Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sangha? What's Sangha?

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.


Anonymous said...

Bows. I can't believe you pulled the "my" comment! My grammar is bad but jeez that is below the belt.

Bottom line is that if your practice is isolated in one spot with one set of people or one building then you hit a mighty big wall.

As per our small group "hitting a collective wall". I agree but that is one of the fantastic reasons to have a diverse group (racially, practice-wise, and economically) because the input is so varied you move out of that slump quickly. Many different histories make for a rich sangha. The same goes with the online world. Also we loosely "affiliate" with the Great Mountain Zen Center. Two of our lay-practitioners aid in the development and go to Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick and Sensei Ilia Shinko Perez for additional support. We have two services a week. One is "traditional" Soto and the midweek one is run by us so we incorporate many different elements and experiment a bit.

Not fair to compare me (or anyone) to Dogen. The guy knew his stuff and I love his teachings. I go back to the Zuimonki when I feel "lost" in my practice and it focuses me right up!

But in the back of my mind when a Center Director tells me to sit at his center, is he doing so to benefit my practice or to benefit the Center?

Thanks for the post, Nathan, it is strange to see my words broken down like that. Strange and appreciated.



Nathan said...

Hey John,

I didn't mean to take a shot at ya with the my comment, although others have said similar things to me when there's too much "I" in the comments I'm making. (Yes, it's hard to avoid self-referential language - I get it :)

Anyway, as for Dogen, I wasn't comparing you, or me, or anyone, to his actual life. I was pointing to his teaching about practice and how our views of practice often are backwards - too much belief in "my effort," "my practice," etc. I sure as hell get caught up in those two views sometimes, probably more often than I know.

Your practice group sounds pretty cool. I pulled those lines out from your post because unlike the diversity of your group, I can imagine a lot of practice groups are pretty homogeneous. Maybe not the majority, but enough that it's worth commenting on.

Very interesting question about the intentions of the leader of a center. Probably would have to take that on a case by case basis. Although no one ever asked me to sit at the center I'm a member of, so I have no experience dealing with an invitation like that.

But, part of the reason I felt drawn online was that I needed more diversity of views about Buddhism. I'm part of a wonderful community, but sometimes there isn't enough diversity - including what practice looks like, different traditions, racial and economic, etc. - to feed me.


Nancy said...

Was wondering if you have joined the awesome Sangha on twitter? I'm a yogini and aspiring Buddhist and I find I learn immensely wonderful things from my cybershala (and the Sangha of Buddhists there). In fact, read this great post and was clued into your blog via John at ZDZD.

Will definitely be following your posts.

Namaste, N

Nathan said...

Hi Nancy,

Glad you enjoyed the post. I haven't decided yet about Twitter, mostly because I'm not sure I can keep up with everything on here, there, etc. There's definitely a lot of Buddhist bloggers on Twitter, so I can imagine it's full of interesting stuff. Maybe I'll land there yet, but for now, I've got a full plate.


Anonymous said...

@ Nathan - I was kidding about the Dogen comparisons. My sitting group is nice and I like the diversity (pretty diverse for SD, anyway). It at least represents the Buddhists in the area. I think it could be more diverse and I would welcome any change. I don't want it to stagnate.

Were it larger, I think some of the appeal would go away. What I meant by "sitting" is just practicing. An invite from a Center Director is coming from two angles.

1) I am sure that they have some interest in practitioners' well-being and improvement.

2) They also want to keep their "entity" alive and that means bringing in people and KEEPING them there.

My group has gone down to as little as 2 people and they kept sitting and practicing and kept their doors open for interested people. Now we have around 20.

A good number. A humble number.



La Dimensione said...

The third refuge is Sangha, which means a group. ‘Sangha’ may be the Bhikkhu-Sangha [the order of monks] – or the Ariya-Sangha, the group of the Noble Beings, all those who live virtuously, doing good and refraining from evil with bodily action and speech. Here, taking refuge in the Sangha with ‘Sangham saranam gacchami’ means we take refuge in virtue, in that which is good, virtuous, kind, compassionate and generous. We don’t take refuge in those things in our minds that are mean, nasty, cruel, selfish, jealous, hateful, angry – even though admittedly that is what we often tend to do out pf heedlessness, out of not reflecting, not being awake, but just reacting to conditions. Taking refuge in the Sangha means, on the conventional level, doing good and refraining from evil with bodily action and speech.

(‘Now is the Knowing’ by Ajahn Sumedho, p.15*)

spldbch said...

I'm glad you brought up the point about maybe not having geographical access to a "flesh and blood" community of practitioners. I think that's where the online community becomes extremely important. It gives access to those who might not otherwise have it.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the quote neurobi.

Hi Melody,

Some of the other Buddhists online are in that boat, so I've learned a lot about the challenges of practicing in a place where there's not much access to groups or teachers. It's an important issue - one I can imagine has been going on since the beginning for some. India and China, for example, are also huge countries. There's no way every Buddhist has constant access to teachers and/or temples.


Jomon said...

Hi Nathan,

I appreciate your broad look at this topic. YES, all of these are Sangha. And be careful.

I have been following this topic, and some of the discussion keeps reminding me of the story of Huineng's flag -- the two monks arguing about whether it's the wind or the flag that's moving.

I can't imagine anyone actually suggesting that ONLY meditation center practice "counts", or that online resources are a perfect and total replacement for physical practice arrangements. It just seems like straw man arguments.

My personal and amazingly fortunate experience is that of a vast selection of Buddhist practice here in Portland OR. And I share your experience of having a leadership role in the brick & mortar operation of one temple, the needs of which are quite often very inconvenient to my ego, requires commitment, regular checking of intention, and creates plenty of opportunities for ego-smoothing friction. AND I am also enjoying the offerings of the online communities as I am finding them here. YES it's all Sangha!

Risking being categorized as a someone who "only" quotes their teachers, I will share that one of my teachers reflected upon the fact that there are three healthy Zen groups in town (two who share one building), not with any sense of competition, but by observing, "More Dharma means more Dharma."

Many Bows to your practice.

Nathan said...


Ah, yes, the sangha's flapping :)
Thanks for reminding me of that story!


And for everyone else, here is it:

Case 29: Huineng's flag

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."

Of the two monks, Wumen says they were trying to buy iron; Huineng, out of compassion, gave them gold instead. This kōan demonstrates the realization that in naming an object one may cloud one's understanding of the true nature of mind by falling into externalization and believing that the true nature of the flag, the wind, and the mind are different. Hui Neng always taught the One Vehicle Buddhism of One Mind which teaches that wisdom (Sanskrit: prajna) comes from the Essence of Mind and not from an exterior source.