In this video talk about what’s known in Buddhism as the Sangha, or the ‘community’, and what it means to take refuge in the sangha if you don’t have a local Buddhist community or when you just don’t have time to go to your local Buddhist community. Below is a rough transcript. Enjoy!
So, if you’re a Buddhist or if you’ve studied Buddhism at all you may have come across the term Sangha. A Sangha is a Buddhist community of practice, in other words, a temple, meditation center, or a Zen center. But, what if you don’t live near a temple or Zen center? Or, if you’re like me and you don’t always have time to get your local Zen center, what is a sangha for you then. That’s what we’re going to talk about right now.
In Buddhism there’s something called the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). I know this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Three Jewels. I briefly discussed them in part four of my “Montaigne & Buddhism” titled “Why Should Buddhists Care?” But, today I wanted to focus on the refuge of the sangha a little more. Maybe you’re like me in that I’m a predominately a kind of self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, and dharma talks etc. So, for me the endeavor into Zen and Buddhism was not one primarily of community orientation. At the time I wasn’t even aware if there was a Zen center near. I’ve since discovered that there is. I have visited my local Zen center more than once and I have greatly enjoyed it each time. However, between hectic-ness of work and family life I don’t get to go as often as I would like. But, as I said in the intro maybe you live in an area with out any kind of official sangha, without an actual temple or Zen center. How does one, then, take refuge in the community, the sangha?
In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that “In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and especially in Zen. There is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. They are one and the same. If one’s practice and the activities of one’s everyday life are not separate spheres, then, it also stand to reason that the idea of a sangha cannot be separately demarcated sphere. In other words, perhaps, one could say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.
I just wrote an Article for The Tattooed Buddha Website that was published a few days ago. The title of the article is “Barking Dogs & Meowing Cats: Samatha Meditation Between the Pauses”. In the article I talk about what my daily meditation practice is like and what the environment of my daily meditation practice is like.
Every morning I get up early, I grab my cushion, I let the dogs out, I set my timer, and I meditate on my patio for about 45 minutes. On paper, that sounds more serene than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, some mornings, when I have enough awareness, or when I’ve gotten enough sleep the previous night, the sound of birdsong and the whispers of a slight breeze softly pirouetting through the trees in my backyard is meditation gold. Picking an object of concentration in such a setting is like being at a buffet. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the most accurate portrayal of the soundscape. Remember those dogs I let out? Yeah…let’s talk about them for a minute. I have a Chiweenie who has made it his personal mission, his quest, to vigilantly defend the yard against every rustling bush, viciously hunting down every intruding lizard, and barking vehemently as if sounding the alarm against the evils of the squirrel menace. I also have a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier mutt, who noisily and aggressively rushes to the aid of her pint sized comrade in arms, unquestioningly seconding the commotion, yelping without ever having a clue as to what is being yelped at. She quickly grows tired of the traumas found in the backyard battlefield. Whining, panic stricken, and in a state of utter despair, she scratches at the patio screen door seeking asylum, calling for canine sanctuary. If that wasn’t enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it?
I’ve begun to see that regardless of the torrent of external and internal activity, I can physically locate a stillness, a quiet, somewhere within myself. Often while I’m watching the breath and becoming distracted by the cacophony of diversions that both my mind and my environment elicit, I search for that stillness. I try to see if I can I touch this stillness, even if but for a moment. Sometimes I find it in the still stability of my hands as they rest together on my lap. Sometimes I find it in the brief pause between breaths.
I don’t always find this quiet, I can’t always see the stillness, and I don’t always have the ability to touch it, but, when it happens, when I can manage to touch that ever-present stillness within myself, I simultaneously touch the stillness that is present in everything else around me. There is a stillness in the tress as the wind caresses the leaves. There is a calm in the chirping of the birds. There is even a quiet stillness found present in a barking Chiweenie, a whining Jack Russell, and an incessantly meowing cat.
Zen Meditation, or zazen, is at its best when it welcomes in, embraces, and sits with the present moment of the world around us, whatever it may be, whatever may be happening, and whatever it may contain. In Brad Warner‘s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japean’s Greatest Zen Master, he writes that “unlike most other forms of meditation, [in zazen] we keep our eyes open. This is a way of acknowledging the outside world as part of our practice and as a part of us.” Warner says that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that Dōgen says we should shine inward. So although we are shining our light inward, we also accept that there is no hard line that divides ourselves from the outside world, or the rest of the universe.”
You may be thinking, that all sounds great, but, what about the sangha? what does any of this have to do with the sangha?
I’m getting there, I promise. I just read a great blog post by Sensei Alex Kakuyo called 3 Things I learned from my Outdoor Meditation Retreat. In the blog post he writes about a time he was working as Farmer, and not only did he not have access to a local sangha but, virtual or online access to a sangha and such dharma related resources was limited. So he would do self-led meditation retreats, autonomously exploring outdoor meditation. He writes about the experience stating “I wanted to sit in a beautiful park with birds singing in the trees. But you can’t enjoy those things without dealing grass stains and bird poop. They’re part of the process, and expecting anything else is a cause of suffering.” I can relate. For me to sit zazen in the morning on my patio means I also have to deal my dogs barking and whining, and one of my cats meowing. Sensei Alex highlights the fact that “The world will always be there, banging at the front door. The best way to deal with it is by letting it in.” This next part of his essay was the light bulb moment for me and it drives home the point I’ve been trying to get it in this video. He says that as he was meditation in these outdoor areas, observing and “letting-in” the contents of the environment he began to recognize that “The birds, the ants, and the people at the park had all been supporting me like a traditional Buddhist sangha”. All of these various elements of the outside world became so apart of his practice that they were actually supporting and upholding his practice, they became his sangha. He says that “Everyone and everything on the planet is working hard to help us in our walk toward awakening. We just need to open our eyes and notice the gifts that we’re given.”
in a weird kind of way, my sangha is made of up my of these dogs and cats, and the whole conglomeration of what is present at the time and place of my practice. The sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, any thing or anyone that somehow contributes to your Zen practice.
As Max Erdstein says “The Whole world is the monastery”.
This may sound strange but, this really isn’t a foreign concept to Zen. I just recently finished reading The Essential Dogen. Dogen, who I mentioned earlier and who I’ve quoted in a past video, was a 13th century Zen Buddhist priest, who has not only been credited with bringing Zen to Japan but, also founded the Soto school of Zen. In Dogen’s voluminous writings he talks about ‘insentient beings speaking the dharma’.
Dogen writes the following:
“Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”
“Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles of the world of phenomena…all engage in buddha activity, those who receive the benefits of the wind and water are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s transformation…and intimately manifest enlightenment.”
“The sutras are the entire world… There is no moment or place that is not sutras.”
“The sutras are written in letters of heavenly beings, human beings, animals, fighting spirits, one hundred grasses, or ten thousand trees. This being so, what is long, short, square, and round, as well as what is blue, yellow, red, and white, arrayed densely in the entire world… is no other than letters of the sutras and the surface of the sutras. Regard them as the instruments of the great way and as the sutras of the buddha house.”
Everything that you encounter on the path of your practice is the dharma. The entirety of the phenomenal world forms the letters of the sutras. Everything is your sangha. As you begin to practice and as you continue to practice take a deep look at everything and everyone in your world, that is your sangha.