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?