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All social change starts from a small group of like-minded people. Examples of this are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent campaigns against racism and colonialization. By themselves these two men would have had very little influence over their societies. The communities that gathered around them are what made the difference. The power of community is at the heart of all political, social, and spiritual transformation.
From a Buddhist perspective, community, or sangha, has always been the container in which both personal and societal awakenings occur. Siddhartha Gautama, the enlightened Buddha, was clear about the need to have wise friends to walk the path to awakening with, to meditate with, and to serve with. If the Buddha had not founded a community based on his experience of ethical behavior, meditative discipline, and compassionate action, the teachings of enlightenment would have died long ago.
It is the community that carries on the tradition of being politically involved and socially relevant. My own entry into Buddhism came as a result of help from others in the community. I began meditating while behind bars, incarcerated as a youth for my crimes of dishonesty, violence, and drug abuse. I had lost my way and knew little about ethical behavior, generosity, or true happiness. The kindness of others led me to change my life. The guidance of wise teachers and compassionate friends led to the transformation I experienced. The local community nursed me back to health and taught me about being of service to others. They cared for me when I was still unable to care for myself. Through the examples of my teachers and the community, I learned to be honest, kind, and forgiving. Through meditation, I learned to see clearly the impermanent, impersonal, and unsatisfactory nature of my own mind. This was liberating, and as I saw my own potential for freedom, I understood that all beings had this same potential.
Through talking with each other and having community, we see that every one of us is experiencing the same things. At heart, everyone has resistance and attachment. This is the Buddha’s first noble truth, that suffering is a truth of human existence. It happens for all of us and there is a cause, which is the craving for things to be different than they are. The pain in life is a given, but the suffering and dissatisfaction we put on top of the pain is extra.