“Thank you for coming.”
These are just some of the words our hosts say to us as we leave them. It sounds like the end of any other get together with friends, or perhaps a meditation group or sangha parting ways. As we walk away, I feel in awe of the hospitality and gratitude with which my colleague Venerable De Hong and I are received. When our hosts say thank you, and wish us well, I truly feel the sincerity of their good wishes.
The drive home is long and tedious. You see, our hosts are located in the middle of the desert. With just about nothing but scrub, and lizards, and the occasional coyote. Maybe a bird or two. They are involuntary Buddhist monks. Their monastery is a California State Prison. On that long drive, as we watch the heat waves bounce off the highway or chase the sunset, our discussion usually turns toward gratitude and learning. We share the gratitude we feel for being allowed to share the dharma with our special desert sangha. With a deep appreciation that each of the groups we met with, came with open minds, and open hearts. That they trust us with their questions and their journeys. And each time we walk away with a new lesson. Perhaps, our group discussions have helped us develop a new understanding of the dharma. I know when I hear a member of our desert sangha share his interpretation of a teaching, many times I think, “Oh wow, I never even thought of that.” And definitely, I begin to understand better ways to express the Buddha’s teachings.
We are drop-ins. When everything falls into place, we have a monthly visit. And in-between, in their different ways, each group works to support one another in the dharma. It might be that they have regular meditation and dharma talks on their own; or it might be peer-to-peer support. One man turning to another when he recognizes anger or anxiety rising within his mind. They have definitely latched onto the importance of developing like-minded friends, and the value of keeping company with others on the path.
As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
“Don’t say that Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” -SN 45.2
It is good to have friends in the desert.
Editors note: Margaret Meloni, host of the Death Dhamma Podcast and author of Carpooling with Death: How living with death will make you Stronger, Wiser and Fearless, and the upcoming release, Sitting with Death; is a founding member of the Engaged Buddhist Alliance (EBA), an organization dedicated to bringing Buddhist teachings and meditation to men and women in the California State Prison system. Friends in the Desert was originally written for the EBA newsletter. For more on EBA please visit: https://engagedbuddhistalliance.org/.