I want to explore the possibility, within Buddhism, of enlightenment as a collective as well as an individual process, nurtured by a practice of public truth-telling in a community of spiritual equals. The seeds of this idea are well represented in ancient Buddhist thought and tradition, yet the notion of collaborative awakening connects with many threads of Western tradition, such as democracy, Quaker meeting, trial by jury, even conventional Judeo-Christian worship. It may also help bridge the gap between meditation tradition and the more devotional schools, whose members comprise most of the world’s living Buddhists, East and West.

One intent of the “Great Vehicle” Buddhism that emerged in India in the second century C.E. was to extend the scope of the dharma to include all of soci­ety, all people, all beings, all worlds. Its teaching that the nature of the self and the heart of all existence is openness, connection, and spaciousness says that there is really no distinction between ourselves and others, between humankind and other species, between living and non-living, that all are contained within a vast sea of pure being. The mark of this insight is a natural sense of connection with others. To say that no “person” achieves anything in Buddhism apart from others is really little more than a paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra: “no perception of a self takes place, no perception of a being, no perception of a soul, no perception of a person.” This is the great paradox of the Perfection of Wisdom teaching: who is it then that meditates, who is it that practices, who is it that achieves? One answer for today might be it is all of us.

In a more practical vein, we must remember that one of Gautama Buddha’s great accomplishments was the establishment, within the caste-ridden society of ancient India, of one of history’s first egalitarian com­munities, one that included ceremonies of public discussion and confession as an integral part of spiritual life. Collaborative wisdom (sangha) was as much a treasure for early Buddhism as individual transformation (Buddha)—at least in theory. Nevertheless, the surviving meditation traditions of Buddhism, as well as its founding legend, remain rooted in the paradigm of the monk, the individual truth-seeker. Yet as the effort to transplant Buddhism to the West enters its second hundred years, something more is needed.

There are so many threads in the twenty-five-century legacy of world Buddhism that it would not be surprising if not every skein found its way to whole cloth. The early centuries of Buddhism were immensely rich, with different schools all struggling to discern the true meaning and implication of the dharma, and the Great Vehicle teaching emerging as an expansionist, inclusionist, even sometimes as an antimonastic movement. Much of that richness has been lost to us. We are centuries away from such an age, when matters of the spirit were plumbed as deeply and broadly as the secrets of quantum physics today. The Bodhisattva Vow—”However many beings there may be, I vow to liberate them all”—points to what I believe is one of Buddhism’s greatest accomplishments: the recognition that the transformed self and the transformed community are two aspects of the same process.

We in the West, as in Asia, have tended to accept the grand edifice of Buddhism as frozen and timeless, as though its great sages had passed down a wisdom so profound and so exhaustive that not one iota could possibly be added by us. Yet the Buddhist scriptures are not the utterances of a God on high; they are a master­ piece of collective, human authorship. On the one hand, they have an unmatched depth and transcendence; on the other, they are limited by their culture, by time and place. Some of their truths may be timeless, but certainly not all. The only living dharma is the dharma of the present, and then only if it can be recreated from the culture, as well as the forms of psyche and personality, of the present. Not all of Buddhist teaching is equally true and right. In our time, some of it is obsolete, incomplete, or in need of reworking.

Speaking as an ex-priest, I have come to believe that the monkish ideal, for so many centuries the bastion for Buddhism against chaos and destruction, needs to be reinvented for our time as well as supplemented by other models and ways of practice. Technology is teaching us by its everyday miracles what the ancient sages understood through contemplation: that we are all connected, there is no other, there is no outside.

In our modern era, the ancient rhyme of the Bodhisattva Vow suggests a new cadence: “However many beings there are, we vow to liberate each other.” The Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra tell us that already we are all part of the same expanse of consciousness, all little zucchinis whose stems reach back to the same root, as the contemporary Zen teacher Uchiyama Roshi liked to say. The paradigm of the individual truth-seeker, “going forth, alone, like a rhinoceros” in the words of ancient scripture, is a legacy of another time. Which is not to say that no one should be a monk any longer. Those called to that vocation are one treasure, but not the only one.

Today the dharma scene in the West is based on too narrow a paradigm. The whole centuries-old Buddhist enterprise, with all of its depth and breadth, has grown old; it cries out for reinterpretation, for renewal. Buddhism, never having had its Protestant Reformation, is due to have one now.

For Christians, following the epiphany of Martin Luther, the great liberation was to understand that they could each commune directly with God, without the intermediation of Church, sacrament, or priest. For Buddhists, who have never had God or Church in the first place, the revelation will of course be rather different. Buddhism must take the Bodhisattva ideal to its ultimate, most radical conclusion: there is no enlightenment without others; wisdom is collaborative and is to be found in communication and communion with others.

Go-hyaku Rakan, stone statues of the Buddha's disciples, Japan. Courtesy Clark Lunberry.
Go-hyaku Rakan, stone statues of the Buddha’s disciples, Japan. Courtesy Clark Lunberry.

In Judaism, there is the tradition of the minyan, the minimum number of adults gathered together in order to pray and worship God. In part, the minyan was a matter of survival in chaotic times, but it was also a recognition that spiritually speaking no one stands alone. In that spirit, I propose the institution of the Buddhist minyan, which may be any number greater than one. Using the word in quite a different sense than it is used in Judaism, the underlying spirit remains the same. For Buddhists, this minyan would be different from the group retreat, which is still a col­lection of solitary, silent meditators, wrestling in the privacy of their minds and thoughts with the great dilemma of Being. The minyan would add to this the practice of public truth-telling, sharing of spiritual experiences, and mutual learning. This approach has a precedent in the earliest days of Buddhist sangha, which held (and in a few countries, still holds) the twice-monthly Full Moon Ceremony, when confessions are rendered and precepts affirmed.

The minyan would go further, and take the form of small discussion groups—which could be as small as two or three, but probably nor larger than twelve—where the private experiences of meditation, as well as the life difficulties that emerge in meditation, would be revealed in an atmosphere of trust and friendship. The minyan would nor just be a time for talking; periods of shared silence could be one of the ways the group expresses itself. Within this sacred space of sharing, each member would have a dual responsibility: to learn, and to teach. As the great Chinese Master Chao Chou (Jap. Joshu) said at the age of sixty before going on pilgrimage: “If I meet a three-year-old who knows more than I, I will learn from him; if I meet an eighty-year-old sage who knows less, I will reach him.” This also returns us to the original form of Buddhist sangha, where there was no fixed rank of teacher, where the only differentiation was that of seniority, and where those who had something to reach, taught, and those who had something to learn, learned. In the Buddhist minyan, elders and teachers would participate as equals, as teachers sometimes, but as learners, too. Perhaps we could say that the minyan is the sangha of the present day.

Parallels to this approach can be found within many religious traditions. The Quaker meeting, for example, is a community of spiritual equals, in which anyone may speak. Within the meeting, there is no distinction of rank or experience; whoever speaks, if he or she speaks with sincerity of heart, is received as speaking with the voice of God. This democratic ideal, which cannot be achieved in isolation, shows how the sum of many small, individual transformations results in a collective transformation of grand proportions. Is this approach not close to the spirit, and even the method, of the Bodhisattva Vow?

An inevitable shadow darkens the quest for enlightenment, and that is arrogance and pride. The BuddhistAbhidharma, the monk’s guidebook, clearly recognized this; there, spiritual pride is described as the last defilement to be conquered before reaching Nirvana—in other words, it is a problem even for the most advanced practitioners. The practice of a non-hierarchical, community-based mode of spiritual learning would go far to bring this shadow some welcome light. That same Abhidharma tradition speaks of the teacher nor as a roshi or guru, but as kalyana-mitra, the “good spiritual friend.” The deepest learning comes from those who care for us and love us—our friends, our spouses, our families, even our children. The kalyana-mitra may sometimes be our senior in spiritual experience, but not always.

We must take care, in our age of scientific mastery, not to treat enlightenment as the ultimate technological discovery, a state in which everything is understood, a kind of unified field theory of the spirit where only experts reign. This is not the quality of real insight. Real awakening should bring home to us the inexplicability, even unknowability, of our world. Humility is the natural outcome of such an insight, which is best fostered among those we care for deeply, and who care for us. Spiritual transformation, like love, is not a matter for abstract reason and analysis. It partakes of mystery, of unpredictability, or grace. Honest dis­course among trusted friends may be the best way to approach this mystery while keeping its shadow in full view.

It is not uncommon for Buddhist groups to become hotbeds of dishonesty, hiding, and aggrieved silence. This can easily occur when there is no permission to speak and no consequence to wrong action. If l hurt you, and you tell me how I hurt you in the presence of others, I cannot continue to hurt you with impunity. Even if I am the teacher, within the minyan I am just another zucchini in the squash patch; I cannot escape the consequences of what I do, or hide behind threats or blandishments.

Of course, such group confessionals have their own dangers; the minyan must not devolve into an encounter group, therapy, or feel-good session. This is where the Buddhist precepts come into play. It sometimes happens in American dharma centers that the precepts are treated as something of an afterthought. This is particularly true when the domain of spiritual work is kept private, under the direction and control of a single teacher. When honesty and openness reign, the precepts have something to sink their teeth into. What ‘s the point of a rule of right speech if there is no real, consequential speech? What is the point of a rule of right livelihood if there is no discussion of money, who has it, who doesn’t and why? What is the point of a rule against wrong sex if those who engage in it hide because of threats of exclusion, loss of status, or consignment to Vajra Hell? When there is risk, then rules come alive; when there is interchange, the spiritual life leaves its perch in some idealized aerie of the mind and comes into the room where it can be seen, be nourished, and grow.

Traditionalists may argue: what of transmission, what of initiation, what of the patriarchs, the Rinpoches, the Siddhis? Students need expert guidance! The dharma cannot be decided by a vote! This is a valid point, and one that should be considered with care; however, the minyan, if properly instituted, should be an enhancement, not a threat, to the traditional ways. The minyan has as much potential to benefit and support good teachers as to diminish them. The Buddha himself said: Be a light unto yourselves. And as the Dalai Lama explained at a recent conference of Western teachers: it is, finally, not credentials, not initiations or rank, but the students themselves who make the teacher.

If Buddhism can’t make this transformation, then it will continue to slowly harden and wither like the four-thousand-year-old bristlecone pines of the Sierra Nevada: beautiful but dying. Even if that happens, the perennial wisdom is perennial, and the dharma will find another way to express itself in human affairs. But how much better if the ancient pine could sprout new branches, grow new cones, and scatter fresh seeds on modern ground! Thich Nhat Hanh, a scattered seed himself, thrown far from his home by the heat and fires of war, said it best: “What we need today, more than great teachers, are great com­munities.” To put it another way: the great teachers of today will be those great communities, and the challenge is to begin to build them.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .