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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 3-19

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Some Reflections about Community and Survival

Rita M. Gross
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Many studies have indicated that at both ends of the life cycle human beings more readily survive and flourish if they experience significant contact with other humans, if they experience nurturing, love, and relationship. Having physical needs met, by itself, is not sufficient. Both infants and old people, as well as people recovering from serious illness, are much more likely to survive if, in addition to having their physical needs met, they experience the emotional well-being brought about by sufficient companionship.

Though the issue is less discussed, one wonders why things would be different in those phases of the life cycle in which one is seemingly more independent. How can adults flourish and thrive without sufficient companionship, love, and community? How do adults react to the absence of these important elements of life? I would suggest that relatively helpless infants, invalids, and aged people simply die, but adults have enough power and independence to react to their loneliness and frustration in ways that lash out at the social fabric that fails to love and nurture them sufficiently. In Buddhist psychology an organism's two most frequent reactions to stimulation are grasping at something or aggression toward it. I would suggest that unnurtured adults express their frustration with loneliness and lack of love precisely in those two ways. We have discussed these reactions in our previous sessions on war and on consumerism and its attendant environmental degradation.

I agreed very reluctantly to write a paper for this session on community. I am reluctant for two reasons. First, I have already written on community, do not wish to repeat myself, and am not sure I have anything new to say. Thus, I end up with the option of being more personal in my reflections than I usually am. (I know some of you will think that could not be possible, because I always go too far on that score. My apologies.) Second, as a female academic and someone with no family who has been single most of my life, I know only too well the loneliness and frustration that come with living in a society with declining "social capital," to use the phrase so aptly employed by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. The topic is simply too painful for me, because I know intimately, by virtue of their absence in my life, the importance of companionship, friendship, and community. I appreciated all the [End Page 3] graphs and documentation in Putnam's book, but despite my many years of intense involvement in the Buddhist world, I already knew in my gut the main thesis of his book. Nevertheless, much of what I will write about in this paper is informed by Putnam's book, as well as by David Korten's The Post-Corporate World and bell hooks's All About Love, both of which I recommend as relevant reading materials as we prepare to discuss the topic of community.

By contrast, for our first discussions of community in our 1987 meetings, I was eager to make a contribution. 1 I had discovered something, or so it seemed to me, that was both painful and important. In the early 1980s I began to realize that despite the energy and loyalty I brought to my Buddhist community, I was still lonely and was not experiencing the friendship, community, companionship, and support that seemed to me to be implied in the act of "going for refuge to the sangha. " Instead, people constantly told me that being alone was essential to Buddhist practice—a claim that I would contend has more to do withWestern notions of individualism and self-reliance than with Buddhism. Understandably, these values are especially strong among convert Buddhists, who had to defy convention and assert their individuality in the process of becoming Buddhists. Nevertheless, we were signing on to honor the refuge of sangha, not merely the refuges of Buddha and dharma, a point that is still underappreciated by many...


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