When I was a Buddhist monk and the Dalai Lama visited us in France, there was a meeting of most of the Western monks and nuns in our community.

At that time, the majority were living in a monastery and neighboring nunnery near Toulouse, but others were visiting from elsewhere in Europe, America, India and Australia. We were about 100 people.

We had the grandiose mission of preserving Tibetan Buddhism so that it could survive in exile and spread across the West. To that end in the early 1980s, we were in the process of establishing monastic communities in cultural contexts where they had never existed before.

One of the older monks, a doctor from Australia with a dry sense of humor, memorably defined community in this way:

“It’s about learning how to live with people most of whom you would never choose as friends.”

I think that’s a good definition that’s applicable to any sustainable community.

A problem with intentional communities is that they identify common purpose as their strongest social glue when, on the contrary, I suspect it may represent an inherent weakness.

Giving primacy to common purpose creates a tension between the individual and the collective. It imposes conditions on community membership and expectations of conformity. Communal acceptance is bound together with the possibility of communal rejection.

A much stronger sense of community comes from maximizing acceptance and minimizing rejection so that the most basic “qualification” for community membership is this simple fact: this is where I live. By virtue of living here, I belong to this community.

It is a community based on physical proximity rather than beliefs, formal agreements, or identity.

On NPR yesterday, I heard about a judge who is guided by his awareness that everyone who appears in his court, whatever they have done and whatever the outcome of the trial, still belongs to the community.

Ultimately, this is perhaps the sole function of human community: that it sustains a sense of belonging. And it does so without question.

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