We do our practice in silence with our eyes closed. It’s easy for us to stay isolated. There’s little time before and after meditation classes to talk, and even on retreat, it’s hard to connect: people often come from widely separated places, from very different lives. So, even though sangha is part of the triple jewel of Buddhism, community building is often neglected.
For myself, as a regular member of James Baraz’s sitting group in Berkeley, I enjoy meditating forty-five minutes and then listening to a dharma talk each Thursday night. On those occasions when James says, “Look around for a partner,” so that he can guide us through some interactive exercise, my first response is usually a silent groan. It’s difficult to pull myself out of that safe, quiet place and into contact with a stranger—albeit a stranger whose face I probably know well. Such was the case a few weeks ago when he introduced diversity trainer Sala Steinbach to the class.
The previous week James had said that he wanted to work with some of the themes addressed in the recent “Compassionate Action” issue of Inquiring Mind, and he suggested we think about “us and them” in preparation for the class.
Sala started off innocently enough by asking us to pair off to do a simple communication exercise. So far so good. Then, however, we entered into a process which was profound, disturbing and revealing.
She asked the whole group to go and stand on one side of the room together. Then she said that she wanted us to see some of the ways that society differentiates people, and she asked all the women to walk over to the other side of the room.
Immediately I felt a visceral distress and had a deeply troubling thought: “This is how it felt when they took the Jews.” It came unbidden, this single separation looming sinister and threatening. The women. What they do to women. What they do to the men who are left.
Here in this meditation hall, statues of the Buddha before us, flowers and incense, here in this secure and holy place the mere choosing of sides, as if for a game of kickball, implied the extermination of millions.
Now Sala began the roll call: Asian, Native American, Jew, mixed race, Catholic. Then others: raised poor, from alcoholic families, with mental illness in their families, and on and on. Each group would split off, walk across the room, and look back at the others; each seemed to have been cast out, ostracized. Then those who had split off would walk back and form one group again, and another criterion would be called. I was amazed at all the ways that we could be partitioned; I’d always seen our sangha as a homogeneous group of primarily white middle-class people.
I thought for a time that I wasn’t going to fall into any of the categories, but then a series was called to which I belonged. I tried to make crossing the room a mindfulness practice: just walking. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the terrible sense of scrutiny I felt when I turned and faced the larger group. I was one of “them,” “the other,” and everyone knew it. Feelings of nakedness, of vulnerability, of shame all swept through me; fortunately, in this context, in the setting of a meditation hall where I came to practice mindfulness, those feelings were eased, held with gentle compassion, compassion for myself, for all of us, for all human beings.
I’ve never come out of James’s class with quite the feeling I did that night. I knew I had seen something primal in human nature that I had never experienced so directly before: I had seen in action how the “judging mind” creates tremendous suffering in the world every day, and how that has been happening throughout history.
Before that evening, James’s sangha had begun some tentative steps toward community building, but since then there has been a new and stronger sense of us working together, of being part of a shared experience, as well as engaging with “others.” The following week James invited the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless to make a presentation. Afterward, one of the members of our sangha volunteered to sit on their Board of Directors and another joined up with the Chaplaincy to begin a stress reduction/meditation class to be offered to the homeless community.
Around the same time, members of our sangha asked the abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery—the monastery in the Chinese tradition which provides the space where we hold our weekly sittings—what our sangha could do to contribute to the monastery. The abbot make a unique request: make contact with an elderly person, listen to them, perhaps ask them to speak of their spiritual life in old age, then report back to him and the group. As the abbot put it, most of us are going to be old, but we maintain a separation, placing the elderly in the “them” camp.
When the evening to report came, the stories told were exquisite. Many of the sangha members had simply talked with their parents, but with a renewed attention. A fresh appreciation and tenderness had arisen for many. The acknowledgment that even our own parents can seem like “them” was almost shocking. Some recognized a fear that had stood between them and the elderly, a fear of facing their own mortality. Others spoke of the untapped resources of wisdom and history which they discovered.
When we begin to take our practice away from the cushion, to use it as a way to meet the world, we give meaning to what we are doing. When we do open our eyes and begin to speak, to bring something of what we’ve learned through sitting into our engagement with the world, our practice seems less narcissistic and self-indulgent and more true to the values we preach. It’s hard: what attracts me sometimes to sitting is just the quietness—which is vital to the beginning of all spiritual development—but perhaps it’s in the clamor of the world that our practice really blossoms.