Common Ground ( from 2012)

I’ve just completed teaching a ten-day meditation retreat at Amaravati in Hertfordshire, England. For those of you who know the retreat scene, it was in many ways typical: about fifty people of a range of nationalities and ethnicities gathered together, keeping the eight Buddhist Precepts, maintaining silence, many bedding down in a dormitory or sharing a room with a stranger. For the group the day started before 5a.m. and finished around 10p.m.; there was an ongoing schedule of talks, discussions, and a lot of sitting still. Despite the winter ice and snow, the retreatants practised walking meditation outside – swathed in down-vests, balloon-like coats and wraps. Some even spent their spare time sitting on benches overlooking the surrounding fields. The breakfast and a midday meal were eaten communally; there was a qi gung session and optional yoga. People churned through their drowsiness, pain, stress and self-hatred; they melted some stuck stuff out of their systems and concluded the retreat with warmth and humour. After the retreat, they streamed into the teacher’s room to express gratitude, offer small gifts, and request more of the same next year.

As for costs: I get no remuneration, the cooks are unpaid volunteers, and the Centre itself quietly informs people that the living costs are about £25/day but there is no charge. You give what you like. For many it could be cheaper than staying at home. Often people offering food to the monastery of which the Centre is a part, will send some food over in support. The talks are recorded, edited and loaded online for free; a lay supporter will make CDs and distribute them at his own cost.  All in all, a lot is produced from one resource – the human heart – at minimal financial and environmental expense.

Back at Cittaviveka, we’ve just concluded the forest work month, which amounts to three weeks of work in our woods – cutting coppice for fuel, stacking logs, planting new trees and heather, and building boxes for bats to live in. This work has been going on since 1986; gradually a self-sustaining woodland has come into being. The desolate silence of a commercial monoculture of non-native trees has been replaced with a mixed habitat of native broadleaf, heathland and wetland – and the insects and birds have returned, along with bats, badgers, deer and dormice. This work has been carried almost entirely by volunteers, with whatever costs that accrued through using chainsaws or professionals being offset by the sale of firewood or by donations. The coppice that is cut produces new shoots, so the monastery gets heated with no loss of resources. And not only has the land and the wildlife improved, but the men who volunteer and spend three weeks in the monastery working together in the cold and rain with the monks speak warmly of the benefit. ‘It’s the best choice I’ve ever made in my life,’ said the Cambridge graduate. Some come year after year.

So how well does the notion of the self-centred human, motivated by profit and personal gain, stand up in this light? What is noticeable is that when given a free choice, people incline towards voluntary service and towards taking on a challenge.  Even in a non-Buddhist context: when there is some clear space and autonomy, people decide to learn to play piano, take on hospice work, give blood, teach Dhamma, create open source software – because they like to; especially if they feel that someone else will benefit from it.  I would go so far as to say, that a person who doesn’t have an occasion to freely offer is liable to suffer from depression, narcissistic introversion, anxiety and isolation.  This is ‘not-self’ as a practice. To emphasize: not-self isn’t a wipe-out of our individual freedom or vitality, but a direct pointer to what inhibits this heart and mind. It’s just these inclinations to own, defend, assert or compare – all the programs that making the mind into a self brings about. As a workaday practice, ‘not-self’ means ‘to others as to myself’; and in meditation it’s the ongoing reminder to meet and melt that sense of being alone in a world that has died to me.  So you do not-self through giving, through ethical integrity, through pruning desires down to needs, and through the patience, clarity and honesty of meditation. The results of developing such pāramī speak for themselves.

Apart from any ‘inner’ benefits, the first three pāramī – giving, morality, and renunciation – make profound economic and environmental sense. The more you can share your life, the wider your field of conscience and concern, and the less you have to consume – the lighter and more kindly your footprint is on the environment. The three work together: How do you filter out needs from the bubbling tide of wants that surges out in consumer-fever, especially in this Christmas season? Find and rest back in your inner wealth, that’s how.  How do you generate inner wealth? Open the heart like a generous hand, whether in terms of things or service, or even in giving attention to others’ needs – that’s a good place to start. Developing the holistic integrity ‘to others as to myself’ to include a widening field of humans and creatures – that also causes the natural bounty of the heart-mind to become apparent.  Then meditate on these and realize that this heart-mind, along with every crumb of matter is given – not owned or deserved. So having so much, you don’t want that much, or to be that much; and you look out for how you can participate in a sharing universe. In ‘not-self’ is endless wonder and gratitude.

The turning point is often how to get started. When one is conditioned into self-view (that is ‘isolationist-view’) choices come down to ‘how to get, or how to be more than I sense I am.’  And yes, there’s a real predicament when one is disadvantaged, homeless or depressed. There doesn’t seem to be much to give or to let go of, let alone free choice, clear space or autonomy. The seed bed out of which these springs is the experience of ‘common ground.’ You access this in meditation through reflecting on what we all have in common – mortality, kamma, the potential for goodwill and awakening. And in that open space where meditation takes you, you feel the fragility of boundaries and the interest in mutuality: we can only survive through the goodwill and cooperation of others, and our lives are enriched by friends. But not everyone can begin in meditation; the open space isn’t entered just by sitting still. In fact sitting still and looking within is a pretty difficult place to begin when you’re strongly held by isolationist-view.  Where we can find an opening is in common ground as a shared and safe environment.

When I began meditating in a monastery in Thailand, there were two sources of ease and joy. One was going out on alms-round in the local town, seeing and being warmly received by people giving a little food.  What made it better was, strangely enough, the silence of the offering and the anonymity. The offering wasn’t because I was someone special, or deserved it, or was part of the family; I couldn’t even speak the language. So the offering happened outside of the context of personality; it was a meeting at the place where I was vulnerable and exposed. On the street, penniless, with an empty bowl.  This isn’t a theory, but the living enactment of being accepted into the web of vulnerable, mortal but sharing beings. And rather than eliciting a mood of tragedy and despair, that felt like a relief and a release into something bigger and more timeless.

The other source of ease was the fortnightly recitation of the Rule, the Pāṭimokkha. It was the same doorway as the alms-round. No conversation, no performance, no need to be different: I was just one of the monks who sat there while another recited the Buddha’s words in an incomprehensible language for about fifty minutes. And there we all were, held in our integrity and respect, with our individualities accepted but not highlighted.  We have a relative self, and that’s fine as long as it remains relative and doesn’t split off into its own bubble.

Cittaviveka monastery isn’t an especially interesting place by some standards … not much happens outside of meditation, talks and work, and yet a good range of beings regularly pass through, of many nationalities, ethnicities, and financial resources. They’re seen, talked with, and given the shared requisites and some free individual space. Locals who live outside the monastery drop by to walk around or offer advice; some work here on a regular basis. The place is basically run by unpaid volunteers. It’s a commonwealth that had no mission to be so; it all just happened because people like to operate that way and there was the opportunity to do so.

Last year we had a homeless woman stay with us for about three months. Prior to being here she’d been at another monastery for about six; before that, stretched a battered history and teetering on the edge of suicide. So, if you possibly can, if the person can keep precepts and live within the boundaries, you take them in. You could think, ‘But we might be stuck with this woman forever!’ You could play the track that says ‘What if hundreds of people turn up at the door?’ But in the direct experience of the heart, there isn’t a ‘forever’, and right now there aren’t a hundred people at the door. There’s just another vulnerable and exposed sentient being; so now there’s the space to respond.  And after the three months, the woman had steadied, found her own ground and moved on.

I’m sure that having plenty of time to meditate helped her enormously; but theoretically she could have sat still with a few books and practised on her own. But even if she had, what that have helped her out of the mess of her life? – the problem with despair is that you’re always ‘on your own.’  It’s obvious to me that there is a healing power in communality; this is especially clear as it is through the reduction of this that people are in dire straits. The common land, the untidy places where people could wander and meet, and all classes could rub elbows, is shrinking. It’s not only ‘natural’ land that’s lost to the commons: when I was a child in London, all the kids played together on the street; parents frequented their neighbours’ houses; child-minding was just a neighbourly and unpaid thing to do. Street-markets, or the presence of people standing conversing on the street was part of the social landscape. As the streets became increasingly ‘no-stopping, keep shopping’ zones; as the townscape centred around how to move cars  (the most isolated and destructive means of transport yet invented) through them; as property developers bought up neighbourhoods and converted them into high-rise estates and malls that you can be ordered out of (I have) – the free-access mingling space dwindled. Crime increased, and some streets, even areas, are no longer safe. Because there’s nobody really there in the spaces through which people move. Instead, being driven along the prescribed highways to the prescribed work place or the mass shopping mall focuses attention onto getting your stuff and taking it inside your bubble. You might have an exchange with a ticket machine, or a voice might ask you to wait and thank you for your patience – but there’s less and less people there.  So, while the heart steadily closes, the message is to sit back, look at the screen, listen to the music – or buy something.

So the removal of free and living space, the waning of the commons, has its consequences.  As society loses that organ, it loses location, and thus loses respect for the environment. The planet has been paying for it, and now as the global economy falters and conflict escalates, humans are also counting the social and environmental costs of globalization. But I’m not advocating an end to global cooperation, but just that we universally agree to respect local common space. Nor am I a communist in the way that the term is used, because ‘Communist’ societies were never voluntary, free-access environments. They did pretty much the same as any centralizing state does: ‘public’ land is owned by the state, not the commons, and it’s the state that decides what is for the public good. Yet what the state rarely does is activate an ethos that supports morality, generosity and personal relinquishment – one that sees inner fulfilment rather than wealth, prestige or power to be the highest happiness. The fact is that the state can only support, not create, the commons – because the commons happens naturally in the right space. Like a regenerating woodland, you just have to clear away what chokes it, protect the boundaries and wait.

The culture that does just that is truly ‘religious’: the origin of the word is to do with ‘connection’ and ‘creating a bond.’ Religion can ossify into dogma; but if it stays connected to real life it supports the system of loyalties, mutual respect and group awareness that all folk culture is based upon. It’s still around. On the streets of Chengdu, I’ve seen people dancing and woman walking unaccompanied at night; in rural Spain I’ve seen villages come alive at sunset; and in London there is growth in terms of community gardens, spontaneous public meditation sittings and developing local networks. Folk culture grows on the margins, away from the political centre: and the classic marginal settlement is the forest monastery, apparently cut off, but a vital organ for the society as whole.

In such a monastery, the fortnightly Pāṭimokkha (literally ‘thorough bond’) is the formal statement of the commons, made valid by the respect for self and others in the ethics that it outlines. But it is lived out in the unstructured times, where conversation may swing between the anecdotal, the doctrinal, the practical and the playful. The boundaries remain, the centre loosens. It’s the same in the retreat centre, the workplace, the village and in the woodlands. The community may create the boundary by what it says, but brings communality alive from mutual regard and respect. This is because the commons can’t be established by ideology or law, but grows where those are digested into organic humanity through voluntary acts. Generosity, morality, renunciation and meditation are the actions, but humbly and wonderfully enough, the really vital ingredient is location: shared and lived-in space.