What I Should’ve Said About the Sangha…

So last week I posted a video titled “My Sangha“, it was all about what it means to take refuge in the Sangha if you’re in an area without a temple or Zen center, or if you just don’t have the availability to regularly participate in a local Sangha. Yet, for all that I did say, I’ve begun to realize, there was quite a bit I didn’t say, and more importantly there was quite a bit a could have said better, and probably quite a bit I should clarify. So let’s talk about it right now!

YouTube is a great outlet for sharing and discussing ideas but, one of the problems with the medium of Youtube, for me at least, is that sometimes it can be difficult to effectively communicate and express your thought in such a short form medium. I try my best to keep my videos at or around 15 minutes, and usually I’m trying to cover a lot of ground in that time. Sometimes things get lost in that process or I’m not quite as clear as I’d like to be. Last week’s video about taking refuge in the Sangha is one such example.

I received a great comment on that video that made me recognize that I should say more on the subject.

“Taking refuge in the Sangha is not just about what a Sangha means to you. Members of a Sangha are seeking refuge in you, too. So, it is best, if you can to practice in person with a Sangha, so that you are there for them as well. We can also develop hubris if we believe we don’t need a teacher or other Sangha members to “catch” us in our belief that we’ve got it, when in fact we are far from it.”

There are some really excellent points here.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that an official Sangha is not important or helpful. In fact, just last weekend I took the Refuge vows and the Five Lay Precepts. By taking the Refuge vows and the Five Lay Precepts, I officially joined the Morning Sky Zen Sangha and I became a part of the Tsaodong Ch’an Lineage and tradition..

Now, I’ve discussed the refuge vows in the past couple videos, this is the Triple Refuge, the Refuge of the Three jewels, the triple gem, or the three shelters.

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take Refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

As my teacher explained in that ceremony, taking refuge in the Buddha does not simply mean the historical figure of the Buddha but the Buddha Nature found in everyone. Here the Buddha represents Enlightenment.

Taking refuge in the Dharma is not simply taking refuge in the teachings of the Buddha but the teachings of all beings. In other words, here, the Dharma represents truth.

And, finally taking refuge in the Sangha is not simply the community of fellow practitioners but also the community of all beings.

And that’s part of what I was trying to highlight in last week’s video.

In his book, Friends on the Path, Thich Nhat Hanh writes the follwoing:

The trees, water, air, birds, and so on can all be members of our sangha. A beautiful walking path may be part of our sangha. A good cushion can be also. We can make many things into supportive elements of our sangha. This idea is not entirely new; it can be found throughout the sutras and in the Abhidharma, too. A pebble, a leaf and a dahlia are mentioned in the Saddharmapundarika Sutra in this respect. It . If is said in the Pure Land Sutra that if you are mindful, then when the wind blows through the trees, you will hear the teaching of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Eightfold Path, and so on. The whole cosmos is preaching the buddhadharma and practicing the buddhadharma. If you are attentive, you will get in touch with that sangha.

This is meant to not only stress the interconnectedness of all things, but I also think that its meant to give some encouragement to those of us who are not always in the position to be a part of an official Sangha in person. When we can see that the sangha is not limited to particular place or a specific group of individuals, but that the sangha is also comprised of all sentient beings, as well as anything and anyone we come into contact with during our practice, We can then recognize that we are never alone, we are never not part of a community – we are all part of an interdependent web of life, our community is always all around us.

We should welcome and acknowledge the support of the community that is always near us.

I’ve been reading a paraphrasing of Dogen‘s Shobogenzo by Brad Warner, called Don’t Be a Jerk, in it he writes that we should “rely on whatever has the truth, whether it’s a lamppost or a stop sign or a Buddha, whether it’s a stray dog, a demon or a god, or a man or a woman” and that one should even “look to trees and stones to be your teachers, even fields and villages might preach to you, as it says in the Lotus Sutra. Question lampposts and investigate fences and walls.”

I think what I wanted to try to say was that regardless of one’s location, availability, or circumstances one can always take refuge in the sangha of all beings, they too are part of one’s sangha.

In this regard, I don’t think its a bad or irreverent thing to ask what a Sangha is?, or what a Sangha is for you?

A really great book I read years ago is a book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark In it he writes that “religion can, and should be, objected to, questioned, and talked about. Contrary to many adherents who demand unquestioning respect for their faith, religion is perfectly and wonderfully objectionable.”

“The religiously faithful aren’t just permitted to critique and complain and reform; they’re BOUND to do as much BY religion. Without it, there is no faithfulness”

To me, this seems to be in keeping with the evolution of Buddhism. The historical development and progression of Buddhism has proven to be quite plastic, by that I mean that the tradition is malleable, there is a fluidity there. In each successive generation practitioners have constantly been found asking what it meanss to be a Buddhist in their context. As a result Buddhism has constantly adapted to changes of time and place, and it has done so without ever losing its core principles and teachings.

One of the books I just started reading is a book called Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. Here’s a passage that I think gets at what I mean here:

The world we work in today is not the world of Michelangelo, of Marie Curie, of Ernest Hemingway, or even of Paul Rand. It is a new world, empowered and entranced by the rapid-fire introduction of new technologies—a world where our metaphysical front door is always open, where anyone can whisper in our ear, where a “room of one’s own” no longer means you’re all alone.

We can easily apply this to the Buddhist tradition, or any other tradition for that matter.

The world we live in today is not the world of the Buddha, of Bodhidharma, of Hongzhi, of Dogen, or of any of the other great teachers and Zen masters. It is a new world…

As Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “the worldwide web of information – radio, television, telephones, the Internet – means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere, too.”

For example, I should mention that the Morning Sky Zen Sangha, isn’t exactly what you would call a traditional Sangha. It’s primarily based online. I live in Palm Bay, Florida and my teacher is in Kansas City, MO., and its other members are found all over the country. In other words, by embracing and utilizing the internet based communications technologies our modern world, my Sangha is reformulating what a Sangha is, what a Sangha looks like, and what a Sangha can be in the reality of our present world.

However, the refuge and support I receive from my teacher and the other members of my Sangha is in no way diminished by the fact that it is transmitted through an internet connection, if anything, the fact that the support of my Sangha can transcend the barriers and limitations of geography in such a way is a testament to its strength and vitality.

I believe firmly that our faithfulness or commitments to our beliefs, ideals, and traditions is directly proportionate to our ability to question them, our ability to reevaluate them, and our ability to reformulate them.

By asking what a Sangha truly is, what it means to be a part of Sangha, what a sangha means for me, or what a Sangha means for you, it is a way of acknowledging the fact that our world has dramatically changed and continues to do so, and it is way of expressing our deep commitment to these traditions and ideas.

In What is Zen? Norman Fischer writes that “Zen has to be different to fit us, but we have to be different to fit Zen.”

It is a reciprocal activity.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “When we say, ‘I take refuge in the sangha,’ it is not a statement, it is a practice.”

It is an active orientation, a vow of reciprocal action, a promise enacted reciprocity.

Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh, he say that “A sangha is not a community of practice in which each person is an island, unable to communicate with each other—this is not a true sangha. No healing or transformation will result from such a sangha. A true sangha should be like a family in which there is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”

He goes on to say – “Don’t think that we sit for ourselves. You don’t sit for yourself alone, you sit for the whole sangha—not only the sangha, but also for the people in your city, because when one person in the city is less angry, is smiling more, the whole city profits.”

When we sit, we sit with and for all beings, we sit with and for the entire world.

As Dogen explains, “Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”

We should not only be the recipients of support, we should equally lend support to whatever community we find ourselves a part of.

We should take refuge in the sangha of all beings, but also all beings should be able to take refuge in us, as we are part of their sangha as well.

In other words, the Sangha is the practice of being open and aware enough to receive the support available from the entire world, it is taking refuge in the entirety of the world. But, it is also the practice of being open-enough to be the space in which the entire world can take refuge in you.

What makes a Sangha a Sangha is not it’s physical location or its brick and mortar structure. A Sangha is not limited to a building, or one geographical place, nor is it liimited to the the literal proximity of the participants to one another. The Sangha extends beyond all this. What makes a Sangha a Sangha is the shared reciprocity of caring support and compassionate connection. To take refuge is to be a refuge.

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