Sara Jenkins was handed a dilemma in the form of two seemingly contradictory teachings: while on retreat, maintain silence and abstain from communication, and at the same time deepen your connections with others. Samayadevi reviews the book in which Jenkins explores the creative tension between those teachings and the vision of friendship that it gave birth to.
Sara Jenkins is a woman one would want to know, to have as a friend. In this little tome, Hello At Last, Embracing the Koan of Friendship and Meditation, she shares with us her experiences with the profound and perhaps surprising practice of spiritual friendship. We seem to grasp the importance of the Buddha and the Dharma in the Three Jewels (or three Refuges) in Buddhism, but it is the jewel of the Sangha that often gets short shrift.
Sara has studied with the Zen teacher Cheri Huber for over twenty years, and Cheri is quite clear about maintaining silence and not socializing with others on retreat. On the other hand, her injunction is to “Deepen your relationships.” It is this conundrum, this koan, that Sara tackles. How is it possible to deepen relationships in silence?
We are not often who we think we are, or who we think we should be
It was in Dapodi, India, that Sara came into contact with the Western Buddhist Order, and got her first glimpse of how friendship can be actively engaged as a practice. Her immediate response was to question what communication had to do with Buddhism. Until then the practice had been so much about meditation and working with a teacher that is came as a surprise that relationships might be a context of practice as well. In the sutta in which Ananda, the Buddha’s companion and cousin, says to the Buddha that he thinks spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, the Buddha’s response is: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”
In the Western Buddhist Order, Sara discovered that those who have asked for ordination often choose two members of the community as spiritual friends (kalyana mitras), friends who share the same ideals and support one another along the path. It is not a relationship based on a common background or temperament or life style, but solely on this shared ideal of transformation. Friendship becomes a fundamental aspect of the spiritual life.
And so Sara, an editor by profession and a wholehearted practitioner of Buddhism, delves into the question of how it is possible to practice this spiritual friendship. She shares with us the specific practices of reflective listening, insight dialog, meditative communication and intentional retreats at home with a friend. “There is no need to wait for somebody else to impose structure and silence.” She shares her own experiences with these practices in the personal anecdotes interspersed throughout, and she does not clean things up for us. She reveals her own struggles and learnings. She shows us what a spiritual friendship would look like, as well as the effort it takes and the courage.
Hello At Last is a little gem of a book. It reads easily, and still conveys a profound practice.
It is refreshing to sit with Sara as she unfolds this deep practice for us. The fact is that “communication is at the heart of friendship, and the foundation is inner stillness.” Reflective listening is about “offering ourselves as mirrors for each other… (it) becomes a breathtaking act of love.”
As with so many of the practices in Buddhism, the place to begin is with oneself. It is easy to fall into patterns of social interaction that are a bit mindless and pro forma without ever acknowledging what is going on inside. The practice of insight dialogue begins with abandoning all those social conventions, and speaking from the inside, from an awareness of the feelings one carries around, the “background thoughts” we often cover up with pleasantries. “We are not often who we think we are, or who we think we should be.”
Yet the necessary core of self-knowledge is self-acceptance, a kindness towards ourselves that is not common in our American culture. The Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa have both spoken of the harsh self-judgments they found in America. Thich Nhat Hanh often writes about the need to leave aside critical self-judgments and actually learn to befriend ourselves. Sara’s exercises are “elegantly simple and still profound.” They begin in silence and solitude, to know the within so we can recognize our commonality with all beings. We will never be secure in our friendships and our sense of interconnectedness without knowing who we really are and seeing that in others as well.
Compassion is not pity, and empathy is impossible without self-awareness. Although we might sense that our feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, are unique, it is through reflective listening and insight dialogue that we discover that is an illusion. Sara show us how to pause to see those feelings in ourselves so we can recognize them in others and know the confidence that we are really not other from one another.
…you will do for the love of others what you will not do for yourself.
Hello At Last is a little gem of a book. It reads easily, and still conveys a profound practice. It is difficult not to like this woman who grapples with the koan her teacher gave her.
“Here is the resolution of the koan I had been carrying around, the puzzle of how to deepen relationships while maintaining silence: communication is reined in from the claims of past and future, from the habit of reactivity, to the stillness of each moment, in which the right words will naturally arise.”
It is easy to trust her process, her practices, as she has shared it with us. She ends with a quote from a text by Allan Gurganus, an orientation address to those souls recently arrived in heaven. It ends with these words:
The Celestial offers you perfect, funny
Erotic company, eternally.
This is Paradise.
This, my dears, is all God has ever promised us:
HELLO AT LAST.
YOU HAVE ONLY
JUST BEGUN TO
KNOW EACH OTHER.
We need not wait for Heaven. Here, now, many of us are just beginning to know ourselves, ourselves in others, others in us.
May we be clear mirrors for each other, for seeing who we are, and who we are not. In our practice of being present to one another, may we find inspiration in the words “because you’re mine.” Not that we’re in charge of anyone but ourselves, or that we can change things for anyone else. But because, as my teacher likes to say, you will do for the love of others what you will not do for yourself. Until you realize that “they” and “you” are one.
Samayadevi is a 66-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, step-grandmother of eight, and grandmother-to-be. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in the summer of 2007 on a three month retreat in Spain.