It is difficult if not impossible to practice the Way of Understanding and Love without a Sangha, a community of friends who practice the same way. In my country, we say that if a tiger comes down from the mountain, he will be caught by humans and killed. Practicing without a Sangha is like that. Society has so much momentum in the direction of forgetfulness that we need the support of friends to help us keep in touch with our deepest desire to love and help all beings.
In the Madhyama Agama and Majjhima Nikaya, there is a sutra given by the Venerable Maudgalyayana that says: “When you practice with friends but are attached to a harmful desire, that may be the reason your friends don’t speak to you and are unwilling to counsel you or teach you. Because you are caught in that harmful desire, you lose the opportunity to be taught and guided by your Sangha.” Maudgalyayana is counseling us to take a deep look at ourselves. He says that when we are too caught up in a strong bad habit, our friends will not be able to counsel or assist us, and we will be in difficult straits. Because we will not listen to our friends, their affection wanes, and we lose the opportunity to transform our ways.
A Vietnamese man from Holland who visited Plum Village last year told us, “My children are not here with me because they are caught in a trap of unwholesome desires.” It was not that they no longer respected or cared for their father; they had driven him all the way from Holland to Paris and helped him get on the train to Plum Village. They were just caught in a web of sorrows, and he was unable to help them out. Sometimes when we are caught in a net of unhealthy desires, we think we are on a path to happiness. According to the Samiddhi Sutra, such self-deception always leads to suffering. To get free of the trap of unwholesome desires, meditation and practice are needed. For us to become strong and free enough to get free or to help others, we need a loving heart, clear understanding, and great inner strength. Otherwise, we can only worry.
Every person in a Sangha needs to ask him or herself, “Am I caught in my own web of harmful desires? Am I caught in my own patterns of behavior?” This is the kind of self-examination Maudgalyayana is stressing.
In a Sangha, we always seek to find and create wholesome joys within daily life. We can’t afford to love for less than twenty-four hours a day. The Four Immeasurable Minds are four samadhi, or concentrations, that we should dwell in day and night. The Buddha’s teachings need to be explored and practiced in order to illuminate how we can love each other and help people liberate themselves from painful situations.
There are many families so broken that every member is like an island. Sometimes a twelve-year-old wants to live independently of his or her family, because there is no tenderness or warmth in the family, no space to breathe. The teaching of the Four Immeasurable Minds needs to be translated into concrete practices that can be used by fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
We need to use our understanding and love to embrace even those we consider to be our enemies. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the section on Samantabhadra includes the phrase, “My only vow is to remain here in the land of utmost suffering through countless lifetimes in order to benefit all living beings.” We ask the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to remain with us from lifetime to lifetime to rescue and benefit all living beings submerged in the sea of suffering. In the “Protection and Transformation Chant,” we say, “Together with the Sangha, I vow to remain in this world for a long time in order to help living beings.” That is the spirit of not letting go. I sometimes tell couples who want to divorce, “To divorce or not to divorce, that is not the question.” The real problem lies within your own mind. Divorce may not be an option, but not divorcing may not seem an option either. You can’t spit it out, and you can’t swallow it.
You may think that happiness is possible only in the future, but if you learn to stop running, you will see that there are more than enough conditions for you to be happy right now. The only moment for us to be alive in is the present moment. The past is already gone and the future is not yet here. Only in the present moment can we touch life and be deeply alive. Our true home is in the here and the now. This is not difficult to understand. We only need some training to be able to do it. Practicing mindful breathing, coming back to the present moment, we can live deeply this moment and touch the wonders of life, the joy and peace that are available in the present moment.
We cannot practice deep looking unless we stop running and begin to dwell in the present moment. We do not need to run into the future to have happiness. The Kingdom of God is available here and now. We can realize this during sitting meditation, walking meditation, and sharing a meal together. We go back to the present moment and dwell there deeply, and as we train ourselves to do this, we begin to see things more deeply. There is suffering in the present moment, but there is also peace, stability, and freedom. With peace in our hearts, happiness is possible. Every kind of practice should offer us more peace, stability, and freedom. These are essential for our happiness.
We have to look with our “Sangha eyes,” to know what to do and what not to do to be of help. We cannot be by ourselves alone. We can only “inter-be” with everyone else, including our ancestors and future generations. Our “self” is made only of non-self elements. Our sorrow and suffering, our joy and peace have their roots in society, nature, and those with whom we live. When we practice mindful living and deep looking, we see the truth of interbeing. I hope that Sanghas, communities of practice, will organize themselves as healthy families. We need to create environments where people can succeed in the practice. Interpersonal relationships are the key. With the support of even one person, you develop stability, and later you can reach out to others. Aware that we are seeking love, Sangha members will treat us in a way that helps us get rooted. In a spiritual family, we have a second chance to get rooted.
In the past, people lived in extended families. Our houses were surrounded by trees and hammocks, and people had time to relax together. The nuclear family is a recent invention. Besides mother and father, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the atmosphere in the home is so heavy, there is nowhere to escape, nowhere to breathe. Even if the child goes into the bathroom to hide, the heaviness pervades the bathroom. Many children today grow up with seeds of suffering. Unless we can change the situation, they will transmit those seeds to their children.
At Plum Village, children are at the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children feel happy and secure. We know that if the children are happy, the adults will be happy, too. I hope that communities of practice like this will form in the West, with the warmth and flavor of an extended family, as brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Our children are the children of everyone. We have to work together to find ways to help each other. If we can do that, everyone will enjoy the practice.
Nowadays, when things become difficult, couples think of divorce right away. Some people divorce many times. How can we create communities that support couples, families, single parents? How can we bring the practice community into the family and the family into the practice community?
A single mother may think she needs the support of a man, that she is not solid enough on her own. But many men are not solid in their lives either. If she enters a relationship with someone who is not solid, the stability she does have will be eroded. When a single mother comes to Plum Village to practice, we encourage her to take refuge in the island of herself. If she pursues one available man after another, she will erode her stability, and her children will grow up without a solid foundation. This is true for everyone. Don’t seek for refuge in things that are not stable. If you do, you will lose your stability. Identify your place of refuge: is it solid?
If you succeed in bringing your child up happily, you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a Dharma door. We need retreats and seminars to discuss the best ways to raise our children. We do not accept the ancient ways of parenting, but we have not fully developed modern ways of doing so. We need to draw on our practice and our experience to bring new dimensions to family life. Combining the nuclear family with the practice community may be a successful model. We bring our children to the practice center, and all of us benefit. If we form practice communities as extended families, the elderly will not have to live apart from the rest of society. Grandparents love to hold children in their arms and tell them fairy tales. If we can do that, everyone will be very happy.
One fourteen-year-old boy who practices at Plum Village told me this story. He said that every time he fell down and hurt himself, his father would shout at him. The boy vowed that when he grew up, he would not act that way. But one time his little sister was playing with other children and she fell off a swing and scraped her knee, and the boy became very angry. His sister’s knee was bleeding and he wanted to shout at her, “How can you be so stupid! Why did you do that?” But he caught himself. Because he had been practicing breathing and mindfulness, he was able to recognize his anger and not act on it.
While the adults were taking care of his sister, washing her wound and putting a bandage on it, he walked away slowly and meditated on his anger. Suddenly he saw that he was exactly the same as his father. He told me, “I realized that if I did not do something about the anger in me, I would transmit it to my children.” He saw that the seeds of his father’s anger must have been transmitted by his grandparents. This was a remarkable insight for a fourteen-year-old boy. Because he had been practicing, he could see clearly like that. By making peace with our parents in us, we have a chance to make real peace with our real parents.
For those who are alienated from their families, their culture, or their society, it is sometimes difficult to practice. Even if they meditate intensively for many years, it is hard for them to be transformed as long as they remain isolated. We have to establish links with others. Buddhist practice should help us return home and accept the best things in our culture. Reconnecting with our roots, we can learn deep looking and compassionate understanding. Practice is not an individual matter. We practice with our parents, our ancestors, our children, and their children.
We have to let the ancestors in us be liberated. The moment we can offer them joy, peace, and freedom, we offer joy, peace, and freedom to ourselves, our children, and their children at the same time. Doing so, we remove all limits and discrimination and create a world in which all traditions are honored.
When we touch the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and all the damage that was done in the past can be repaired. The way to take care of the future is also to take good care of the present moment. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to reconcile herself with her mother, and her mother felt the same. But every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over many years, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.
I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness, and through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger. After practicing for several weeks, she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter’s practice, and peace was finally possible.
We should live our daily lives so that there is Beginning Anew in every minute. If everyone practices, there is hope for the future. Look deeply to make renewal possible. Sangha building is the most important art for us to learn. Even if we are a skilled meditator and well versed in the sutras, if we don’t know how to build a Sangha, we cannot help others. We have to build a Sangha that is happy, where communication is open. We have to take care of each person, staying aware of his pain, her difficulties, his aspirations, her fears and hopes in order to make him or her comfortable and happy. This requires time, energy, and concentration.
Each of us needs a Sangha. If we don’t have a good Sangha yet, we should spend our time and energy building one. If you are a psychotherapist, a doctor, a social worker, a peace worker, or if you are working for the environment, you need a Sangha. Without a Sangha, you will not have enough support, and you will burn out very soon. A psychotherapist can choose among his or her clients who have overcome their difficulties, who recognize you as a friend, a brother, or a sister in order to form a group of people to practice as a Sangha, to practice being together in peace and joy in a familial atmosphere. You need brothers and sisters in the practice in order to be nourished and supported. A Sangha can help you in difficult moments. Your capacity of helping people can be seen by looking at those around you.
I have met psychotherapists who are not happy with their families, and I doubt very much that these therapists can help us if we need them. I proposed that they form a Sangha. Among the members of this Sangha are people who have profited and recovered from their illness and have become friends with the therapist. The Sangha is to meet and practice together—breathing, living mindfully and in peace, joy, and loving kindness. That would be a source of support and comfort for the therapist. Not only do meditators and therapists have to learn the art of Sangha building, every one of us needs to. I do not believe that you can go very far without a Sangha. I am nourished by my Sangha. Any achievement that can be seen in the Sangha supports me and gives me more strength.
To build a Sangha, begin by finding one friend who would like to join you in sitting or walking meditation, precept recitation, tea meditation, or a discussion. Eventually others will ask to join, and your small group can meet weekly or monthly at someone’s home. Some Sanghas even find land and move to the countryside to start a retreat center. Of course, your Sangha also includes the trees, the birds, the meditation cushion, the bell, and even the air you breathe—all the things that support you in the practice. It is a rare opportunity to be with people who practice deeply together. The Sangha is a gem.
The principle is to organize in the way that is most enjoyable for everyone. You will never find a perfect Sangha. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. Rather than complain too much about your Sangha, do your best to transform yourself into a good element of the Sangha. Accept the Sangha and build on it. When you and your family practice doing things mindfully, you are a Sangha. If you have a park near your home where you can take the children for walking meditation, the park is part of your Sangha. We begin with ourselves in order to improve the quality of our Sangha. I know the best way to improve my Sangha is to walk deeply during walking meditations, to drink my tea mindfully, to look and to touch things and people mindfully and deeply, to be more tolerant, to be more open. And that kind of practice will surely improve the quality of my Sangha. There is no other way.
A Sangha is a community of resistance, resisting the speed, violence, and unwholesome ways of living that are prevalent in our society. Mindfulness is to protect ourselves and others. A good Sangha can lead us in the direction of harmony and awareness. The substance of the practice is most important. The forms can be adapted.
Of course, our Sanghas have shortcomings. There are things around that should be improved, but the main purpose of a Sangha is to practice, to practice mindfulness, to practice being more open, tolerant, and loving. This practice will bring happiness to ourselves and to the people around us. To bring peace, happiness, and tolerance to our families, we have to practice peace, joy, and happiness with our Sangha.
Thanks to the loving support of other people, we can get in touch with the refreshing, healing elements within and around us. If we have a good community of friends, we are very fortunate. To create a good community, we first have to transform ourselves into a good element of the community. After that, we can go to another person and help him or her become an element of the community. We build our network of friends that way. We have to think of friends and community as investments, as our most important asset. They can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness. Even if we have a lot of money in the bank, we can die very easily from our suffering. Investing in a friend, making a friend into a real friend, building a community of friends, is a much better source of security.
Do not be afraid to love. Without love, life is impossible. We have to learn the art of loving. Love by the way you walk, the way you sit, the way you eat. Learn to love yourself and others properly. The Buddha offers us light to shine on the nature of our love. He offers very concrete ways to practice living our daily lives so love becomes something delightful. This world very much needs love. We have to help the next Buddha, Maitreya, the Buddha of love, come to be. I am more and more convinced that the next Buddha may not be just one person, but he may be a community, a community of love. We need to support each other to build a community where love is something tangible. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth. We have everything except love. We have to renew our way of loving. We have to really learn to love. The well-being of the world depends on us, on the way we live our daily lives, on the way we take care of the world, and on the way we love.
Teachings On Love
From “Teachings On Love” by Thich Nhat Hanh