I have been following Harvey Daiho Hilbert's blog for a few years now, and enjoy his short, clear posts on the dharma and affiliated topics, including social engagement and service. In today's post, he announces the closing of his zendo, and end of the sangha as a non-profit institution. Given that he still intends to teach and work with students, this the huge deal it may sound to be. However, the note at the end of the post is pretty revealing. It speaks directly to one of the major issues convert American Buddhist sanghas are facing these days: failure to truly build sangha.
This decision has many roots and we have been considering it for months. Over the years I have had to make up the rent and other expenses myself most months. I felt good doing that for the most part, because I had faith that eventually the Sangha would be self-supporting. This has simply not been the case. Attendance is down and remains low. In the end, however, I will say that the primary cause of my decision is the evident lack of Sangha cohesion and mutual support of each other as Sangha. We have talked about Sangha often. We take refuge in Sangha. Yet this vow must be more than words, it is action and as a Sangha, we do not act like a Sangha. This was made painfully clear to me when yesterday only Rev. Dai Shugyo, Rev. Shukke Shin and one friend were able to make themselves available to support me as we went through a memorial service for my deceased brother. Many emailed me their reasons for not attending and I understand them. Still, I am deeply hurt. I do not ask for much from members and offer myself to all those in need. It has been rare that I have not been willing and able to set aside my own needs to meet the needs of others at a moment’s notice. This is what Sangha is all about. So, quite frankly, illnesses aside, it was hurtful that Sangha members could not for one morning set their own needs aside to be in support of me during this very emotionally painful period in my life. This is all I will say on the subject.
I have a feeling of sadness reading these words. It's probably true that one could argue that a priest's vocation is to let go of their needs in service of others, and to not expect anything in return. However, there's also the compassionate angle which says that you make an effort to support people when something like a loved one's death occurs. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing Harvey's response to people not coming may have been different if they had otherwise been a strong sangha. If he hadn't felt again and again that sense that those coming together weren't really a community of spiritual friends, but more an assemblage of folks mostly doing zazen and studying in the same room.
I feel fortunate to be part of a sangha where this aspect of the three jewels isn't so absent. I've felt supported during difficult times over the years, and have offered my support to others as well. And yet, even in our community, I can see holes and cracks. Places where the insidious "me and mine only" consumer mentality seeps in, cloaked in words like "practical," "pragmatic," and even "practice." There's something a little off when people "have the time" to show up for zazen and dharma text study. And yet rarely, if ever, have the time to show up for a sick sangha member, or to help stuff envelops or sweep the zendo floor, or to simply sit and listen to the struggles of another in the samgha, even if you don't know each other well. Thankfully, I have witnessed all of these actions at times in my community. Unlike what Harvey seems to be facing, for my sangha it's more of the degree of care and compassion at issue. It's just not quite in the water we drink together yet. There's definitely effort being to change that, so perhaps it will come with more ease in the future.
What I find interesting about Harvey's situation is that he has a small sangha. Much smaller, I'm guessing, than my sangha, which has somewhere between 120-150 members. Size does matter. It's more difficult to maintain intimacy and foster mutual support amongst hundreds and thousands. And yet, it's pretty clear to me how deep the roots are of the "me and mine only" mentality. Capitalism upholds it. "American dream" narratives stoke the flames. Underneath the same three poisons that hang out in every last human mind on the planet - greed, hatred, and ignorance - are sourcing this mentality.
Whatever folks choose to do to counter all of this, to create more alive sanghas, peeling that onion is going to bring with it tears. There's no way around it. We must cry together.