The workshop Awakening Community which will be taking place in Sydney on November 12 & 13 will look at the contemporary relevance of Buddhist practice. The SIM newsletter editor spoke with Winton Higgins, one of the workshop teachers, to find out how he sees the relevance of the dharma in our current context.
Q: Why focus on community right now?
Winton: Community (sangha) is the third of the three ‘refuges’ (central focuses) of Buddhism, after the Buddha and the teachings (dharma). In the individualistic west, community tends to come a very distant third.
Many people assume that the dharma offers individualistic solutions only, not enriching ways of being with others, and living in decent communities.
The title of the workshop has a double meaning: it refers to how we can awaken the communal aspects of our lives, and also how spiritual community can contribute to our own awakening.
Q: How can awakening communities make a difference?
Winton: We all need the fellowship of like-minded friends to develop spiritually. We need to practise in communication with others in the interests of mutual support, stimulation and inspiration. We also thrive best when we participate in still wider communities that express our humanity and ethics.
The flip side of this is that we need to act when some wider community, in which we find ourselves enrolled, is distorting our humanity and negating our ethics.
Q: What does ‘refuge’ entail in this context?
Winton: We live without guarantees against sudden misfortune, illness and death. We all take refuge against these contingencies in something – usually something ultimately unfit for purpose, such as wealth, fame, certitudes and magical thinking. Buddha, dharma and sangha offer refuges that won’t fail us, and will guarantee us fully human lives.
At the same time, dharmic ethics requires us to offer refuge to others – to strangers in dire need. But we live in a country that’s determined to turn its back on these strangers in our name. How do we deal with this fundamental ethical breakdown?