Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Dharma of Sangha Building/Rebuilding

The post I wrote a few days ago about sangha and exclusivity certainly sparked a lot of interest. It's great to know that others out there are considering some of these issues seriously.

Here are a few of the many quality comments that are worth looking at a little closer.

Adam wrote:
I have no idea how to deal with offering Buddhism to new comers while keeping the identity and culture of Buddhism alive and well.

In a lot of ways, this is really the challenge and blessing of building Buddhist community in places without ancient, established roots. Maintaining the integrity of Buddha's teachings, and honoring those who came before and made it possible for you to live this path is an essential part of our work. This is one reason why I'm pretty hard on those who want to strip off anything they find foreign or difficult about Buddhist practice; it's just plain disrespectful to our collective ancestors. At the same time, we are always creating things anew in a certain way, even when we invoke ancient rituals and forms. And if you look at spiritual organizations who insist on keeping everything "the same" as it was in the past, they're basically dying.

Along these lines, Barry commented:
I have been thinking lately about the differences between techniques such as MBSR (and I'll include Goenka-style Vipassana in this) and more traditional practices such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been very careful not to overposition MBSR as anything other than stress reduction. It's a powerful tool for this function, but no one considers it fundamentally transformative.

Perhaps that's because it doesn't force us into a head-on confrontation with our attachments to opinion, views, thoughts, and beliefs.

Traditional Buddhist practices, on the other hand, shove our faces into our attachments. ("I don't LIKE chanting" is a common one.)

There's another sangha here in the Twin Cities that has done a lot of teaching around Kabat-Zinn's approach. They frequently offer classes teaching the MBSR techniques and I'd guess that a fair number of their members came precisely because of those teachings. Although the classes have been successful and people are benefiting from them, it's also the case that, as a group, there seems to be some resistance to the rituals and forms of Zen practice. Now, this is probably true to some degree for most of us newcomers to Zen to some degree. But I think that the emphases we choose to place on dharma talks, workshops, classes, and other sangha events will impact who comes, who stays, and what stories they come to believe about Buddhist practice. In other words, if it's too much about stress reduction, you'll probably get people who mostly want more of that. If it's too much about just sitting, just meditating, you'll probably get people who just want that. If it's too much about socializing and togetherness, you'll probably get more of that.

On the other hand, Robyn writes:
I say that as someone who bristled at all the bowing, robes, incense, etc.. I hated it, thought was was stupid, blah, blah, blah. It was the teacher's talks and the sitting itself that kept me coming back. Little by little, I have grown to see the wisdom and, yes, compassionate gift of all those other things.

So, it's helpful to remember that the way people see and experience things will change over time. What originally drew someone to the community might have little or nothing to do with what is benefiting them now in the same community. Our sangha's head teacher often mentions how when she first came to Zen, she wanted to get away from all the messy relationships in her life and just sit quietly. And now, she views how she does relationships with others and the world around her as the core of practice. Zazen practice is still key to her, but it's not about hiding away anymore.

My point in bringing this up is that part of life in a healthy spiritual community is placing trust in that which has been handed down to us. Generation after generation have had more awakened, more wisdom and compassion-filled lives as a result of embodying the ethical teachings and practices of Buddhism. Like Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook points to, there's a place for community planning and goal setting, and simultaneously, there's an opportunity to let it all go and let arise what will arise.

About an hour ago, we finished our monthly board meeting. It was one of those meetings where you almost can just sit back and watch the flowers sprouting from the soil. In February we set out to develop a strategic plan for the sangha, and now it's really happening. The Board is totally engaged and excited about the possibilities, and the discussions we are having feel directed and thoughtful in a way I haven't experienced before in my term on the Zen Center's board.

It's been a great teaching for me in embodying good old Dogen's instructions. I have put a fair amount of work into keeping things on track, but I have probably done an equal, if not greater amount, of staying quiet, listening, and not meddling with what's actually happening.

Somehow, it seems to me that this lesson of knowing how much to plan and deliberately direct, and knowing when to step back, listen, and not meddle is the very thing needed when addressing group dynamics and functioning. I remember during the class our center had on Dogen's cook instructions, someone brought up a rule of four. That is, three fourths of our time should be spent listening, observing, and not meddling. And one fourth of our time should be action-oriented. Not exactly what you think of in this face paced world we live in, is it?

And yet, I think this is a way we might better embody our teachings as we go about working within our sanghas, or offering ideas about what sanghas of the future might look like. At the end of his comment, Barry points to the newness of this whole Buddhism in "the West" project - and I think that it's worth constantly remembering that even the longest steeped amongst us - those fifth and sixth generation Chinese and Japanese Americans living all over North and South America - even they are still finding their way as members of a spiritual minority not financially or culturally supported by the society around them. Even though there are plenty of differences amongst the various Buddhist sects developing outside of Asia, this experience of being outsiders is one we all share to a certain extent.

Knowing this, I feel it's important to remember to be kind to our fellow practitioners, regardless of what tradition they practice in, or how much we might not agree with their practices. Some folks have been pretty damn hard on the Soka Gakkai communities amongst us, and maybe most of that criticism is right on, and should be considered by these groups. However, if this criticism isn't tempered with some kind of softness, some kind of compassion, then it's just more brutality in an already brutal world.


steve said...

Glad you are sharing what's working with CIW sangha & dharma

Nathan said...

Hi Steve,

There's a lot working well at CIW. Over the winter, I had two or three blog posts about our childrens' programs which received a lot of attention as well.

I enjoy sharing our success stories, partly because I see a lot of folks writing about not having a sangha to go to, or how they struggled when they were a part of a sangha. Maybe those stories can be an encouragement.

And it's good to balance out the ranty posts as well :)