When I first embarked on the spiritual journey I had all sorts of ideas about what it would be like. My first inspiration was to put on a backpack and try walking across the country from east to west. In my mind the land was full of good and wise people and teachings would be flowing from every direction. It didn’t take too long before I realized I was wholly underprepared for the journey and full of intense desires and emotions that were preventing me from being at peace, or really learning from what was happening to me.
So I went to Asia, and now my image shifted. I thought that, just like in the stories, I would arrive in the Delhi airport and my ‘guru’ would tap my shoulder and say ‘What took you so long?’. Everything I had heard suggested I needed a great teacher and if I found one, everything would work out.
I searched high and low, from one country to the next, and you know what I found? Not the teacher I was looking for, and most of my experiences were about disappointment and having missed the obvious. But I did find something I didn’t expect. There was no great teacher I would devote my life to but there was a glimmer of hope – I experienced firsthand the wonders of a Buddhist country. It was possible to meditate, to develop in my keeping of the precepts, and there were a number of teachers who, while they weren’t my lifetime guru’s, would be able to help me along the way. Most importantly, I saw the contentment and sense of order and purpose that came from having a teaching that encouraged personal responsibility and growth.
Last night during the tea time chat, the group of us were comparing experiences about being far from monasteries and strong sangha’s to support our practice. Thankfully the blossoming of video conferencing has made it possible to connect where before we were forced to practice alone and wait for vacation time to do a retreat. Everyone was grateful for the opportunity to meet, compare notes, and practice together. It struck me that this is the beauty of sangha. When community works right, every member is grateful and feels they are getting something from it.
We start out, necessarily because of our worldly upbringing and our natural ignorance, thinking in terms of people and roles. I thought I would travel the world and teachings would leap out from behind every tree. And then when I put myself in the role of the student it was all up to the teacher to masterfully guide me to enlightenment. Over the years, both of these thoughts have softened. There is much to learn as we move about the world, but the universe isn’t conspiring to reveal its nature. We have to consider and investigate and be aware. And though I have had many teachers and been profoundly supported and benefited, it wasn’t a one-way interaction. The teacher only gave me the inspiration, direction, and tools. I was the one who did the work so at the end of the day I could sit beside them and our knowledge would be the same.
In the beginning we might work hard to find a community, and at some point try to find our place in it. We might even think we are leading it or providing its core. But the real beauty of sangha is that sooner or later, we stop putting ourselves in the story. We’re just grateful for friends on the path: for those further along who show us the way and for those just starting who give us the opportunity to lend assistance. There are no more gurus, no more students. No self, and no world. Just the heart, and the practice to brighten it.