In 1977 I was invited to Ottawa, Canada, to be resident teacher in a newly formed dharma house. I shared the house with seven other people. One of the residents was a bank manager during the day and she often came home from work, complaining about the problems arising in her staff; individuals not able to get along with others. There were frictions due to jealously, compulsions to control, and manipulations arising out of unacknowledged personal needs and projections; in other words, the usual messiness of an average group of people, thrown together in a working situation.
At that time in Ottawa, we were founding a new dharma group and were looking for a suitable name. In the light of Laura’s bank experience, I thought how wonderful it would be to have a staff that is crystal clear and caring, and so we named the group, ‘Crystal Staff’. This was a personal aspiration and was also our aspiration together, as a group. The ‘crystal’ is the clarity. The ‘staff’ has the work of caring for each other and for the ‘clients’. Today, nearly 33 years later, I feel the clarity and caring of any group of people working together, is still centrally important, not only for small local groups, but for all us humans as staff members of this living planet.
In the unfolding of Wangapeka, from time to time, interpersonal difficulties will inevitably arise between members of the staffing community. This is not a sign of something fundamentally wrong. It’s just humans, trying, in this case not so successfully, to live well together. It does however become a problem if we, while aspiring to living lives of unfolding dharma, forget to use the dharma teachings and practices in the daily process of learning and growing and resolving our problems together. It becomes a problem if we forget our dharma skills and allow the difficulty to slip underground where it can fester in the dark and sometimes become much bigger than it needs to be.
When difficulties arise, please remember to check that your meditation and dharma practice is nourishing you. To live in community and be available for each other it is so important to be well nourished and to have frequent moments of being inspired with love and wonder for life. When our cup is full, then we can overflow, supporting and giving to others. If our practice is not nourishing, then it is essential that we remember to create a space in which we can re-taste the qualities that sustain us, both for our own well being and for the well being of the sangha.
At the early stages of the path it is all too common for the aliveness and juice of our practice to slip away leaving us tight and grasping and, eventually exhausted. Keeping our personal dharma explorations alive and well, is the responsibility of each one of us. Becoming skilled in this so that we find ourselves relying on the dharma in times of difficulty, is a sign of maturing practice. If you find yourself in a period of difficulty, strengthen your formal meditation. Re-read inspiring teachings. Breathe with the green plants and the larger living world. When we know the support of true refuge and feel our larger aspiration to awaken wisdom and compassion in the midst of every activity; when we have a sense of being grounded in a miraculous and living world; then, whatever we do will become a reminder of wholesome living, not only for ourselves, but also for our companions on the path. In this way, our own life and practice can become a gentle, non-verbal reminder for any of our companions who may have temporarily forgotten their larger view.
Living and working together, it is vital to continuously cultivate the ability to see the immeasurableness, the talents, and wholesome aspects of each other. Given the tendencies of ‘modern’ culture, it is all too easy to be seduced into criticism, negativity and blaming. Everyone will have areas of weakness and lack, but in order to work well together and to bring out the best in each other, we need to recognise and support the good and not reinforce the bad. If we do see negativity in another’s actions, this is a precious opportunity to look into our own incapacity for love and allowing. It is an opportunity to pause; to back off, to soften and water the flowers of forgiveness, patience, compassion and deepening understanding.
All of us who are staff at Wangapeka need a regular, daily contemplation on the profundity and preciousness of community in all its myriad aspects. To highlight this, it helps to reflect briefly on the misery of dysfunctional community. Contrasting these two (the preciousness and the misery) can clarify what is important.
What makes any community is communication. A community or sangha, is really the publicly perceivable form or body of a fluid, many tiered, matrix of communication. Communication, along with a capacity for embracive seeing/understanding, is the invisible functioning body of community.
We all come to Wangapeka bringing our particular bouquet of foibles, hopes, fears and aspirations. Being a charitable trust that aspires to be open to all beings, we don’t have a choice as to who we will live and work with. Recognising that this is an unavoidable fact of being part of the Trust, we can see that sangha or community is something that has to be worked on. It deserves to be worked on. It doesn’t just happen automatically on its own and it certainly can’t be imposed by decree.
Having remembered refuge, aspiration, love and wonderment, in the very bones and marrow of your being, then use the methods and hints in ‘Sangha Work’ which grew out of many years of experience with dharma groups, and with the Wangapeka in particular. Sangha work can never unfold through cliquiness or divided groupings of allies and enemies. Sangha work requires deep aspiration and an intuitive sense of our common rootedness in the living world and a willingness to take the risk of giving it yet another try. During the three years of the ‘School of Living Dharma’, many participants found a weekly ‘Touching Base in Community’ and periodic ‘Beginning Anew’ ceremonies to be a great support.
While remembering the taste of ease and calm deepening in your body and mind, reflect on the purpose of Wangapeka. Then, consider how W.E.T. is part of a larger human world which has all too much war and exploitation and violence at myriad levels. Shift back and forth between the suffering and the wonderful potential for healing that places like Wangapeka can provide, and refresh a sense that your participating in W.E.T. is a glorious opportunity for collectively cultivating lives of love, caring and the valuable skills of conscious community.
May our living and working together be an example of dharma in action. Together, may we bring forth — Something Beautiful for the World.
‘Sangha Work’ is available in the form of an e-book. Click here for the Introduction and table of contents of Sangha Work and a link to the entire 68 page PDF text.