Is it really necessary to participate in a Sangha, or Buddhist community? What are the benefits, joys, and challenges of Sangha practice? You may be surprised by some of the aspects of Sangha I talk about in this episode (it’s not all about enjoying the pleasant company of enlightened people!).
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Definitions of Sangha [2:36]
What Modern Sanghas Are Like [4:42]
The Full Buddhist Tradition Is Conveyed Through Sangha [5:55]
Sangha Provides Positive Peer Pressure [7:55]
Challenging and Clarifying Our Understanding [11:57]
Accepting We’re All Just Ordinary Beings [13:40]
Forming Dharma Friendships [16:29]
Taking Responsibility for Our Social Issues and Reactions [10:16]
Potato Practice: Benefiting from Friction with Others [22:38]
Resolving Lifelong Karma through Relationship [27:00]
Sangha as Service to Other Suffering Beings [30:44]
When I first got interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation, I did some reading and learned about the so-called “Three Treasures” of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (I talked about the Three Treasures in Episode 2.) The “Buddha” made sense to me – the teacher Shakyamuni who lived 2,500 years ago, and at another level the wisdom inside of us. The “Dharma” made sense too: That’s the teachings and practices of Buddhism, or truth itself.
What about the “Sangha,” though? That’s the community of Buddhist practitioners. Was the treasure of Sangha really necessary? Was it important to get together with others to practice Buddhism? I associated groups of spiritual or religious people – fairly or not – with all kinds of negative things: prejudice, conformism, judgementalism, cults… Just a few years before I got into Zen, I had told a friend, “If I ever get into an organized religion, shoot me!”
Still, because I found the teachings of Buddhism so fascinating and helpful, and because I really liked meditation, I decided to give Sangha a shot. I looked up “Buddhist Churches” in the phone book (I realize this dates me!) and visited a couple local groups. The third one I attended felt like home, and despite my prior biases I have been intimately involved with Sanghas ever since.
In this episode, I’ll try to explain why Sangha is so important in Zen or Buddhist practice.
Definitions of Sangha
First, I want to describe what Sangha is – beyond just calling it “the Buddhist community.” Originally, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Sangha was technically just the ordained monks and nuns. Members of the Sangha shared common vows and a full-time, intensive, formal way of practice. It was – and still is – nearly impossible to follow the 250-plus rules governing the daily life of a fully-ordained Buddhist monk or nun without the support of a community of people doing the same thing.
The Buddhist community in its entirety was called the “fourfold Buddhist community” of ordained monks, ordained nuns, lay women, and lay men. To this day in Asia, and in Asian communities in the West, it’s typical for ordained people to see themselves as belonging to the “Sangha,” while lay people see themselves as belonging to a local temple – which is essentially a Buddhist church. Temples usually have at least one ordained monastic or priest, and offer special ceremonies throughout the year, including memorials and funerals. Temples are often associated with a graveyard and maintain a record of membership that serves as a sort of local census and history.
As Westerners have started practicing Buddhism over the past 70 years or so, the distinction between ordained and lay practitioners has significantly blurred. Given religious freedom and more leisure time than their ancestors, lay people have taken up the practices that were traditionally pursued primarily by the ordained. Modern lay people who practice Buddhism, at least in the West, see themselves as belonging to the Sangha as much as the monks, nuns, and priests do – so where this is the case, the term Sangha applies to the fourfold Buddhist community.
What Modern Sanghas Are Like
So, what do these modern, mixed ordained and lay sanghas look like? Generally speaking, they’re self-selected groups of people who are interested in, and have respect for, Buddhism, and who gather together to study and practice. Modern Sanghas range from monasteries where people live and engage full-time in traditional monastic practices, all the way to small, informal groups of people who get together to study, meditate, or chant and have no fixed meeting place.
In the West, “Dharma Centers” or “Zen Centers” are becoming more and more common. These are like a hybrid between a traditional monastery – where people engage intensively in Buddhist practices – and a temple, or church, which serves as a community center and attends to the spiritual and ritual needs of its members. If you search for a Sangha near you in the West, this is the kind of community you’re most likely to find, although such groups range from a handful of practitioners with no teacher or practice place of their own, to large centers with beautiful facilities, lots of programs, and hundreds of members.
The Full Buddhist Tradition Is Conveyed Through Sangha
Back to why Sangha is important:
The existence of Sangha is what makes Buddhism a living, applied spiritual tradition rather than a mere philosophy. I encountered all kinds of inspiring concepts, ideals, and philosophies before I became a Buddhist. As a teen, I read and re-read Thoreau’s Walden, and in college I was impressed with the Stoic philosophers. However, what was I supposed to do with these ideas other than just think about them? I could try to apply them to my life, I suppose, but translating them into action wasn’t so easy.
When I encountered Buddhism, it was different. After I read about Buddhist ideas and philosophy, I could try the practices of meditation and mindfulness and see what changes they made in my life. Even further, I could attend a local Sangha where I could learn from and question a real, live, trained teacher – someone who put Buddhist teachings into modern language, and could recommend how to apply them to everyday life. I could encounter other people who aspired to the same thing I did, and learn from their experience.
There’s only so much you can learn from books, especially when you’re talking about a spiritual practice that has the potential to transform your life. The Buddhist tradition has countless aspects that can’t be conveyed in a book, including the personal and dynamic interactions between teacher and student, learning how to move your body according to traditional forms that are meant to foster mindfulness and concern for others, and the emotionally nurturing power of ritual. I’m not going to go into these aspects of Buddhism in this episode – just note that this is the first important function of Sangha: it carries and conveys the many components of the Buddhist tradition that can’t be shared through writing.
Sangha Provides Positive Peer Pressure
Even apart from the Buddhist teachings and practices a Sangha can expose you to, participating with a Sangha is valuable. Why? Human beings are social creatures – even the introverts and misanthropes among us! We depend on and influence one another. The presence and positive support of other people is what helps us fulfill our aspirations – and form those aspirations to begin with. I like to call this kind of beneficial social influence on one another “positive peer pressure.”
For example, the course of your life was deeply affected by whether your parents were your greatest fans, or your greatest critics. If you’re surrounded by positive, healthy people, it’s whole lot easier to avoid negative behaviors like abusing drugs or wallowing in depression. No matter how convinced we are that more exercise would be good for us, most of us find it easier to actually do it if we attend a yoga class or join a gym.
Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha emphasized that associating with what he called “admirable people” was essential to our success in practice. He defined “admirable people” as wise practitioners who are firm in their conviction spiritual practice is important, and are strong in virtue, generosity, and discernment. The following is a famous passage from the Pali Upaddha Sutta (note: in this passage, the Buddha is called “the Blessed One”):
“…Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’
“‘Don’t say that, Ananda. [The Blessed One responds.] Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”
You may or may not relate to needing the support of others in order to do a challenging practice or change your habits. Maybe you’re an unusually self-disciplined person! However, if you do find that your spiritual aspirations wane when you try to fulfill them on your own, know you’re not the only one! Modern Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that, in his tradition, people say “when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowland, it will be caught by humans and killed. When practitioners leave their Sangha, they will abandon their practice after a few months.” Thich Nhat Hanh and many other teachers and practitioners maintain that it’s much easier to practice with a Sangha than by yourself.
Keep the value of positive peer support in mind if you find yourself wondering whether your presence in a particular Sangha matters! Even if you value Sangha, it’s easy to figure it will go on without you if you’re busy and don’t attend for a while. That assumption is probably true, but your presence with Sangha is an act of generosity even if you don’t have a special role there. It supports others by adding energy and momentum to the collective experience, inspiring others through positive peer pressure.
Challenging and Clarifying Our Understanding
Even if you’re a really self-disciplined person and don’t need others to keep your practice strong, and even if you feel you can learn everything you want to know about Buddhism from books, there are still important reasons to practice with Sangha. The first of these is that our ideas about practice get challenged when we encounter teachers, peers, and people who have been practicing longer or more intensively that we have. It’s like attending a class on something; through the interactions with others and by engaging the material in a social situation, we’re exposed to new ways of looking at things.
We may think we’ve understood a teaching or practice but then find out our ideas are incorrect or incomplete. When we’re questioned by a teacher or Sangha member and try to give an answer that reflects our understanding and experience, we may struggle for words and realize we haven’t clarified something for ourselves as much as we thought we had. Even coming up with a question is a valuable process, as we have to look inward and find the edge of our understanding.
Frequently, the questions and experiences of others in the Sangha – whether seniors, peers, or newcomers – helps us realize something. It’s amazing how often I say something over and over as a teacher, but a student won’t really get it until another Sangha member says more or less the same thing, but in different words and from a different perspective. Overall, participating with other people in Buddhist study and practice can teach us a lot.
Accepting We’re All Just Ordinary Beings
However, in case you hear this and expect Sangha discussions to always be deep and edifying, I should point out that the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha. That is, ideas about how Buddhist practitioners should think and act – including ourselves. Sometimes people feel disappointed when they first participate in Sangha because these supposed Buddhists don’t seem to have very deep understanding, or they’re still rather opinionated, rude, or oblivious when they communicate. Sangha members may reveal weaknesses, mistakes, problems, confusion, and doubt – and these things can make us doubt the efficacy of the Buddhist path, or deflate the hope we had that Buddhism would solve all of our problems and quickly make us into gracious, enlightened beings.
I had been part of a Sangha for a year or two and was hard-core into Zen when I overheard someone ask one of the senior practitioners, “How have you been?” The senior was a woman I admired who had practicing for 10 years or so, and she responded, “I’ve been awful!” I was surprised, confused, and disappointed – how could someone who had been practicing for 10 years feel awful?!
After many years, I realized and accepted the fact that Buddhist practice doesn’t relieve us of our humanity. We still make mistakes, have weaknesses, and encounter problems. We still feel, from time to time, sad, depressed, confused, and discouraged – but practice lets us see that we are larger than these experiences; they come and go, and don’t define who we are. We learn to face our issues head-on rather than distract ourselves or live in denial. We become more honest with ourselves and others. We accept ourselves and our humanity, and ironically taste enlightenment as we do so.
In the context of Sangha, this is what we should look for: Humble people who are working hard, not people who are already perfect. As the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin wrote, “As with water and ice, there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no Buddhas.” We may hold an ideal of Buddhahood that contrasts greatly with the imperfect, fallible people we encounter – but Buddhas are nothing other than imperfect, fallible people who have awakened! (More on what I mean by awakening or Buddhahood in future episodes – I’ve got to get back to the topic of Sangha.)
Forming Dharma Friendships
Most of us also find social connection within a Sangha. It’s very precious to end up with friends who share your aspirations and the language of your spiritual practice. Personally, I find it very rare to have conversations outside of Sangha that are as deep and meaningful as the ones I regularly have with what I call “my dharma sisters and brothers.” I remember being amazed when I first joined a Sangha that adults anywhere would get together, admit they weren’t perfect, and sincerely discuss their aspirations to work toward greater wisdom and compassion. I continue to be amazed that I can talk with people in the Sangha about the profound bliss that can be found gazing mindfully at a spot of sunlight on the carpet… and have them understand!
Practice in the midst of everyday life is challenging, and it can be valuable to have a trusted friend – or two, or three – to talk to about it. Friends can give us inspiration, encouragement, and comradery – and sometimes they’re the ones who can ask us the most useful questions. A teacher may be of some support to us, but sometimes it’s easier to be totally honest with friends – we let them hear us complain or despair or express anger. A good Sangha friend will hold what we say in confidence, without judgement, but also without entirely believing us, either. They know our aspirations and encourage us to remember them. In the Mitta Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha described a good friend:
“He gives what is beautiful,
hard to give,
does what is hard to do,
endures painful, ill-spoken words.
His secrets he tells you,
your secrets he keeps.
When misfortunes strike,
he doesn’t abandon you;
when you’re down & out,
doesn’t look down on you.”
Another profound aspect of Dharma friendship within Sangha is that gradually, over time, the people in Sangha get to know us. If we allow it to happen, we end up being seen for who we really are – including our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It can be incredibly healing and encouraging to find we’re still accepted by the Sangha despite the end of our anonymity, and regardless of the fact that – eventually – we let our guard down or fail to keep our act up. Many people carry around the fear that they will be rejected if others find out what they’re really like – but wonderfully, that fear tends to be unfounded because we’re our own worst critics.
Taking Responsibility for Our Social Issues and Reactions
Of course, while it’s lovely to think about Dharma friendships and healing acceptance, few people find social interactions easy. In fact, the realm of interpersonal relationships and communication is one of the most challenging places to practice! It brings up all kinds of issues for us: the need for validation and approval, sensitivity to criticism, judging others, competition for popularity, fear of rejection, avoidance of intimacy… you name it. Whatever social neuroses, habits, and conditioning you had before encountering Sangha, you’ll bring with you when you participate in one.
For all their aspirations, I don’t know that Zen and Buddhist practitioners are, on average, any more socially skillful that anyone else. In fact, Zen in particular tends to attract introverts because the central practice involves silent meditation – so it’s not at all uncommon for people new to a Sangha to end up standing awkwardly by themselves during informal social breaks! The introverts who have been in the Sangha longer have finally managed to find friends, and the last thing they want to do is try to chat up a stranger. If you find yourself feeling socially awkward or isolated in a Sangha, the best thing to do is find someone who looks even more awkward and isolated and offer a friendly word.
What’s beautiful is that, within the Sangha, we have a wonderful opportunity to examine and work through our social issues. The basic premise of Buddhism is that we’re responsible for what happens within our own minds and hearts – that we’re touched and influenced by the world around us, but ultimately nothing outside of us has to make us feel or react in a certain way. When we’re practicing, we look within ourselves for the cause of a negative feeling or response before we place the blame outside.
Therefore, it’s not enough just to say you don’t like someone; you need to ask yourself what within your own mind causes that reaction. It’s not enough to say you don’t like a certain social environment, you need to explore what makes you uncomfortable about it. Once people have been doing Sangha practice for a while, they’ll be asking themselves the same thing, about their reactions to you.
The result is an environment where, for the most part, people aspire to accept and embrace all Sangha members equally, and then take responsibility for their own negative feelings and reactions. Naturally you’re going to gravitate toward particular people, but the background aspiration, based in Buddhist practice, is learning to let go of our attachments and preferences, and to treat all beings with openness and compassion. Particularly if you struggle with social anxiety, this invites you to relax, because if someone has a negative reaction to you, that’s their practice. If their reaction is about something you’ve said or done that needs to be addressed, it’s their practice to let you know. You can stop worrying about others, and focus on what you can influence: your own mind.
Potato Practice: Benefiting from Friction with Others
Being asked to include everyone in the Sangha with an open heart is a very, very different scenario than “out in the world,” where for the most part everyone picks and chooses who they want to spend time with based on their preferences, without feeling the slightest need to look any deeper than that. In Sangha – ideally, at least – everyone belongs as long as they have a sincere interest in the Dharma, behave with a basic level of consideration and respect, and don’t pose a threat to others. This means an open Sangha of any significant size is inevitably going to include people who annoy you or even who trigger negative karmic reactions in you.
You may experience a negative reaction to someone as soon as you walk through a Sangha’s door, or only after many years, but it’s important to recognize this as an opportunity and not as sign that the Sangha treasure isn’t working for you. It’s tempting when we feel negatively about someone to take off, or ask the other person to change, or try to maneuver things so you don’t have to encounter the person much. However, if you stick around and face your interpersonal friction or conflict instead, you may be able to resolve major issues that would otherwise follow you for a lifetime!
The value of learning from interpersonal friction is actually so central to Zen practice, we have a term for it: potato practice. If you ever need to wash a whole bunch of potatoes, float them all in a big sink full of water and then tumble them against one another with your hands. By bumping into one another, the potatoes become amazingly clean! Another commonly-used analogy is that practicing in Sangha is like being a sharp-edged rock tossed in a rock tumbler with a bunch of other sharp-edged rocks: Eventually, we polish one another until we’re shiny and smooth (or, put in practice terms, self-aware, humble, authentic, compassionate, etc.).
This benefit from interpersonal friction within Sangha happens whenever interactions between people provide a “mirror” of sorts for one or more of the people involved, allowing them to become more aware of their behavior and views. For example, potato practice happens when an overbearing Sangha member eventually notices no one wants to work with them, and they finally get some gentle but honest feedback about their behavior. It happens when a new person arrives and you feel a powerful negative reaction based on some aspect of their personal appearance or manner of speaking, revealing a “sharp edge” of yours that may be tied to past experiences or an insecurity of your own. You don’t get to exclude someone from the Sangha just because, when you’re around them, you feel annoyed, judgmental, defensive, inferior, needy, etc. As long as you don’t exclude yourself from the Sangha, you have a chance to experience some spiritual polishing!
Note: The fact that potato practice is valuable doesn’t mean anything goes in terms of Sangha behavior – that no matter how outrageously someone acts, it’s just an opportunity for you to examine your own karma and learn not to be reactive. Taken to extremes, potato practice can result in abusive and dysfunctional situations in Sangha. (This has happened, particularly in Zen communities, so watch out for it.) Sometimes what you need to learn from potato practice is how to skillfully and appropriately speak up and ask for what you need, or to point out how harm is being done.
On the other hand, the vast majority of human interactions that cause friction or conflict are not actually serious matters. Most people – including myself – could benefit from erring on the side of acceptance, non-reactivity, and inclusiveness about 99 times out of 100 when we feel a negative reaction to someone or their behavior.
Resolving Lifelong Karma through Relationship
If you’re part of a Sangha for many years, you will probably get a chance to experience an even more significant aspect of the “potato practice” discussed above. Chances are, you’ll encounter at least one other long-term Sangha member you just can’t get along with to save your life. They may bug others as well, or just you, but once again you’re faced with an opportunity for deep practice and transformation. When we have powerful, negative karmic reactions to certain people, it’s usually because our unresolved issues are butting up against their unresolved issues. It can be an uncomfortable process, but as long as both of you remain in the Sangha and do your best, eventually you may be able to help one another recognize and overcome significant inner obstacles.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share an example from my own practice. My monastic Dharma brother and I had to live and practice together at a very small Zen center for many years – we’re talking about encountering each other just about 24-7 for meditation, work, meals, everything. I triggered him in ways that made it difficult for him to trust me, probably in part because of my extroverted habit of demanding responses from him that would validate me in some way. This made him withdraw, which only made me more insecure and desperate for approval. All of our interactions felt to me like complete misunderstandings at best, and stressful struggle at worst. In order to mitigate the tension, our teacher mercifully assigned us daily work that would minimize the amount we had to interact.
Eventually, I recognized my lifelong pattern of gravitating toward people who I felt judged and rejected me, in order to impress them and ingratiate myself with them. I tended to judge myself on how well I was able to anticipate what would generate disapproval in the person, and then adapt my behavior in order to shift the reaction to approval. Recognizing this tendency at last, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. Instead, I began reminding myself, whenever I perceived disapproval (real or not) from my Dharma brother, it was his responsibility to tell me if he had a problem with me. I would try to act respectfully and kindly, but not twist myself in knots over someone else’s reactivity to me. This helped a lot; it let me relax, and therefore it helped my Dharma brother relax!
Eventually I took practice with this problematic relationship one step further: I realized I wanted my Dharma brother to love and respect me, but even more than that, I wanted him to assure me that was the case. I wanted him to address and overcome my doubts. Sadly, he took my barely-camouflaged demand for reassurance as a sign that I didn’t trust him! So, one day, I decided to recklessly act as if he loved and respected me. I mean, if I really thought about it, I had to admit he probably did. Doing this felt a little scary, but heck, I was really tired of my old way of operating. Beautifully, miraculously, my relationship with my Dharma brother opened up and blossomed. Mutual trust grew, and we remain deeply grateful for the valuable interpersonal lessons we taught each other.
Sangha as Service to Other Suffering Beings
There are many, many more benefits of Sangha I could go into, but I’ll end with how Sangha can become a practice of generosity and service to others. Let’s say you’ve been part of a Sangha for many years and your Zen or Buddhist practice is strong. You have a pretty good understanding of the Dharma, you can see your Dharma friends outside of Sangha events, and you’ve experienced a fair amount of polishing from potato practice (whether within Sangha or elsewhere in your life). Why keep participating in Sangha?
A short answer is this: as a strong practitioner, you strengthen the Sangha with your mere presence, and thereby make it a better refuge for others. Putting aside the relatively superficial differences between Sanghas in terms of overall flavor and style, healthy, mature Sanghas tend have a certain energy or tone. They feel stable and resilient as a group – and therefore able to accept new members and endure upsets without fracturing. Strong Sanghas have a clear sense of their purpose and their commonly-held practice or tradition, so newcomers are less likely to be able to hijack Sangha discussions or events (this sometimes happens when new people bring particular agendas with them).
A strong Sangha will also feel – and this is a little difficult to describe – sane. Individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can feel, energetically, as if they’re vibrating at a higher or a discordant frequency, or, alternatively, as if they’re a drain on the energy of others. The more sane, strong practitioners there are in a room, the more the overall energy of the Sangha will feel sane – grounded, tuned in to reality and the experience of others, and able to behave appropriately.
This is why it’s important us to keep participating in Sangha even if we don’t feel so much of a personal need to do so: our sane presence grounds and strengthens the Sangha so it can hold people even when they’re new, uncertain, anxious, neurotic, on a soapbox, oblivious, obnoxious, or struggling with tragedy or mental illness. In other words, people who are really suffering need our support. A teacher or priest can’t provide a wholesome, stable, safe container for vulnerable or vibrating individuals all by themselves, so – ironically – the stronger and older your practice is, the less you may feel you need Sangha, but the more you have to offer the Sangha – the more Sangha needs you.
I’ll close with some words about Sangha from revered Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Taking refuge in the Sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively – just being in a Sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good Sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation.”
– Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, from Cultivating the Mind of Love
 “Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: To Dighajanu” (AN 8.54), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.054.than.html.
“Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html.
 From Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities (2002) by Thich Nhat Hanh, reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org. at https://www.lionsroar.com/the-practice-of-Sangha/
 “The Song of Zazen” by By Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (http://dharmamind.net/readings/the-song-of-zazen/)
 “Mitta Sutta: A Friend” (AN 7.35), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.035.than.html.