There are four grounds for the bonds of fellowship, four qualities which will help community building. Which four?
- Kind words
- Beneficial help
Instead of, ‘what am I going to get from this?’, if you’re trying to develop community it is very important to start with: ‘how can we create something together which will be helpful, which will be beneficial?’. We need to start with generosity, not just for ourselves, but with a spirit of giving.
Then kind words are important. We have to be careful not to just speak gently, as this could become superficial. Rather, we should ask ourselves, ‘how can I speak in a way which is not hurtful to other people, and where we can discuss any difference of opinions if we have them?’.
Beneficial help means that this group is not just for us to share things together, but we are also here to help each other. One thing I really like about Quaker groups is that one person is supposed to keep an eye on one or two others, so if someone doesn’t attend they check how they are. If that person is ill, they will try to help them.
So it’s not that we get together just to sit in silence and practice in our own way, but that we are trying to develop a community, one in which we care for each other.
Finally there is the idea of consistency. Especially for those of us who have been raised to be individualistic, it is not easy to form groups, communities, which last, which sustain themselves.
This is one of the challenges of secular Buddhism: how can we make it so that meditation is not only for inner transformation but that the meditation, the path, is also for people transformation and the transformation of society.
But how do I transform society if I am not able to be in a group which meets regularly, which is generous, which supports each other, in which people care for each other?
There is a group in New Mexico which is very interesting. Consisting entirely of lay people, they toyed with the idea of having a teacher. That did not work because they wanted to work more democratically, and teachers often are more hierarchically inclined.
In groups, there can be a tension between people who are more inspired by a hierarchical framework and people who are more supported by a democratic or consensus-based model. Sometimes the teacher might want to mould the group into a hierarchical model with the assumption that – ‘I’m a teacher, thus I know best’.
We are adults! About certain things the teacher might not know best at all. What is interesting with this lay group is that they played with the idea of ‘renting’ a teacher for a month. I thought this was a great idea.
What is also interesting within that lay group is that when Stephen and I used to see them more often, we could see the same difficulty I see in other sitting groups from time to time. That is the tension between those who just want to come to the weekly sit, be quiet and get out, the ones who did not feel the need to be part of a community, and the others, the people who wanted to be part of a community.
My suggestion is that when you sit altogether, this is supportive to each other but those who want to form a more active group should not wait for the others, or try to convince them they must be more sociable, more communal. Let them be and share the sitting with them. If you want to be more of a community, don’t wait for them.
It is very important to realise that you will come across people with different tendencies and it is not skilful to try to force everyone into the same way of doing things. If you find you do have people who want to do things together, though, go for it.
That’s what happened to the insight group in Bristol. They wanted to be more than just a sitting group, they really wanted to form a sangha, a community. So they go for walks together at the weekend and have events, which I really think are important, such as going on weekend retreats together. Just themselves, no teacher.
Doing this, you lessen the need to have a teacher to define yourselves as a community, so you, yourselves, are actually cultivating the community. It’s not just about a teacher telling you what to do, the community is about practitioners cultivating together. You get together, and you practice together.
We could also be more creative, and this is what is happening in America, in England and in New Zealand. Can we create a group which is a dharma group in the way that it relates to each other? That, I think, is more challenging. Then it’s not just about sitting and listening to talks but also about developing a sharing, supporting, consistent community in which we are generous towards each other.
Not everybody can develop a group that is able to get together face to face, of course. Sometimes, as Stephen says, we should just go to a Quaker meeting. And even if you’re not too keen on the local Buddhist centres you can still go and enjoy sitting with them, in their space. You can also create your own group, and it doesn’t have to be big. I think we have to be careful of the idea that to be a community we have to be many.
When insight teacher Larry Rosenberg organised his first retreat, nobody came. But he decided it would still go ahead, so he did everything – the sitting, the teaching – by himself. So he was a community of one. Now, of course, the community in Cambridge, Massachusetts is much bigger.
You can be a community of two, you can be a community of three, and nowadays we can be a community through the internet. There are so many different groups. In London, for instance, from a small beginning there are now many different groups connected to London Insight.
The secular Buddhist group in England is looking for secular buddhist women. At the moment they have too many men, they would like more women in the discussion. Soon they will start a teaching course on secular Buddhism.
Looking online, one of my favourite online groups is on Twitter, the OMCru, a crew of people who I don’t think physically know each other but they are dedicated to meditation. A fellow tweets, ‘now I am sitting for 20 minutes, does anybody want to join me?’. And after 20 minutes he tweets, ‘I’ve finished’. There are about 100 people in this OMCru who meditate together but separately regularly.
On Facebook there are different communities. That’s where I found The Sunday Assembly, people who get together, do a bit of singing, connected to Alain de Botton. You’ll have to see if you like singing, or not.
From 1:30 to 3:30 tomorrow in London there will be a meditation flash mob. I would love to be there. Called Wake Up London, they are followers of Thich Nhat Hanh who are 25–35 years of age. Oldies can also join the flash mob, I think.
Also in London, once a month there are maybe 50 people who walk in silence for maybe 30 or 60 minutes in Hyde Park on a Sunday morning just as a peaceful demonstration.
Finally, there are secular Buddhist groups in England and Scotland, in America, in Australia, and in New Zealand, so there are lots of secular Buddhists around. If you don’t have one where you live, I encourage you to be creative and go out and find other people to sit with.
– This is an extract from a talk I gave at Gaia House, Devon on a secular Buddhist retreat and was edited with help from Ramsey Margolis