The Community of Spiritual Traditions
by Bill Sutton
Spiritual traditions provide the ground that fosters genuine human community.
They bond us deeply in a common view of the world and our relationship to it. Buddhists have experienced this first-hand in our sangha [community], which we “take refuge” in every morning during our meditation, and before and after meals, and before we go to bed. Beyond being merely an ingredient needed for our personal liberation from confusion [the Buddhist notion of enlightenment], the sangha provides an environment where deep-rooted spiritual principles come to life beyond our personal concerns—making our meditation practice relevant to the world at large. The more we Buddhists immerse ourselves in practicing and studying the teachings of our tradition, the more deeply we are able to connect with other practitioners at an intuitive heart level free from complications and doubt. This brings the teachings into reality and amplifies the effect of our individual practice.
This symbiotic relationship between individual tradition holder and community is true of other authentic traditions as well, of course.
It is a major ingredient in what Shambhalian Buddhists refer to as enlightened society. But we bodhisattva practitioners are also both drawn and pushed to look beyond our little “spiritual group” to a larger vision: How can we connect the wisdom and living relationship with the sacred world we have unearthed to the larger community of all beings—and particularly to the other humans that surround us on this planet? The point, from a Buddhist point of view, is not to proselytize or get anyone to sign on any dotted line—but rather, simply, to be of benefit and help others.
As the forces of commerce and technological development speed modern life toward a frantic pace, the global community increasingly finds its spiritual and communal life threatened by the forces of materialism. Individually and communally, we are all scrambling to make money, to survive. In meeting the demands of modern life, we find it increasingly difficult to eek out a little time each day to maintain our spiritual practices, nurture our families, and foster deep connections with our neighbors and friends. And for many of us humans, our sense of community has become the lives we vicariously live through TV shows and movies.
For those old enough to remember it, the reality of today is markedly different than even that of 40 years ago when Buddhism planted its first serious roots in the West. The ability of marketers to influence our innermost desires has become much more powerful. Concurrently, we are becoming increasingly alienated from our neighbors and communities, finding it more difficult to fully open and trust each other. Over the past hundreds of years, our civilization has been gradually losing a sense of the sacred living world that surrounds us. Buddhists call this the dark age, and in these uncertain times, we need spirituality and community – not just with those in our personal spiritual traditions, but with those in other traditions as well – more than ever before. But like Tower of Babel survivors, we have a hard time understanding each other – often getting caught up in the differences between our languages and missing the common sacred outlook that composes the heart of our traditions.
Across the world there are still many relatively untouched indigenous spiritual traditions – traditions that have sustained ancient human wisdom in how to maintain deep relationships with each other and the sacred world to the present day. Many are much older than western history recounts. As an example, the Hopi tradition recounts 500,000 years in their historical records, spanning several world ages of human growth and destruction. Most of these traditions have such small, unmoneyed communities that they do not even make it onto our collective cultural radar. There are numerous traditions around the world that modern man has summarily dismissed as “primitive” without a second thought. If anything, we study them for anthropological research, like studying cute animals in a zoo, blanketly discounting their wisdom and traditions as primitive myths and superstitions. Almost all of these traditions function at odds with our technological “advances” and our modern view that the world is composed of mere resources for personal exploitation, convenience and profit.
With the rapid spread of modern techno-society, the world’s original traditions are all threatened with extinction. Many of these traditions carry knowledge of extraordinary healing traditions – millennial-old wisdom of how to heal the individual and community both spiritually and physically. Along with the traditions, these jewels of wisdom are also threatened. For these traditions to survive, they need greater help than any can provide themselves.
Many years ago, when the indigenous peoples of North America found themselves being pushed off their ancestral land by European settlers arriving in droves to create a new freer life, leaders of the five nations composing the Iroquois Confederacy each brought an arrow to a sacred gathering. Binding these arrows together, they vowed to find their common ground, to stop fighting with one another, and to unite against a common enemy. This profound move enabled them to protect their spiritual traditions and way of life up to the present day.
It is time for the authentic traditions of this world to make a similar bond of support and cooperation, instead of each just focusing on its on survival.
Shambhala’s Indigenous Connections
Many will remember the Trungpa Rinpoche’s determined mission to gather the sacred relationships, wisdom, and living essence of the world’s authentic traditions, and to give them a home under the Shambhala banner. He had a vision of making living relationships with the sacred deities of this world, and inviting them to support us in creating an enlightened society. In his 1983 trip to Japan, he invited Amaterasu Omikami – the indigenous Japanese goddess of the Sun – to come live at the Kami Shrine at SMC. He talked of making relationships with the sacred deities of Wu Tang Mountain in China, a vision Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche continued in a recent trip to Tibet. He even talked of his dream of going to Mount Sinai to ask the great Western deity Jehovah for his support. At one point he gave a talk to a gathering of a western secret society, where he talked to them about basic goodness and the importance of maintaining their traditions. And in presenting the Shambhala tradition, he preserved many aspects of the indigenous Bon tradition of Tibet, including the teachings on lungta, drala, werma, and wangtang.
In addition to His Holiness the Karmapa’s famous meeting with the Hopi Elders, Trungpa Rinpoche had some notable mind-meetings with elders from indigenous traditions. In the early 1970’s he met Little Joe Gomez, head of the North American Peyote Church, whom he really liked and in whom he saw a very high-level realization. In the 1980’s, he had a historic meeting with the Oglala Sioux shaman-chief, Gerald Red Elk, at the Magyal Pomra Encampment Grounds at SMC. After talking for about 40 minutes, Trungpa Rinpoche said, “I think we can work together. It is very magical.” Giving Gerald Red Elk a copy of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Red Elk said, “The sacred path of the warrior, this is what we believe in. The honor is there. The honor is there.” The Vidyadhara later commented, “He understood the whole book, just from the cover.”
I find myself both saddened and inspired in remembering Trungpa Rinpoche’s great vision for caring for the authentic traditions of this world. I am one of many Shambhalians who have had profound encounters with healers from other indigenous traditions, and I know they have a great deal to offer in curing the ills of our society.
Remembering the Vidyadhara’s tender love for all aspects of this world inspires me to do whatever I can to encourage our sangha to fulfill his heartfelt aspirations. We need to begin encountering and reaching a non-superficial understanding of other authentic traditions. This will involving moving beyond a new-agey all-religions-are-one mish-mash as well as getting over our snapshot opinions that we know what a tradition is doing just by the words they use. And we will be profoundly challenged to overcome our spiritual arrogance, thinking our tradition is superior to all others. But like the tribes of the Iroquois, we need to find a common ground, protect each other, and support each other in continuing our traditions.
But where do we start?
The InterSpiritual Conference
In 2007, the Sacred Fire Community brought together elders, lineage holders, and accomplished practitioners from many traditions – Dagara, Onandaga, Hawaiian, Bon, Hindu, Sufi, and Huichol. They invited the Sakyong, who sent President Reoch to represent the Shambhala tradition. Held in a ritually empowered space, each presenter had time to offer experiential teachings from his or her lineage and to have unstructured time with those in attendance. We had presentations of music from those who carried musical lineages, and gathered around the fire to here Chief Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onandaga nation and newly appointed board member of the Bioneers, introduce us to the deities inhabiting the land around which we were sitting (which used to be his tribe’s land). Far from being merely speakers, many of the presenters were empowered shamans in their respective lineages. Over the course of the conference, we all began to have glimpses of a natural common ground – if not in similarities of the traditions themselves – in the earthy spirit, humor, sadness and joy that accompanies serious students of any authentic tradition.
The second conference will be held at Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Southern California, March 12 – 15 of this year. Shambhala has once again been asked to be involved, and President Reoch asked senior teacher Dan Hessey to represent our community. This year they have found some additional speakers, including lineage holders in the Mayan and Ute indigenous traditions of the Americas.
I think many of us will find this conference both heart-warming and profound, challenging and humorous. I hope those with a genuine interest will find the time to attend.
For more information, visit the 2009 InterSpiritual Conference web site.