Community Living — Work in Progress


Many years ago an idea formed in my mind that it would be helpful to others in the FWBO if there was some kind of manual available on the subject of community living. At the time I was living at Taraloka. For the first time in all my years of communal living (I already had about twelve years worth) I found myself in a community that showed promise of lasting well beyond its initial heyday. Until then I had, with one exception, lived in womens' communities with a very high turn over of members. Most people tended to move on to other living situations after about a year. This meant that for the two or three who remained there was a repeated experience of having to start more or less from scratch again with each new influx of people. The one exception was Amaravati; a community founded by some twelve women in the summer of 1977 which had a large stable core membership over several years. Here, ironically, it was I who was the one to move out less than 18 months after its inception. After a few years at Taraloka I felt I had a pretty good idea of the factors that contributed to a successful community and the aforementioned manual began to take shape in my mind. I wrote to Windhorse Publications with my idea and an outline of the topics I would write on. At the time they had other priorities and I shelved the idea, although not before committing to writing quite a bit on the subject just to see what I had to say. Many years later I spotted a notice in Shabda [the monthly journal of the Western Buddhist Order] from Windhorse Publications inviting members of the Order to come forward to write short books on various topics. One theme was communities.

By now I was in the company of others who had either published books or were working on books and I had come to see that it was by no means an easy task to produce a book. What Windhorse wanted on communities was short; about 20,000 words. Nevertheless faced with the real possibility of at last being able to give voice to my experience in this area I began to wonder whether I was really up to it from a literary point of view. I was by this time painfully aware both of my limited vocabulary and my poor grasp of English grammar. I hesitated but then decided I would regret it if I didn't put myself forward.

It was a long time before I heard anything back. Eventually Vidyadevi contacted me saying Windhorse were interested in me writing the book. I discovered that only one or two others had shown interest in writing on this theme. I was rather surprised at this since it is such a significant area of practice in our sangha and there must be many people with substantial experience of community living. I was glad I had put myself forward. I wrote a 'pre-first draft' draft, during two weeks of a one month solitary retreat I did in a delightful spot near Lyme Regis, Dorset in February 1998. I drew on the material I had written up many years previously. The aim was to give my project manager Sara Hagel [now known as Jnanasiddhi] an overview of the ground I envisaged covering and to put together some of the ideas I had already had. As it was very unpolished and incomplete I didn't regard it as a proper first draft. The feedback I received in June 1998 was that the content was all there, it was a question of how to present it. Which was a polite way of saying that the style left a lot to be desired! I had pretty much realised this myself and I had shown what I had written to a friend and received similar feedback from her as well. I knew I was making some good and interesting points in places but overall it was all too stiff and formulaic. Sara gave me some helpful tips and an important clue as to how to set my ideas in a more imaginative setting.

It took until December 1999 to complete a first draft proper. The actual writing time added up to about four weeks worth of mornings. Not that much. The difficulty had been finding blocks of time when I could work consistently on it. It is not the sort of activity I find I can drop in to just for a single day here and there. Now I am awaiting more detailed written feedback on this draft . I have had some encouraging verbal comments from Sara so I am hopeful it will eventually see the light of day. When I began the first draft proper I was at the start of my third year of living in Birmingham with Srimala, Sinhadevi, Ratnavandana and Vajradevi. I was finding the dynamics of this community — which came into being in late January 1997 — decidedly challenging. I was struggling to get a measure of the situation; both of myself and the others in it. All my previous experience of communal living got thrown up in the air and I began to wonder if I really had any idea how to build a community. This one was nothing like any I had experienced before! For a start all of us, with the exception of Vajradevi (who worked as Srimala and I's secretary) travelled a great deal either in the UK or abroad. This meant there was very little continuity of contact with one another. It was very rare for all five of us to be in Birmingham at the same time. More often than not there were just two or three of us here in different combinations over the weeks and months and not infrequently just one of us. Some of us seemed to find this more painful than others and in part at least this seemed to be to do with what we were used to. Ratnavandana and I for example had moved to Birmingham straight from living in womens' retreat centres for years on end where there was a high degree of continuity in the communities concerned. Whereas Sinhadevi had lived on her own for several years and Srimala had until very recently been living in a family context with her two daughters.

Then Srimala and I were in effect straddling two communities (at least, that is how we felt); a residential single-sex community and a non-residential mixed community comprising all the various members of the College and Preceptors' College Council (PCC). Indeed for two one month periods each year when the College and PCC all gathered in Birmingham we all but lived at Madhyamaloka for those times. That was our focus, where all our energy went. They were the people we interacted with in various ways; eating meals together; talking and discussing together; studying the Dharma together and in the retreat periods within each month meditating together too. In between those months we two would attend up to three evening meetings a week at Madhyamaloka. What with this and our other commitments overseas we did not have a great deal of time to put into the community. Indeed we each, on occasion, fell into wondering whether it would be simpler to make some other arrangement for our living situation. Getting down to writing about community living which perhaps significantly I began whilst in New Zealand last March, helped me focus on the benefits of living with others and gave me inspiration to hang on in there with my current community. This, plus having to face and address some interpersonal difficulties between us provided the proverbial grit in the oyster. More was drawn out of all of us. By the end of last year it was clear that Srimala, Ratnavandana, Sinhadevi and myself (Vajradevi having moved on to a living situation more conducive to the new project she was about to embark on) wanted to commit ourselves anew to living together and taking our communication with one another deeper. The outer pattern of our lives hasn't changed significantly. There are still long stretches of time where we don't overlap at all in certain combinations, however it feels like a shift has taken place at the heart level. This needs to be maintained and deepened of course, nevertheless it feels like we have come a long way in the last three years of living together.

One of the things I have realised is that however much experience one has of community living each new community that forms is a unique combination of people and conditions. I have had to learn how to apply my twenty years of previous experience in this field to a new situation. It seems fitting to end with a short extract from my first draft entitled Engaging the heart which comes near the beginning. You'll notice I refer to the Anuruddhas. I use the two stories of the Buddhas' meeting with the Anuruddhas recorded in the Chulagosinga sutta and Upakkilesa Sutta (both in the Majjhima Nikaya) to draw out all the points I want to make about community living.

Let’s start looking more at what is involved in community living and the benefits thereof. We have seen that communities are about people living together on the basis of common values or ideals. And that for practising Buddhists those ideals are embodied in the Three Jewels. We have also touched on the fact that communities are a support to spiritual practice through the spiritual friendship we experience in living with one another.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that we need to want to do it. The Anuruddhas certainly did. They each tell the Buddha they have thought it is ‘a gain for me, indeed it is well gotten by me, that I am dwelling with such fellow Brahma-farers’. Sometimes we decide to do things because we hink we should or it would be good for us‚ but our heart isn't sufficiently involved in the decision. As a consequence we don't fully engage with the situation and are inclined to give up when difficulties arise. Where community living is concerned we have to really want to live with other people in order for it to have the chance of working. For living with others is a practice. It is something we have to work at, like meditation. So unless our heart is really into it, unless there is sufficient emotional and volitional energy behind the decision, we won’t have much energy available to work with the challenges that inevitably arise, along with the many joys, when living with others. In the build up to my own decision to move into a community for the first time [the one I mentioned earlier where I began to meditate daily] the opportunity had arisen for me to move in to one on at least a couple of prior occasions. Each time, when it came to the crunch, I felt unable to say yes. I wasn't quite ready to take the plunge. Then one Sunday afternoon my doorbell rang. There on the doorstep stood a young man I knew from the local sangha. He had come to tell me that a place was about to become available in the aforementioned community and I knew instantly that this was it. The time had come to make a move. Wasting no time I set off later that very same afternoon to visit the women who lived in this community in order to let them know I would like to join them. I moved in very soon afterwards. That was in January 1976 and I have lived in communities of one kind or another ever since bar a three month period when I lived on my own. It hasn't all been easy but it’s been well worth it. As someone who has chosen to neither live with a sexual partner or to have children, living in community has provided a positive alternative to living on my own. On a basic human level I have appreciated the company of others but the fact that the other people have also been practising Buddhists has definitely enhanced my own understanding of the spiritual life and stimulated me to practise more effectively myself. Indeed I think it's doubtful whether I would have changed to the degree I have without the inevitable rubbing up against one another which takes place when you live with others.
First of all then our heart needs to be into living with others. Then there needs to be basic good will or friendliness. The Anuruddhas offer a striking example in this respect, telling the Buddha that friendliness as to acts of body... acts of speech... acts of thought, whether openly or in private, has risen up in them. Moreover for the Anuruddhas the friendliness they cultivate for one another naturally follows from their appreciation of having the opportunity to live with one another. They tell the Buddha that it is ‘a gain for me, indeed it is well gotten by me, that I am living with such fellow Brahma-farers. On account of this, revered sir, for these venerable ones friendliness as to acts of body... acts of speech... acts of thought, whether openly or in private, has risen up in me’. They recognise what they are gaining from living with one another and they feel gratitude.
They experience themselves as receiving one from another and this naturally opens their hearts to one another. This doesn’t mean their feelings of friendliness come totally effortlessly. In another rendition of the story it speaks of them ‘maintaining bodily acts of loving-kindness’ and so on. To maintain something involves effort. But we can say in this case that it is an effort they want to make and that makes all the difference. As I mentioned earlier our heart needs to be into living with other people. Then we will be prepared to put in the effort. But in a way it goes further than that. To the extent we realise how fortunate we are to have stumbled upon some like-minded people, who are also interested in pursuing a spiritual life, and who are willing to engage with us on the basis of shared spiritual values, this will give us the incentive to put in the work we willalmost inevitably need to do in order to live in a consistently friendly and harmonious way with other people.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 2000 Issue 3 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2000).

The draft extract was eventually published in Sanghadevi, Living Together, Living a Buddhist life series, (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 2003). Available from the Windhorse Publications website.