People embark on a meditative journey through many different doorways. Initially we may begin to practice meditation as a way of finding a little more peace and calm in the midst of a chaotic life and turbulent mind. Some begin to meditate to find a way to meet the adversities and challenges of their life with greater understanding and balance. Some are drawn to meditation through experiences of joy – glimpses of stillness, intimacy, connectedness inspire us to question whether they need be just accidental encounters in our life. Both sorrow and joy can bring us to a point where we acknowledge the urgency of finding ways to be more at peace with ourselves, to live a life of greater kindness and compassion and to learn simply how to be more present in all the moments of our life.
Practising with sincerity, persevering through the peaks and valleys that are part of every spiritual path, we begin to discover that our practice begins to bear fruit. A calm and steady mind begins to be more accessible to us, we are less prone to be reactive or judgmental, there arise a greater sensitivity and mindfulness that allows us to feel more present and connected. Our capacity to be delighted by life’s beauty is awakened as is our ability to meet hardship without being overwhelmed. This is not the end of the journey.
As our own meditation and mindfulness practice deepens so too are our eyes opened to the deeper possibilities held within our practice. The possibilities of an unshakeable liberation, a timeless wisdom and a true sense of being part of a community of people who treasure the same compassion and integrity we do. We may find ourselves inspired to discover and understand the origins of the path we travel and the liberation it is dedicated to. We do not suffer alone, we do not awaken alone; our path is an ancient one walked by many before us and the wisdom and compassion we develop affects countless beings around us. Many people practising this path find themselves beginning to question what is meant by the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the three jewels or treasures and why such importance is given to them. The practice of meditation is deeply healing on a personal level; out of the calmness of our own hearts we begin to question more deeply, not just what meditation is but what it means to live a meditative life.
The Buddha is the personification of an awakened being, a person who knows a unshakeable inner freedom, peace and compassion. The Buddha is not only the historical Siddhartha we are most familiar with, but all the great teachers, mentors and guides throughout time who embody a depth of wisdom and compassion that touches and changes the world around them. The Buddha is a symbol of the Third Noble Truth – that is truly possible in this life to know the end of anguish and struggle, to discover for ourselves a heart that is liberated from confusion and pain. The Buddha also points to the potential for awakening and freedom that lives in each of us and encourages us to find the courage and wisdom to walk a path that leads us to discover for ourselves the same freedom that Buddha’s throughout time have found. The Buddha is a symbol of possibility – encouraging us not to despair but to dive deeply into our hearts to find the wisdom that can heal and liberate. In the early years after the Buddha’s death there were no Buddha statues – the liberated heart was portrayed in the symbols of footprints in the sand or an empty hut. The ongoing teaching of the Buddha was the encouragement to reclaim for ourselves our own Buddha nature.
Thinking of the Buddha our most immediate association may be with the statue seated on a lotus flower who lives on our alter and even in our garden. We can be inspired by the stories of the Buddha, yet again feel minimal relationship with this historical figure. The invitation of our path and practice is to bring the Buddha to life. Many of us have glimpsed the Buddha in others and ourselves. It is our Buddha nature that inspires us to reach out a hand on comfort and support to a friend in need, to forgive someone who has harmed us and to say no to injustice. It is our Buddha nature that grieves at the pain in the world and rejoices at the happiness and love that can be found. Our Buddha nature brings us back to the cushion in times of adversity and pain, trusting we can find within the understanding and steadfastness to meet our life.
When our eyes and hearts are open we glimpse Buddha nature shining in countless moments. My first teacher lived in a simple mud hut, never knowing where his next meal would come from, yet who welcomed us unruly westerners with a beaming smile and a limitless willingness to offer the teaching of wisdom and compassion to us. I have friends who raise a severely disabled child with boundless patience and love – it is for them a spiritual journey. My own heart and practice is touched on a daily basis not only by the great people of this world who have dedicated themselves to justice, peace and compassion but also by the many acts of generosity and kindness offered by strangers.
Trying one day to return home, only to experience one of the catastrophic travel experiences familiar to many of us, with flights cancelled, baggage lost and endless treks down sterile airport corridors, an airline agent took me under his wing rearranging everything with ease and kindness. He seemed surprised when I said to him, “You must be a bodhisattva.” Our practice of awareness opens our eyes to the many acts of peace, kindness and compassion we encounter in our lives, that touch our hearts and inspire us to reach for depths of wisdom and compassion we didn’t even know were possible for us.
The Buddha was also a teacher, a healer, a guide showing people the way to peace and liberation. He empowered students to discover the same liberation within themselves that he had found, the Buddha wanted graduates. With boundless compassion he showed the way to the end of suffering, he offered the dhamma. The teachers I have been privileged to practice with in my own life have offered the same generosity. As westerners we are prone to be either in awe of or mistrustful of authority, including the authority of teachers. The Buddha discouraged blind faith in teachers, but also honoured their place in the journey of discovery and transformation. To find a teacher who will not only console us in times of difficulty but will also challenge our delusion is a great blessing. We sense their Buddha nature in the fact they want nothing from us – not honour, flattery or allegiance, but only that we find our own Buddha nature. Inviting the Buddha into our heart is in the deepest sense is to also invite the dhamma and the sangha into our life. It means taking upon ourselves the willingness and responsibility to embody our Buddha nature.
The dhamma is the path that leads to the realization of our Buddha nature. The dhamma is the teaching of the universal story of change, unsatisfactoriness and non self that run through all of our lives. It is the teaching of our inter-connectedness, clouded only be delusion and fear. The dhamma teaches us of the interwoven threads of a life of integrity, a mind that is collected and calm and a heart that ripens in wisdom and that leads to liberation. The dhamma is what we practice when we sit down with the intention to let go, to calm the waves of agitation in our hearts, to understand what is true. When we go out into our day with the commitment to not harm and to protect the well being of all living beings we are practising the dhamma. When we are generous with our time, attention and love we embody the dhamma. Our resolve to be truthful and honest in our words and acts, to treasure a clear mind and to engage with the world with respect and appreciation is to live the dhamma.
The teachings of profound wisdom found in the volumes of scriptures available to us are not intended to be absorbed only as an intellectual exercise, but to be assimilated, naturalized and embodied. All of us are asked to take the teachings off the bookshelves and into every dimension of our lives, leaving nothing untouched. We come to know the wisdom of a Buddha when the dhamma is our life and our life is the dhamma. This is a practice, why it is called a path. We are practising to be Buddhas and it is a journey that asks for the patience, perseverance, commitment and forgiveness of a Buddha.
The dhamma is our heart’s commitment to all that is healing and liberating.. It is not a commitment we make just once but countless times in a single day. It is a commitment not to an ideology or belief system, but to our own Buddha nature. It is only when we begin to wake up and be more mindful and present in our life that we realize how remarkably forgetful we can be. We begin to appreciate how easy it is to be lost in historical habits of aversion, resistance, greed and heedlessness. Every time we can let go just a little, find the willingness just to be with what is and step out of the cycles of resistance and forgetfulness we are renewing our commitment to the dhamma. Each time we choose a path of kindness rather than aversion, seek peace rather than conflict, speak with truthfulness rather than dissembling we are practising the dhamma. In the path of compassion it is said that delusion and suffering are endless, yet we vow to bring them to an end.
All these small moments of commitment where we renew our intention to be awake in our life do bear fruit. The ability to live with integrity, clarity and compassion in the beginning feel effortful, almost heroic, at times even impossible. With practice it becomes more effortless and truly possible and our hearts and lives are changed by those commitments. There is a greater peace and openness, we fall in love with awareness, our mind becomes our friend and we experience the peace of compassion and freedom.
The sangha, or the community of the wise can be understood on at least three levels. One is called the noble sangha, the community of those who are awakened and embody that wisdom. These are the Buddhas and teachers who inspire and encourage us, who guide and support us. They are the people of the past and present who have touched us with their unwavering commitment to justice, social and political transformation and to the end of suffering and anguish in our world.
The sangha is also the monastic order of monks and nuns, people who inspire us with the simplicity and integrity of their lives. I feel a boundless appreciation for the monastics among us, aware of how profound the challenge is to truly surrender to a life which is bereft on the supports many of us rely on for safety and meaning. In a recent teacher meeting when many teachers were reporting on the projects and ventures their centers were undertaking, one the ordained sangha reported simply, that the monks and nuns’ really didn’t do very much’. On one level it is true; they have no mission to build and support centers, create programs or fund-raise. On another level it is by ‘not doing very much’ that the ordained community does so much, reminding us just by their presence how deeply important it is to dedicate our hearts and lives to ethics, mindfulness and liberation. They are a living presence of simplicity, renunciation and commitment.
Throughout centuries this long lineage of the monastic sangha has offered refuge to those who have no refuge, brought life to the dhamma and been sustained reminders of the most precious gem of all, the treasure of liberation. Monasteries in Asia are homes to those who have left the world but who are also endlessly available to the world. They support children who are orphaned, the elderly who have no family, they educate and speak out for social justice and bear witness to the births and deaths of the laypeople in their communities. The monastic community in a very real way endeavours to be a microcosmic view of a just and compassionate society, rooted in ethics, respect and wise relationship.
The sangha is also found in the communities and relationships of trust and integrity we nurture in our own lives. Genuine sangha is any relationship that treasures harmony and practices the wisdom of inter-connectedness. It is challenging to go on silent retreats and to cultivate a practice where we sit with ourselves on a cushion. In our individualistic culture it is far more challenging for many people to cultivate community and true friendship. Each one of us gets up off our cushion and enters into the world of relationship. Bringing our practice and our commitment to wakefulness into that world is what enriches our practice and gives it meaning. Our path remains incomplete as long as the third treasure is omitted.
It is in community that we discover how hard it is to live in a truly ethical way. A friend said, “if practising the precepts does not make your life more uncomfortable, you haven’t understood them well”. It is in community that our commitment to kindness and openness is challenged, that we begin to understand that generosity and forgiveness are practices of letting go and of wisdom. Nowhere else in our lives are we so vulnerable as in our relationships and the teaching of freedom encourages us to cultivate a wise vulnerability. To learn how to speak truthfully, to listen without defensiveness, to learn how to offer and receive kindness, to learn to let go of our personal story and listen deeply to our universal story are all the lessons of wise community.
As our practice deepens we increasingly understood the truth of our inter-connectedness and our inter-dependence. All beings long for happiness, to be understood, to be protected and for peace. All beings long to be free from pain, struggle and fear. In a very real way my happiness is linked to yours, my fear and sorrow also linked to yours. We cannot even seek our own awakening, but only take part in the awakening of all beings.
The cultivation of community or sangha, is ultimately to commit ourselves to relationships of respect, integrity and appreciation. It is a commitment to discovering the Buddha nature in all beings and to embody our dhamma, our understanding. It is not always possible for us to connect with and be part of established dhamma communities, it is always possible for us to nurture community within the relationships already present in our lives. We can all learn what it means to be a true friend to another, offering kindness, honesty and understanding and to receive the friendship of another. Making time for friendship to develop, persevering with the challenges that relationship inevitably brings is a valuing of the place that community, sangha, plays in our path.
The triple gem holds within it the whole of the teaching and path of liberation. Buddha, dhamma and sangha are referred to as the three jewels or treasure because of their profound and enduring value. They are interwoven, nurtured together and lead to profound and unshakeable liberation.