S is for Sangha

“It is difficult if not impossible to practice the way of understanding and love without a sangha, a community of friends who practice the same way.” Thich Nhat Hanh


Sangha is my favourite ‘Buddhist’ word. Community is a good word, but we use it for so many different communities, many of them purely secular, that it is easy for the deeper spiritually supportive concept to get lost. In my own mind I’d use the word sangha when Quakers use the English word community with the intention of conveying that spiritually supportive dimension. In our community, our sangha, ‘Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.’ as Isaac Penington put it in 1667.


I was thinking about all this as I set off yesterday for a morning of mindfulness.

I arrived in good time for the sangha meeting and was greeted at the Hop Gardens door of Westminster meeting house by a familiar, friendly face. The journey had taken an hour and a half so I was glad to still have plenty of time to use the toilet, change my shoes (most people go in socks or barefoot for meditation but my MS symptoms mean I need to support and protect my foot, so I take my foot-up and slippers) and refill my water bottle.

Entering the meditation room, I found several people already well settled making the room and the silence welcoming. I slipped into a space between two people beside someone I know. No greetings beyond a smile or a bow were needed. I settled myself on the cushion and paid attention to my breathing. Once I was conscious of my breath, I also looked around and was conscious of other sangha members arriving. By 10.30 about 40 people had gathered and the facilitators began the formal proceedings, although clearly the morning of mindfulness had begun sometime before I’d arrived.

tree hugging

The guided meditation concentrated on using our senses to be aware of, and in touch with, the natural world, and on seeing the healing and nourishing elements in that. I visualised touching the air, sunshine, trees, soil as I breathed in and smiling to them as I breathed out. We walked mindfully together and the sense of being together, being ‘one body’, was strong, continuing into the silent meditation that followed. The dharma talk was a recording of Thay explaining how we need to touch peace within ourselves before we are ready to touch and transform war within ourselves. Likewise that we need to touch peace and the healing and nourishing things in the world around us to prepare ourselves to touch and transform war in the world around us. We need to do the personal preparation, but we must not shirk the responsibility of transformation, internal and external.

There was a strong sense of unity in the sangha, and that came through also in what was voiced by those who contributed vocally to the sharing of experiences. A lot of what was said was positive, but there was also awareness of ,and concern about, our government’s decision to go to war again in Iraq, and about facing death. There was support, but there was also the challenge ‘what will you do to make the world a better place?’ even if it was not but into words that bluntly. We concluded the sharing by chanting the invocation to Avelokitesvara for love and compassion for ourselves, our loved ones and all in the world.

I felt supported and strengthened and better able to continue to pray for and send metta to the perpetrators of violence as well as those it is perpetrated against (who can be the same people). I’m also convinced of how valuable the sangha is in enabling us to continue our Buddhist practice.

walk med

This morning I shall walk, mindfully I hope, across the park to Watford meeting house to join another sangha for meeting for worship.


S is for Sitting Still – or not


It’s not about sitting still.

Recently a newcomer said to a group of Quakers I was with ‘Everyone in the meeting sits so still and I can’t, I don’t feel I can come any more because I can’t sit that still.’

We tried to assure her that we don’t actually sit still; that we are all aware of how much we fidget; that we don’t notice and aren’t disturbed by other people’s movements; that it’s inner stillness we are actually seeking. We don’t think we convinced her.

Similarly I have heard people say ‘I couldn’t be a Buddhist, I can’t sit still.’ But again it isn’t essential to sit still (or to sit on the floor), though it can be a helpful exercise. Thich Nhat Hanh specifically advises that if one needs to move during sitting meditation then one should, though one should aim to move mindfully. In other forms of meditation moving is encouraged, eg walking meditation, working meditation and practising the ten mindful movements.

So what is it about?

As a Quaker, it’s about listening to God; hearing that still, small voice; being aware of our inward teacher.

As a Buddhist, it’s about being aware; seeing how things really are; letting go of attachments to body and thought.

In both instances, the being physically still is a tool to an inner stillness, which is itself a tool to an awareness of something that is otherwise blocked or hidden by the constant activity and busyness of my mind and body. If I try too hard to keep my body still that effort is in itself a distraction and defeats the purpose.

Silence, likewise, is a tool – not an end in itself. Outer quiet helps us to settle, but we need to be able to live in the world carrying that inner silence with us.

The practice begins when we leave the meditation hall.

The service begins when the meeting has ended.

high street

R is for Rules

Following on from my recent post about questions and their value in our spiritual lives, I’ve been thinking about rules.

Rules can also be a useful tool in progressing in the spiritual life. I’m not thinking of rules imposed by outside agencies, but ones that we develop for ourselves (though we may choose to discuss what they might be with a group of people we trust).

Our spiritual lives need discipline to progress, just like an athlete or musician needs discipline to practice regularly; a student needs discipline to study consistently and to submit essays on time; a gardener needs discipline to dig and to sow and then to wait for the fruit and flowers in due course.


So what rules am I imposing on myself at present?


To remember to walk mindfully

To have some quiet time every day – ideally meeting for worship or sitting meditation, but it might be a mindful activity

No more than 15 minutes sitting meditation at one time (there are times when I could just go on sitting for an hour or more and it’s a temptation I feel I need to resist)

No more than an hour sat at the computer (at any one time)

Some practical, hands on, activity everyday (eg food preparation, washing up, gardening, knitting, cleaning – depending on what needs to be done and my physical ability that day)


Write a blog post every week

Go to sangha meetings once a month

To be gentle with myself – if in doubt, rest


What rule might be helpful to you?


R is for R S Thomas

I have just spent a glorious few days at Woodbrooke immersed in the poetry of R S Thomas. R S was a clergyman and poet who lived and worked and spent his retirement primarily in North Wales. Born in Cardiff in 1913, his was privately educated in English, but money ran short and he entered the church because that gave him the opportunity of a university education. He did his best as a pastor, though it does not seem to have been his natural calling. He always regretted that he had not learnt Welsh as a child (though it was his mother’s tongue), but learnt as an adult to communicate better with his parishioners. Though he spoke and wrote prose in Welsh, his poetry is written entirely in English. He was a loner, an introvert, a keen bird-watcher and walker. He was a pacifist and campaigned for nuclear disarmament.

Much of the poetry is very bleak, observing the harshness of life in the welsh hills and the loss of the welsh language and culture. But the real attraction for me (and many others) is the poetry where he expresses his searching for God. He grasps the emptiness; the absence that is yet, somehow, also a presence; the tantalising, passing experience that God is there, or was here a moment ago. He glimpses Eternity/Heaven/Paradise and then loses it again. And, depending on our backgrounds, the members of our group said ‘but clearly he was a Quaker/ Buddhist/Sufi/Mystic.’

As an taster, here is one of his poems that really struck me:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?


And one that gives some context as well as recounting a fleeting, yet eternal, experience:

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot, breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cessation
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Q is for Questions

As I have been dwelling on the topic of ‘questions’ over the last few weeks, wondering what to write, I’ve remembered a song I learnt as a young Guide (aged about 11) which we knew as ‘Canadian Taps’ and sang to the tune ‘Tannenbaum’:


Softly at the close of day

As our campfire dies away

Silently each Guide must ask

Have I done my daily task?


Have I kept my honour bright?

Can I guiltless sleep tonight?

Have I done and have I dared

everything to be prepared?


I have a distinct memory of my grandmother banning the singing of this, but she had heard the tune (which is perhaps best known as the tune of the Red Flag) not the words. My sister and I protested strongly that what we were singing was something quite different to what she thought. However, it is little used in Guide circles for just that reason.


I still find the idea of reviewing the day and asking myself how well I have done is appealing. Though I have to remember that it should be without berating myself. I need to forgive myself and then resolve to do better tomorrow. And I have to remember to ask the question – the end of the day is not my best time!

fire 3

Much more recently (a year or so ago), I pinned up, where I saw it every morning:

‘what am I going to do today to make the world a better place?’

That is a big question, though small answers are allowed, especially since it is a one day at a time sort of question.


What questions am I working with now?


How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

What is stopping me taking action to reduce my carbon footprint?

How can I help myself and others to overcome these barriers (many of them emotional, some of them practical) so as to become ‘a low carbon, sustainable community?

 Leeds MH

What new activities should I undertake? (If any.)

What activities should I lay down?

What should I be prepared for?


Of all my outstanding tasks, which should I do first?

How can I clear some of the clutter from my life? (Both physically and spiritually.)

What did it feel like to fall in love for the first time?


Am I doing my best to live by my guide promise and the five mindfulness trainings?

Am I taking heed of the promptings of love and truth in my heart?

Am I trusting them as the leadings of God?


What does Love require?

goose path