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Lions Roar : May 2016
It’s not unusual to be in a community with someone who pushes all your buttons. Exactly the sort of person you’d avoid at all costs in ordinary life will appear in your sangha. There he or she is—your father or sister, childhood nemesis, or ancient school or workplace enemy—sitting right across from you in the meditation hall. You will have to deal with this person in ways you never would have, if left to your own devices. And eventually, they become a valued friend. EMERSON AND THE BUDDHA both believe that spiritual friendship requires two elements: truth and tenderness. Spiritual friends are honest with one another. They have courage, they take risks, and they speak from the standpoint of truthfulness, not expediency. When my friends go astray, at least as far as I can see, I must speak up. And I expect the same from them as well. Yet tenderness is equally important. Dogen writes of the power of kind speech: “Speak to sentient beings as you would to a baby”—speak with that much tender love and sweetness. I can receive a true friend’s criticism with loving-kindness because it comes from a loving heart seeking only my benefit and well- being. And if I find I am lacking in tenderness, speaking what I consider to be truth out of defensiveness or separateness, I have to discern this. I have to work on healing the causes within myself of this breach of kindness. I need to keep my peace until I am ready to speak with love. We often think of spiritual teachers as parents or authority figures. Maybe we think of them as coaches or trainers. But in the Mahayana sutras, teachers are referred to as kalyanamitras— spiritual friends. They are people who see us as we are, love us anyway, and care absolutely for our ultimate welfare. A teacher’s job is to model spiritual friendship. While at first we may be intimidated by the teacher, imagining him or her to be far more spiritually developed than we are, as time goes on the teacher transforms from a scary boss to a trusted friend. And over time in community life we come to have such inspir- ing friendships with others who support and love us in the same way. No matter what their background or personal style, anyone with enough proximity in sincere practice becomes a sangha friend. You will treat them with full respect and affec- tionate regard, and they will treat you the same way. The Buddha thought of the sangha as a harmonious group of spiritual friends looking out for one another’s welfare, living together in full equality for the spiritual development of each one. The early Buddhist sangha was radical in its insistence that any- one, prince or pauper, could join and be fully accepted and equally loved. Rank was established solely on the basis of seniority, with- out regard to wealth, social position, or even skill in practice. To this day, Buddhism retains this emphasis on equality and inclusion. To be sure, this ideal isn’t always practiced very well. As is well known, women were and still are not included as equals with men in Asian Buddhism. Buddhist communities in the West are far from free of sexism and are overwhelmingly made up of white middle-class people. We notice this, hope that it will change, and work to make it happen. But it will take time, and many more women teachers and teachers of color. Still, even as things stand now, we can rejoice in the whole- someness and inclusivity of our sangha friendships. We can depend on them to support us in hard times. Sometimes we might expect or ask for more emotional or material support from our community than we seem to be getting. But the more we are established in our practice, the more we understand that the support our spiritual friends provide is the most fundamen- tal and the most healing kind: gentle encouragement to awaken. THIS IS SEVENTY-EIGHTH case of the Blue Cliff Record, a classical compendium of Zen stories: In olden times there were sixteen bodhisattvas. When it was time for the monks to wash, the bodhisattvas filed into the bathhouse to bathe. Suddenly they awakened to the basis of water. All you Chan worthies, how will you understand their saying, “Subtle feeling reveals illumination, and we have achieved the station of sons of Buddha.” In big Chan monasteries of China, there were no private bathrooms. The monastics went to a common bathhouse to bathe and use the toilet. The schedule provided for bath time, when everyone filed into the bathhouse to take a bath together in the big tub. We still practice like this at Tassajara Zen Moun- tain Monastery. Bath time is late afternoon, after work and before evening service and dinner. Entering the bathhouse, we bow at the shrine and recite the bathing verse. Enshrined on the bathhouse altar is a picture of the sixteen bodhisattvas in the bath. We bathe silently and then put on our robes for service. This is the only Buddhist story I am aware of in which sixteen people realized awakening together, as good spiritual friends. Sitting chest-deep in the tub, they must have looked around at one another with beautiful smiles of acknowledg- ment, saying, no doubt, nothing at all. Mostly we think of awakening as an individual affair. The teachings can make it sound like that. But in Buddhism we practice together, awaken together, and understand together. Together we go forth to do what needs to be done. In the Mahayana Buddhist teachings, the bodhisattva clearly sees that no one can be happy or content while others are suffering. There is no individual awakening. No one can be happy, no one can be enlightened, unless everyone is happy and enlightened. Self and other are not two truly different existing LION’S ROAR | MAY 2016 62