The City as a Forest

by Kamalashila


Cities have been around since the semi-mythical king Gilgamesh ruled Uruk in the 27th century BC. That is a long time ago and it’s been possible to move to the city during all that time. Uruk is now buried deep under the sands of present day Iraq and it’s the earliest city we know about. Cities have evolved over 48 centuries to suit human wants and needs – well, after 48 centuries it seems it hasn’t worked that well, what do you think? Cities still seem full of suffering. They are often portrayed as some kind of hell realm. However I have lived most of my Order life in the Country, and my observation is that the suffering there is even worse.

I started the West London Buddhist Centre in 1976 and London was where I came into contact with the movement. Now after thirty years in the wilderness, I’ve moved back to the city. It seems to me now like a kind of devaloka. A wonderful place where you can just be with thousands of people, completely anonymously if you like, or you can easily talk to them and you can certainly watch them and learn from them. All human life is there and being here is a pleasure ground for any reflective individual who wonders about the nature of human existence.

City living is indeed a playground for devas especially Buddhist devas, people who have produced vast amounts of merit through their ethical changes, their years of dedication to meditation and their many fine thoughts. It is a playground where such deva like Buddhists may cruise to their heart’s content on their good fortune. However we do need to watch out for those wilting lotuses later on, so there is a big question hanging in the air about the value and significance of this stream of activity and habit we are building up in city conditions.

This talk is an attempt to start looking more closely at the situation committed Buddhist practitioners are in. Certainly city living is a rich and confusing experience, it’s a kind of crucible, a pot or perhaps a skull cup of human life where cultures, and often individuals too, are melted down and fashioned into something new and strange.

Whether Buddhists resist city life or adopt it without question, human beings generally are doing it more and more. The population of cities is huge already, but it’s set to almost double over the next forty years. Around the bronze age when cities started, only a tiny proportion, 1% or maybe 3% of us, lived within the protection of city walls. But it started changing over the last couple of millennia, and since the Middle Ages more and more of us have made the big move from the country to the city. By 1900, 13% of us had done it. Half a century later, when I was born in 1949, the figure had mushroomed to 30%. And over my lifetime the population of cities has increased to 50%. That’s huge ― 50% of all human lives now take place in some kind of city environment. We went over the half-way mark just a couple of years ago. 3½ billion of us are now living in cities, a third in slums. And in 35 years when I get to my hundredth birthday, that figure will almost have doubled, so that by 2050 there will be 6.4 billion city dwellers which will be 75% of the world’s population.

Will the (Triratna) Order still be around then do you think? It seems to me that if we are to survive another forty years and more, we need to take on the particular conditions around us a bit more. I’m sure we are trying, but I also suspect things are changing so fast there is more to learn than our ageing minds can absorb. The basic fact is that we are an Order community and there is now this huge movement of 100,000 people, the Triratna Buddhist Community, that has gathered around our Order and continues to gather around it. And we in this room are surrounded by the multicultural capital of London, which is where the Order started in 1968 in Centre House here in West London. A couple of years ago London was chosen by the Economist as the global capital, scoring one point over even New York in terms of world influence. (The two cities vie for this title in such publications. They were otherwise evaluated as equal in wealth, culture, global connections and education. According to Wikipedia, London and New York are the only two truly ‘global’ cities. Both are allocated an A++ status.)

Anyway what all this means from a dharma point of view is that here in this wonderful so called global capital, we are surrounded by millions of distracted, driven, emotional and clever minds. Of course our own minds are exactly the same if not worse, but inspired by the Buddhist path we are trying to awaken them. That makes the only difference that matters.

So what kind of community of awakening are we, the Triratna Buddhist Order? Well, nowadays we are mostly not one that lives together, and that could well be a continuing pattern. Some Order members do live communally in East London though most don’t (remember there are around 150 of them) but over here, in the West, we don’t currently eat much together, or share our immediate lives. We can’t. For us that’s going to change a bit with the move to Bayswater and a bigger profile in the movement, but generally, most Order members in the city have to work in different worlds and have different social connections. So we mostly live in different places, share with partners or live alone.

So maybe we should ask, what kind of community are we trying to be? Let me summarise what we signed up for, what most of us try to incorporate into this city life of ours. We are first of all a community in what we have in common. We all share the refuges, the ethical precepts and spiritual vision of the tradition of Sakyamuni Buddha. This is why we are a community; this is what we love. And we are also community because we want to share that, and that means we work together to make the dharma available to others as well – here, in London. So we share that understanding, and that’s a community thing as well. We’re also a community in that we are all practising to bring these ideals alive. We all work on our ethics, meditation and wisdom and that freshens our understanding, it gets hauled out of the realm of the abstract into the real, concrete world of learning from experience. It’s not easy doing that, but it’s rewarding.

We keep all this alive by meeting regularly – this is another Order thing that we do in the city, we meet. Meeting freshens our perspective on what we do because we connect our understanding of things to how other people actually are in their daily lives, people we know well or people that we understand because they have a similar commitment to the dharma.

Tha also goes on in individual friendships. I think it also goes on in the advice we give, and take from others in the Sangha, in whatever ways it happens. Kalyanamitrata, spiritual friendship, guidance and advice all keep our community alive.

There’s also for the sake of completing the picture the connection with the wider Order and movement which helps the community maintain a bigger perspective beyond the particular conditions in London, or in a district of London, since the wider movement serves people who live in such very different circumstances – in Mumbai, Pune and Cape Town, New York, Colchester, Southend. Paris. Moscow. The Ukraine. (West London even has a mitra in Ulaan Bataar, the capital city of Mongolia where half the population live in yurts – though I don’t think she does)

Then there’s our connection to the central institutions of the movement – to the ordination centres, to the Preceptors and Adhisthana, to the more centralised discussions about the Order and movement via the presidents, chairs and mitra convenors and chapter convenors.

And finally there’s the Order chapter. Perhaps the regular chapter meeting – or equivalent – is the most important of all these interlocking aspects of our Order.

All that is of course the ideal, the idea of it. The reality―and here I can only generalise and people will fit differently into what I’m saying ― is that we often forget it. Some of us work together. Others work alone. Some of those who work together don’t work together that well. Similarly with those who work alone, they don’t handle solitude or isolation that well either. Basically we can all struggle to practice the dharma in the city, despite all these community aids. There is just so much going on in the city and our sense of community tends to get overwhelmed by the many other communities we are part of in the city. There is so much going on, so many different departments of our lives happening simultaneously, that we struggle to meet regularly in our Order community, even at all. We struggle to meditate regularly. Our individual friendships, the quality time with people who inspire us, also tends to suffer, because it seems there is just so much to do. It’s the same with the connection with the wider movement. It gets overwhelmed by the other things happening, it gets distorted.

So in this way, from the point of view of practice, city life can start to become a kind of problem. You can start getting into a mindset whereby as a city dweller you view yourself as living in very un-ideal conditions. Spiritual life in the city starts to become a matter of keeping up the practice against the odds until you can get away on retreat, and catch up with yourself, which of course you rarely do, because there is no time.

There is of course something deeply wrong with this way of seeing things. At least I think there is. I have spent a lot of my life on retreat and I feel I can speak with some confidence. And I have for a long time resisted that idea that retreat is where the real practice goes on. Retreats do give us our high points, they allow us to create the important weighty karmas that we never forget and which influence us profoundly. But that is only half of it because the habitual karma is almost as powerful, and we are creating habitual karma all the time.

I believe dharma practice has to come to you, in the end it has to come home to where you are at your worst. Basically your dharma practice is what you do at home. You can top it up, you can inspire it, but the main karmic force that determines our place in nature is the habitual karma, it is the kind we are doing all the time in our ordinary lives. That is what the weighty karma will be battling with. It’s this ordinary mind, ordinary life, city life, we need to bring the dharma into contact with. We need to work on the attitude that we cannot practice in ordinary conditions, we cannot practice when we are distracted or confused.

This may mean lowering our naïve expectations. It is quite unlikely we will be able to maintain the kind of clarity and concentration that we experience on retreat, but that does not mean that it is not worth practising until we can be in those conditions. We are creating fresh karma all the time, we are strenghening habits and weakening them all the time, and we are doing that just as much in our ordinary life as we are on retreat. So in these circumstances any effort, and the tiniest results, are worth having.

As the Dhammapada says,

Hold not a fault of little matter thinking, “this is minor to me”.The falling of drops of water will in time fill a water jar.In the same way foolish people become full of delusion, Though they gather it little by little.

So really, we need to find ways of practising in community, in the city, that work at this level.

I’m speaking in a very general way and what I have said so far is what we all know, really about practising anywhere, whether we are actually able to do that or not. And I am rather painfully aware that there is so much to say about practice in the city that I am not going even to be able to begin to bring out the potential of this subject. All I can hope to do is stimulate some ideas.

But I will just look into one aspect of city life which seems to be the chief difficulty: the intense distraction of all the desirable objects there are around us. I think this is in the nature of it, and I think this is as much a positive thing as a problem. Cities came together because it is more convenient, and it is more creative, to be living with others who are helpful to us, who we like, who understand us. City life enables us to live near people who can help us, that is broadly why cities have come about. And having so much that is useful can distract and confuse us. But let’s not be confused, because the advantage is enormous for all of us. I feel we would do better to celebrate our amazing fortune in being here.

In previous eras of mankind’s history, when all humans were living in indigenous tribal circumstances, say in a cave or in a forest with just the community they were born into, a man a brilliant mind, who would in our day be a world class genius, would in that era be likely to live out his entire life without ever being able to communicate fully to anyone else, ever; without being able to develop their thinking or understanding very far, or only so far as their culture allowed, probably without having the language even to do that. Now our world culture, in particular our communications have evolved to the point where there is amazing creativity going on in the world. We can learn so much from one another now and we can help one another in unprecedented ways. This has many spiritual benefits: generally speaking it has amazing capacities for making people happy. Technology has played a major part in that, we usually stress that, but the organisation and localisation of cities in particular have allowed us to meet and exchange ideas on a huge scale.

An extension of this tendency, what we could call the ‘city principle,’ is the internet. The internet makes unlimited amounts of written, visual and aural information available instantly, and world wide, to all those with the intelligence to imagine how to search for it. And then, a further application of the same city like tendency is the availability of fast cheap transport. All this connects us.

So not only have people gone and lived with one another in cities, and not only they are all easily able to visit one another and stay with one another broadly speaking; they can all communicate with one another and make any idea or thought instantly available to one another. It’s a cliché that we are all connected, but it is nonetheless such an extraordinary feature of our culture, that carries with it such potential for personal change, educatoin and connection, that I think we too easily forget its value. What we easily do is to write it off, even write it off as antithetical to our dharma lives, just because it can also become part of the distraction of our lives.

But distraction is something we allow to happen. There is always too much information everywhere if we do not guard the gates of the senses, if we lose our sense of purpose and forget what we are trying to do. I have spent a lot of time living very simply, I lived in some woods for several years and was completely on my own for most of that time. The only thing that changed was the seasons, but those changes are incredibly diverse and meaningful when that is all you see. I know what it is to reduce input, and I can tell you, you discover that less is definitely more. The more time you spend with a tree, the more there is about it to see and understand. The potential is infinite. The information is infinite, and so you are still confronete with the same decisions about how to use your mind.

Indigenous peoples, for example the Tibetans before the current age, or the tribal societies in the Amazon or New Guinea, or some of those tiny East African states, who still live almost entirely in nature, live simple lives perhaps, but they can also be very complicated people. Their minds just get occupied by things we don’t see – because we see only what WE see – they see a lot of spirits, and those spirits have all kinds of implications that need consideration. But generally they get obsessed by just the same volume and kind of thoughts, by just the same feelings, by all the same kind stuff, the same prapanca, essentially, as we do. So there is as much going on in any patch of forest as there is when you have ebay, twitter and facebook all open at once. Much more in fact.

Maybe some of you have done some bushcraft, there are lots of courses available nowadays. A good guide, someone who really knows how to look at the forest, sees far, far more detail and far more significance than someone with an untrained mind who never spends any time looking at what is going on in the forest, or for whom the forest is just a nice thing to walk through. If the forest is your world, then if you are distracted you miss your dinner – or you become someone else’s dinner. So the internet, and the city, is a bit like that. On the internet, if you are distracted you mess up the health of both your mind and body. The city is a bit like that. It is all connected. Our ability to go here and there at will, and meet people, and do things, is also a bit like that. You can’t really afford to lose awareness. Lose awareness, you lose something important. Maybe you won’t ever know what it is.

I think we really need to take hold of the fact that we are connected to so much now, and use it in our communication of our community to one another and to others outside our community. It’s not something to dismiss.

The city, the possibility of travel, and the internet are all metaphors for our incredible connectivity, communication and connection. Another – and I think I’ll finish with this one, just chuck it in – is the body, the extraordinary and mysterious experience we have of physical embodiment. Milarepa said once, “when I look at my body I see it as a mirage city.” What was he talking about? Milarepa always spoke from his realisation which was expressed through the Vajrayana viewpoint, the developed Madhyamaka-Yogachara viewpoint. So in referring in his amazement and his awe to this extraordinary phenomenon of body we all experience, he was also including the phenomenon of mind. This mind and this body, the whole experience of existence, Milarepa saw as a city – complex and amazing in all its organisation, and in all its connectivity in all its parts, with its sense organs and the special consciousness that arises from those, plus the ability to assimilate those experiences, along with the information, the interpretations and the implications taken from those experiences… and not forgetting as well as the body’s ability to assimilate physical nourishment – to grow, develop, move and act physically; to love and to help and to feel and to understand. The city, this amazing city we live in right now, somehow has all these capabilities too.

So this is where we are. Perhaps in conclusion it is enough to say, the more awareness we can have of the extraordinary potentials inherent in city life, the more we will be the Order in the city.