I feel very grateful for the way right companionship among Vipassana meditators has supported my few steps on the path. This companionship springs from many sources, some more unexpected than others – seen and unseen, past and present – and some through the catalyst of living words in an ancient language. Like the uncanny kinship I might feel with a bhikkhunī of 2500 years ago, a few paradoxes come to mind when thinking about the community of Dhamma. How it is the strength of this community that prevents the Vipassana organisation from becoming a sect; how strong boundaries of centers protect those who strive ardently within them to achieve an intangible, ultimate freedom; how those of us who practice Vipassana and gather to centers to help pass on the gift of the path to others – our until-then unknown brothers and sisters – are not bound by anything external, but by invisible waves of mettā that create what Paul Fleischman so beautifully calls “the community without walls”i.
I also feel very grateful to be alive and meditating fifty years after our teacher S.N. Goenka began spreading the Dhamma around the world at the request of his beloved teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Recently the occasion was celebrated in different ways around the world, a world around which so many people are now able to practice this technique thanks to the great and humble efforts of these two people. And of course, the efforts of so many others. The stories of men and women who came together from all parts of the world to follow Goenkaji from course to course throughout India are now being retold to and for the next generations of meditators at Vipassana Centers, in living rooms, from the Global Pagoda. Students who sat and served with Goenkaji during those embryonic years rifled through photo albums once again, putting names and histories to faces and recalling the interlocking stories that so spontaneously created a living, organic network of minds. This ever-widening circle arose to support the individuals within it, and emanating dhamma dhatu from its energising centre is our teacher, the force of nature humbly signing himself our kalyāna-mitta, a friend on the path.
Drawing a parallel between the time of the Buddha and our own, one of those early students recalls that “Goenkaji always gave full credit to the idea that the arising of the Teacher for a sasana only occurs because there are simultaneously practitioners ripened for the sasana. The Teachers and the practitioners co-arise and neither could have existed without the other.” Goenkaji tells many stories in his evening discourses about good and saintly people of the past, asking his students to look again at why they are of value to us. Ultimately, he says, our teachers are meaningful to us, and we can pay our respects to them, through our attempts to develop gratitude and their good qualities, and not just by exhibitions of allegiance. Practicing the Dhamma teaches us self-reliance; its characteristic of only working if we do the work ourselves ensures our freedom from sectarianism. The way we cannot expect any salvation from a person or deity breathes spirit into the community of Dhamma: we belong to each other, not to a leader. It is a community where I meet others and myself – a bundle of imperfection, sankhāras, and pāramī – with smiling acceptance and begin walking a common path that can’t help but break down pretence and prejudice, just as it did at the time of the Buddha.
The stories of meditators coming together from all walks of life are recorded in the Pali canon, and the ability of the Dhamma to cut through the strict boundaries of caste and gender roles shines there again and again. When, very soon after the Buddha began his teaching, six Sakyan princes, including the Buddha’s cousin Ānanda, wished to become bhikkhus, they asked that the court barber Upāli, who had helped them on their journey out of the palace and also wanted to live the meditative life, be ordained first “since he will then be our senior”ii. The story of Queen Sāmāvatī, the woman whom the Buddha came to name “foremost in the practice of loving-kindness” shows again how we rely on each other to progress ourselves. She had among her maids a woman called Khujjuttarā, who was transformed by her understanding of the Dhamma after encountering the Buddha when she was buying flowers for the palace one day. When the Queen saw the change that had come over her servant, Khujjuttarā was asked to visit the Buddha’s monastery and return to teach the other women of the palace what she had heard. In what would be an otherwise unthinkable situation, each day the Queen and other high-ranking women of the palace would sit at her feet and listen as she taught them the Dhammaiii.
In a way that celebrates this relationship between individual and collective practice, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī – the woman who raised Gotama the Bodhisatta after his own mother Mahāmāyā died days after he was born – sings a paean to Dhamma community in her deeply personal contribution to the Therīgāthā. The Therīgāthā and the Theragāthā are collections of poems by enlightened bhikkhunīs and bhikkhus which thrillingly voice their moment of attaining arahatship. The collections themselves are living communities of verse, constellations of some of the brightest minds of the sasana, independent voices and stories encircling each other in intricate interdependency and relationship. Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s poem contains many of these qualities in microcosm. She begins by acknowledging that the Buddha’s teaching freed her from suffering, and then widens her view to say that it did just this ‘for so many other people’. Yet – and this is emphasised in Chris Hallisley’s wonderful translation – shortly after this she carefully describes the distinctly individual cause of this freedom:
the four noble truths
each one done
all done by me.
Again, the great meditator’s awareness spirals outwards:
I had already been a mother, a son,
A father, a brother, and a grandmother,
but not knowing things as they really are,
I was reborn and reborn,
never having enough.
The unimaginable length of our shared suffering of rebirth makes our closeness inevitable. This is also community. All beings have suffered together and, as her poem turns to witness, it is when many beings come together to meditate, in their individual experiences of the path out of suffering, that an entirely different sort of community arises. Just as the wheel of Dhamma is spinning against the wheel of ignorance, those who were once tied to each other through repeated acts of negative entanglement rejoice in the companionship of a Dhamma life, one that supports each step towards a liberated mind:
When I look at the disciples assembled together,
energetic, resolute, always making an effort,
I see that this is how Buddhas are rightly worshipped.iv
How this reminds me of evening meditation sessions in the Dhamma hall! We do not sit to worship a guru, but to work individually, together, towards the goal that the line of teachers are still helping us to reach.
When Ānanda said that noble companionship was one half of the path, the Buddha famously corrected him: “No, Ānanda, do not say this! Noble companionship is the whole of the path.” I have often wondered what these words can mean to those of us practicing a technique that can often seem so solitary. The Buddha goes on to explain in that Upaḍḍha Sutta that this is because of the support we receive by cultivating friendships with those who are also trying to develop the qualities of the Noble Eightfold Path. Tolstoy observed that “the kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people”v. Perhaps being attuned to reciprocity is one thing that enlivens the community of noble companionship – this “I” exists in a constant flow with others. Just as Goenkaji’s words that touch thousands of minds can sound as if they were spoken just to me, that seemingly solitary path is really a universe. The steps reaching ahead are illuminated only by those who have walked on it before us, and our own steps leave a bright trace for others. And it is not only linear. We look from side to side and notice there are others walking next to us, strengthening the developing brightness of our minds like a mirror.
The positive mental states cultivated by the practice of Vipassana are like threads, fine filaments vibrating with the unbreakable qualities of right devotion, gratitude, the desire to serve and finding joy in each other’s happiness. Like an embrace, this technique of introspection creates the flexible, freeing security that gives strength to healthy relationships. As exemplified by the different and beautifully individual lives of the innumerable people who have walked, and are walking upon it, Dhamma’s strength of ekāyano maggo, being the one and only path, lies in its singularity, not exclusivity. Singular, because Goenkaji gave the gift of a whole technique, a whole path, to which nothing needs to be added or removed. And inclusive because through practicing it reveals itself in piecemeal ways, kaleidoscopically different to us all as we take steps in our own story. Natalie Johnston
i Paul Fleischman, A Practical and Spiritual Path: An Introduction to Vipassana Meditation (Onalaska: Pariyatti Publications, 2015), 21.
ii Hecker, Hellmuth, “Anuruddha: Master of the Divine Eye,” in Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi. c1997 (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 188.
iii Hecker, Hellmuth, “Great Women Disciples of the Buddha” in Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi. c1997 (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 287.
iv Therigata: poems of the first Buddhist women, trans. Charles Hallisey (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015) 85.
v Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom: Wise Thoughts for Every Day (London: Brockhampton Press, 2001),Jan 7.