We are excited to share Lama Willa’s new article, “Building Blocks of Belonging,” recently published in Lion’s Roar online magazine. (This article also appears in print in the BuddhaDharma Fall 2021 issue.)
The first practice the Buddha taught his disciples was the practice of refuge. For 2,600 years, Buddhists have engaged in a ritual of reliance on Buddha (the enlightened guides), dharma (the teachings), and Sangha (spiritual community). Taking up this basic practice is the act of entering the dharma community. It’s how we step inside.
These sources of refuge—Buddha, dharma, and Sangha—are likened to three jewels. The teacher, the teachings, and the community of practitioners are jewel-like in the sense of being valuable and magnetic sources of safety and support. They are jewel-like in that they refract the light of truth into a thousand colors. In Buddha, we seek refuge from instability. In dharma, we seek refuge from ignorance. In sangha, we seek refuge from fear and loneliness; we discover that no matter who we are, no matter what we have done, we can find belonging.
Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, social scientists who do research on the psychology and behaviors of groups, have concluded that humans share a need to belong, “a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and impactful interpersonal relationships.” Put another way, we need one another in order to thrive and grow. We are safer and happier when we bond together.
It has even been demonstrated that when humans feel lonely, their brain circuits light up in the same regions that register physical pain. Loneliness literally hurts. Is it any wonder that many who end up at the doorway to community come to assuage the pain of loneliness? From our isolation, we are drawn to belong.
I lived in a Buddhist monastery for over a decade. I arrived feeling fearful and fractured, having just lost my mother to a sudden aneurysm. I remember a conversation from my first visit there. I was in the dining hall, speaking to a monk and nun, and I brought up the subject of my mother’s passing. I braced myself for a change of subject, which is what I had become used to—the awkward silence, the “I’m so sorry for your loss,” the pivot to lighter matters. Instead, these two people leaned in. “Tell me what happened. How did she die?”
Artwork credit: “Days of Spring,” 2021. Painting by Yeachin Tsai