What We Have in Common

December 21, 2016

We come from lots of different backgrounds. What holds us together is our desire to practice the Dhamma.

A couple of years after Ajaan Fuang passed away, a group of people came from Bangkok and asked me if Ajaan Fuang had done any amazing, miraculous things while he was alive. They were hoping to hear about his psychic powers—his ability to read minds, his foreknowledge of events, that kind of thing. And although I could have told them plenty of stories on those topics, I thought it would be more useful to tell them something even more amazing: that—even though he was Thai and I was American—when we communicated, the fact that he was Thai and I was an American didn’t seem to matter. It was always just one human being to another. I thought that was amazing.

And that wasn’t true just with Ajaan Fuang. The people who came to the monastery—especially when we were working together on building the chedi, building the Buddha image—had a very strong sense of extended family, a lot of camaraderie, a lot of fellowship, and I was simply part of the family. But as I got to know the people, I began to realize that, when we weren’t working on Dhamma projects or talking about the Dhamma, when they started talking about their backgrounds, they were all coming from places and attitudes very foreign to me, not only in terms of their culture, but also in terms of their social and economic status. They were people with whom I otherwise would have probably never connected. But the fact that we were able to step out of our backgrounds and look at them from the point of view of the Dhamma made all of the differences okay and understandable—familiar, even—because everybody was willing to step out.

This is what the Dhamma does. It helps us step out of our culture. Ajaan Mun’s favorite teaching was the customs of the noble ones. He was accused of not following traditional Thai customs, or traditional Lao customs, and in response he’d always say, “Those are the customs of people with defilement”—a comment that applies to any country’s customs. He was interested in putting an end to suffering, which meant becoming a noble one, and to do that required that he follow the customs of the noble ones, the culture of the noble ones.

After all, the problem of suffering is pre-cultural. Even before we know we have a culture, we’re already experiencing pain, getting upset over physical pain and mental pain. As soon as we start coming out of the womb, there it is: pain. It’s a problem we’ve been relating to ever since. So the extent to which we focus on that as our priority is what brings us together regardless of our backgrounds.

The Buddha did have an appreciation of diversity, but the kind of diversity he appreciated was that of diverse talents. He gave a list of his pre-eminent monk-, nun-, layman-, and laywoman- disciples, pointing out the distinctive talents or virtues of each. Each had something distinctive to offer to the group—in terms of wisdom, harmoniousness, or the sacrifices he or she made on the path. But it was all for the same purpose, which added to the honor of the group as a whole.

So here we are, coming from many different backgrounds ourselves: different parts of the world, different strata of society. What brings us together is the fact that we have a common aspiration, a common goal. We focus on the Buddha’s analysis of suffering, which is the same for everybody. He focused on what we all have in common, in terms of why we’re suffering. We may be clinging to different things, but the clinging itself is the problem, not the things. And the dynamic of clinging and the dynamic of putting an end to it is the same for everybody. There are minor differences in terms of the particulars of your clinging, and these are things that we all have to work out for ourselves. But the basic structure is the same.

That was the Buddha’s genius. He came from a particular stratum of society: Indian society, the noble warrior class. But his analysis of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the end of suffering was not limited to India or the noble warrior caste. It was simply a matter of how the mind, every mind, works. So as we focus on this, it’s what keeps us working together, belonging together.

The Buddha talked about how a group can stay together. We look at our society now and everything seems to be tearing apart. It’s good to think about how we can put it back together. There are six qualities in all. The first three have to do with goodwill. The Buddha could have stated all of them simply as one factor, goodwill, but I think he wanted to emphasize goodwill, goodwill, goodwill. This is what underlies everything: a wish for true happiness, a wish that everybody can find true happiness, a happiness that harms no one. So, one, you express goodwill in your actions. Two, you express goodwill in your words. Three, you express goodwill in your thoughts. As long as we’re extending thoughts of goodwill to one another, it’s a lot easier to live together, to sympathize with one another’s desire for happiness across our cultural differences.

The fourth quality is generosity. If you have something to share, you share it with the group. This creates a sense of camaraderie. I have a student who, years back, was living up northwestern Thailand, out in the woods. And there was a sizable group of monks scattered around in the woods. Once every month or so, someone would come and bring provisions for them. And as long as everybody was sharing, they were happy. But they found out that the monk who was looking after the storehouse for the provisions was holding extra portions all for himself. And immediately, there was conflict in the group because of that. So the lesson is, when you have something to share, you give it. That’s what creates and cements a bond of fellowship.

Then the last two qualities are holding virtue in common and right view in common. As long as we’re all holding by the precepts, we can all trust one another. When we’re not lying or sneaking off with things, it’s so much easier to live with one another.

The same with having views in common: We start with the views of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma, that you do have choices as to how to act, and that different actions have different consequences, based on the quality of the intention behind the action. So you want to be careful about how you act. That’s the essence of right view right there. It doesn’t require that you be Buddhist in order to believe it. I’ve run into some nominal Buddhists who thought that their actions were totally determined by their genes, which means that deep down inside they don’t feel that they’re responsible for what they do. It’s hard to live with someone who thinks like that. If you want to live together, you have to admit, “I do make choices and my choices are going to have consequences, so I’d better be careful.” As long as everybody shares that view together, we can live with one another.

Basically, what it comes down to is that we all have the same goal in common—we’re trying to head to the same place, to the end of suffering—and the same basic ideas of what’s required to get there.

The Buddha talks about people who are born in darkness; people who are born in brightness, people who go in darkness, and people who go in brightness. He works out all the permutations: i.e., you can come in darkness and go in darkness, come in darkness and go in brightness, come in brightness and go in darkness, or come in brightness and go in brightness. Coming in darkness means starting out life in a situation where the family is poor, it’s not educated, and it holds to wrong view. In other words, you’re born into really difficult circumstances as far as your ability to find and practice the Dhamma. Coming in brightness is when the circumstances are easy. But there are people born in brightness who go in darkness. In other words, they behave in ways that are going to pull them down. And there are people who are born either in brightness or darkness who are going in the bright direction: observing the precepts, training the mind. And that’s what matters: where you’re going, not where you’re coming from. As the Buddha said, his teaching is essentially a path. And the image of the path means basically that: We’re going someplace. The goal is what matters.

Even as we’re sitting here focusing on the present moment, it’s not just the present moment that’s at stake here. What comes afterwards is at stake as well. There are ways of finding happiness in the present moment that are going to be okay for the present but they’re going to turn into something else down the line. You don’t want those. Sometimes there’s pain in the present moment, but you learn how to relate to it in the proper way, so that it actually leads to something good down the line.

So the question always is, where do these things go? That’s what we’re focusing on. And having a sense that we’re all heading in the same direction is what enables us to live with one another. We’re all trying to put an end to suffering. We’re trying to see our sufferings, the particulars of our sufferings within the framework that the Buddha provided. We have that common framework that enables us to live with the differences in where we come from so that even though they’re there, they don’t get in the way. We’re not trying to obliterate them, but ultimately, they don’t matter because we’re focusing on something that matters more, something that everyone has in common: We’re all suffering from our own actions and we all want to learn how not to do that.

We realize that our suffering from our own actions doesn’t stop just with us. It makes us a burden on other people, too. This is why practicing the Dhamma is a gift, both to ourselves and other people. It’s one of those forms of generosity that allows us to live together so that our differences don’t scrape up against one another. And as for whatever special talents we may have to offer to the group, to offer to the practice, they’re all welcome because we’re all headed in the same direction.