Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities

Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Compiled by Jack Lawlor. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2002. Paperback, x + 306 pages.

We can set foot on the spiritual path, but can we abide others who are on the same path? We can profess love for all sentient beings, but how much do we really love those with whom we must live and work at dose quarters day after day? On the other hand, is there not something incomplete in a solitary spiritual life, in which nothing is shared and never is known the encouragement of a helping hand or a friendly smile from a wise companion on the way?

These problems and paradoxes have beset pilgrims in all spiritual traditions. We want and need spiritual communities, yet life in them is not always easy. They require sacrifice, both of substance and self-will, and we may be forced to contend with difficult conditions and difficult people. But without them, we have nothing but ourselves-and that may be even more difficult. Indeed, in Buddhism spiritual community is considered so essential that the Sangha, the fellowship of monks and their followers, is one of the three refuges taken by all who profess Buddhism, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, or teachings.

Friends on the Path is a new book about life in the sangha. It is a collection of wise and gentle instructions by the beloved contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and others associated with him, on sangha forming and living. Some contributors, both Westerners and Vietnamese, reside and work at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's center in France. Others are at smaller centers throughout the world, including many in the United States and Canada. Some are monastic, others lay groups meeting regularly for meditation. The book also discusses the practicing family as a sangha.

All the writers in this collection have come to realize, as Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes, that community is practice-not a setting for practice or a product of practice, but practice itself, along with meditation and mindfulness. Living with others directly teaches samadhi (concentration), prajna (insight), and sila (morality). Without others, these teachers admonish us, one will not get far.

Furthermore, being together on the path can bring the happiness it's all about. A great richness of Friends on the Path are the earthy, firsthand accounts of many sanghas across the globe, all with their good times and bad times, their problems and their pleasures, but all in the end vibrant with the sheer joy of life with companions who share one's own deepest values and yearnings. When Buddhists say, "May all beings be happy," they mean, "May we all be part of the great Sangha of life."

This book is highly recommended to all on the Buddha's path and to all who want to learn more about community. Many Theosophical groups and communities as well could glean much of value for their own life together from this volume.


May/June 2004