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Dharmony : How to create and maintain harmony in the Dharma community

How to create and maintain harmony in the Dharma community

DHARMONY*

Harmony in the Dharma community is essential, but not automatic. A particular group may experience many years of harmony, and then enter a period of disharmony. Some groups suffer a lot of disharmony whilst others experience very little. Disharmony is an issue that a Dharma group will almost certainly have to deal with at some time.

A harmonious group is calm, able to focus on virtuous activity without hindrance, whereas a disharmonious group is fractious and beset by disturbing non-virtuous distractions. Harmony engenders happiness, whereas disharmony provokes pain.


TAKING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

The source of disharmony is in the mind. Because it is afflicted, the mind projects the source as being outside. Conflictual afflictions always place the blame on the other. So the first step for the individual practitioner who becomes aware of disharmony is to look within his or her own mind. This isn’t easy since it usually appears as though the source of disharmony is a certain other person or group.

It isn’t that we have to blame ourselves, any more than we should blame others. Actually blame itself is unhelpful. However, by turning our attention inwards we enter the space (our own mind) where we have a genuine opportunity to begin to make a difference to the situation. Disharmony needs to be healed or purified. By working on our own mind we can affect the experience of those around us. It may need only one person to exemplify even-handed non-partisanship, for whole communities to change.

Therefore this article is directed towards individuals because communities and groups are made up of individuals. No individual in the community is ultimately more or less powerful than any other, no matter what the organisational structure looks like. Therefore you, the person reading this, can feel empowered as a member of your group to be able to make a positive difference.

Karmic action

Creating disharmony in the Dharma community is a negative action. It causes disillusion with the Dharma, leading some to feel that if Buddhists can’t work together harmoniously something is wrong with Buddhism. Thus it can undermine the foundations of virtue.

On the other hand, causing harmony in the Dharma community is deeply meritorious, and very beneficial for self and other. These facts become obvious when we reflect on how, for any personal spiritual development to take place, the Dharma community is indispensable. It is very unusual for a Dharma practitioner to need no community.

Unfortunately disharmony has driven many to attempt to survive alone. Some practitioners say, ‘I don’t like groups.’ Some people have come to feel that Dharma groups, like nests of poisonous snakes, are breeding grounds for the afflictions and they avoid them at all costs. This often has its source in experiences of disharmony. It is very sad, because Dharma groups can be a source of great strength, like a beacon attracting sentient beings to their route out of samsara.

It is healthy for a practitioner to be as dependent on the community as on the teacher. The community has the function of nursing our sick minds to health, once the doctorteacher has diagnosed the medicine. Therefore whoever undermines the cohesion of the community weakens the practice of the Dharma practitioners – think how negative that is ! On the other hand, whoever engenders harmony, through actions of body, speech and mind, is supporting the practice of all the members of the Dharma community – think how positive that is !

With a general motivation to create harmony and to avoid disharmony, we may participate positively in the Dharma community – a practice in itself. This practice comprises a series of actions whose motivation is our mental intention to avoid disharmony and to create harmony. Each time we help create harmony we may rejoice in our achievement ; each time we contribute to disharmony we may regret and purify our negative action. It isn’t appropriate to feel guilt when we have caused disharmony ; rather we should regret and purify our actions and move on, with determination to work for harmony in future.

Afflictive emotions

We might think that it is only through our speech and physical actions that we create disharmony, but even disharmonious thoughts such as pride, jealousy or anger towards our Dharma brothers and sisters cause disharmony. Not only do such thoughts slip easily into verbal and non-verbal actions that hurt the feelings of our Dharma family, but even unspoken, they create bad vibrations that pollute the atmosphere of the group.

To counteract these afflictive emotions we need to apply their respective antidotes. For example when we are jealous of someone in the community (feeling for example that a person knows more, is more popular, or is more favoured by the teacher than me), we may practise rejoicing instead. For example it contributes to harmony when we rejoice in what our Dharma brothers and sisters do and say, appreciating their practice and realisations. Although this is not always easy to do, by consciously filling the mind with rejoicing, we permit no space for our jealousy, and can gradually dissolve it - which is not the same as suppressing it.

Likewise, when pride arises, feeling that we know more than those around us, or feeling ourselves to be more spiritually aware than others, we may overwhelm it with a sense of humility. Just to reflect on our own suffering nature, such as our impermanence helps to bring about this humility. Or we can practice recognising in others all their good qualities that outshine our own. This brings us down to size.

To overcome these afflictions, it might be easier to look at the mind, recognize the negative emotion without judgment, and watch as it manifests, lingers and disappears. It is not necessary to follow and thereby feed these negative feelings. This way we can actually benefit from the experience of having had these negative thoughts.

It is not helpful to feel completely worthless or guilty, which is simply another form of ego-grasping. What is needed is to develop a realistic sense of equality with our Dharma friends – we are fellow-travellers on the spiritual path, each with personal strengths and weaknesses, each able to help and each needing help.

Equanimity

Whenever we hear a biased view expressed there is no need to either agree or disagree. In our mind it is always helpful to think ‘There must be another side to this story’. Later we might hear the other side of the story. Again, there is no need to agree or disagree. If we maintain friendly links in both directions, practising equanimity, without taking sides, we will be positioned to contribute to the positive resolution of the problem. However, if we express support for either side, boosting their sense of self-righteousness, we will have contributed to the division.

Ultimately, disharmony arises from a false belief in an inherent separation between self and other. In truth, self and other are not separate, but have the same empty nature. Separateness is just a conventional appearance. However, based on grasping at this appearance as real we form notions of other people or groups as being somehow independent of our mind. From this can arise afflictions such as pride or jealousy, or attachment to one’s own side and aversion to the other side. This misunderstanding which is the root of all our tendencies to create discord, can be undermined and destroyed by a simple analysis of the situation, seeing self, other and the relationship as interdependent, and therefore all three as being merely imputed by mind. Recognising that ‘other’ is merely imputed takes the life from our afflictions so that they can no longer survive in our mind.

Honesty

“Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama we should generate compassion for all sentient beings. With that heart we should offer service to sentient beings. We shouldn’t do this with a mind of attachment : for example, we shouldn’t put on the appearance of working for others when we are in actuality working for ourselves. If we serve others with such an attitude, many problems arise.” Lama Zopa Rinpoche CPMT 2009

This advice of Lama Zopa Rinpoche is very useful and important. Most people who belong to Dharma groups believe they should practise the good heart, rejoice, serve others and so forth, but it isn’t enough to do this only externally while internally the mind is still dominated by afflictions such as pride, jealousy and anger. As Rinpoche says, this will lead to many problems. It is important to be honest when conflicts arise. Often there is a misunderstanding that everything should be rosy in the Dharma garden, and that if it isn’t it is someone’s ‘fault’. This is over-simplistic.

Therefore we need to cultivate an attitude of honesty of body, speech and mind – especially of mind - not kidding ourselves that we are working for others when in fact we are working for self, cherishing self and incubating poisonous attitudes. Our speech should be gentle and kind, but honest. Likewise our body ; it is no good putting on a smile with a mind of anger. This contaminates our group culture, creating negative energy, making the group unwelcoming to newcomers, disturbing people, and leading to alienation and rejection. With such a culture, Dharma communities shrink.

Working for others is a win-win situation, since if you benefit others you are also a lucky recipient, whereas if you work just for yourself there is little long term benefit.

A HARMONIOUS GROUP CULTURE

It is said that ‘families that eat together stay together’. When the Dharma group gets together for a day of teachings or practice, there is much to be said for eating together. If there is no cook, it is good for each person to bring a dish for all to share. This kind of activity helps to create a sense of family.


Participation

Someone said that when they joined a certain Dharma group they were asked very early on to take responsibility for a regular task, such as providing flowers for the shrine. This helped them to feel part of the group. On the other hand it has also been said that centres sometimes pile too much onto newcomers, and burn them out. Clearly one needs to be sensitive to the individual and what will help them to integrate healthily.

Are opportunities provided for each member of your group to contribute suggestions and ideas ? If these are not formalised, is there an informal culture of openness generated by leaders of the group ? If someone makes a suggestion is it given value and appreciation ? Is there a sense of basic equality between the leaders and the members of the group ? Do the leaders exemplify a compassionate attitude of serving the group, or do they exercise a sense of selfish dominion over the group ? Where such attitudes prevail, they are evident for all to see, for example in non-verbal communication.

It is not uncommon in Dharma groups for cliques to evolve, leaving outsiders feeling excluded. If the leaders of the group become involved in a clique, which can happen unconsciously, those outside the clique are disempowered. The antidote to this is to nurture and foster inclusivity – everyone should be included. This is based on the understanding that all members have an equal right to participate in group decisions and to benefit from the warmth of the group. The group is equally there for every member. Nobody has special privileges with respect to benefiting from the group.

Are there opportunities for all members of the group to serve in activities such as outreach work, leading meditations or dedications, or facilitating discussions when they are ready to ? Sometimes the roles of ‘teacher’ or facilitator are closely guarded by certain individuals. It can be implied that only those with special knowledge, experience or devotion are capable of performing these roles. Of course the group must protect the purity of the teachings, but this purpose should not be motivated by power politics.

There are situations in which group leaders cling to running the group long after their energy has gone. Although they have made tremendous efforts in the past, they find it hard to let go and move on. Issues of premises location, finance and the explicit mission of groups or centres can serve as flashpoints for disharmony.

If you think things need improving, start with yourself. Skilfully speaking to others can be helpful, but angrily making criticisms only adds to the problem. Actually, breakdowns in harmony can provide fertile grounds from which a group can recover and grow, provided practitioners have the confidence to realise the potential of a situation. Sometimes a crisis can kick start growth, innovation and new directions.

Residential Centres

One area which brings up many problems is that of the insecurity or loss of identity people feel when they move into a centre. Outside they had their role, their place and status in society. In the centre that is taken away. For example, people can end up living together in a little hut, sharing bathrooms. People often react to this loss of security like water taken out of the river. They sometimes try to find little nests of security by siding with cliques, taking sides, bolstering and reinforcing themselves. This seems, mistakenly, to mitigate what can be, at the beginning anyway, quite a frightening exodus from their normal lives.

It can help when people are allowed to follow ordinary activities even if that means allowing the watching of TV, and so forth. I have heard that in some Tibetan monastic institutions, monks can be seen playing cricket in the corridors, or watching it with great passion on the TV. Everybody needs relief from stress, and communal activities that positively bond people are essential, and should not be rejected as “samsara.”

Some problems are caused by trying to be too “holy” in a Dharma centre, with the motive to progress too quickly. Some who prefer to chill out more will mock those who are at the holy end, while those who throw themselves into practice might disparage those who they see as too samsaric. These attitudes cause divisions. Disharmony in a Dharma Centre is like office politics. Almost any group put together for a time will experience such disharmony. Things build up and are not resolved. This is normal. It is why office parties exist. Even a picnic can help to defuse tension.

Politics and communications

There can be an aversion to ‘politics’ within the Dharma community, resulting from this tendency of individuals to use positions of leadership as vehicles for their ego to lord it over others. Actually, constructively facilitated Dharma community politics can be a healthy harmonising aspect of the group culture. It is worth examining the organisational structures and adjusting them to ensure that everyone can have their say, and to create accessible opportunities for the airing of issues, questions and suggestions. Good leaders facilitate participation.

A harmonious culture is not free of conflict. People often confuse conflict with disharmony. Debate depends on conflicting ideas, and structured debate produces learning. A harmonious community is a learning community. To achieve this, there need to be structures in place for compassionately resolving conflicts, for problem solving and for humbly expressing grievances. Especially in a large group it is very helpful for these structures to be explicit. However, even a small group needs to have at least implicit structures in operation for these processes to take place.

Underlying these processes is the important issue of communication. Channels of communication need to operate horizontally, vertically and via a range of networks throughout any group. Clear communications should be the culture of the group as exemplified by its leaders. This applies to every activity of the group – the spiritual programme, the administration and outreach activities. Good communications enable the group to thrive. Moreover they promote harmony.

Ethics

If each individual in the community practices ethics, avoiding the ten non-virtues and practising the six perfections, harmony will ensue. Someone once told me of a management consultant who would construct a ‘karmic profile’ of organisations using astrological data, in order to give advice for the success of the organisation. In relation to one organisation, he observed that disharmony was caused by the sexual misconduct of one of the leaders of the organisation, but couldn’t or didn’t identify exactly who. At the time there was no knowledge in the organisation about any incidence of this, so it was left aside. However, later, after a certain leader left, it was discovered that that person had been engaging in sexual misconduct with another member of staff, and that after they left the organisation became more harmonious.

Whether or not it was true, since hearing this story I have noticed that in Dharma communities where there is known to have been sexual misconduct by leading members of that community, there seems to be a pattern of disharmony, whereas where there is evidently virtue there is relative harmony. Some Dharma communities positively shine with the merit of their collective ethics. Therefore it seems that the ethics of the members, especially of the leaders, can impact on the harmony of a community.

‘Protection’

Worldly spirits and deities may be powerful but they lack altruism, and therefore they enjoy offerings and devotion selfishly. Those communities who propitiate them, giving them the name ‘Dharma-protector’, run the risk of destroying their harmony. Within traditional Himalayan culture local worldly deities are often propitiated for the protection of the village, and sometimes worldly deities are used as ‘Dharma-protectors’, but this is not much practised in the wider modern world. It is safer to rely on enlightened Dharma protectors whose altruism is beyond question. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a suitable authority on whom to rely for specific advice on this issue.

Moreover, we can see for ourselves with a little research, that communities who rely on a worldly spirit suffer internal divisions as well as problems with other Buddhist communities. Their merit deteriorates and there can be many obstacles for their members, in their realisations and their health. The community takes on certain cultish aspects, such as narrow exclusivity of teachers, practices and studies. Individuals who voice concern may be excluded. A study of cults in general shows that they are by nature disharmonious both internally and externally.


LINEAGE ISSUES

Diversity

There are so many Buddhist traditions in the world. Now that they all migrate in all directions, they are not confined to particular regions or countries the way they were in the past. In a typical contemporary Dharma group many individuals hold a variety of lineages. In fact if we include beliefs, philosophies and ideologies adopted prior to adopting Buddhism, most modern Buddhists have several deeply embedded lineages on their mindstream, even from just this life.

There can be confusion around this issue. Let’s start with the Dharma organisation or group. It is important that the particular tradition(s) followed by that group are clearly and explicitly specified and defined. Even if it is a multi-tradition group, this needs to be stated, and explained. That way, people coming along or joining that group, know what they are joining.

However, it is not necessary for each individual member to totally renounce his or her previous or other lineages when they join that group. Of course it is incumbent on one who takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, not to hold other teachers or teachings higher than the Three Jewels. However, that doesn’t mean that someone needs to deny for example their faith in or love of Christ. Moreover, if one has practised Buddhism in more than one tradition, it is not necessary to give up the other traditions simply because of attending a particular group or centre.

Mature perspective

This places a responsibility on all members of a Dharma group to feel and show respect for other traditions, not disparaging them, but instead rejoicing in the diverse spiritual landscape. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, it is beneficial to believe deeply that one’s own tradition is the best for oneself, but equally important to recognise that it is not the best for everyone. To think like this demands a certain maturity. This is what is required in the post-modern world of wide personal choice, mixed traditions, creative diversity and no commonly adhered to ultimate authority. Unless the culture of a Dharma community takes this mature perspective, disharmony will ensue.

Newcomers to a Dharma group or centre need to learn how that group thinks or practices. In the early stages of adopting the beliefs and practices of that group, people often reject their former ideas. Alongside this can go a rejection of people who think and act the way they used to do. Thus dogmatism and sectarianism can develop. Meanwhile certain others, desiring tolerant acceptance of diverse views and practices, brand those displaying such dogmatism as narrow-minded or sectarian.

To achieve balance and harmony, it is important that elders and leaders in the community are patient, relaxed and supportive of all members of the community. In the situation identified above they should skilfully listen to the newer members but not stand to one side and do nothing when dogmatism or sectarianism is expressed.

The mature outlook which respects and values all lineages must prevail, even though relative newcomers to the group are progressing through a less mature phase of personal development. An inclusive culture of clarity, honesty and mutual respect is essential for producing a harmonious Dharma community in the modern world.

Devotion

However, this open-hearted mature tolerance of diverse lineages in no way replaces devotion to the lineage lamas of the group. Such collective devotion is a profound cause for developing and sustaining harmony, since it gives a common inspiration and faith which holds the group together and it facilitates realisations in the group members. These realisations are a valuable collective resource. They arose within the community and in turn they feed the community through the sharing of insights they enable.

CONCLUSION

The causes of harmony or disharmony in the Dharma community are many and complex. These issues are of great importance for the success of the Dharma in individuals, groups and society. Only through considerable reflection and determined effort by everyone involved in the Dharma community can obstacles be overcome and the Dharma flourish. We must begin with ourselves. When our own motivation is pure we can help others.

Written by Andy Wistreich with support and suggestions from Diane Macchiavelli, Carol Huxley, Nick Durnan, Anne Walmsley, Ven Steve Carlier, Wendy Ridley, Bob Charlton, Gavin Kilty, Ven Sangye Khadro and Shan Tate (June 2009). May this article contribute to the harmony of our worldwide Dharma community !

** ‘Dharmony’ is coined as a hybrid of ‘Dharma’ and ‘harmony’ to refer to harmony within the Dharma community





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