Good Friends, Generosity and Community


Imagine it’s the last day of your life.

Climb up into your own personal way-back machine and look back now. What do you see?

Where was the joy and sorrow? How did you spend your time and with whom? Take your time. What comes back?

Our lives are so short, over in a flash. Each moment we have is precious and lasts only for a fraction of a second; a flash of lightning. A soap bubble. Each moment is really all we’ve got. The rest is either over or hasn’t gotten here yet – so those moments don’t even really exist. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “We’re only alive, when we’re alive.” Think about it.

Even those of us who really dig our solitude need at least a little community.

Even the hermit in his cave relies on the rest of us to maintain our biggest community, our collective world, this precious jewel planet, earth. No earth? No cave.

But more than that, we NEED community to help keep us strong, upright, on the right path. When someone takes the precepts in Buddhism, or vows of conduct/faith in many of the world’s wonderful spiritual traditions, what we’re really agreeing to, is to live a moral life. And generally, we do this in front of the rest of our spiritual community, our Sangha, because the people in this community are the ones who will help us when we falter on our won path.

Because, like, we ALL make promises and then break them despite our best intentions. We make New Year’s resolutions. Say we’ll do one thing but then do another. Fail to follow through.

The Buddha tells us the way through all this mess. Buddha. Dharma, Sangha. We take refuge here. We find our community here.

For all the emphasis on meditation retreats or tales of solitary monks and so forth, it can be easy to forget how much we love community, rely on it in good times and rough. Think how happy we are when it springs up spontaneously on the bus of silent commuters, when someone decides to share a little of themselves, some insight, a joke, compassion. In the hair salon, the barbershop, the baseball game. If you want to experience unbounded joy in community, go to any Red Sox game at Fenway park in Boston and sing Sweet Caroline without crying tears of joy. The celebrations at the Berlin Wall in 1989 were outbursts of pure, unmitigated joy that crossed race, religion, gender. I thought my heart would explode from all the happiness of being there in the middle of it.


In a perfect world, community invites everyone one in.

At the center I help run in Little Village or at Calm Chicago, all are welcome; young, old, big, small, this or that religion, sexual orientation. And why? Because in real community, all the labels drop away. We don’t need them. They divide rather than unite us. We need all of us, need to celebrate all of us equally. If there’s any guideline maybe it’s just this; the quality or intention of your heart and mind.

In Sangha, or spiritual community, we want to feel safe and supported and we do this with values, with morality, compassion, a sense of openness, of welcoming. The actual number of truly dangerous psychopaths is small. how much can we open our hearts?

We need to see that community isn’t some perfection thing, a little slice of perfect heaven. Or rather there’s the recognition that the perfection is in being okay with what is. Of course, we’ll have conflicts, disagreements, but we can resolve them open heartedly with mindful listening, with our intention set on the highest good. It becomes easier to do this as we practice because we realize more and more with direct experience, that not only are all our moments precious, but so all of our lives are precious. Mine. Yours. That grouchy guy at the office. The screaming woman in the park. All precious. All holy.

Then our spiritual community becomes everywhere we go. Where ever we are, we work together to stand guard like a sentry guarding the palace gates against thieves. We guard our hearts and minds, what we think, say and do, our interactions with others, always checking to see how are we doing? Are we being nice, acting with generosity, wisdom, loving-kindness? Or are we acting from greed, anger and delusion?

When we live together this way we help keep each other safe from injury and violence, from shame, from all kinds of suffering that can occur, that will occur when we misstep, say something too fast, too thoughtlessly.  We crave safety so much that sometimes we do things like shoot someone. We say unspeakable things. We undercut each other. The little reptile in our the back of brains goes berserk! This kind of action though common enough, arises from deep a misunderstanding, a delusion.  The Buddha told us the only way to fight hate is with love. That’s it. Fighting hate with hate only makes more hate.


What can we do?

Real safety arises when we give it to each other like a gift.

It helps to have the kind of friends around who agree. So what are good friends anyway? Lots of times, we may think of great parties we’ve been to, fast and crazy times. But the Buddha saw that people who just want to party hard aren’t going to help us enjoy a spiritual path or rid the world of any suffering. We all know that those party buddies are often actually a source of trouble for us and others. just think for a second of the trouble that comes from excesses; drinking and driving for example. Of course there are others. I don’t need to tell you.

The Buddha says there are four kinds of people worthy of friendship and that we should spend time with these kinds of folks most often. Bhikku Bodhi reminds us that especially as beginners on a spiritual path, when our new direction is life is delicate and not yet firmly established, we really need wise friends to help us stay on course. I’m partial to Geri Larkin’s description of these guidelines for friends in her book, Stumbling Toward Enlightenment:

1. The good hearted one who will render you help.

2. The good hearted one who will participate in your wealth and woe with the same feelings as his own.

3. The good hearted one who will cause the advancement of your prosperity.

4. The good hearted one who will ever have compassion towards you.

Why these four?

Because they will help us create the best kind of community, free of greed, anger, hatred, and delusion. We should strive to be this kind of friend ourselves and look at those we associate with now. This may mean, that some relationships we let go if they aren’t really good for us.

We get what we give


So, what can we all do? how can each of us create community even with the smallest of our actions, smallest words?

  • Take time to practice meditation. This will allow us to see our minds and slowly make adjustments.
  • Start with generosity. We can all do that. It’s not just about the $. Small actions. Smile. Wave. Prepare to be amazed.

We get what we give. We are already connected. When we realize that, we can never look away from the truth again.

We get what we give. May we all foster peace, freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Carpe Pacem everyone,




Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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