(transcription of talk given by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, 2006)
It’s funny how that happens…when everything is a metaphor for our lives. We do things in a certain way and they seem to work. I mean, how long have we been using this mic? We’ve been using this mic for a while now and the whole clipping thing seemed to work. Then suddenly, some way that you’ve been doing something just doesn’t work anymore. And there is a recognition that some way that seemed so normal and right, [so] that you didn’t even bother questioning it, becomes [clear] that this really wasn’t supposed to be happening this way at all. That, in fact, it is our lack of information, our lack of knowledge of, [our lack] of umavidya, of not having the light of knowledge, that our view was obscured to recognizing [that] this mic was always supposed to just sit down on something and wasn’t really designed to be a clip-on anyway. But just like the mic we make things that aren’t supposed to be working in a particular way, work. And the reason that we are able to do that is because all of the obscurations that we possess align themselves to support our illusions.
When we are truly unaware of something, when the situation has been colored by our ignorance, don’t you notice that everyone seems to play their part in supporting our continued ignorance. In fact, we’re very, very good, exceptional, at training everyone around us to play a part in our ignorance. We invite people and they accept a role in supporting the illusions. This must be true. How else could we keep them intact for as long, and in such a persistent and consistent way as we do, if it wasn’t for the fact that by tacit agreement, people learn, “Don’t ask him about that difficulty that he’s had with his wife”; “Don’t ask her what’s really going on while [she’s] not able to hold a job”; “Don’t ask him why it is that [he’s] not able to be consistent and accountable to things in [his] life?” Subtle things, that of course, all of us notice. Who doesn’t have someone in their life who has some glaring thing that is permitted to continue by the collective offering that, We will all pretend with you that
we don’t see this? Who doesn’t have someone in their life that they recognize that that is true [of]?
The problem is with people and you could say, Well, it’s none of our business because that’s that person’s life, and they have to live their life. And that is true. We could also say that we live in a society that has been crippled by “none of our business-ness.” Where “none of our business” is not a way of saying: I’ll be responsible for myself, and you’ll be responsible for yourself. Where what we’re saying is, I’m not going to look over there because I don’t want you to look over here. So we have this agreement that if, I don’t say anything about you, you won’t say anything about me and we’ll just keep this fascinating web of illusion intact. We do it first and foremost, with our families. We begin this amazing web making in our families and then it spreads out from there. We get out into school—well, maybe grade school is the only place where we stop doing it for a little while, because everybody just yells out what is actually happening, much to our chagrin. And that’s probably where [it] gets cemented that we shouldn’t do that. But we go on into our teenage and adult life building more and more complex agreements that keep our illusions in place.
In their great wisdom many, many spiritual teachers understood that there is an enormously effective antidote to that. It’s the sangha. The difference between coasting along in the everyday world and developing relationship with true sangha is that your sangha commits to not participating in the agreements that keep you in your illusion. That doesn’t mean that they fix you, that doesn’t mean that they have a right to interfere in your life. What it means is that they make an agreement to not put the blinders on whenever you ask them to. It means they break the covenant of I won’t say anything, if you don’t say anything, by being willing to bear witness to the truth of how it is that we’re showing up in the world.
I think that too often now we use the word sangha loosely. [We use it in the way] that anyone who’s in the general vicinity of the dharma, who’s just kind of near it somewhere [is our sangha]. In fact, if you ever even thought
about it, then you’re sangha. If you make it to a talk every week then you’re really sangha. And by golly, if you sit on a cushion or do your mantra practice, or do japa, or whatever your practice may be, then you’re sangha.
If we don’t lift the bar on our expectations of what it means to be sangha—of what it means to be community in that deep way in which community is no longer held intact in our culture—if we don’t raise the bar of expectation, then we run the risk of allowing our dharma community to become a mirror of that everyday world that enables our illusion.
It’s [all of] our responsibility, whether someone is doing a Buddhist thing or not, to go and develop and find true community. The kind of community that is willing, the kind of friends, the kind of respected spiritual friendship in which people are willing to hold your feet to the fire. Again, it’s not about being attacked, it’s about acknowledging, This behavior that you have doesn’t seem to be working for you and I wonder if there is something I might be able to do to help you; I feel like it’s important to acknowledge it and be clear that I won’t participate. That’s hard given the culture that we live in. It’s hard for us to do, to be the person that says that. And it’s certainly a challenge to be the person on the receiving end.
Martin Luther King said in his speech, “Anyone that believes that they are living alone is sleeping through the revolution. Anyone that believes that they can even begin to aspire to freedom alone is sleeping through the revolution.” You are missing the opportunity for your own freedom if you imagine in any way, shape or form that [it] is going to happen without the support, the solid support, of your chosen or implicit teacher, the set of teachings that create a container and guide you, and I think most profoundly, the community in which you root your practice of such teachings. The reason I say “most profoundly” is because at this time in our culture and history we are most sorely lacking community. We are most sorely lacking an understanding of what true community is. And we are most unwilling to do what is necessary to brave the storm and indignation and the discomfort of building true community. And it’s really what you to be in this world that we are all part of.
When I do talks in other places, I often refer to the debate of whether or not we are red states or blue states, whether or not Bush won the election or stole the election. Basically, we are in a place where we are determining how our entire country should be run on the basis of margins of four or five percent of the people. And there’s something really wrong with that.
So, what’s for dinner? Split pea soup? Well, five of us think we should just have green eggs and ham instead—green eggs and ham hocks! And so on the basis of that, we should all have that because we are the majority. This is what we are considering democracy. This is what we are quibbling over. And no wonder we have a lack of willingness to support community. Because if we believed in community, if we believed in relationship we would toss out, quickly, any system that says that three out of eight people should live in conditions that are unsuitable and unsatisfactory to them just because the other five said so.
We wouldn’t quibble and cajole over that one person that maybe we can get over to our side. Then you all will start pulling on her [to get her] back to the other side, and every four years we’ll just quibble over this one person, pull[ing] her back and forth. In fact, we’ll spend millions of dollars trying to get Emma to come over to the vegetarian side and billions of dollars, billions of dollars, trying to get Emma to come back to the green eggs and ham side. That’s basically what our politics look like right now. And if we believed in community, we would toss this system right out.
We would toss it out for a system that sought to invite the input that allowed us to have satisfying conditions for everyone that is part of this community. It is our deep fear that prevents us from doing this. Our fear that if we allow everyone to have satisfying conditions, there isn’t going to be enough. And if we allow everyone to come to the table and be a part of the discussion and to really be heard, then it means we also all have to be seen, because you can’t be just heard without being seen. If everyone comes to the table and we are all going to get to be seen, it means that I’m going to get to be seen too. So I’d much rather use my force to just bend things in the direction of my
preferences. Forget the fact that they’re not working, that I see that they are not working for me. Forget that. Forget the fact that we know that the way we are treating the environment is not working.
If I do differently, if I ask that it be done differently, it means that I have to be on display. I have to be witness for who I am and I have to come to terms with the way in which things are not working. And I don’t want to do that. It would be radical for us to begin looking for every place in our life [in which] that is happening and [where] we are participating in that and say, Enough. We won’t participate in this anymore. We are going to look for support, [and] cultivate whole communities, whole sanghas, true sanghas in which we are willing to see and be seen. So that we can begin the very, very difficult work of bringing into alignment all of which we recognize that is no longer working for us, and actually [begin] making things work better.