out to save the world?

outtosaveworldA new book has just been published: Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. Having purchased it myself and read chunks of it, I can safely say that it is a throroughly readable and utterly compelling study of some of the many intentional communities around the world, a study that is nevertheless academically rigorous and backed by copious and meticulously detailed footnotes and references. Readers of this blog would be fascinated by this book as it contains a chapter about someone’s experience within the NKT. Yes, folks, you read that right: there is a book out there now that contains an account of life within the NKT, “warts ‘n all”! That alone makes this book ground-breaking and worth reading just for that.

I wrote a review for the book, which is now on the amazon.co.uk website:

I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.

I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.

All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.

The Three Compassions

We can consider compassion from three points of view. Each of these points of view is a more subtle understanding of compassion, and hence harder to understand, or to see. They correspond to Atisha’s three scopes.

Manifest Suffering

This is the suffering that most people understand, and the compassion that arises from it. People are in pain from illness, wounding, hunger, destitution. We know this suffering and we choose to do what we can, according to our compassion and our resources. General dharma seeks to increase our ability to feel compassion, and to spread it no matter the cause, fault, or relationship. This is seen sometimes as the heart of the Mahayana, and the zenith of the Hinayana.

Release from the Cycle

The intermediate scope relates to release from the cycle of suffering. We have to understand that suffering is now understood as the second of Buddha’s noble truths. In the first practice we use Buddha’s first noble truth as the basis for our compassion. Now we must understand the second truth – how suffering arises. Without this understanding of the teaching we cannot practise the second compassion for we have no basis on which to separate it from the first compassion. A Bodhisattva practising the second compassion must understand the causes of suffering according to Buddha’s instruction, and focus upon them to the exclusion of the first.
What are the causes of suffering? They are karma and delusion. Knowing this the bodhisattva of the intermediate scope practices the abhidharma to understand delusions, and examines patterns to find the meaning of karma. Our perception of karma increases as we practise this meditation on karma and the arising of delusions. Eventually we can begin to see the patterns in ourselves, which is the basis for renunciation, and the patterns within others, which is the basis of the second compassion.
It is possible to alter our own patterns of karma through effort, and our own delusion through conscientiousness. But it is not possible to change the patterns of others. So our compassion appears deceptive. We experience the suffering of others upon their causes more than they do, but we are unable to help. Our reduction of ignorance allowing us to see the suffering produced by the causes of karma and delusion in others arise from our own attempts to reduce our own causes for suffering. And this growing wisdom, allowing us to see karma in others, allows us to begin to formulate methods to help them based on wisdom, example, patience and love. We begin to practise the six perfections, and others, for the sake of helping others release themselves from karma.
We have become a bodhisattva helping others release themselves from samsara through practising renunciation.

The Path

Compassion for the path means that a Bodhisattva looks to see other buddhists practising a path that does not lead directly to Buddhahood, and develops compassion. What practices do not lead to buddhahood? All the practices of the first, and third doors to Liberation, do not lead directly to buddhahood. Bodhisattvas are born from the second door to liberation. Only the practise of love and compassion lead to bodhicitta, and only bodhicitta can lead to buddhahood. So, a bodhisattva contemplates the paths and actions of other buddhist, or spiritual practitioners, and develops compassion for them. This compassion is practical in that it guides practitioners to bodhicitta. Enlightenment occurs from the supreme path, and all practitioners, even bodhisattvas, must reach this.