Heart of Sangha ~ Sangha Day Full Moon Valentines

All dear Friends of Our Sangha,

Warm greetings from the cool mists blanketing moist and newly verdant land, birds singing, pink and white blossoms bursting forth on fruit trees beneath the full moon, shining.

I have been wanting to write to you to wish you blessings in this Lunar New Year since emerging from my secluded period of winter retreat time more than a week ago, heart full of gratitude for our Sangha, and for this Path.

This morning too, in the pre-dawn hours, moonlight glowing in the fog, i sat deeply contemplating the Heart of Sangha, the meaning of Sangha and it's blessings.

Sangha as Refuge ~ Sangha as Jewel

As many of you know, this full moon tonight is a special time of gathering in commemoration of the Sangha in South and Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism. From the early days of the Blessed One's career as an Awakened Teacher, we remember the first homecoming and regathering of the Sangha and the Blessed One's teaching of the Ovada Patimokkha to the first gathering of both the first and second generation of his Sangha. We remember his formal recognition of his great disciples' leadership, and his sharing the lamp of leadership with them. Of his investing great value and worth in the Sangha as the true heirs of his Sasana-- his Dispensation and Teaching. It was from this time that the Three Refuges was established by him as an essential means of ordination; the first having been with him alone.

Buddha teaching the Ovada Patimokkha beneath the Magha full moon (*see endnote)
picture courtesy Oi Phanitcha

Now both the Dhamma and the Sangha jewels also shone fully in the world together with the jewel and refuge of the Buddha himself.

We remember the very many hundreds and thousands of men and women whose hearts have been touched and opened and transformed by their contact with these Jewels, and who found refuge, even the final refuge of their lives therein -- freedom! And how that process, the passing on of the refuge, the sharing of the jewels, has continued to work its liberating blessings, and despite very many political turmoils and vicissitudes, has been passed down to us today, continuing to work its many hallmark blessings and liberation.

On this day we remember and commemorate the first Buddhist council when the disciples of the Buddha gathered with the thought to preserve and pass this teaching down to us, such that it might last a long time, and be of great and ultimate benefit to as many loving beings as possible, for as long as possible.

And they were successful.

For now, whether somewhere north or south, east or west, even in the statuary form image of a Buddha standing or sitting in stone in someone's garden, we feel the dedication of a space of solace and peaceful refuge. Not to mention the intuition or the knowing that such embodiment is actually possible in our lived lives. And the Jewel of the Dhamma is still available, in fact perhaps all the more so, and is such a great encouragement and inspiration and guide! And all of this has come down to us via the Sangha, all of it is known to us via the Sangha. It is in the presence and present reality of the Sangha that it all has real active relevance to us and to our lives. For, as we see others growing and benefiting in the Path, we know it is possible for us too. As we see ourselves growing and benefiting, we know the fruits of the Path, and we know others can also benefit. This is the greatest inspiration! The Sangha Jewel truly comes alive in our hearts.

Women's Role in the Sangha & Women's Liberation

Mahaprajapati Gautami image at the Prajna Mountain Forest Refuge, Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I would like to especially mention women's liberation here. The more i learn about history over time, and about our contemporary human world, the more i appreciate this part.

We think that the Buddha lived about the 6th century BCE. Within the time of Alexander's incursions into India in the 4th century BC in his quest for world empire, we find records of what would or should have been considered a heresy in light of the Buddha's early teachings. We find the idea enter and take root that women are not capable of fulfillment on the spiritual path, not capable of awakening. Some non-Buddhist texts assert women are not capable of jhana, others that woman is not equally able to practice supreme asceticism, and still others that she is biologically unsuited to leadership. The Jain Sangha remembers itself to have split, in large part, over this issue. Buddhism too, in its social and cultural adaptivity and syncretism, began to show varioustrends of response. And the Indian Dharma-shastras that arose in the wake of the Indo-Greek kingdoms and culture very much incorporated, developed and expounded such ideas, until finally, after centuries of such development, they became the law of the land.

I am amazed and deeply appreciate that something of the early vision of women's liberation in Buddhism has survived to be passed down to us. I am deeply glad for those radical awakened ones, over time, who have kept this lamp alight. For although our contemporary world is not at all free of gender discrimination or gender violence, the clear and liberating vision of such awakened ideas still calls, still resonates with so many of us now, and serves as lighthouse and shining beacon. My heart leaps forth in answer to the call to live and serve this vision.

Among the many wonderful and important reasons to remember and commemorate this full moon day is the reason of one woman. Although she was a woman who transcended all bounded self views, including gender, just as her awakened male arahant peers, she is still very much remembered as a woman, a wife and a mother. And as a woman awakened. She is Maha Pajapati Gotami (Sanskrit: Maha Prajapati Gautami), the women credited with founding the great original Bhikkhuni Order in Buddhism. And this full moon, at least according to one rendition of the Tipitaka, is the day of her great passing, together with many of her awakened kinswomen, into Parinibbana, final Nirvana.

Although she entered into monastic life at the late age of 80 after the death of her husband, according to the texts, she lived till the great old age of 120, and is remembered as truly living a life of complete heart's dedication to Sangha. The Blessed One eulogized her as a great tree, giving shelter and nourishment to many, as a lioness leader of the pride, and as a great she-elephant able to lead a victory campaign in the war over the defilements of the heart.

Metta Paricariya ~ Labor of Love

This is where the true labor of love in the Sangha arises. We have the sense of true refuge in our hearts, and something in the Buddha, the Dhamma and/or the Sangha has touched into that. The Sangha as "a safe and secure refuge for all beings" is a part of our daily chants of refuge. When other's hearts are completely pure and clear and clean, we know that safe refuge in them. When our own hearts are completely pure and clear and clean, we know that safe refuge in ourselves. Our own hearts become such a safe and secure refuge for all beings.

But this is rightly a Path of Practice, and most of us are in process.

"heart shaped water on lotus leaf" | photo courtesy of Green Renaissance by Patrick

Thus the refuge that we give ourselves to with all our hearts, with all of our mindfulness and energy, must be in the process, and in the path of practice, not only in the vision of the Goal and the Goal, but not at all separated from it either. And the love, compassion and appreciation that we feel, together with the most needed equanimity to pass through everything, must be for ourselves and personally and communally for one another in this process, not only as end result in the final and ultimate purity of Nibbana. Through this individual and communal process of smelting the gold ore in ourselves, in our hearts, our hearts and minds are purified. And they shine forth in this process, and in meeting others in it.

Finally, sooner or later, when we are truly ready, as our foremother Maha Pajapati Gotami, the Blessed One himself, and all the members of our Sangha who have lived the path to its end, the work done, we realize the great quenching of all thirst, the great going out, the supreme and final bliss of final Nibbana.

I leave you with this verse that the Buddha spoke in eulogy of Maha Gotami after seeing her cremation, while holding her crematory relics in his almsbowl, before them being given over by him for enshrinement in a stupa in Vesali on a February full moon twenty six centuries ago.

Maha Gotami's entry into the inconceivable:

When struck by a piece of iron in a blazing fire,
[she blazed up, and now]
as the fire gradually becomes calm and cool, it's destination is not known --
So too for those who are completely liberated,
Who have crossed beyond the flood and bondage of sense pleasures.
For those who have attained such unshakable happiness,
There is no destination to be pointed out.

-- the Buddha speaking of Maha Pajapati Gotami Theri after her Parinibbana
Gotami Apadana, February full moon, ~2557 years ago 

In the love of Sangha,

wishing all joy in the Path,
and that indescribable final bliss,

Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni


- Magha Puja/Sangha Day Celebrations & Observance at Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont -- Saturday Feb 15, 10 am to 2 pm (and other local Thai, Lao and Cambodhian Buddhist temples)

- "Significance of Navam Poya" (in Sri Lanka) [Article - The Island]

- Live Dhamma Talk: "Looking Upon One Another with Kindly Eyes: the Incredible Value of Sangha" [Yoga Mendocino Feb 19, 2014 with Ayya Tathaaloka]

- "Going Forth & Going Out ~ The Mahaparinibbana of Mahapajapati Gotami" [Article - Ayya Tathaaloka]

- "History (or Her-story) of Women in Buddhism" [Video - Ayya Tathaaloka]

- "Amazing Transformations" (on the development and evolution of gender trends in Buddhism) [Article - Ayya Tathaaloka]

- "A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha's Mother's Story" [Article - Jonathan Walters]

Endnote re: the Bamboo Grove full moon painting

This lovely painting of the Magha Puja full moon gathering at the Bamboo Grove should not be taken to mean that the Buddha himself or all his disciples were white, or of one race, or nationality or color. According to the texts, the Buddha himself was of golden skin with blue/green eyes. His foremost leading disciples where of dark and light skin, and his Sangha at this time had become multi-national. For more on this subject look and listen here: http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/468/talk/21102/
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