their own hearts to develop the good. This is what people support us for: not for the things that pass through our minds, but for the aspirations that we have to develop and cherish the good. Whatever we need to get through in order to do that is all right -- everything that goes through our minds is all right. We can experience months, years of despair, turbulence, doubts, anxieties, passions -- hundreds of years of Siberian low -- it is all right. Whatever the accumulations of our karma are, that is the material we have to work with.

So the Sangha is a gathering together of people who are encouraging each other to have the strength and fortitude to keep going, to fulfill the resolution that we have. I know that even if I had been taught how to meditate and do all the right things, if I hadn't had the companionship and the support of the monks and the nuns I would have slung the towel in long ago -- of that I have no doubt whatsoever. I would have given up the whole thing, hit the bottle or ended up in some dope-den in Bombay, or just found a little corner to crawl away into to forget the whole thing. One has high ideals and nice illusions about life, but so many times there has been that feeling of, "I can't stand it any more, I give up." So many times that feeling has come up, but one of the most important things about being part of a whole collection of people, is the sense of honour or affiliation with other members of the group. That sense is what stops us, and says, "Well, if you give up then you are robbing other people of the encouragement to keep going; your resolution will contribute to the resolution of others."

All-night meditation vigils are a great teaching of this: you think, "What is the point of all this?" Or you are living in a monastery with someone you can't get along with, there is constant conflict and you are tired of thrashing away and dealing with your feelings of irritation or aversion; or you are madly in love with someone and you can't stop thinking about them, and yet you don't want to make a big thing out of it . . . . That quality of being part of the group and expressing devotion towards the communal aspiration is what provides us with the check that says, "No, don't give up, don't throw it in."

To give up the aspiration in order to surrender to a passing feeling would be tragic, something deeply regretted later on. At the moment of wanting to give up, it is quite obvious that, "I can't stand this any more, this is too much, I'm going to explode, I've got to do something, get me out of here! Something which makes a difference -- eat something, steal something, go run round the forest half a dozen times -- something, anything to make a difference." Then, because we have paused to take into account the community's values, we realise that that thought, that feeling is not as absolute as it pretends to be.

The quality of Sangha empowers that sense of honour in our heart which says, "You can let go of this, you don't have to believe this, you don't have to follow this." Now, one can look upon this as being intimidated by the group, as a weakness or inhibition -- "You know, if you were really strong you wouldn't be intimidated, you wouldn't be afraid of upsetting the others saying, 'Tut, tut, tut, naughty girl, you should behave, be good, don't do anything bad that upsets the rest.'" One can look at it in that way, as inhibition, but one can also see it as being that which truly protects and guards our heart; the quality of virtuous restraint and gentleness, it is the quality of desirelessness and fearlessness.

When we act out of our passions, there's a certain gratification at the moment of getting what we want, and it is really pleasant. Like when Babou the cat was calling out two doors away, wailing helplessly in the cold with all the rest of the group in here. Then came the incredible satisfaction of getting through both doors -- Venerable Buddhadaso getting up to open both doors -- and the sheer delight of not only finding the Venerable Brahmano's lap but also that he had his sanghati wrapped around him, so he got Brahmano's lap and a woollen blanket. The purring was shaking the whole shrine room -- one happy cat -- "Ooo, not only out of the cold, but YES! This is as good as it gets."

We can feel just like that when we get what we want -- there is a moment of satisfaction and thrill. But then shortly after, as we are all acquainted with, there is the feeling of, "Is that it? You mean that's it? All this time I've been wailing for this? Oh no, oh what an idiot, what a disappointment, it's just so ordinary." You've said what you wanted to say, you've got what you wanted to get. You've broken out, you're free, and then . . . "This is it?"

So this is why I feel in my heart that the Sangha is something that we need to deeply treasure, respecting it as an institution and as an entity in itself. Without the Sangha and its communal aspiration so many of us would just fall away caught into our desires, our worries, fears and distractions. Those qualities which are pure and noble within us would be lost, or not given the opportunity to fulfill themselves as they do in this situation here.

Once we generate that reverence in our hearts, things can become difficult, because that reverence is something that we sometimes prefer not to have around. Often one would really not like to be a member of the Sangha, thinking, "If only these other people were not around, I could get on with my own thing. If I didn't have a meeting to go to; if I didn't have these rules to keep; if I didn't have these other people hovering in the background, then I could do my thing." It is hard to sustain that respect because it frustrates the self-centered lower mind. That frustration is hard to bear. But what such respect does do, if we do bear with it, is bring us to experience the true wealth, true richness, true joy in life. We find a heart which is light, free, which is beautiful. Which is unobtainable just through the gratification of desire.

Gratification can mimic that same fullness but it cannot really match it. So the presence of the Sangha is a source of support, it is like having a sea that buoys us up; it is like being able to float -- when our resolve weakens then we have the community which is there to keep us breathing, which will hold us up when our strength and interest in the spiritual flags and wanes.

In an ideal world we shouldn't need this, if we were all enlightened beings we wouldn't need this but, because there is work to be done, we need friends. We need to connect with people who respect what is good, spiritual and pure. Those connections will help keep us alive and maintain that capacity within us for the good qualities of our hearts to flourish.

Bikkhu Amaro (1994), "Silent Rain".