22 January 2010

Sobornost & and the meaning of Sangha

Triratna Dharmacarins at the 2009 ConventionSome years ago Sangharakshita remarked that he could not find a word in any European language to describe the kind of sangha or spiritual community he envisioned "unless the Russian sobornost comes near it to some extent". [1] The term sobornost (cоборность) was used by the Russian linguist and poet Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov [2] to describe the togetherness brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox church. Its etymological root is the verb sbrat, 'to gather together'. The suffix -ost is similar in meaning to the English suffix -ness. In fact sobornost is used in the Slavonic version of the Nicene Creed for 'catholic' in the sense of 'universal'. However Khomiakov took it to mean much more than this: "[it] denotes a perfect organic fellowship of redeemed people united by faith and love". [3] He contrasted sobornost with the authoritarian unity of the Roman Church which denied the individual, and the fragmented individualism of the Protestant Church.

Sangharakshita also referred to spiritual community in terms of a 'third order of consciousness'. The defining characteristic of the group is the submergence of the individual will in the group. When an individual threatens to disrupt the continuity of the group it will act to neutralise them: usually either by elimination or assimilation - sometimes it will both eat them up, and shit them out. The spiritual practitioner must leave behind the group and become a true individual - they must know their own mind, understand their values and attitudes and be prepared to personally live with the consequences of their actions. On the other hand individualism can be a dead end if it is self-referential. Individualists cannot agree on what is of value and so fail to offer each other support. The third order of consciousness begins to emerge when the individual realises that others share their values and ideals and they begin to live in virtuous harmony on the basis of those shared values. This may include working together to achieve goals, or like Anuruddha and his companions they may just live together in harmony blending like milk and water. [4] Individual will is not lost or submerged, but there is a coincidence of wills because of an engagement with the highest ideals and values of each. Like Khomiakov we seek not an enforced unity, nor complete independence - but a mutually responsive interdependence.

Our abstract values find concrete expression in the various sets of precepts which Buddhists attempt to follow. In the Triratna Buddhist Order we take a set of ten precepts traditionally known as the 'ten helpful actions' (dasakusalakammā), these recur throughout the Pāli Canon. [5] As you may know we use both the Pāli version in which we undertake to avoid unhelpful (akusala) actions, and an English version of Sangharakshita's devising in which we undertake to cultivate the helpful (kusala) counterparts. Of these precepts, both negative and positive, three are directed at the body, four are for speech, and three concern the mind. One way of looking at the precepts is to think of them as ideal behaviour - they represent a set of behaviours that could be expected of a Buddha. And in undertaking to follow the precepts we are seeking to align ourselves with the virtuous behaviour of a Buddha. This has two effects. On one hand it helps to prepare the mind for meditation, and indeed some suttas tell us that freedom from remorse (the benefit and reward of acting virtuously) is the beginning of the path to liberation from greed, hatred and delusion.[6] On the other hand the practice of precepts is not just preparatory but can be seen to be the path itself. If we continually try to behave like the Buddha, we are transformed by this practice. This is the idea behind the pāramitās or perfections. If we could perfect our behaviour - in body, speech, and mind - then we would in effect be a Buddha. So the precepts are not just normative, they are transformative (more than meets the eye).

Coming back to sobornost and the sangha we can say that, in Buddhist terms, sobornost is experienced when a collective of true individuals are aligned with their values by operating through the ethical precepts. Through harmonising in this way the community itself becomes greater than a simple sum of it's members alone. Yes, we must all become individuals, but if we are individualists then we we only sing our own tune and cannot harmonise. Equally we must be free to associate or not else the harmony is forced and therefore brittle and unstable.

An analogy that occurs to me is the laser. Laser, as you may know. is an acronym for 'light amplification by the stimulated emission of light'. Some substrate is stimulated - it might be a rod of ruby, or a container of gas, or a lump of semiconductor; and it might be stimulated by an electrical discharge, or an intense flash of light, or even by physical stress. Then rather than emitting photons across a spectrum of frequencies (roughly a range of colours) and in every direction of space - the substrate emits photons (particles or 'packets' of light) all of the same frequency or colour, all in the same direction. What's more the oscillations of each photon, the electro-magnetic fields, line up and reinforce each other. When they all move together in this way the photons, all the same frequency, all in the same direction, and all in step, then the energy they carry is concentrated into a much smaller area. The intensity of laser light can be so much as to melt steel, but at lower intensities laser 'beams' can be focussed to microscopic spots for use in CD and DVD players. Think also of the resonance effects we see in bridges. Many people walking instep can cause what seem like very strong structures made of steel to resonate and vibrate to the point of causing damage and even destruction. Soldiers always break step when crossing bridges for this reason.

Being together on the basis of our highest ideals and cherished virtues we are lifted above what we might achieve on our own - virtue is also subject to resonance effects! In Sobornost the individual does not assert themselves but does what they can to manifest the ideals of the Sangha. We are all lifted up together. It is the most beautiful and fulfilling form of human relationship.

  1. 'The Bodhisattva Principle' in Sangharakshita The Priceless Jewel. Windhorse Publications, 1993. p.155. Originally an address to the Wrekin Trust's 6th Annual Mystics and Scientists Conference, 'Reality, Consciousness and Order', 1983.
  2. The print edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (remember print?) has a useful summary of the life and work of Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-1860).
  3. Britannica vol.6 p.840
  4. This story is in the Upakkilesa Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 128 (PTS M iii.152).
  5. See for instance: DN 5, MN 114, AN 10.178-197. These ten precepts are also found in Mahāyāna texts and are used in the Shingon School.
  6. See especially: Kimatthiyasuttaṃ, Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.1 'The Benefits of Virtue'

image: members of the Triratna Buddhist Order gathered in front of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, 2009.

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