It's not differences that divide us. It's our judgments about each other that do.
All three play a vital role in the sustainability and growth of the community. They can also, if they don’t maintain a dynamic ‘middle way’ stifle the growth, creativity and happiness of themselves and others. If their excessive behaviour is not checked, challenged and changed, they will destroy the very thing they are trying to protect and serve.
The role of the priest is to maintain the purity of the teachings of the original founder of that particular school. Priests provide a sanctuary (monastery) where the teachings of Buddhism are studied at depth and where prayers and ritual practices take up a good chunk of the day. There is order, predictability and ritual.
This sanctuary is also a place people can come for inspiration, guidance and training in religious practices appropriate to their lives and capacities. Without priests then the religious practices of their school would, over time, become confused and distorted by those who have only a (and not always self-identified) partial understanding of the teachings.
The role of the householder is to provide material support to the priests as they do not have the time to invest in the daily demands of study and prayer that is so much a part of monastic life. They also provide support and help to other ‘householders’ by offering encouragement, shared prayer and study. Without the householder the priests would not survive and the benefits of Buddhism would not be shared with the wider world and community.
The role of the forest dweller is to ‘retire to the woods’ and engage in mystical or even magical practices in their search for the truth. To go into the dark places to discover new insights. To push at the edges of, or even defy, current convention and traditions in a search of the essential truth and insights of the founder.
The forest dweller doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the Buddha they are driven by the same passion of the original Buddha to help manage the suffering of the world as it is. Not as it was in the time of the Buddha but as it is now. Because they do not fear rejection from their community they are able to act with honest compassion to sustain and protect it.
Ironically, the forest dwellers courageous and compassionate action to keep the teachings and Sangha relevant to the current time are often treated with disdain and ridicule by the very people they are seeking to support and engage with. Although they share the same vision and essential practice as other members of the Sangha their unpredictable approach can be a bit scary. To the more closed minded priest or householder they are to be kept at a safe distance, avoided or even excluded from the community of believers.
All three roles have a function and all three can only work when they are in a dynamic balance with each other. Due to this interdependent relationship when any the three become excessive in their thinking and behaviour then that marks the beginning of decline of all three. If excessive behaviour is not checked individuals and groups become destructive and protective of their own contribution to the Sangha (your community) and will either fragment or collapse completely.
Monks become arrogant and aloof and look down on those who are not part of their knowledge, rituals and inner sanctum. Householders become mindless and totally accepting of the instruction of the monks. Forest dwellers become crazy radicals who know the truth but lack the capacity to express it in a language or manner that makes any sense to anyone but themselves.
None are better than the others. All are needed. Which one are you? The traditional, process led priest? The security driven, rule abiding, hierarchy loving householder? The truth seeker that isn’t afraid of saying what they think? Are you open or close? Growing or static? Engaged or removed?
At different stages in our lives we should take on a different responsibility in the Sangha. As our lives change then so can our roles. That is not only the beauty but also the purpose of the Sangha. Once we get tied into one particular role the liberation we felt on taking that identity can, if not checked, become a restraint to our original purpose. But changing our role is a challenge but one we should, at regular periods in our lives, seriously contemplate.
At this time which one are you in your Sangha? Are you creative, excessive or destructive in your role?
The acknowledgement of a forest dweller
To end on a personal note I have been a forest dweller for a while now (about 25 years). My forest dwelling activities have convinced me of the reality and potential positive impact of the work that I am engaged in (the creation of value in society and the happiness of children inparticular).
However, 25 years of being a forest dweller has been challenging. It has made me, to be frank, tired and sad, from the number of attacks I have received from those I have been seeking to work with. But what this tells me is that I need to come home, close the door, get showered and consider if the Sangha that I am part of is the Sangha that I need to belong to. This discomfort is part of the journey and potential change is the next step.
Walking away is always painful but often the only course of action when you realise that the community your are in is not the community you thought it was or the one you now need to engage with.