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What Would Sid Do: Sometimes the Sangha are Jerks

 

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha were on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: you and I are Sid. If you would like to submit a question click here.

 

This week's question comes from Larry: I've been going to a meditation center for the last few months and enjoy it. I like meditation a lot and feel like it's been helping me with work, relationships, and more. The other week I met a "senior" practitioner who has been meditating for more than thirty years and he was a gnarly individual. He was cranky, rude, and I found myself not wanting to emulate him AT ALL. I don't want to end up like that if I keep meditating. HELP.


I think anyone who has hung around a Buddhist community for long enough has probably met the person you refer to in your question. You came to a meditation center to learn something about being kind and calm and then you encounter that guy or lady who just shatters your impression of what meditation should do over time. They seem to be the complete opposite of what you hope to embody.

When practitioners officially take their refuge vows to become Buddhist they are saying that their normal sources of comfort aren't really doing it for them and that the only things they can really rely on are:

1) the Buddha as an example of someone who awakened from confusion, thus showing us that we too are able to attain enlightenment
2) the Dharma as the teachings he gave us that show us how to get there too and
3) the Sangha as the community of fellow practitioners who support us along that path

More often than not everyone says they are cool with the first two of these three jewels but then you hit that part of the vow that talks about the sangha and you can see people start to cringe a bit. Really? Do I have to rely on these guys? Some of them are jerks! Undoubtedly the answer is "yes."

There's a whole range of ways that the sangha supports you though. One person might watch your dog while you go on retreat, another give you good advice about your posture, and another might just push all of your buttons so you have an opportunity to work with your own frustration. All of those people are valuable.

We are not asked to make everyone in the sangha our BFF, just look to see how he or she can support our path. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in the article linked to above,

"The sangha is the community of people who have the perfect right to cut through your trips and feed you with their wisdom, as well as the perfect right to demonstrate their own neurosis and be seen through by you. The companionship within the sangha is a kind of clean friendship--without expectation, without demand, but at the same time, fulfilling."

These individuals are traveling on the path, just like you. They are still confused, still subconsciously trying to make their habitual trips work for them, and still working hard to get over them to become better people. Still, let's not forget that there are individuals who are on this path that we do want to emulate.

Ages ago LIFE magazine featured a picture of the Dalai Lama drinking a coke and included the caption "The Dalai Lama takes a break." That is a very funny thing to say about someone who has vowed to return lifetime after lifetime to exert himself on behalf of others. While the Dalai Lama may have enjoyed the taste of a soda, he was likely applying the same quality of precision in being with that experience as he would when meeting foreign dignitaries. In other words there is no such thing as "taking a break" from mindfulness for an individual like that.

Now let's contrast the Dalai Lama with your "gnarly individual." One person has spent their life continuously applying themselves to mindfulness and compassion, the other maybe not so much. They both could be practicing meditation but which one is looking to the view of applying these teachings to their daily life? Which one is practicing mindfulness of speech? Which one is taking joy in their practice?

We can look to individuals such as His Holiness as role models. We can also look to some of those individuals who have been on the path for thirty-plus years as role models. Yes, some of them can be jerks but others have become incredibly kind, wise human beings. I really hope you will get a chance to meet some of them too. Like the Dalai Lama, they conduct themselves in a way that is very worthy of emulation.

As for people that we experience as jerks in our spiritual community they can be good motivation to apply ourselves to our pwn practice. I've never seen meditation (if practiced correctly) make someone a worse or more confused human being. So as sangha members we can encourage others' practice by applying ourselves to our own.

I think if Sid were visiting a meditation center today he would not give into despair upon meeting a confused, long-time practitioner. He would be incredibly kind to that individual and focus on his own practice with support from spiritual friends whose opinions he trusted. How would he know a spiritual friend from a gnarly individual and what would he do when he found it? Let's turn to Ngulchu Thogme, 14th century meditation master, for the last word:

"When in reliance on someone, your defects wane
And your positive qualities grow like the waxing moon,
To cherish such a spiritual friend even more than your own body
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva."

 

There's no dumb questions, just dumb people who don't ask them for this weekly column. So don't be dumb and instead write in by e-mailing a question here.

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