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To contribute to the thriving of such a community is profoundly meaningful. Having the opportunity to be part of one is something to treasure.
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We gain the companionship of friends who share our deep commitment to spiritual development in the Buddhist path. We have access to more teachers, teachings, and role models then if we live alone. When we have questions or wish to discuss our doubts, others with the relevant knowledge and experience are close at hand. As we develop, we have opportunities to support other monastics in their practice and studies. Thich Nhat Hanh sums up some of these points eloquently in his excellent book on building sangha communities, Joyfully Living Together:.
The essence of Sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. By cultivating our humility we can gradually integrate ourselves in the Sangha body. That means allowing others to advise us, to support us, and to guide us. We are aware that we cannot grow independently from others.
Our progress, our spiritual growth is interdependent with the progress and practice of the whole community. In turn we learn to offer support and guidance to others. We especially receive guidance from our elders, from those who have trodden the path before us, and we offer support to those who are younger than us. In this way there is a clear connection between everyone in the Sangha. We can also receive support from those who are younger than us, and we can offer support to our elders by our sincere and wholehearted practice.
At different periods in our monastic life, the community we live in benefits us in different ways. As a newly ordained person it trains and informs us how to wear the robes, how to keep the vows, how to skillfully deal with different situations, and offers us role models of people who have been able to keep their vows well for a long time. When we engage in meditation retreats it helps provide for us.
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When we become weak with sickness or old age the community looks after and nurses us. When we die, our fellow monks and nuns pray for us.
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In dependence on others in the community we even create causes to have close companions on our spiritual path in future lives. When we are studying, a monastery or nunnery offers us the opportunity to study with more supportive conditions and fewer obstacles. Mundane tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and maintenance etc. By studying the Dharma in a community, especially a large one, we are exposed to more well qualified teachers and students with a broad range of ideas and perspectives, deepening and enriching the quality of our learning.
The greater our wisdom of hearing, the greater our wisdom of contemplation will become, and accordingly the greater will be our wisdom gained through meditation. Recognizing such benefits, monastic scholars of the past naturally formed major communities of study and practice, like Nalanda and Vikramashila in India, and the Three Great Seats in Tibet.
The great yogi saint, Shabkar, said that the Three Seats where the most powerful objects of offering in Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche often comment that without the Three Seats and the two tantric colleges it would be nearly impossible to produce individuals with a broad, deep, and accurate understanding of both Sutra and Tantra.
Essay on the future of monasticism
Our teachers are especially pleased to instruct groups of monastics engaged in serious studies because these groups are the students who will be responsible for upholding the Dharma in the future. In the West, there are more and more departments and professors of Buddhist studies at universities. These programs are certainly beneficial; however, to fully inherit and maintain the lineages of teaching and realization we receive from our Tibetan and Himalayan lamas we need communities of people who combine scholarship with serious practice over multiple lifetimes.
Monastic communities provide a basis for such continuity of practice. The commonly held expectation in a monastery or nunnery is that each person spends his or her time meaningfully by studying, meditating, or serving the community. This underlying expectation makes it natural and easier to persevere in these activities than in a setting where they are not the norm.
In the debate courtyard classmates help us by simply talking through material we have read, restating main the points succinctly, in plain language, and thus creating stable memories of the meaning in our minds. They also help us unravel thorny doubts by both suggesting explanations to resolve apparent contradictions, and asking us many questions which we would not think to ask.
When we are unable to answer satisfactorily, we see our own ignorance in sharp relief and are both humbled and spurred on to learn more. Even if we are not inclined to study, by contributing to the running of a monastic community where studies are available we give others the opportunity to focus more on their studies and create causes for ourselves to have the same opportunity in the future.
The same logic holds true when we support others in retreat, providing translation, and teaching. We need the fuel of merit in order to develop realizations. By being part of a community we accumulate much more merit than by practicing alone because we all share in the merit that the community creates. Anyone who has taken bodhisattva vows at large teaching events with His Holiness the Dalai Lama can attest to the uniquely powerful sense of inspiration that arises through engaging in such a powerful virtuous action together with a great number of people.
At Sera, I sometimes find it very moving to be with a large congregation slowly chanting melodic prayers, reflecting on the incredible aspirations they express, and feeling that these are ideals we aspire to together. Even something as simple as offering tsog together with a few others is more powerful than doing it alone. In a monastic setting we are surrounded by monks and nuns holding the Pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, by speech concerning dharma, by a plethora of virtuous activities, and by holy objects.
New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st Century
Simply by rejoicing, we have ample opportunities to accumulate merit and plant imprints of dharma in our minds. Such opportunities are rare in samsara. When I have been away from the monastery for some days and return, just seeing monks in robes walking around on the street brings joy in my mind.
Monastic communities provide us with countless such precious opportunities. Monastics living together harmoniously is also pleasing to the lama. When we take ordination from a preceptor we see him or her as akin to a parent in our new life as a renunciate. In the same way, we should see other sangha, especially those who have ordained with one of our lamas, as sisters and brothers in ordination.
Just as a loving mother is pleased to see her dear children getting along well and helping one another, it pleases our lamas when we live together supporting one another with mutual respect and concern. Of course personal conflicts arise, but a monastic community provides the best setting to resolve them with methods the Buddha taught in the Lam-Rim and Vinaya. In such a way, personal conflicts can actually become opportunities for growth. If we live alone, we may study countless teachings on compassion, yet still find it difficult to get along with others in simple day-to-day living.
Past lamas founded monasteries and nunneries because they are excellent places to train individuals to develop realizations.
In many biographies of great lamas, one common measure of their holy deeds causing the Dharma to flourish is how many monastic centers they established. When the Abbot Shantarakshita and Guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet the first thing they did was establish Samye Ling, a monastic community. On a more personal level, in a monastery setting we form unique bonds of friendship.
Our relationships with others are largely free of the tensions that come with money, familial commitments, extensive possessions, employment, sexual relationships, alcohol and drug use and so forth. We fill the emotional space created by the lack of such drama and turmoil with our personal practice, and with relationships based on the view of dependent arising and the conduct of loving kindness and compassion. Having healthy emotional bonds with others is essential for human happiness and health.
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