John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt has a very thought provoking post about sangha that I want to take a closer look at. As one of the Triple Treasures of Buddhism, sangha, or community, has been viewed by some as the most important aspect of the practice, and is often something we North Americans have trouble with. Independence. Individualism. Do it MY way. Yes. Community. Collectivity. Shared Responsibility. Not so much.
But what is sangha anyway? Does it mean having an actually group of people you are a part of? An in the flesh Buddhist community that you belong to and practice with? Or is that simply one way to look at it?
I've heard sangha defined in a number of ways. Here are a few of them:
1. a community of Buddhist monks and/or nuns
2. a group of Buddhist practitioners who practice together
3. a group of spiritual friends
4. all beings everywhere
So, in some ways, what sangha is depends on how you view it. And yet, I also think that it's trouble to simply leap to something like definition #4 and say you don't need sangha 'cause you already have it. Yes, it's true that sangha is everywhere. But no, I don't think that means that everything will be just fine if you choose to rumble off on your own into the forest with your little Jeep full of spiritual teachings. Might work for a few tough bastards ready to face themselves, but most of us can't hack it alone on a mountain top.
However, what does sangha mean now that we've landed in the digital age? Are people online a sangha? Can you consider someone writing to you half way across the world on a computer your spiritual friend? Well, didn't Buddhists of old consider others who wrote them letters that took a month or two to get to them spiritual friends? I think yes, but at the same time, we better be careful!
Here is John's wonderful description of himself: "I am a Zen Buddhist practitioner from the humble stretches of the South Jersey lowlands who is currently an expatriate to the Great Plains of South Dakota – Buddhist Purgatory." South Dakota. Not exactly a place where you would expect to find a lot of "brick and mortar" Buddhist communities, or even any Buddhists at all. Although the vast expanses of the plains, and the ruggedness of the Black Hills, seem like ideal settings to work with teachings of emptiness, great compassion, and radical liberation - Buddhist centerpieces.
The question of location, though, is important when considering sangha. If you don't live near an actual Buddhist group, then what do you do? John, responding to a comment made to him about his practice, writes:
I live in South Dakota. So it is a moot point. Those same monasteries put their own dogmatic spin on the Dharma and expect the attendees to follow it. Not my point anyway. Shall I travel to San Fran or Upstate NY to be a “real” Buddhist? Not an option.
Yeah, there's something smug about people who insist that Buddhism is only a practice for people in an established Buddhist center and/or monastery. It seems to fly in the face of "unaffiliated" Buddhists that have existed, and continue to exist, as lone ranger like pilgrims. The Chinese mountain hermits come quickly to mind as one example.
Yet, we North Americans are very fond of everything "do it yourself" precisely because we get to choose how to do whatever it is. The trouble is that when it comes to spiritual practice, "do it yourself" is the gateway to spiritual materialism. Not always, but often.
Any large Organization Buddhist group that I have sat with eventually put restrictions on practice. Some more so than others but there was always a “right” and “wrong” way.
John's definitely poking into one of main problems with organized religion: it's tendency to fossilize around a set of rules and regulations that often places troubling limits on individual practice and spiritual understanding. And when you've lived through some organizational scandals, or have felt a great lack of support from a spiritual community, then it can be difficult to see how a well functioning group can propel your life in amazing ways. (I'd say the same is true of a poorly functioning group, but you have be open in a different way to access those gifts.)
So, if "do it yourself" is filled with pitfalls, and organized groups are often limiting, then what? What's the middle way?
Here's what John says about his "sangha":
My Sangha is made up partly by my “online” friends (those fair-weather ones you described). They support and question my practice. We communicate daily concerning the difficulties inherit in our practice. We don’t always agree but we spend plenty of time working though the tough parts.
My sitting group also helps but to define Buddhist practice by commitment to a group is limiting. If a sangha is simply showing up then I “show up” every morning and occasionally in the evenings. My meditation bell is the sound of my daughter waking up. My sangha is my family and friends and my temple is my house and work. I try to never leave my Sangha and exist with it from day to day. For better or for worse.
I've heard the line about "showing up" before. One of the senior members of my "brick and mortar" sangha here in St. Paul says that all the time. "Just show up." But he often means show up here at the center. Stop wanting it to be in your own way. And while you're at it, help out around here a bit!
I'm with him to a certain extent. As the leader of our center's board, I know better than most how much volunteer energy is needed to keep a spiritual community with over 100 members going. And because I have subordinated some of my "do it my way" energy in order to serve the larger community in various ways, as well as practice with the community in the way set by the community's leaders, I know what benefit can come from that. The limitations can eliminate unnecessary choices. Pointless diversions. Ego-tripping games.
When you have to run a board meeting, or commit to teach 2nd and 3rd graders about meditation, the "I think I'll sleep in this morning" mind gets overridden. You don't let thoughts like "I'll do my practice after the football game" allow you to stay home, watch the football game, and then come up with a new excuse afterward because you had too many nachos, and now have a stomachache. Sure, one can make commitments like this in other ways, without an "in the flesh" practice community. But there's a built-in check and balance system available to anyone that serves in their spiritual community, one different from that of, for example, one's family. Taking care of one's family is an immense practice, very important, and yet it's probably not enough when it comes to deepening one's life in a holistic way. And when it comes to Buddhism, if you view your family as your main or only sangha, what do you do with the teaching of home-leaving? This is not simply a question for monks and nuns who actually give up attachments to family and home; it really applies to us all on the path in some way or another.
My practice is not defined by a place that I pop into once or twice a week. Nor is it defined by the people there. My practice is defined by the only one doing the practicing. Namely me. It is defined by where I am at that moment. Home, work, in the car, alone or with others.
Hmm, the first thing I notice about this paragraph is how much the words me, my, and I appear in it.
My practice is defined by the only one doing the practicing. Namely me. It is defined by where I am at that moment. Home, work, in the car, alone or with others.
I cannot help but think of these often quoted lines from Dogen:
"To study the Buddha Dharma is
to study the self.
To study the self is
to forget the self.
To forget the self is
to be confirmed by the ten thousand things."
Somehow, John's view of practice, as well as most of our views of practice - mine included - tend to feel backward when you put them up to the light of Dogen's teaching. There's little or no space to allow ourselves to be "confirmed" by the world, by all of life, because we are too busy filling ourselves up with our selves.
Too often organizational Buddhism creates far more focus on the finger than the moon. This is not to say that organized Buddhism is bad but from my experience I felt more limited in that environment. For me it was a poor “sangha” indeed. People rather throw quotes around that they heard from their teacher than to think and analyze the Dharma for themselves.
The simple fact is that when I tried to explore Buddhist practice beyond Zen in those places, it was largely ignored or belittled. I realized quickly that small and grass-roots is a better approach to practice and the Dharma.
Small and grassroots - yes, that's pretty good. I like that idea. And yet, what happens when, collectively, you hit a wall? Or what happens when everyone is in similar places, or has very similar views? One of the reasons I love the online Buddhist community - and I think it is a community, if one with a different structure that what we tend to think of when we think community - is that you have people from all over the world, with different geographical, cultural, political, and social lives, and with very different approaches to the same spiritual teachings, coming together. It's hard to keep a diverse group like that together in real life, which speaks to how hard it is for us humans to have healthy communities that are truly diverse. And yet, I think that without some diversity of views, approaches, and life experiences, any group will just get stuck at a certain point. So, small and grassroots might mean a lot of similar people who don't propel each other to examine their lives more deeply. Or it might mean a lot of people with very different lives and views, but who all like the idea of free formed practice and individual autonomy. It's actually really helpful for me, a person who tends toward the autonomy and freethinking, to be part of a community that has people in it who often emphasize the "rules," "forms," and giving one's self over to group practice.
So, given all this, what's sangha anyway? I think maybe we have to let go of any one form of sangha being it. In fact, even though I think certain forms might be more helpful than others, form itself might not be the most important issue.
When it comes down to it, sangha kind of has to be that which wears down the heavy emphasis on the self. Anything that helps drop off the death grip on me, myself, and I. The many colored waters that polish us, lead us back to the home we never really left, but always seem to miss when looking for it.
p.s. The photo is of my ESL class and I during a trip to the State Capitol last summer. Yet another form of sangha.