Where’s our Sangha?

On my bookshelf, next to Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, are several Buddhism books: The Dhammapada, Buddhism Without Beliefs and In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. On websites like Access to Insight, I can read many excellent and various essays and translations of suttas. And on YouTube, I have hours of Dhamma goodness from around the world. These are all available at my individual convenience at little personal toil. When I’m done or feel too busy, the books are back on the shelf, and the websites (usually) remain, waiting to be picked up again.

This seems far different from the methods of propagation that were available to previous Buddhist cultures that were faced with the limits of physical travel and the travel of information, and were without huge stores of energy like we have. Preserving the suttas and passing them on to the next generation depended on the labor of constant renewal: memorizing and chanting; recruiting, training and integrating new members; and tuning in the teachings to both the standards of the Dhamma and the needs of the community. All this was necessary to continue the teachings lest the Dhamma be swept away in a gap of practice. And these all existed in and were nurtured by the support of community.

Yet, at my fingertips are the ideas of the Dhamma, fully and freely available at any time, most strikingly without the communal milieu that it previously existed in. With our technology, it is possible and easy for Buddhism to transplant its ideas, far and thin, without the community that has previously nurtured and supported it. But the Buddha himself did not exist in a vacuum that he later filled with the Triple Gem. He lived in a culture that promoted the kind of seeking he engaged in, as evidenced the many mendicants he interacted with and the path that he was enabled by his community to follow. The Sangha of support he built and which continues in some fashion to this day speaks to this need for finding our path together.

Where do we find our community of practice? What might this community look like?

6 comments

  1. Barry Briggs says:

    Thank you for your provocative discussion about sangha.

    In one sense, the sangha (like any institution) serves to carry forward knowledge about the institution itself. This institutional knowledge – the sutras, chants, forms, techniques, etc. – are the uppercase “B” of Buddhism. In this sense, the sangha can appear in its traditional guises, or in its modern, digital incarnations.

    In another sense, the sangha (and this includes the sangha’s institutional knowledge) supports the work of practice and enlightenment. In my experience, the modern, digital notion of sangha offers only modest support for the work of practice and enlightenment. This work ultimately depends on each human being, and the direct support of teachers and others on the path. This doesn’t mean that we all depend on a *local* sangha, but if we don’t have local access, then we might consider traveling at least once each year to encounter a teacher and community.

    • Cindy Franks says:

      Though I have a lama and a center about an hour away, I too often ask this question. Teachings are plentiful, but to whom do we ask questions? Who challenges us? Can I be called Buddhist without having completed Ngondro and seeing my lama less than once a year? The story of Milarepa was helpful in that I now see to what lengths some will travel to attain enlightenment. This does not necessarily make me feel better, since his path is not mine, but that is the lesson. We all have our own paths. Let it not be entirely solitary, but only our own.

      • Barbara says:

        I really like what you said and cannot think of one word to add. Thank you. I am a buddhist in my heart and it manifests in every word, thought or action. I guess I did have something to say!

  2. Hello, and thank you for bringing this up and out — up and out because it was down and under — and I don’t mean Australia. Practice is ultimately always inner.

    Whether is it a book (modern or ancient), a website, and even a look in someone’s eyes — the real teachings never take material form. It is impossible to bring them from deep within and put them into words.

    They defy words. There are many stories and parables of teachers and masters burning texts for this reason. What we are all looking for is eternal and ever present. Whether you call it a sangha or a schmangha, or the moon.

    I find it everywhere. The integrity of this laptop I am typing on is built out of the excitement for life — a joy in life. The tea sitting beside me in a cup is love incarnate. There is none but that. Sangha is all there is.

    Short Zen Poems & Koans – Meditation, Mindfulness

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