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A Buddhist perspective on Church

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In the Buddhist language of Pali, the closest word to church is Vihara which means dwelling or refuge. One of the Buddha's refuges is Sangha or the community of people that follow the teaching of the Buddha. Another word used in conjunction with dwellings and the Sangha is temple. One of the main techniques in Buddhism as a way to realise what the Buddha was pointing to is contemplation. You may have noticed that in the word contemplation is ‘temple'.  So one explanation of contemplation means to stand inside of a temple.[1] So the question is: what do you want to contemplate and where do you want to dwell?


Meditating alone and in a community

There are many ways to contemplate and the way I use it can be divided into two parts. One is where you take a word or phrase and use your intellect to understand it, and the other is a more reflective process, where you let the mind calm down and then allow the wisdom in by using the power of intention. For example, in writing this essay, I may first research on the web about ‘church' and Buddhist meanings of it. I may then take that information into my sitting or walking contemplation time, playing with it internally, seeing the textures, the qualities, what it feels like. Then I let that all be and withdraw conscious attention from it but keep the intention of knowing that an essay has to be produced about it. So in sitting or walking meditation I allow the mind to receive, and suddenly, like a hand appearing from a calm pond, a thought will appear in the mind and there is a sense of knowing that this is something that I can use with the article.


This is the power of the mind and intention; where you direct your thoughts will become manifest in your actions. If your mind inclines towards unwholesome thoughts, then if you are not aware of them, you will start to act them out. The same can be applied to wholesome thoughts and how they can direct your actions. In order to allow yourself the space to receive, an attitude of welcoming or acceptance is helpful. In the beginning meditation can be difficult because you are going against what most mainstream education teaches, which is to discriminate, to divide up the world into subject and object. So, meditating and being with a community, or being with friends, is helpful in counterbalancing this. In the monastic scene, the Buddha suggests that this is the essence of the religious life, to have spiritual friends.


Once friends start to come together, then they want a place to meet and so temples develop to support the practice.  The important thing is not to get caught up in the belief that the temple, or retreat centre, or your special room, is the only place where you can practise. So contemplation helps to keep this in perspective, so that the teachings can flow through you, can express themselves through you whilst not being ‘yours'. Also using contemplation, you can start to understand the architecture of religious buildings, the way they point you back to oneness, such as in the form of a spire, or to a specific teaching. Focusing on some of these teachings can be used when the mind is restless or agitated to help calm the mind. One approach is to move the mind, or incline it towards one of the four divine abidings or dwellings.


Let it be

In Pali these divine dwellings are called metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. In English metta means loving kindness, which is an unconditional acceptance. It's not that you like something or even agree with it, but that you accept it for what it is. For example, somebody is nasty to you, so you can choose to accept the situation for what it is, rather than generating more hatred or ill-will, which usually wastes a lot of energy and spirals into irresolvable situations. By allowing the situation to be what it is, the mind calms down, and again some natural wisdom can arise, which could be that you speak with the person, or you choose not be around them.  Karuna means compassion, and for me this means to be passionate with somebody. It's to take an interest in what is going on. I really like this saying from Cheri Huber about this:


A compassionate person may be what we call nice and polite,

but compassion does not try to be nice and polite.

Nice and polite comes from conditioning.

Compassion comes from the heart

and our shared connectedness.


Mudita is sympathetic joy. It helps with jealousy. Can you see the joy in somebody wining a million pounds on the lottery rather than thinking, ‘I wish it was me, I really need it.' It also allows one to listen to what is going on, to empathise. If you are always with your thoughts then you never really know what is going on, I found this a rather miserable place to be. When I choose to listen with all my senses, that moment becomes alive, both with internal thoughts and outside situations. Upekkha means being balanced, not being pulled around by one's own or others' emotions but seeing them for what they are. Again this gives you the ability to respond in a more natural way. It gives you both space and time before you choose an action.


So realising your true nature or your real home is one of way of using contemplation to understand oneself. That is using your body/mind as a temple, a place of worship and gathering. Even within this temple there are so many voices, at least in my head there are. Mother and Father, the Control Freak, the Anarchist, and a way of liberating yourself from this is with this attitude of acceptance and knowing. So the question is: why do you choose the friends you have and where do you meet them?

[1] Ajahn Sucitto - Forest Sangha Newsletter no. 40

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