The hallmark of Buddhist practice, what by definition makes one a Buddhist, is taking refuge in the Three Jewels – the Buddha jewel, the Dharma jewel and the Sangha jewel. A classical analogy is that the Buddha is the physician with the knowledge to heal us, the Dharma is the medicine, and the Sangha are the nurses who help to deliver the treatment. In general use, our community of fellow spiritual practitioners is what is usually referred to as the sangha.
That sangha may take many different forms and change over the course of our journey – people come and go, communities join together or fall apart, our own needs shift with life events and as our practice develops. Technology such as websites, podcasts and webcasts have opened up new ways to connect with sangha, but sometimes leave us feeling more disconnected than ever.
Its during these times that I often turn to a different kind of sangha – the one on my bookshelf. There mingle the greatest minds of many different spiritual traditions, always ready to offer inspiration and clarity. They are always available and don’t care how many times I turn to the same page.
As expressed so eloquently by Carl Sagan: “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
This all hit me like a ton of bricks one night while reading the opening chapter of Master Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. “Good Lord! Lil ol’ me has been given the gift of some small insight into the inner life of one of the greatest saints of all time, he is speaking directly to my own mind, right now, because its been written down.” Across thousand of miles, across more than a thousand years, across cultures, across languages. Boom.
So come back and visit as I share my favourite “books to hang out with”, as Ram Dass calls them. My Dharma brother Theodore Tsaousidis wisely wrote, “Read such poems and writings not as a way to find answers, but to be in the company of fellow travellers.” Here you’ll meet some of my most trusted and beloved mentors and guides on the path. Those kalyanamitras – spiritual friends – who are are always available, ready and willing to lend their wisdom, whether it be during the darkest hours of a sleepless night or the dark night of the soul. My sangha on the shelf.