Not long ago my meditation teacher received his senior citizen Metro pass, entitling him to discount rate travel on the New York City bus and subway system. He joked that now he is “officially” old, though I know from our frequent conversations, regular study sessions, and occasional shared meal that he still sees himself as a young man inspired by his spiritual teacher to abandon everything and set out upon a spiritual path without reserve or hesitation. His teacher, Sangharakshita, is not without controversy but if you’re a modern Westerner, like me, there’s no better, more approachable, or less fetishized enunciation of the Buddhist spiritual tradition than Sangharakshita’s thoughtful and critical attempt at synthesis. I keep a copy of The Essential Sangharakshita close at hand — it’s as useful to a Buddha skeptic like myself as it is to hardcore meditators, snobbish intellectuals, devout atheists, sincere Children of Abraham, and slacker game-boys.
My teacher shared with me his concern that the consuming zeal and single-minded commitment he experienced in the early days of Sanghrakshita’s Triratna (Three Jewels) movement are waning, or at least giving way to new expressions. While it’s no consolation, this is only natural as the founding generation of a spiritual, humanitarian, or activist movement begins to disappear and younger or newer members lack the intimate bonds engendered by uncertainty, risk, and radicality. Those who participate in the events that bring a movement into being in the first place have a unique shared identity that newbies simply can’t understand fully. Instead of leaving careers, homes, families, and social respectability, the new generation tries to balance a normal life with their spiritual path, often remaining in awe of the sacrifice, excitement, creativity, and power of the founders. Call it compromise or practicality, depending on your perspective.
All of this has me thinking back to the first followers of spiritual teachers like Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me that far from planning out great institutions or impressive social movements, these two men first and foremost sought to be the heroic spiritual Friend to those who gathered around them. While we might not look on their followers in this way, both teachers attracted men and women with the spirit of ferocious warriors. What do I mean? The soldier or sailor or tribesman or mercenary sets for himself or herself a duty which is also a good and doesn’t hesitate to accomplish any task or challenge that arises in serving that duty. It might be crown or family or wealth or vengeance or something altogether different, but the uncompromising, seemingly fearless attitude is always the same. For such people, even death ceases to be an obstacle. These are no namby-pamby wimps. For example, some of the first followers of Jesus were fishermen and fishermen, like farmers, are tougher than iron and able to endure brutal, constantly changing conditions. There are also accounts of the Buddha stopping to rest in a mango grove with something like 1,200 followers at hand. I forget the precise number. We could almost say Jesus had a Navy Seal team and the Buddha had an entire army.
But just like my teacher’s community, those first Jesus and Buddha warriors eventually gave way to bankers and bakers and school teachers and old ladies and bus drivers and magazine editors and pharmaceutical reps and personal trainers and grocery clerks and IT nerds. This process, however, isn’t merely one of pure entropy since occasionally — very rarely — the garbage collector and farm wife and swimming instructor and auto mechanic and the rest of the whole damn mediocre gang find themselves faced with an unforeseen and even impossible mission that rekindles in them the spirit of the warrior. This has happened in the past and can happen even in our own day within the spiritual communities, humanitarian endeavors, and activist movements that give meaning to our lives and make the world a better place.
April 5, 2017