Ubuntu by Robert Beatty, December 2003

Primary tabs

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human… You share what you have. It is to say, “My human-ity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think, therefore I am.” It is rather, “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. — Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness.

In 1983, two distinguished Buddhist teachers, Anagarika Munindra and a woman named Krishna from India, came to teach in the United States. I had studied with them in Bodh Gaya and Calcutta and was asked to assist with a retreat near Vancouver BC, and to host them in Portland.

By the time they got to Portland Krishna and Munindra-ji had been in the United States for several months. In her Dharma talks and conversations Krishna returned repeatedly to the theme of loneliness and isolation. She said, sometimes with tears in her eyes, “You Americans have everything you could want in possessions and wealth, but there is such a great sadness and loneliness!”

Western culture, in response to the needs of industry and materialism has demanded that we become mobile and that our ties to family, community and place become secondary to the “freedom” to move. The popular notion of a healthy self includes not needing, or serving, others. We have developed a very odd notion that we should be able to live as islands, alone and content. It is taken as a badge, or test, of maturity that we live alone for some extended period of time.

Sometimes meditation and the spiritual life can be used to reinforce this sense of isolation. We can read into the Buddha’s teachings an exhortation to be alone, to follow the path of the lone warrior and battle our way to enlightenment in isolation. After all, Siddhartha left home and family, set off on his quest alone and ultimately experienced awakening alone under the Bodhi tree. Let’s not forget that during the forty-five years after his awakening he created, nourished and developed spiritual com-munity. He understood it to be so crucial that Sangha became one of the three refuges along with Buddha and Dharma.

For 25 years PIMC has provided a place to meditate on a regular basis. It has grown into a Sangha that provides much more than a place to meditate. One may now develop a sense of belonging to PIMC, where spiritual friendship can be cultivated, and where we can learn about our-selves through interaction with others.

Last summer during Ajahn Chandako’s visit to Portland he spoke appreciatively of the sense of connectedness at PIMC. His observation is that for most Westerners it is essential to develop a sense of belonging before their meditation can progress very deeply.

In a truly spiritual organization the awakening of the participants is held as the highest value. Whatever projects are undertaken, the under-lying purpose is the development of compassion, lovingkindness and awareness.

The more we rub shoulders, the more we encounter liking and disliking, pleasure and pain. Inevitably we enjoy harmony and content-ment and suffer disagreements and friction. Dukkha arises as we cling to our beliefs, demands and expectations. Setting goals, making plans and acting in the world create opportunities for the practice of skillful thought, speech and action. Our Sangha and all that it entails is the foundation of our spiritual life.

Participation in PIMC may be an antidote the problem of loneliness that Krishna observed. It may also help us to manifest ubuntu. It provides a context in which we may experience a sense of belonging and many occasions for learning about who we are through relationship with each other. The more deeply we engage, the more we will grow as individuals and as a community.