Venerable Tharchin once said, “a Dharma center is the collection of inner realizations of its members bound together by their mutual love and appreciation for one another.” It seems to me the same is true at the level of a spiritual tradition. Creating division within the Sangha is considered one of the five heinous actions of immediate retribution (translation: one of the most negative things we can do), so it follows that healing such divisions is one of the most virtuous things we can do. For hundreds, arguably thousands of years, the Kadampa tradition has primarily been a monastic one. Geshe-la’s goal now is for the Kadam Dharma to penetrate into every aspect of human life. The mission he has given us is “to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.” He has given us the Dharma, we all have modern lives, our job is to attain the union of these two. To accomplish this, the false duality between monastic (read center) life and lay life needs to be dissolved away.
All Kadampas agree there is no point doing anything with our life other than practice Dharma. We are all trapped in a hallucinogenic karmic dream from which there is no escape other than to wake up. We have a precious human life that we may lose at any moment, and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms from which it is nearly impossible to escape. Our only enemies are delusions and we all have assumed the task of developing our realizations, skills and abilities (up to and including full enlightenment) so that we can, together, lead all beings in a great exodus out of samsaric realms and deliver them all to the eternal bliss of the pure lands. This is our common project. In short, our job is to gain realizations to be able to free others from the bondage of delusions. Towards this end, our kind Spiritual Guide has organized for us festivals, retreats, temples, Dharma centers and study programs and he has inspired for us a worldwide Sangha of lay and ordained practitioners alike practicing a common path. Geshe-la has encouraged us to deeply cherish these things as “the main gateways for those seeking liberation.” Gen-la Losang calls Dharma centers “the Embassies of the pure lands” in this world. Venerable Tharchin calls Dharma centers “beacons of light in a world of spiritual darkness.”
Historically, the Dharma community was divided into the monastic and lay communities. While the Kadampa tradition no longer has monasteries per se, we do have their modern equivalents, namely our Dharma centers. The spectrum of Kadampas is quite vast, but we can loosely make a distinction between those who primarily live in and work for Dharma centers, attend every teaching and festival, and those who don’t. For simplicity, let’s call these center people and non-center people – the modern equivalent of the distinction between the monastic and lay communities. We can no longer make a lay/ordained distinction because we have lay people living a modern monastic way of life in Dharma centers and we have ordained people living modern lay ways of life out in the world of work and family.
There exists, quite naturally in fact, a current of thought within the tradition that values participating in centers, retreats, teachings, festivals and the like as the most important priorities in our life. We should organize our life around being able to participate in these things as opposed to participate in these things when our life allows it. There is, however, a literal grasping at what this means. There is a grasping at there being a highest way of participating in the tradition, namely living in and working for a center, attending every teaching and festival, keeping all the commitments of the study programs perfectly, and so forth. Those who fail to be able to do these things are somehow “lesser” Kadampas – less committed, less realized, less Buddhist.
This type of grasping leads to a good deal of mental pain and unnecessary, albeit subtle, division within the Sangha. This grasping also is one of the main impediments to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s wish for the Dharma to flourish into every aspect of human life. Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s. They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara. They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish. When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities. Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.” Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.
Since center people are supposedly closer to the sources of Dharma, non-center people can sometimes assent to the view that grasps at center life being inherently supreme. As a result, they start to view their families, jobs and responsibilities in this world as somehow being obstacles to their Dharma practice. This introduces conflict in the home over participation in Dharma activities, guilt at work feeling like one is wasting their precious human life, and resentment about having to meet responsibilities outside the center. Viewing their daily life as somehow being inherently ordinary and worldly, they fail to bring the Dharma into every aspect of their modern lives. When non-center people feel judged by center people for their supposedly non-Dharma activities, non-center people can become defensive and view center people as belonging to some “clique” or, worse, “cult.” Non-center people can become resentful about the lack of understanding and pervasive judgment of center people, causing them to lose faith in their teachers, center managers, and fellow Sangha. Thinking there is only one way of practicing the Kadampa path and being karmically incapable of doing so, people move on to other things and sometimes spend the rest of their life criticizing the family they felt forced to leave. Some non-center people can likewise develop pride thinking their way of practice is supreme since they are having to deal with real problems in the real world, but this is less common. Usually they develop some sort of inferiority complex about how they live their life, feeling the need to hide their going to the movies or make excuses for going on vacation with their families.
Grasping at center life being supreme is a serious impediment to the accomplishment of Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world. If the tradition is to gain the realizations the people of this world need, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to transform any life – center or otherwise – into a Kadampa quick path to enlightenment. Our inability to conceive how to transform a non-center life into a quick path does not mean it is not possible, it just means we haven’t invested what it takes to realize how it can be. The reality is this, there are far more people in this world who lead non-center lives than center ones. This does not mean non-center life is more important than or superior to center life. Both are equally good and precious, just in different ways. Venerable Tharchin says, “we must each assume our place in the mandala.” Rather, it means if the Dharma is to penetrate into every aspect of modern life, we must learn how to do this. It is up to each of us to do what we can to heal these divisions and wrong understandings.
The question is how? The answer is non-center people need to live their life as “their center life.” And center people need to live their life as “their non-center life.” How can this be done? Fortunately, every life is equally empty, therefore every life is equally transformable. Non-center people should impute “center” on their home, “retreat” on their work, “teachings” on their daily life, and “Sangha” on their loved ones. Center people should impute “home” on their center, “work” on their retreat, “daily life” on their teachings, and “loved ones” on their Sangha. Everyone needs to impute “festival” on whatever happens during festival time, whether we are in attendance or not. If we each do our part, there is no doubt we can heal this subtle division within the Sangha, relieve the mental pain associated with this form of grasping, and unleash Kadampa wisdom into every aspect of human life, thereby fulfilling Geshe-la’s vision for the Dharma in this world.
A Dharma center is where we practice Dharma in this world. Home is the base from which we go out to engage in activities and the place we return to to recharge. Non-center people need to make their home their “center” for practicing Dharma in their life. We can correctly view everything that happens in a Dharma center as being emanated by the Buddhas for our spiritual training. There is no reason why we cannot do the same with our homes, viewing them as the principal place where we put the Dharma into practice. The home of any Dharma center is the gompa, the center of any Kadampa home is our meditation corner. Every member of a Dharma center has a responsibility to the other members of the community, every member of a home has a responsibility to the other members of the home. Whether in a home or a center, we have no control over whether others put the Dharma into practice, but we can choose to put the Dharma into practice ourselves with those we encounter. Living with people is hard, accepting people who are deluded but not cooperating with their delusions is harder still. Viewed in this way, those who live in a home can come to understand what it is like to live in a center, and those who live in a center can come to understand what it is like to live in a home. Dharma centers can become more like homes, and homes can become more like Dharma centers.
Retreat is a time when we set aside our worldly activities to focus on our spiritual practice. Work is when we do our jobs, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people in this world. Normally we mistakenly grasp at our work as somehow being an inherently worldly activity and retreat as somehow being inherently spiritual. As a result, we grasp at a duality between our work and our retreat. Just as it is possible to be on retreat but never forget our worldly activities, so too it is possible to be at work and never forget our “retreat.” Being on retreat is a state of mind. If we have a mind of retreat, we can be on retreat no matter what we are doing externally, including our normal work. The situations we encounter at work are our opportunities to put the Dharma into practice with an aim of gaining the realizations necessary to transform our jobs into the quick path. If our primary objective is to gain Dharma realizations at work, that is what we will do while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to our employers and customers. Work, for us, will be “retreat time.” Doing our jobs, or “working”, is also a state of mind. It is the mental assuming of responsibility for what we need to do in this world. When we are on retreat, our “job” is to gain deep experience and insight into the Dharma. As Bodhisattva’s, our job is to gain the realizations the people of this world need so that we may lead them to enlightenment. Retreat time is not vacation time, it is time to really get to work. Work does not have to be a burden. It is said if you enjoy what you do, you will never “work” a day in your life. Effort is “taking delight” in virtue, in other words, enjoying engaging in virtue. Viewed in this way, those who are working can better understand what it is like to be on retreat and those who are on retreat can come to understand what it is like to go to work. Retreat can become more like work, work can become more like retreat.
A Dharma teaching occurs when the meaning of Dharma is transmitted from the teacher to the student. Daily life is where we gain experience of how the world works. When a teacher gives a teaching they should strive to explain everything in the context of applying it to the “daily lives” of the students. They can only do this if they both understand the daily trials and tribulations of their students and they apply the Dharma themselves in their own daily lives. Likewise, receiving a Dharma teaching depends upon listening in a particular way where we view what is being a taught as personal advice for how to overcome the sickness of delusions plaguing our daily life. But there is no reason why we can only receive Dharma teachings in a Dharma center. Milarepa said all of life teaches the truth of Dharma. When we receive teachings we are advised to believe the living Lama Tsongkhapa enters into the heart of our teacher and through that teacher we receive Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings. There is no reason why we cannot believe Lama Tsongkhapa has entered into the heart of everyone we encounter in daily life and through them he is giving us pure Dharma teachings. Not everyone can attend every teaching, nor keep every commitment of every study program. People shouldn’t be judged for this, rather reasonable accommodations should be made understanding that attending some teachings is better than attending none. At the same time, not being able to attend the teachings at a center does not preclude Kadampas from receiving teachings every single day through their daily life. Viewed in this way, teachings become advice for how to live daily life and daily life becomes our Dharma teaching. Teachings can become more like daily life and daily life can become more like a teaching.
Sangha are those who inspire us to put the Dharma into practice. Our loved ones are those we live and spend the most time with, usually our family and friends. Our Sangha are our spiritual companions who we reunite with in life after life in pursuit of our common path and spiritual goals. Geshe-la ends every festival telling us he prays for our families and friends, and he encourages us to love them first and foremost. Venerable Tharchin says with every step we take towards enlightenment we bring all living beings with us in proportion to our karmic connection with them. Dharma only finds its meaning when it is applied to the delusions that arise in our lives; and no one provokes our delusions more than our loved ones. Put all of this together and it means for a Bodhisattva, the duality between their Sangha and their loved ones is false. Sangha are not just the people who practice the same path as us, they are those who inspire us to put the teachings into practice. Our loved ones do this, either through their good example or through their annoying quirks. Our loved ones are not just our family and friends of this life, but also our vajra family (brothers, sisters, father and mother) who share with us the same lineage and view. We do not have to be with our vajra family to be with “Sangha” and we do not have to be with our family and friends to be with our “loved ones.” Viewed in this way, being with Sangha becomes more like being with family and friends, and being with our family and friends becomes more like being with our Sangha. Sangha becomes more like family and family becomes more like Sangha.
Our Spiritual Guide, our Spiritual Father, has put in place a tradition of large spiritual gatherings, such as the various festivals and Dharma celebrations, where members from different centers come together as a large spiritual family to receive teachings and build spiritual bonds with one another. Geshe-la calls these festivals our “spiritual holiday.” They often feel like Kadampa “family reunions.” Some people have the karma to attend ever festival and Dharma celebration, some only maybe one per year, others maybe only once in a lifetime. Regardless of whether we are able to physically attend or not, all of us can “mentally” attend every festival. How? Anybody who has been to a festival can attest that there is a certain “magic” to them, where everything that happens seems “emanated” as part of our festival. From the conversations we overhear to the cold water in the shower, it all somehow fits together in exactly the way we need it to. It is a very special and blessed time. But sometimes, for whatever karmic reason, we are not able to make it. Those who are able to make it sometimes judge those who can’t. Those who can’t make it sometimes become jealous (or even judgmental in a different way) of those who can. This is completely unnecessary. Those who can attend the festivals should make a point of “bringing along” those who can’t by carrying them around in their hearts as they go about the festival, attend the teachings and receive the empowerments. In this way, those who can’t physically come are able to “be there” anyways. Those who can’t make it to the festivals can adopt “the mind of a festival” during festival time, and view everything that happens to them during festival time as their personalized teachings emanated through whatever happens. Buddhas pervade all things, so there is no reason why they cannot enter into our lives and transform whatever happens during this time into our own individualized festival. People who can’t attend can also make a point of “tuning in” during the teachings and empowerments, mentally imagining they are receiving them at a distance through their meditation practices during teaching time. They can also deeply rejoice in those who are able to make it, thereby creating the causes to perhaps one day be able to go back. Whether we attend festivals or not, all of us from time to time will go on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits call it). Whether we are on holiday at Manjushri or on the beaches of Bali, there is no reason why we cannot impute “spiritual holiday” on this time. Viewed in this way, while we still try make it if we can, it doesn’t matter whether we are physically present at the festival or not, we can attend anyways. While we still encourage people to come, it doesn’t matter if our Sangha friends make it to the festival or not, we bring them along anyways. It doesn’t matter whether we are at a festival or on a regular vacation, both can equally be viewed as our “spiritual holidays.”
It is true “centers,” “retreats,” “teachings,” “Sangha” and “festivals” are the main gateways for those seeking liberation, and we should cherish these things as our Guru’s greatest gifts to us. But we need the wisdom to know there are many different ways we can integrate these things into our lives. Likewise non-center life is not an object of abandonment. It is not something we need fear nor feel guilty about participating in. If we are to fulfill Geshe-la’s vision of bringing the Dharma into every aspect of human life we all need to work on eliminating the false duality between “center” and “non-center” life, between “home” and “center,” between “retreat” and “work,” between “teachings” and “daily life,” between “Sangha” and our “loved ones,” and between “physically attending festivals” and “not.” In reality, whether we are a center person or a non-center person, we all have center and non-center aspects of our lives. When we are engaging in center activities, we should never forget our non-center life; and when we are engaging in non-center activities, we should never forget our center life. If we all in this way practice inclusion instead of exclusion we can “bind together in mutual love and appreciation” these two aspects of our spiritual community into one larger spiritual family.
6 thoughts on “Healing the (subtle) division between monastic and lay communities”
At my Centre I’m often taught that work is a waste of time. But since I HAVE to work I privately do my best to prove that teaching wrong. So that (“wrong”) teaching ironically encourages me AND helps me think for myself and teach myself how to practise at work. Geshela gives plenty help there of course. How enduring the dharma is. Love the way this article puts that message across. Thanks Ryan.
Dear Ryan.. Feel this is such an important article that brings to light what is often hidden and somewhat unhealthy in our tradition.. I mean emptiness is the truth and it is ignorance to get too tight about what practise is or right or wrong.. We all have our own personal relationship with the Guru and our own spiritual path to walk.. Thanks for this.. I really love and value what you have written.. x
I appreciate this article and very wise advice about transforming our mind in whatever our life circumstances may be. One question, i often see Segyu Monastery engaging in Kadampa practice, so although i dont know for certain, i thought they were Kadampa. Perhaps there are no “New Kadampa” monasteries?
A Kadampa is somebody who takes Atisha’s Lamrim as their main practice. A New Kadampa is somebody who takes Je Tsongkhapa’s union of Atisha’s Lamrim and Tantra as their main practice. The New Kadampa Tradition, as practiced in the West (and now increasingly the east) doesn’t have monasteries per se, but rather has different types of Dharma centers at which both the monastic and lay communities live and practice side by side.
Hi Ryan. Ive also been writing about these problems within our tradition on my blog https://everybodywelcome261525321.wordpress.com/
We all want Geshe-las vision to become a reality. But that is not what is happening. I have been silent since Geshela stopped teaching but after 10 years Ive had enough. Things are just so bad now and we are supposed to just sit around saying I love Geshe-la whilst all his work crumbles? I am in Dharma center that was running very well and harmonious. Then quite recently someone was sent from Manjushri to “rebrand” us so we had the right décor. They damaged lots of peoples faith and upset most people there. The social areas where people made friendships that last a lifetime were removed and it was made to look like a clinic with a reception and waiting room thats more like a hospital waiting room. Its as if they think changing the chairs and wall colour will increase attendance. Yet they drive off the people who volunteer for and run the center. Utter madness.
You said, “Some center people can develop deluded pride thinking their way of practicing is better than everyone else’s. They sometimes then look down upon those who are not able to attend every teaching and festival as somehow being more enmeshed in samsara. They sometimes can develop resentment towards those who do not work as much for the flourishing of the center as somehow being less committed and more selfish. When family or work considerations interfere with being able to participate in everything, some center people judge others as having misplaced priorities. Whether ordained or not, some center people think those who focus their energies on their spouses or kids somehow have less equanimity, self-righteously declaring “relationships are deceptive.” Some center people believe their job is to get non-center people to be more externally like them, and steer all of their advice towards this end.”
The deluded pride is when you enter into a lofty trance and start giving a lecture to someone, basically saying do this and do that. Its bossy, rude, belittling and presumptuous. Theres no empathy in these clinical assessments and mentoring sessions. It is dry and arrogant. We are always lecturing and preaching. And we cant handle even the slightest criticism inside the NKT. So nothing can be fixed or improved. Because we are so flawless and incapable of human error or shortcomings.
As Kadampas we have got into a routine and we think “This is how to do Buddhism”. In that routine are various awful ways of treating people that we normalize. Such as subjecting loyal long term practitioners to moldy bathrooms with no central heating. Knocking on their doors at night and weekends. Not giving them any time off. Even on our “Spiritual Holiday” most loyal long termers have an immensely grueling schedule of volunteering on top of trying to do the timetabled events.
Thank you for your comment. I think it is very important for the tradition to learn how to have conversations with itself about how it can do better without it being seen as an irrational attack. It is because we cherish the tradition that we wish for it to do better. It is part of our love and confidence in the tradition that we feel we can bring up things we can do better and we all work together to improve. Ultimately, though, we don’t have control over what others do. We do, however, have control over what we do. So we should at a minimum make sure we are not making these mistakes and we should encourage others to not do so as well if they are open to listening and humble enough to accept the need to improve. At the same time, we need to remain open-minded that we might not be seeing things in the right light and there might be other ways of viewing the same thing. In short, we all need to be humble enough to admit our mistakes and learn from our sangha friends.