By Swati Chopra
Gurus encourage the forming of communities as it provides a valuable space to the seeker to focus on inner growth. spiritual communities nourish our being, help make teachings practical, and teach us valuable lessons in sharing, empathy and seva
The next Buddha may take the form of a community practising understanding, loving-kindness and mindful living. thich nhat hanh
Living in a community with all kinds of people has a powerful cathartic effect on lifelong habits of judging and rejecting
In the guru-path-community triad that forms the weave of spiritual life, the last is perhaps what seekers find the most challenging. Not to say that imbibing the teachings or walking the path is easy. But yoking the deep and profound insights these engender to everyday life and its million nagging matters, using them to actually form and live in a community, can be thorny to say the least. It is where the backbreaking inner work happens, where wisdom found in meditation has a real chance of deepening and maturing. Our interactions with others, our relationships and responses to life situations demand constant practice of us, and in the process offer rich avenues for growth. As the Tibetans say, snow lions that live alone on mountaintops and become enlightened on their own are rare; most of us need the support, friendship and guidance of a community of similarly motivated individuals to continue on the path.
Broadly speaking, a spiritual community is a coming together of people with a shared purpose and commitment to inner growth. Usually, such communities grow on the outcroppings afforded by a guru, a path, a tradition or an organisation. These spark an impetus that causes otherwise unrelated individuals to converge and gives them reason to form a mutually beneficial alliance amongst themselves. In Hindu and Buddhist lexicons, sangha is the term for this sort of communing and banding together. Traditionally, it implied a monastic community, but nowadays sangha is widely used for spiritual communities that may include lay teachers and students, and for a confluence of spiritual colleagues. Another Hindu word that means an inward-focussed congregation is satsang—fellowship of those studying and interested in Truth (sat).
Looking around, we can identify two kinds of spiritual communities—those that are tradition-centric, and others that are established by individuals.
The former include monasteries, abbeys, centres and maths of organised religions. Monastics of all religions
live in communities that take care of their material needs and offer them training in religious discipline. For instance, Hindu akharas and maths train initiates in their traditions through scripture and learning with masters of the tradition.
Traditional communities have been around for centuries and have developed hierarchies that are strict and have fixed rules. Buddhism for instance has a system of conduct for monastics (vinaya) and a code of discipline (patimokkha). Though monastic communities of organised religions are closely connected with their society to whom they provide guidance on religious matters and ceremonies, like the Catholic clergy that performs baptism, marriage and dying rituals, they are simultaneously isolated from the mainstream by virtue of having different rules governing their lives and a focus directed towards spiritual growth.
Over time, such communities tend to become rigid, and codes of conduct are followed more in appearance than in spirit, possibly leading to hypocrisy. The original goal of growth in solitude is replaced by community politics and intrigues. That they often come to own property and material assets adds to the odour of power, corruption and excess that begins to engulf them. Of course there are many communities within organised religion that retain a sense of their original purpose, but on the whole lack the spirit of radical enquiry that needs movement, questioning and a lot of freedom to germinate.
In contrast, groups that gather around an individual adept, who has achieved realisation through self-effort and who then proceeds to teach, have a new energy about them. The people such masters attract may be ones who are already searching for deeper meaning beyond material needs and surface reality, who perhaps have explored their birth-religion and found its answers to their life questions inadequate, and who bring freshness of approach to the spiritual gathering.
Such gatherings can then take the form of a movement that physically manifests as ashrams and centres, even charitable services like hospitals and schools. Among these communities too, some grow organically as a loosely held community of sadhaks working in their own way to actualise the guru’s teachings like the Aurobindonian community in Pondicherry and elsewhere, while others go the way of organised religion and set up institutional structures and hierarchy, as the Chinmaya and Ramakrishna Missions. Many disintegrate after the founding guru’s death, many continue through a system of succession and establishment of spiritual lineages as in Paramahansa Yogananda’s kriya yoga lineages that has seen disciples carrying on their master’s work.
The best part about new communities, and movements that are rejuvenated forms of traditional communities (like Zen communities in the US, for instance), is that they have the potential to become nerve centres for positive action, for both individual and society, and introduce this energy in the lives of those who come within its ambit. In being new, they tend not to have strict structures—a factor that can be both electrifying in its openness as well as lay the ground for exploitation. In this, the guru’s personal example and guidance plays a crucial role.
Why should one need to enter a spiritual community in the first place? Is it to escape the pressures of daily life, to enter an insular world where everyone speaks the same soul language, as it were? Yes, to an extent. Solitude, absence of stress and also of the comfort of familiar grooves frees us and lays us open to explore different states of being and consciousness. Intense practice, a regimented lifestyle that usually calls for celibacy, early hours, simple food and no intoxicants helps discipline body and mind into single-pointed concentration upon spiritual growth. Excesses and distractions are minimised, which is crucial if we are to be able to deeply watch and connect with our selves.
Along with being a sanctuary for our spirits, the spiritual community provides access to daily guidance from a guru or teacher. For those of us who feel lost at times, or come upon problematic issues during our practice, it is extremely valuable to have a guiding hand nearby that will clear confusion and help us uncover the way ahead. This might happen through individual counselling, or if the community is huge, through public and private Q&A sessions with the master.
Osho would always answer questions at the end of his discourses at the Pune Commune, and J. Krishnamurti in his later years would only teach through Q&A. Mata Amritanandamayi is known to personally oversee the spiritual welfare of the burgeoning community at Amritapuri.
Leaving a community is as important as going to live in it. Wanting to live in its rarefied atmosphere forever might point towards escapist tendencies, to a grasping of the pleasures of enforced seclusion, which can be antithetical to the goal of being in the community in the first place. Concentrated effort is essential to move ahead; what is as important is becoming so integrated in one’s spiritual practice as to be able to do it anywhere, so that wherever we sit, there is our meditation cushion. For this, we need to be able to leave the community, armed with the jewels of insight, and test their veracity in the heat and hate of the world.
Grounding and centring
As mentioned in brief earlier, spiritual communities are not automatically clad in some kind of spiritual armour; their inmates are as vulnerable to foibles as the rest of us. Perhaps even more so, since the protective fences we usually employ in daily life have been torn down. Groupism, exclusive cliques, jealousy, vying for the master’s attention can all happen as much in a spiritual community as they do in the ‘outside world’, and become hurdles in the goal of growth. This is why many teachers encourage students into seva, the ideal of selfless service, to help ground them in a physical practice.
For many, the experience of sangha living can be the X-ray that sharply shows up their spiritual narcissism—where their practice had assumed prime importance over everything else. Living in a community means we will be thrown with other, disparate individuals. It’s impossible to function as an isolated electron wandering around in its own orbit. We are part of a dynamic cluster where we don’t control anything except our own responses, our own motion through the orbit. What begins as discomfort at sharing personal space with somebody that perhaps we don’t care so much about, can over time be changed into empathy. Realising you can feel love and connect with anyone irrespective of their qualities and personalities can be a powerful catharsis of lifelong habits of judging and rejecting.
Lama Surya Das, founder of the Dzogchen Centers in the US, speaks of such an experience: “I learned something very interesting when I was privileged to for several years wear the Buddha’s robes and live in three-year retreat cloisters. I learned that you don’t always get to pick who you intimately travel the journey with…. And the corollary of that is that you start to realise that you can love anybody—and must love anybody. We didn’t have the privilege of deciding who we were as if married to for three and a half years in our cloister, from which we never went out and into which no one ever entered. And we found out that all these strange people gathered together, from all these different countries, with all different expectations and trips, were all on the same team.
“After living together for three and a half years and never seeing anybody else, you get to know, it seems, every single thought that everybody has there, 20 or 25 people, monks and nuns. You find out we are all on the same team, all want and need pretty much the same things; that we are vastly more similar than different. This was very enlightening. I didn’t always like everybody there, but after three or four years, you do find out that you love everybody there because you start to feel what they feel and where they are coming from. Empathy is a great part of compassion.”
Individual self-nourishment is not the only raison d’etre of spiritual communities. A community—social, religious or spiritual—represents the power of the collective. To band together is a primitive urge that first led the early hominid to find common cause with others of his species. This impulse arises in the instinct to survive, and plays out through the harnessing of energies of the community towards shared goals. In this sense, the spiritual community has extraordinary potential to impact the society and mores of its times, and to help co-create a reality that is compassionate, wise and connected.
It can become the lens that converges the energies of its participants for the greater common good—a movement that is simultaneously self-involved and socially engaged, that gathers up individual streams and channels them into the river of society as a dynamic, positive change-enhancing force.
Perhaps this is why Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practising understanding and loving-kindness, a community practising mindful living.”
There exist rich examples of the power of the spiritual community today. One such is the Ramakrishna Mission, set up by Swami Vivekananda more than a hundred years ago with the primary aim of studying and teaching Vedanta. Along the way, the Mission became deeply committed to serving the Divine through serving society. Today, its monks have set up centres around the country where it provides free medical services, disaster relief, educational institutions, and works for the empowerment of women, the underprivileged, and tribal people.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal example is no less striking. During the Vietnam War, he denounced violence and called for peaceful reconciliation. He spoke about the need for the spiritual to become ‘engaged’, for the Buddhist sangha to actualise peace both within and without. The worldwide movement he started, now called ‘Engaged Buddhism’, combines meditative practices with active non-violent civil disobedience as a response to political, social and environmental injustice. This movement has influenced generations of activists around the world to form communities that look within for answers to the world’s pressing problems.
Another spiritual community that has successfully engaged inner development for social good is Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya movement of Sri Lanka. Started by A.T. Ariyaratne, called the ‘Gandhi of Sri Lanka’, Sarvodaya has sought to enlist the Buddhist clergy and common people in waging peace in the war-torn island. Come battle or ceasefire, Sarvodaya has encouraged common people to come together as one community and offer their gift of labour (shramadana) in commonly beneficial development projects like schools, roads, canals and so on. Since 2002, Ariyaratne has organised mass meditations to change the ‘psychosphere’ of violence, and it is Sarvodaya’s vision to make Sri Lanka “the first country to eliminate poverty, both economic and spiritual” by the end of this century.
The spiritual community can thus be a repository of tremendous power—both for individual growth and for realising a peaceful and positive change in society.
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