The Sangha is the community of Buddhist meditation practitioners who support us in our practice simply by being present and true to their own practice.
While I was in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico this visit I was fortunate to find a meditation sangha that felt like coming home to me. This was a great gift and a boon to my practice. Although I have my meditation spot in our house in San Miguel -- and although I know full well all the benefits of regular practice to my health, happiness and creativity -- it is still surprisingly easy to to shorten a sit, to skip a sit when I wake up late, as I might when in a different country, on a different schedule, and not replace it with one later in the day. When I am away from my sangha, my community of practitioners in the US, it is much easier to lose my dedication to meditation.
When I returned home to the US after a month away, and met with my students, of course I wanted to know how they did with their personal practice. What most found was that without the regular weekly gathering of sangha, their personal practice either fell by the wayside or became sporadic. Some felt discouraged by this, but really it’s just a reminder of the importance of sangha.
When we practice Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, that inspiration of the possibility of awakening in any moment. We take refuge in the Dharma, the teachings of the historical Buddha that provide guidance and insight into how we cause suffering and how to end suffering. Third, and no less important, we take refuge in the Sangha, the community of practitioners who remind us by their very presence and their own personal dedication, of the importance of the practice and the value of what we are doing.
We can remind ourselves that the Buddha had a sangha. He practiced with a group of ascetics for six years before sitting under the Boddhi tree and reaching enlightenment. And after reaching enlightenment he returned to his sangha, taught them what he had learned, traveled with them and built sangha wherever they went. The Buddha was not a hermit. He had a community of fellow practitioners.
When we go on a silent retreat, we may at first feel that we are alone, because we are in silence and have no eye contact. We do an inward turning, noticing the nature of our sensory experience. But soon we become aware that even though our fellow retreatants are focused also on their inward experience, together we are supporting each other in this practice. That is the nature of sangha. At the deepest level we recognize the unity of our experience, honor the shared dedication and are inspired to continue our practice.
So there is no shame in not being able to sustain a practice on our own. Feeling bad about it simply causes suffering. Instead we are reminded of the importance of sangha. Let’s create sangha wherever we go! Let’s acknowledge our sangha, be able to recognize extended sangha and be sangha for others whenever possible.
There is no substitute for a sitting group coming together on a regular basis. Fortunately there are many available. You can find sitting groups in Inquiring Mind magazine, for example.
It is also important to remember that the value of the sangha continues even when the teacher is absent. The last time I was away for an extended period, my class organized to meet at each other’s homes for the duration, reading and discussing a Buddhist book together. It worked out very well, and their personal practices were for the most part sustained.
When I was away this time however, because others in the group were traveling as well and it was only for five weeks, not eight, the plan to get together never gelled, and so each student was on her own to continue the practice.
Sangha is important! It’s not a crutch! It’s the nature of our way of being in the world. We are social creatures. We are like redwoods whose network of roots support each other close to the surface of the forest floor. Remember John Donne’s poem: “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We are communal creatures. We are connected.
Who are the members of your sangha? How often do you get together with your sangha? If you are struggling with your personal practice, perhaps it’s for lack of a regular sangha. Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. All three work together to support us in our practice and to help end suffering for ourselves and all beings.