What is the Sangha?

July 24, 2009

This is not my main Dhamma Diary entry – that can be found below. This is a copy of my revised ‘The Sangha’ page.

What is the Sangha?

It is the order of ordained Buddhist monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis), founded by the Buddha over 2500 years ago.

Why did the Buddha establish it?

To provide a means for those who wish to practise the Dhamma full time, in a direct and highly disciplined way, free from many of the restrictions and responsibilities of the household life. The Sangha also fulfils the function of preserving the Buddha’s original teachings and of providing spiritual support for the Buddhist lay-community.

What is the relationship between the Sangha and the Buddhist lay-community?

It is one of reciprocal support. The Buddha ensured that his monks and nuns maintain daily contact with the laity by forbidding them to keep money and to store, grow, cook, or procure in any way their own food. Thus monks and nuns depend on the laity for material support. On the other hand, the laity depend on the Sangha for inspiration and guidance in matters concerning the Dhamma.

“Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicine. And you, monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making an end to suffering.” (Iti. 107)

How is the life of a member of the Sangha different from that of a lay-Buddhist?

The most significant difference is that a monk must live according to the Vinaya – the body of rules laid down by the Buddha. This code of conduct dictates in great detail how a monk is to live his life. At the heart of the Vinaya lies the Patimokkha – the set of 227 precepts. The rules of the Patimokkha are graded from heavy to light: the breaking of the heaviest (of which there are four) entails expulsion from the Sangha; the breaking of the lightest results in a short confession.

Why did the Buddha lay down the Vinaya?

He was asked this question and gave ten reasons:

“For the welfare of the Sangha, for the comfort of the Sangha, for the control of unsteady men, for the comfort of well behaved bhikkhus, for the restraint of the pollutions of this present life, for guarding against pollutions liable to arise in a future life, for the pleasure of those not yet pleased with Dhamma, for the increase of those pleased, for the establishment of true Dhamma, for the benefit of the Vinaya.” (AN. v.70. From a copy of the Patimokkha translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Mahamakuta Press, Thailand.)

A recent development

During the 2500 years following the Buddha’s passing, across all legitimate schools of Buddhism, the term Sangha referred to the order of monks and nuns. However, in the West, in the past 60 years or so, the term has come to include not only all Buddhist people – ordained and lay, but sometimes even those who attend Buddhist meditation classes who have not actually taken refuge in the Triple Gem themselves. So misappropriated has this term become that we now find the likes of the ‘Buddhist Military Sangha’!!!

Being deeply ingrained in Western Buddhism it is hard to see this aberration being rectified. So for those of us who do know the correct meaning of the term Sangha, we should strive to preserve it, and with it the Triple Gem.

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Farewell Ajahn Tommy

July 22, 2009

Ajahn.

May you soon attain freedom from all suffering.

To be Happy or not to be Happy: That is the Question
Right View as the First Step on the Path
Right View, the raison d’être of Buddhist practice, the antidote to all suffering, lies not at the end of the Noble Eightfold Path, but at the beginning. Why so? Because without a small degree of it we wouldn’t even consider walking this path. Indeed, we would see no reason to.
What is Right View? It is wisdom. It is seeing things clearly – as they really are. On the ultimate, transcendent, level it is the total comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. In its initial stages it comprises an understanding of these truths to a lesser extent, and in a sometimes indirect way; and of the law of kamma – of how our actions result in either happiness or suffering depending on the intent behind them.
Both of these truths will no doubt have had a bearing on our own decision to tread this path. Looking back at my own life prior to finding the Dhamma I can see an understanding of dukkha was firmly in place. It is what propelled me into this life. My grasp of dukkha had long been with me. In fact, he is my oldest friend!
Appreciating the Law of Kamma
So one very important aspect of right view concerns the law of kamma. Put simply we can say that to possess a modicum of right view one must have some appreciation of the fact that good actions bring happy results and bad actions bring unhappy results.
Just over nine years ago I phoned my father to give him the ‘news’. “I don’t mind if you’re gay.” He said. “No, I’m not gay (but thanks anyway).” “You’re going to join an ashram?” (he knew I meditated). “Warmer…” “What then?” “I have decided to become a Buddhist monk.”
Then over the course of the following weeks we had a number of lively conversations. On the whole he was fairly relaxed about the whole thing; after all, he left home when I was five, so it wasn’t as if he would see a lot less of me. Having said that, he wasn’t going to let me go too easily.
During one of our characteristically demanding chats I told him that one of the reasons I wanted to ordain was in order to invest in my future. “The future? You should be living now!” he retorted. “Make the most of your life now!”
Of course he had a point. A very big point. When are we ever going to live our life if we don’t live it now? But what we do now has consequences; our present actions are continually shaping our future state. And dependent on what lies behind these actions is nothing less than our own happiness and suffering. Considering the future with right view in this way we cannot help but live fully now.
I had always been very aware that however I might live my life, barring following this path, I would only find myself being unhappy. How could I possibly end up being happy? What was I doing that would bring happiness? I distinctly remember going out for a drive with my brother not long after I had passed my driving test, stopping in the countryside somewhere, and having a deep and not so jolly conversation with him. We both came to the conclusion that we would never be truly happy. How could we know that? Well, I guess it boiled down to a smidgen of right view: an understanding that maybe we weren’t providing the conditions for that happiness to arise in the future; that the paths we were currently treading could not lead to that happiness.
So it was an investment, I told my father. I had often looked at older people and observed how they were just not happy. I did not want to be in that situation later on. But why this path? Well, I had been practising Buddhist meditation seriously for a good half a year or so and it had opened up two appealing avenues for me: happiness and wisdom.
When we consider that we are – at this moment – creating our future, then it makes us take stock. If we project our mind into the future and consider what kind of life we want to be living, what state of mind we want to have, what level of wisdom we want to possess, and how happy we would like to be, then we shine the light of right view on our thoughts and actions now and see whether they are leading us in that direction, or whether they are not. If they are not then we make an effort to change that.
Think of a potter at his wheel. There he sits with the lump of clay poised ready before him – its future shape entirely in his hands. Around spins the wheel and the potter begins to work. With every twitch and nudge and caress the potter shapes the supple clay. At every moment that clay is the perfect record of the movements of the potter’s hand. No movement will go unnoticed, each one will be unfailingly recorded in the clay. And so it is with our life. In every moment, with every intentional action, we are shaping our future state. And consequently, at every moment, our life is a record of our actions that have gone before.
This is one reason why it so crucial that we as Buddhists feel able to reject outright the existence of a creator God as wrong view. As soon as we lay the responsibility for our existence elsewhere we undermine this fundamental aspect of right view: that we are our own creators, that we alone are responsible for our present and future happiness and suffering; that the reasons for our existence are none other than our own ignorance and craving. These two things are the causes, the conditions, for us being here, now. And it is by uprooting them – which is done by gaining a direct insight into the Four Noble Truths – that we are able to free ourselves, through our own efforts, from this realm of birth and death.
So it all comes back to what we are doing now, and most importantly to what is behind what we are doing now. We trace these actions and our thoughts to their roots. And what do we find when we do this? We find six things: greed, hatred and delusion, and generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. We find the six roots (mula) of action – the architects of suffering and happiness.
It’s pretty simple really! Avoid what is wrong and cultivate what is right. Avoid acting on greed, hatred and delusion, and be generous, compassionate and wise. Exercise your right view: look at your mind before you are about to say or do anything, and also when you are doing something, out of the six roots of actions, what is there in your mind? If it’s harmful – stop; if it’s helpful – carry on.
We as monks naturally depend on others to provide and cook our food. Being thoroughly unenlightened this sometimes leads to a stirring of the three unwholesome roots in my mind, and therefore the potential to heap more suffering upon myself.
For instance, say I’ve observed that a lovely fresh pack of ready-salted Pringles has been given. There they are, taste bud tinglers in a tube, destined for my tongue. But they don’t appear at the meal time. Concern arises. Why aren’t they being offered? And so the desire to make a subtle hint manifests: ‘I noticed some Pringles were offered the other day…..’ – Just a casual, just thought I’d mention it in passing, type comment – you know the kind. ‘But hold on!’ I say to myself. ‘What is there in my mind right now? Why do I want to say this? What is the root of this potential action?’ Well, I give you three guesses: greed, hatred and delusion!
So there we have them: the architects of suffering; the enemies of happiness; the seamstresses of the veil of darkness before my very eyes. I then consider that if I am to act on these I will create future suffering for myself and possibly others. Just as if I were to throw a stone into the sky it would surely come back down, so too if I were to act on these unwholesome forces I would suffer in the future. Considering in this way and teaching myself to be careful, I refrain, and non-greed – a wholesome root of action – takes it place.
There is a famous account in the suttas of the Buddha speaking to young Rahula the novice. The Buddha tells him that if, before, during or after an action, he sees that it will cause himself, another, or both himself and another harm, he should stop and refrain.
A Reward
I think it would be fitting to conclude by reminding ourselves that as humans who have access to the Dhamma we are very fortunate indeed. To have an affinity with the Dhamma, and to possess a healthy degree of right view, shows that much work has been done already. Indeed, we should look upon this opportunity that we have as a reward, a reward for countless lifetimes of striving and struggling towards the light in this beginningless cycle of birth and death. And so we should not throw this opportunity away.
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Right View as the First Step on the Path

Right View, the raison d’être of Buddhist practice, the antidote to all suffering, lies not at the end of the Noble Eightfold Path, but at the beginning. Why so? Because without a small degree of it we wouldn’t even consider walking this path. Indeed, we would see no reason to.

What is Right View? It is wisdom. It is seeing things clearly – as they really are. On the ultimate, transcendent, level it is the total comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. In its initial stages it comprises an understanding of these truths to a lesser extent, and in a sometimes indirect way; and of the law of kamma – of how our actions result in either happiness or suffering depending on the intent behind them. Both of these truths will no doubt have had a bearing on our own decision to tread this path.

Appreciating the Law of Kamma

So one very important aspect of right view concerns the law of kamma. Put simply we can say that to possess a modicum of right view one must have some appreciation of the fact that good actions bring happy results and bad actions bring unhappy results.

Just over nine years ago I phoned my father. “I’ve got some news for you Dad.” “I don’t mind if you’re gay.” He said. “No, I’m not gay (but thanks anyway!).” “You’re going to join an ashram?” (he knew I meditated). “Warmer…” “What then?” “I have decided to become a Buddhist monk.”

Then over the course of the following weeks we had a number of lively conversations. On the whole he was fairly relaxed about the whole thing; after all, he left home when I was five, so it wasn’t as if he would see a lot less of me. Having said that, he wasn’t going to let me go too easily.

During one of our characteristically demanding chats I told him that one of the reasons I wanted to ordain was in order to invest in my future. “The future? You should be living now!” he retorted. “Make the most of your life now!”

Of course he had a point. A very big point. When are we ever going to live our life if we don’t live it now? But what we do now has consequences; our present actions are continually shaping our future state. And dependent on what lies behind these actions is nothing less than our own happiness and suffering. Considering the future with right view in this way we cannot help but live fully now.

I had always been very aware that however I might live my life, barring following this path, I would only find myself being unhappy. How could I possibly end up being happy? What was I doing that would bring happiness? I distinctly remember going out for a drive with my brother not long after I had passed my driving test, stopping in the countryside somewhere, and having a deep and not so jolly conversation with him. We both came to the conclusion that we would never be truly happy. Why would we think that? Well, I guess it boiled down to a smidgen of right view: an understanding that maybe we weren’t providing the conditions for that happiness to arise in the future; that the paths we were currently treading could not lead to that happiness.

So it was an investment, I told my father. I had often looked at older people and observed how they were just not happy. I did not want to be like that. But why this path? Well, I had been practising Buddhist meditation seriously for a good half a year or so and it had opened up two appealing avenues for me: happiness and wisdom.

When we consider that we are – at this moment – creating our future, then it makes us take stock. If we project our mind into the future and consider what kind of life we want to be living, what state of mind we want to have, what level of wisdom we want to possess, and how happy we would like to be, then we shine the light of right view on our thoughts and actions now and see whether they are leading us in that direction, or whether they are not. If they are not then we make an effort to change that.

Think of a potter at his wheel. There he sits with the lump of clay poised ready before him – its future shape entirely in his hands. Around spins the wheel and the potter begins to shape the supple clay. At every moment that clay is the perfect record of the movements of the potter’s hands. No movement will go unnoticed; each one will be unfailingly recorded in the clay. And so it is with our life. In every moment, with every intentional action, we are shaping our future state. And consequently, at every moment, our life is a record of our actions that have gone before.

This is one reason why it so crucial that we as Buddhists feel able to reject outright the existence of a creator God as wrong view. As soon as we lay the responsibility for our existence elsewhere we undermine this fundamental aspect of right view: that we are our own creators, that we alone are responsible for our present and future happiness and suffering; that the reasons for our existence are none other than our own ignorance and craving. These two things are the causes, the conditions, for us being here, now. And it is by uprooting them – which is done by gaining a direct insight into the Four Noble Truths – that we are able to free ourselves, through our own efforts, from this realm of birth and death.

So it all comes back to what we are doing now, and most importantly to what is behind what we are doing now. We trace these actions and our thoughts to their roots. And what do we find when we do this? We find six things: greed, hatred and delusion, and non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion (put positively, the last three are generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom). These are the six roots (mula) of action – the architects of suffering and happiness; those that lead to happiness should be nurtured; those that lead to suffering – starved.

It is often very difficult, however, to simply begin being generous, loving and wise. There needs to be a bridge between the three unwholesome and the three wholesome roots. That bridge is restraint. Without restraint there can be no development on this path. There is a famous account in the suttas of the Buddha speaking to young Rahula the novice. The Buddha tells him that if, before, during or after an action, he sees that it will cause himself, another, or both himself and another harm, he should stop and refrain.

Mmmm… Pringles

We as monks naturally depend on others to provide and cook our food. Being thoroughly unenlightened this sometimes leads to a stirring of the three unwholesome roots in my mind, and therefore the potential to heap more suffering upon myself.

For instance, say I’ve observed that a lovely fresh pack of ready-salted Pringles has been given. There they are, taste bud tinglers in a tube, destined for my tongue. But they don’t appear at the meal time. Concern arises. Why aren’t they being offered? And so the desire to make a subtle hint manifests: ‘I noticed some Pringles were offered the other day…..’ – Just a casual, just thought I’d mention it in passing, type comment – you know the kind. ‘But hold on!’ I say to myself. ‘What is there in my mind right now? Why do I want to say this? What is the root of this potential action?’ Well, I give you three guesses: greed, hatred and delusion!

So there we have them: the architects of suffering; the enemies of happiness; the seamstresses of the veil of darkness before my very eyes. I then consider that if I am to act on these contemptible corruptions I will create future suffering for myself and possibly others. Just as if I were to throw a stone into the sky it would surely come back down, so too if I were to act on these unwholesome forces I would suffer in the future. Considering in this way and teaching myself to be careful, I refrain (usually).

A Reward

As humans who have access to the Dhamma we are very fortunate indeed. To have an affinity with the Dhamma, and to possess a healthy degree of right view, shows that much work has been done already. Furthermore, we should look upon this opportunity that we have as a reward, a reward for countless lifetimes of striving and struggling towards the light in this beginningless cycle of birth and death. So let’s not throw this opportunity away. It’ll be gone before we know it.

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The next teaching will be on:

the full moon day, Thursday 6 August

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Note: ‘The Sangha’ and ‘Links and Books’ pages have been updated.

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See you next time…

July 8, 2009

By the time I write this Dhamma Diary it will be New Moon Day! So, I think I’m going to leave it until then. Sorry about that.

I’ll have to make a Rains Retreat determination to be promt with my Dhamma Diary posts.

See you next time, all being well…

It’s Asalha Puja today, when we remember the occasion of the Buddha’s First Discourse: The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – ‘The Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma’.

The Rains Retreat (Vassa) begins tomorrow. I won’t be determining to drink just one cup of tea a day. I am planning on determining to read the first four nikayas of the Sutta Pitika: the Digha, Majjhima and Samyutta (plus an anthology of the Anguttara).

I’ve just come back from Banbury where I gave a talk on the Buddha’s First Discourse. It’s late now so I think Dhamma Diary will have to wait until tomorrow.

Until then,we should contemplate the Four Noble Truths, the focus of the Buddha’s first discourse:

1. The Noble Truth of Dukkha: Birth is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; association witht the loathed is dukkha, dissociation from the loved is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha; in short, the five aggregates affected by attachment are dukkha.

2. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Dukkha: the craving that produces renewal of being, accompanied by passion and lust, in other words: craving for sense pleasures, craving to be, craving to not be.

3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha: the fading and ceasing, giving up and letting go of that same craving.

4. The Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha: The Noble Eightfold Path, that is: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

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