Over the years this blog has had plenty of questions and comments from people asking how to join a Buddhist community, or sharing stories of their failed attempts. Truth be told, it is not always easy to become part of a Buddhist community. For many people who do not live near major cities, the nearest temple or meditation center can be far, far away. But even people who have a temple in their own backyard can have a difficult time joining a community when they don’t have a friend to guide them into the fold.
A tip from someone who has stumbled through a number of communities: to become part of the community, sometimes you have to work at it. Literally.
People join Buddhist communities for a lot of reasons, and the more specific one’s reason the easier it is to fulfill. If you are looking for a place to learn more about the Buddha’s teachings, you can go to a Dharma Talk or a study group. If you are looking for a place to meditate, you can find a venue that offers group sitting, or join a retreat. It becomes more complicated when the objective of joining a community is to belong to a community. Such times call for good, old-fashioned manual labor.
My time-tested theory works like this: If you join a community without any previous connection, you need to make a friend. You need to make the first friend who is going to be your connection to the rest of the community. By doing work around the temple you do three important things:
- You show yourself to be a considerate, well-mannered person. We are all unique and beautiful snowflakes on the inside, but showing it helps.
- You bring yourself to the attention of the other considerate, well-mannered persons who are also doing work around the temple. Most people in any Buddhist community are not overly concerned with the growth of the community, but rather in their own day-to-day interactions. People who do temple work are interested in the health, and likely the growth, of the temple, and are far more likely to reach out to newcomers.
- Manual labor provides a nice, low-level activity to bond over. Like playing cards or sharing a drink—socializing is easier when something else is going on. In this case, work is that thing.
The kind of work does not need to be complicated, and a newcomer can usually find something to do just by being observant. Once a talk or function is over, perhaps the cushions need to be put away or the chairs need to be stacked. If there is a communal meal, someone needs to do the dishes. Sutra books and chanting sheets need to be collected. If someone else is working on something, ask if they need help. In the life of a temple, there is always plenty to do.
The biggest mistake people make when joining a community is coming with expectations: Expectations about what the community should be like or should offer, and expectations for how they should be treated. Doing work for the temple is a great way to maintain our humility, and show that we are not only interested in what we can get out of the community, but what we can give. And when we can approach joining a Buddhist community with that perspective, we come closer to being a part of that community.
Photograph by AnnieGreenSprings