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Four Gifts

Chairs Homily – January 2024

Once again we have gone around the whole year and are starting again. We seem to place some importance to the new year. It is interesting that we quickly move away from the obvious, that time is continuous, it is continually changing, and try to give it a start, an end, and sometimes even a ‘now’. This need to have an understanding of life, in small acceptable chunks is a false view we return to again and again. Even in Buddhism we find it has some traditions that have tried to split time and things into discrete permanent irreducible items or ‘dharmas’, forgetting about the basic principle of Pratītya-samutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or conditionality.

We enter this year with the results of last year. At the end of last year our two Mitra Convenors, Carumani and Viryamati, took the difficult decision to step-down from those Centre roles; for different but important personal reasons. So we, and more specifically the Ipswich Mitra Sangha enter a new year without the support of their Mitra Convenors. That might sound dramatic, but in actuality, all our Mitras and those thinking of becoming Mitras will be well looked after by the Ipswich Order as a whole. Just in case you don’t know, ‘Mitra’ is an ancient central Indian word for friend.

So I thought it might be a good time to have a look at the Mitra system, as some of you might be thinking about becoming a Mitra and would like to understand a bit more about what a Mitra does and also what a Mitra Convenor does. It also might be helpful to those who are Mitras to review what being a Mitra is all about.

So let’s start with looking at what a Mitra is and why it is such a big and important step on one’s progress within Buddhism.

We can compare becoming a Mitra with joining a Health Club or Gym. To join a Gym you have a quick health check, pay your joining fee, then you are a member. Then as long as you pay a monthly charge, you are a member. Now let me reassure you, becoming a Mitra is not like that. It is not based on a financial transaction but rather based on a spiritual transaction, and that transaction is one of true friendship. Those who become Mitras are changing their current spiritual position for a higher Spiritual Position. This is not a straight forward and simple procedure. Like going to the Gym, the more work and visits you do the bigger your muscles will become. Similarly, the more Dharma practice you do the bigger will become your spiritual muscle, your Virya (spiritual energy for the good).

In a conversation with Ananda, his attendant and constant companion, the Buddha said that friendship is ‘the whole of the spiritual life’. This is a teaching which we in Triratna take very seriously indeed. In fact, Friendship is one of the Six Distinctive emphases of the Triratna Community. As a brief aside, we have just spent the last few weeks on Mitra Night, exploring Triratna’s Distinctive Emphases and getting to understand what they mean for us at the Ipswich Buddhist Centre.
We encourage people to build deep and lasting friendships. This emphasis we place on friendship is quite possibly one of the most important things we have to offer. This is especially so when many people nowadays lack deep meaningful friendships. For many reasons we can end up cut-off from old friends and our wider family. Male friendship, in particular, has suffered a strong decline in recent years. This we see reflected in the very high, and increasing suicide rate amongst men. Twice the rate than amongst women. In an increasingly competitive world with, and ‘friendships’ being poorly defined by ‘social media’, many people don’t feel able to let down their guard with one another. More and more, we live individually or in small family units, with no significant outside friendships. This is not a healthy situation.

Friendship, and by that I mean true friendship not just followers, is a human necessity. But, as the Buddha says, friendship is also a spiritual practice. To make a deep friendship with another human being involves going beyond our own concerns and self-interest to meet them half-way. In particular, if the friendship is with someone more aware and emotionally positive than ourselves, then we can gain tremendously from the experience. In open communication with them we can be lifted on to their level. This aspect of friendship with people more advanced than ourselves is a central part of what we call the Mitra system.

We can also simply define being a Mitra as the point at which we decide that we are a Buddhist, and wish to be known as a follower of the Buddha.
This declaration of Sraddha (confidence, trust, devotion) is crucial and means you have decided to be a Buddhist, rather than a Muslim or Christian, etc. It may mean leaving behind the traditional religion or belief system of your family. It also means having a strong confidence in what the Buddha achieved and how you too can move towards that achievement, towards Enlightenment.
In some countries, that have a long Buddhist history that is integrated into their society, those people may culturally feel they are Buddhist. But in Ipswich, we are lucky to some extent, in that we have to make a conscious decision to be a Buddhist. We have to transform the self-view we have of who we are, to a view that says that we are now a Buddhist. But of course the changing of views doesn’t stop there, as it also means having to change how others see us. We need to explain to our friends and family that we are changing and that you would like their support in this endeavour.

Becoming a Mitra within the Triratna Movement is also confirming that you wish to train in Buddhism using the teachings that the Triratna movement make available. These teaching are those that you are already used too, as they are taught at the Buddhist Centre, covering a large range of Buddhist ideas and concepts that have emerged over two and a half thousand years of history and human endeavour. But it is a carefully curated set of teaching from that vast history and expanse of information that Buddhism can confusingly present to us, especially if we just randomly search the internet. This curated set of teachings has been collected and translated for the modern age by the founder of Triratna, Urgyen Sangharakshita. So becoming a Mitra also means taking up those particular teachings, gaining a deep understanding of them, and putting them into practice in our daily lives. We are a living Buddhist movement, living according to the Buddha’s instructions that come down to us through generations of Buddhist teachers.

The Buddha’s message is relatively simple, but is extremely difficult to put into practice, and many things that we do, (such as our view of time), cloud how we see the world, blocking out the Buddha’s message.

Another one of the special emphases of the Triratna Movement is the importance of Going For Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (often shortened to the initials ‘GFR’). All Buddhist traditions have some understanding of GFR but within the Triratna Community it is central to how we come to understand the Buddha’s path and our place on it.
There are five steps, or levels, in the Triratna Communities practical understanding of Going For Refuge. These 5 levels are: Cultural, Provisional, Effective, Real and Absolute. We could also refer to them as levels of commitment. We can say that being born into a Buddhist country or just coming along to the Budhhist Centre to see what Buddhism is about, to give it a try, is the first level of Going For Refuge. Becoming a Mitra is the second great step, stepping fully and consciously onto the path of Going For Refuge, our ‘Provisional’ step into the world of Buddhism.

So when we become a Mitra we are making a provisional commitment to Triratna Buddhism for the foreseeable future. However, at some point in the future that may change as our life develops.

We can also more poetically see this stepping forward into the Spiritual life, becoming a Mitra as joining a dance, a collective or a round dance where others are already skilfully and beautifully dancing. We have decided to no longer just watch the dance as a spectator from the side, but join the outer circle and start moving to the beat of the Dharma.

This is a significant event in our lives and to mark the occasion, we have a public ceremony during which our friends and family can witness us making that commitment. I can still strongly remember my own Mitra Ceremony, over 30 years ago now. It had a big effect on me, and on those witnessing the event too, people who attended still mention it to me. The effects of that evening have continued to ripple through my whole life.

So we can see that becoming a Mitra means stepping, decisively onto the Regular path of spiritual progression. As a Mitra we have gotten firmly onto that first step, we are Provisionally Going For Refuge. This is a commitment to Buddhism, a commitment to following a path towards Enlightenment. As I mentioned above, this commitment isn’t permanent, we have not completely re-arranged our whole life towards Enlightenment, that level of commitment may come later with the second step on the Path of Going For Refuge. This second great step is asking for and then becoming Ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order, but that’s for another time.

The dictionary definition of Provisional is ‘for the present time but likely to change ‘. We can see that being a Mitra is a Provisional state, and therefore we have to look after it. We have to feed it, feed it with the Dharma. It is very easy to step back off the Provisional step. In fact it is easier to step back than step forward. So becoming a Mitra means that you have to take on a level of work, extra work but vital work on yourself. Spiritually vital work. It is easy to return to old habits, the pull of the conditioned world, and just lead a mundane life, based on greed, anger and ignorance, the central drivers of the Wheel of Life.

We can stay in this Provisional state (and not fall back) by asking ourself to take a good look at our own ethical and moral sensibilities. This may mean having to give up certain things, such as meat or alcohol, but also take up certain positive things such as a daily meditation practice. None of this is easy, but trying to practise the Five Precepts and being clear about your own ethics leads to a deep contentment and peace of mind.

So we come to the question of what then do Mitras do? Well, Mitras practice and journey on the dharmic path towards Buddhahood, or as we might say, Enlightenment. They begin to see the world as it really is, so that they get glimpses of Reality. They work on and overcome their own wrong views and help others to also see more clearly. So Mitras may practice alone, but also importantly as part of the Mitra Sangha, a positive group whose members work collectively to ensure their mutual progression. This collective working is not only helpful but essential as it is very easy to get lost and lose heart when trying to stay on the Buddhist Path. As we come up against our own deeply held wrong views it takes good spiritual friends to keep us true. So sometimes we will be the helper, and sometimes we will be the helped.

Being a Mitra is about becoming an active part of the Triratna Community. You will probably already be attending a Newcomers or Friends class, but in addition there is a weekly class for Mitras, special day events and possibly you maybe interested in the four year study course. It also means that where possible you will want to contribute to the Buddhist Centre, maybe contributing your time and effort to one of the many Kulas that keep the Centre running. Also contributing financially by taking out a regular monthly donation to keep the lights and heating on, and the Centre looking at its best.
Just to give you an idea, it costs approximately £100 per day to run the Centre.

Becoming a Mitra also puts you in-touch with, and enables the development of friendships with the Order Members at our Centre. The Order will now take a greater interest in your spiritual journey and offer help and support as you have taken the first giant step into Going For Refuge. These friendships can develop and deepen over time, maybe eventually leading to become a Kalyana-Mitra friendship which is marked by a special ceremony.

So now, after clarifying what is a Mitra we can come to the role of Mitra Convenor. This is a local Order Member with special responsibilities towards the Mitra Sangha. They are chosen by the local men’s or women’s Order Chapters, usually after much discussion and consultation as this is a very important appointment for the whole of the Ipswich Sangha. The chapters decision is then ratified by the Centre Council, and they would normally have a seat on the Council.

The word Convenor means to bring together, to gather. So the main role of the Mitra Convenor is to organise meetings of, and events for the Mitra Sangha. They will also take time to meet with each of the Mitras and try to ensure they have all that they require to progress on their path. They also arrange study groups for all that are interested in the four year Dharma training course. They will also help the Mitras play an active part in Centre activities and that they are developing Friendships within the Mitra Sangha and also the Order Sangha.

Finally, it is worth reflecting on that being a Mitra is an unstable state. We have to work to just keep it in balance. We have to work to just stay still. But if we do put effort into being a Mitra then we will reap the significant rewards. We will begin to understand the Buddha’s message, and that message will start to enthuse our whole being and continue a process of change, a turning about, that we initiated by the act of becoming a Mitra. As a Mitra the whole path opens up to us, nothing is hidden, it is all revealed, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Buddha is saying.

I come to you with four gifts.
The first gift is a lotus-flower.
Do you understand?
My second gift is a golden net.
Can you recognise it?
My third gift is a shepherds’ round-dance.
Do your feet know how to dance?
My fourth gift is a garden planted in a wilderness.
Could you work there?
I come to you with four gifts.
Dare you accept them?

Urgyen Sangharakshita – Complete Poems 1941-1994

More on becoming a Mitra at IBC