Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Third Treasure

After a recent very pleasant afternoon spent in the companionship of a beloved sangha-mate, I've fallen to contemplating the blessings of the Third Treasure.

This is the hardest one for us hermits to acquire. The Buddha is in the can. He's been and done, and left his priceless teaching and even more priceless (less priceable?) example.

The Dharma too is freely available. In fact, good ol' Donum Secundum is the great strength of my path. House-monks must cobble up an artificial, human-dependent Dharma to simulate the flow of the River we wild boys see in the sky each night. If in their rituals our domesticated brothers and sisters sometimes take direction from Les Nessman-roshi, it's that mocking up a universe is not for the faint of heart.

But we hermits, having sniggered at their choreographed pantomimes, must quickly return to the endless task of pulling Sangha out of plants, animals, mountains, tools, stars, meteorological events, water features…

Which isn't crazy at all.

For their part, cœnobites enjoy free and convenient access to, like, companionship. So much so that it becomes burdensome. Leonard Cohen, asked if he missed the days of his own Zen centre residency, diplomatically replied that monastery monks are "like pebbles in a bag, polishing each other smooth". He then pointedly dropped the subject.

But Sangha is critical, if for no other reason than to triangulate one's own attitudes and actions. A human being alone first becomes weird (guilty) and then insane (charges dropped for lack of witnesses), wandering off on ego-deflected tangents until simple reason, to say nothing of enlightenment, becomes impossible. Any sincere solitary will tell you that mindfulness of this dilemma, and self-monitoring of our course over the ground, claim much of our cushion time.

But as vital as all that is, it's not Sangha's greatest gift. There's also endless wisdom and insight; the times a fellow traveller solves a koan you've been working on for years in two or three words, and a tone that implies "…you dumbass". Then you return to your own practice liberated, in the Buddhic sense, and game to seize the next quandary.

But even that is not Sangha's highest power.

That would be simple companionship.

Here in the industrialised world, where humanity itself is roundly considered weakness, if not sin, we generally insist that social interaction is a luxury, and a superficial one at that. We absolutely do not recognise that refusing same is equivalent to denying food and shelter.

If we kept food from prisoners, there would be scandals, hearings, forced resignations, ruined careers; more advanced nations would levy the satisfying irony of prison sentences.

But when we lock people in dungeons, nothing happens. No gavel strikes, no activist shouts "hey-hey ho-ho", no candidate makes promises – even ones she has no intention of honouring – to eliminate this particularly caustic torture.

To cite a single case, a large percentage of incarcerated Americans are daily buried alive in solitary confinement. Not for days (24 hours being the maximum the average person can endure without permanent damage), nor even weeks, but years. Even sentences of ten years without the equivalent of food and shelter are considered trivial in American courts.

All of which is on my mind in the wake of four hours spent catching up with a close friend and comrade in Zen. I cleared the tea things much lightened, instructed, and renewed, and very aware that when the Buddha called Sangha one-third of Enlightenment, he wasn't being twee.

The equivalence is mathematical: in Buddhist practice, Sangha is of equal necessity to the Buddha and the Dharma.

Or to put it another way, you'd be entirely justified in locking your Buddha statue in a closet and replacing it on your altar with photos of your peers.

The Rinzai side of me is already smirking seditiously.


(Photo of "A Few Good Men" courtesy of Vibhav Satam and Unsplash.)
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