The Jewel of Sangha
This is an excerpt from The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice by Gil Fronsdal. The book is available as a PDF doc and free to download here.
Buddhist practice is supported and nourished by a community of fellow practitioners. This idea is embedded in the notion that Sangha is one of the Three Jewels, which give strength to a person’s practice. While the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha can be equally important as supports and refuges, the first two Jewels are more often emphasized in American Buddhist circles. People tend to be much more interested in Awakening, the practice, and the teachings than in the important role that community has in a life of practice.
It has taken some thirty years to establish the practice and teachings of Vipassana in the West. I feel that one of the next important developments for the American Vipassana movement is a stronger sense of community. We should not overemphasize it, but bring it into balance with the Buddha and Dharma. Like the three legs of a tripod, each one is needed.
Practicing alone can be very difficult. Spiritual practice often changes our values and priorities. The values of contentment, peace, generosity, love and compassion that often result from the practice can be in conflict with the values of consumerism, ambition, selfishness and insensitivity found in much of our popular culture. A community of practitioners offers mutual support for living by the alternative, spiritual values.
Also, spiritual practice in a community means that the community becomes a mirror for us, as we understand ourselves better through our relationships with other practitioners. My first motivation to live in a Buddhist community was to benefit from this mirroring, especially by more senior practitioners. The practitioners didn’t support or participate in many of the ego trips and emotional reactivity that I acted on, whereas many of my friends did. And because they didn’t participate I could more clearly see what I was doing.
My early years of practicing within a Buddhist community were also valuable because I was given frequent examples of people expressing compassion and kindness. Such examples were inspiring, practical lessons teaching me how I might respond in the same way.
Of course, other communities besides Buddhist ones can provide helpful mirroring and modeling. However, there is a dedication that a Buddhist community tries to live by that may well be different than most other groups. A Sangha is a place where anyone can come and practice. If we end up in conflict with someone or we don’t like what they have said or done, we don’t banish that person from the community. Rather we bring mindful investigation to the conflict. We try to notice any attachments, fears, projections, and confusions. We look for opportunities for reconciliation, and for wise ways of respecting one another and making room for differences. This dedication of inclusion means that a Sangha is, or aims to be, a safe place for people to be themselves, which is a prerequisite for the deepest work of Buddhist practice.
For the same reason, a Sangha is also a safe place to experiment with new ways of being. As practice relaxes our insecurities and automatic patterns of behavior a Sangha can be, for example, a place for compulsive speakers to explore speaking less, or inhibited speakers to explore new ways of speaking up.
While there can be many benefits to practicing with others, we must be aware of possible problems. As soon as a group of people gathers as a community, there is a culture, and cultures always have blind spots, or “shadows”. If you avoid being involved with a community because it has a shadow, no community will ever be adequate. If you relate only to the light of a community, you are doing yourself a disservice. If you relate only to the shadow, you are also doing yourself a disservice. A function of Buddhist practice is to clarify and draw out the shadow, bringing it into balance with the light. Without honest practice, a culture’s shadow can remain hidden.
For example, one of the common shadows of Buddhist communities is anger. This is in great part because Buddhists value kindness and compassion. And the more a culture values kindness and compassion, the greater the degree to which anger and hostility will be pushed into the shadows. People will be reluctant to show that side of themselves, sometimes even to themselves. The practice of mindfulness is the antidote to hidden shadows. As we become more present for our body, our feelings and our thoughts, we will become increasingly honest about both our inner and our shared outer life.
Life is made up of encounters and we learn about ourselves in the encounters. In relation to Buddhist practice, we look at what we bring to each encounter. How do we allow other people to encounter us, and how do we encounter them? To meditate and to settle on oneself, and encounter the world from that settled place is a wonderful thing. A practice community is a place to begin learning to bring that settled place into the rest of our lives.