By Swati Chopra October 2004 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. Alliance-buildingBroadly 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. New energyIn 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. Soul supportWhy 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 centringAs 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
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