A loving sangha, a committed group of ordinary people

In Buddha’s time, there was not a teaching of the triple treasure: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Only the first 60 disciples had direct contact with the Buddha and these original disciples had two refuges, Buddha and Dharma. After Buddha died, and the disciples grew in number, the third refuge came into being — the Sangha. (Stilton, “A Concise History of Buddhism”)

The Jewel of the sangha has become very important. We can’t do this alone. We don’t have the strength alone to go against the forces of our culture and live by the teachings. Spiritual practice has often been described as moving upstream, against the current, like the salmon. We need to develop our ability to stop and look deeply, to concentrate (samatha) and to have insight (vipassana). Otherwise, without these tools of spiritual life, we lose ourselves in the story. Life flies by like a dream if we don’t learn to stop and deeply see and it is very hard to do this in isolation.

From Thich Nhat Hanh in “Touching the Earth”

“If the practice center is organized in such a way that everyone is an island, without much contact, affection or warmth from other members, even if they were to practice for 10 to 20 years, there will be no fruit. We need to put down roots. Without roots, it is difficult to function happily.”

A sangha’s most important mission is to have a nonjudgmental kindness that runs through it. Where everyone feels welcomed and valued. That feeling of acceptance is what allows us to explore different dimensions of life, which might scare us. We can feel safe to do our healing and transformation in front of the eyes of the community. How vulnerable it feels to have our strengths and weakness revealed, as it seems to happen in a functional, healthy Sangha.

I remember the first time I felt totally accepted. Coming from a very critical family, it was quite an unusual, healing experience. I had gone done to Hokyoji Monastery for a 2-month training period in the early 80’s and I was shocked by the unconditional acceptance I felt, both from Katagiri-Roshi and from the group, even in the face of conflict which naturally arise in groups of human beings.

The establishment of the unconditional kindness is more important that the actual decision we are trying to make. If we are grounded in this sense of inclusion, the sangha can handle diversity of opinion. Our practice of holding steady in the face of difference and conflict should help us maintain this. The decisions can arise out of the collective wisdom of the group, which has maintained its unity in the face of diverse views. This is a developed skill that comes out of our council practice, which is a form of talking in a circle that allows everyone to express themselves and to be heard. At Clouds, it has been supported by Insight Dialogue practices which help us learn how to deeply listen and to speak our truths and then finally, to trust what emerges. It is wonderful if the group includes some well-seasoned practitioners as their voice will come from a deeper place of non-duality and experience. The teachers’ voices will also have a place in the deep listening of the sangha circle.

Thich Nhat Hanh:

Do not expect any teacher or sangha to be perfect. We need only a committed group of ordinary people in order to receive great benefits from the practice.

Buddha said, that in the appearance of the manifested world, we are always dissatisfied. I think that is true of sangha too. We have our own ideas, needs and projections that we place on the sangha and struggle with. The grass is always greener somewhere else or with a better teacher. We want to keep our dualistic opinions that some priests are better then others, some systems of teaching are better than others, some teachers are better than others. These evaluations can be constant and keep us irritated and anxious. It is very difficult to settle down in our own practices, in what is , while we keep these comparative evaluations going endlessly.

Katagiri Roshi would not allow us to publicize who was speaking at lectures because he wanted the students to come without preference and evaluation, and receive the teaching of the day whether considered superior or inferior.

What is a good enough parent, teacher or sangha? Largely, practice comes from within and our vow to uphold the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We are constantly dissatisfied, the Buddha said in the 1st and 2nd noble truths. The Sangha prospers when we root ourselves in our own practices, are committed to our vows, and have a non-judgmental attitude to ourselves and others. Then, an ordinary group of committed people can receive and extend the benefits of the triple treasure with the attitude of “things as they are.”