The tension that exists within an individual’s personal spiritual journey and their responsibility is likened to that of the ruling class depicted in many ancient wisdom literature, specifically the genre of ‘mirror for princes’. One’s personal power to effect change in their world towards justice, beauty, and compassion is evinced in one’s integrity in their personal enlightenment and spiritual path. This essay will introduce thoughts as to the role of community in religion with two particular emphases; an individual’s relationship in community and inroads towards communities’ sharing in contemporary interfaith dialogues.
            The Buddhist model of community is in Sanskrit ‘Sangha’ meaning ‘assembly’ or ‘community’. Originally instituted by Gautama Buddha and considered among the Three Jewels of Buddhism, alongside Buddha and Dharma, Sangha avails roads towards speaking of the communal aspect of religion. Traditionally, the Sangha had been considered to include only the sphere of the monastics. These ascetics were charged with continuing and manifesting the Dharma. However, the meaning has over the course of time been expanded to include laypeople of yogic or tantric practice and can be spoken of those who actively embody the teaching of Buddha.
            This expanded meaning opens the idea of community within the Buddhist tradition, revealing that the heart of Dharma is greater than strict allegiance to terms or particular cultural expression. An individual’s nurturance of compassion for all things and practicing the gracious and unfearing acceptance of each moment can be considered to include them within the Middle Way and honoring to the Buddha. Widening the horizon of the Sangha, it can be considered to include those who personally embody hospitality, wisdom, release of attachment, and sacrificial and egoless service. This widened ground does not in anyway however expect or advocate a ‘unified’, universalized similarity or reduction to sameness among practitioners of various faith traditions. The Dalai Lama states in The Good Heart, “We should also be careful not to reduce everything to a common set of terms so that at the end of the day we have nothing left to show that is distinct between our specific traditions.”[1]  There is instead of a leveling down to sameness, an elevation of each individual to consider compassion and openness to instruction from various individuals and communities. As the Dalai Lama also reminds, the Buddha left a number of teachings behind, some of which seem to even contradict each other, to prevent lapses into dogmatism. He says concerning this, “when I understand the truth of this, I am able to truly appreciate the richness and value of other traditions.”[2]       

           
In Arabic, a word meaning community is Ummah, and can be used to denote the Arab world, the Arab diaspora, or “community of believers”. In the Qur’an, Ummah Wahida connotes “One Community” and within that context of radical oneness, the Charter of Medina (once Yathrib) includes Jewish tribes and ensures harmony with all groups. Non-Muslims were seen as co-equals in rights and protections. The peaceful heart of mutual trust, respect, and diversity sustained through religious and sociopolitical in Medina under the guidance of the Propet Muhammad illustrates the wide breadth and scope of Ummah community. Keeping in mind the trouble associated with reduction to similarities, which is a subtle form of imperialistic co-opting and can be fueled by arrogance and misappropriation, the Qur’anic verse 29: 46 helps point towards a wider horizon of community: “We believe what has been sent down to us, and we believe what has been sent down to you.. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit.”[3] There is within this verse a feeling of unity within difference, a cohering affiliation of respect amidst variety. This is truly the mark of a healthy community by any measure.
            In Christian terms community can be often spoken of as an organismic whole, constituted by radical diversity coalesced to create a dynamic whole. This ‘body’ as pictured in Ephesians 5:30 and elsewhere remind that all the individuals in a community are sacred, meaningful, and absolutely necessary. Saint Paul writes of the necessity of diversity within the community and that each individual’s talents and strengths are to be applauded on their own terms-each one’s individuality when respected and allowed to flourish makes the community greater than the sum of its constitutive parts. Ibn Arabi speaks to the integrity and importance of each individual’s path in his writing
al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya. Here, in the nineteenth chapter, he writes, “Each person among the people of Allah has a ladder particular to him by which no one else ascends.”[4] Each path, or ladder, has epiphanies or divine revelations which are direct and personal to the individual and lead one from revelations of divine acts, to divine attributes, and finally to the divine essence which is ineffable and formless.
            While the traditions briefly examined above each reveal wide, respectful, and compassionate postures in the formation of broad community, ibn Arabi’s allusion to the ladder emphasizes that the depth of community is likewise as important to the breadth and that its spiritual depth is found in the individuals comprising the community. The individual must travel their own path in the process Sufi mysticism calls fana, ‘to pass away’. The process Arabi details as ‘passing away’ involves leaving the ego, pride, social constructions, individualism, passing worldly concerns, all that is mutable, and lastly even the divine attributes until only direct divine presence remains. This may be spoken of in a tripartite process travelling from religion, to faith, to truth. In Arabic, this may be spoken of as ilm, mar’ifa, and mukashifa. As an individual sojourns on their singular path, they transcend simple objective knowledge of their communal religious tradition, to an intuitive personal owning of it through sincere inspiration. Lastly, one will enter into continued saintly being of the truth whereby one refrains from relying on authorities or traditions. Each moment is filled with divinity and limitations of doctrine of objective knowledge pass away and are replaced with intimacy with the divine. This depth of spirituality within the individual brings creativity and stability to the health and wholeness of the widening community. Communities may begin to more actively pursue interfaith dialogue as a spiritual practice when its members are rooted in deep spirituality for they can surpass the fear associated with ego.
            Individuals and the many communities they participate in within the complex web of sociality can be spoken of as different aspects or modes of the same human condition. The microcosm and macrocosm are bound intimately to the extent that the condition of any single individual creates the condition of the social world. No person is exempt or left out from the social equation; in Martin Heidegger’s terms we are always being-with (Mitsein). Despite our immersion in culture however, we are never completely determined by it. There is available to each the ability to radically reshape and transform their networks towards deeper and broader communities of religious compassion. Rumi wrote of the interdependence of individuals in community and the spiritual power in each. In Two Kinds of Intelligence, Rumi writes that there is an inherited, acculturated knowledge. By this measure, hierarchies are created, and one competes with others to attain ever more ‘knowledge’. However, there is a second knowledge that is ever new, unique to each, and boundless. “This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.” A dynamic model of sociality grants the community’s integral role in encouraging the unfettered flowing of this ‘fountainhead’. Interfaith dialogue is never undertaken by autonomous and discrete individuals, but by interdependent, intersubjective communal parties. When individuals’ fountains of knowledge are celebrated, worldly wisdom is not annulled, but complimented by the heart of compassion. It is this heart of compassion which will foster communities where interfaith dialogue flourishes.


[1] Dalai Lama The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Boston: Wisdom Publications. 1998), 73.

[2] Dalai Lama The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Boston: Wisdom Publications. 1998), 72.

[3] The Qur’an translated by Ahmed Ali (New York: Princeton University Press. 1984), 340.

[4] Ibn Arabi al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/fut19.html

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