245 – Desafíos de la Sangha: Cómo y por qué abrirse al tesoro de la Sangha – Parte 1
246 – Desafíos de la Sangha: Cómo y por qué abrirse al tesoro de la Sangha – Parte 2

In Part 2 of my “Sangha Challenges” discussion, I talk about various reasons you may resist joining a Buddhist community or find it challenging to maintain your relationship with one over time. I present each challenge as an opportunity for growth and learning. I will finish up my list of challenges in the next episode, Part 3.

Read/listen to Part 1 or Part 3


Quicklinks to Article Content:
Sangha Challenge #2: Social Anxiety, Introversion, or Misanthropy / Finding Deeper Way of Making Connections
Sangha Challenge #3: Not Wanting to Be Seen, Fear of Rejection / Cultivating Courage and Sincerity
Sangha Challenge #4: Insufferable People / (Almost) Unconditional Acceptance


In the last episode, I reviewed the benefits of practicing with a Sangha, or Buddhist community, referring to Episode 16 – Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community. Then I talked about how it’s very important to tread the Middle Way when deciding whether to stay with a community and greet various challenges as “opportunities,” and when to give yourself a break and move on. Then I discussed Sangha Challenge #1, Resistance to Authority or Organized Religion.

In this episode I will cover a number of ways Sangha and the people in it can disappoint you, hurt your feelings, annoy you, and stress you out. My suggestion that you use such stressors and conflicts as fodder for practice does not mean you should passively put up with everything. As I discussed in the last episode, we aim for the Middle Way between passive acceptance of anything and everything, and reactive attachment to our preferences.

Sangha Challenge #2: Social Anxiety, Introversion, or Misanthropy / Finding Deeper Way of Making Connections

The first part of the title of each section of this episode refers to a challenge (in this case, finding people stressful or aversive) and the second part refers to the practice opportunity it presents to us.

At least when it comes to Buddhist communities composed largely of converts to the religion (especially those that focus on meditation), extroverts are usually far outnumbered by introverts. I guess introverts are attracted to a practice that involves a fair amount of silence and introspection, and which generally avoids proselytizing. Everyone does their own practice, and trusts others to do the same. An introvert’s dream come true!

Similarly, someone who experiences social anxiety around others may find a refuge in Buddhism because it offers so much study and practice you can do more or less on your own. In addition, the post-COVID explosion in the availability of online practice has significantly increased Sangha’s abilities to accommodate people who get stressed out or exhausted being around others. By connecting online, you can join Sangha practice from home, turn off your video feed at any time, unobtrusively leave the meeting whenever you want to, and easily avoid any activities that require you to speak or interact with others.

Still, you can only avoid being around other people so much before you’re not really participating in Sangha at all. Anyone who is fairly introverted or has social anxiety will be constantly faced with the need to push the limits of their comfort zone in order to engage with Sangha.

If you’re convinced – by my Episode 16 or by your own experience – that Sangha participation is worth it, what can you do to make your experience a little less stressful or exhausting? First, be patient with yourself and try to push your own boundaries a little at a time. Arrive a few minutes early and risk having to have a conversation with someone. Promise yourself to speak up in a class discussion next time you have something to say. Don’t worry too much if that experience ends up being, on balance, rather stressful and unpleasant. Chances are good that gradually you will become more comfortable within this particular group of people. Most Sanghas are places where people treat one another with respect and kindness, so you hopefully will find some of your anxiety relieved. If introversion is your deal, you’ll eventually get to know a few people and connecting with them may make group practice more enjoyable.

If you’re more of a misanthrope and just generally dislike people, Sangha may be just the medicine you need to be more connected to the human race. Can you seek belonging despite your judgements? No one is asking you to become a social butterfly. You could become the Sangha’s beloved curmudgeon, sitting off in the corner with your arms folded and one eyebrow raised, biting your tongue so you don’t shock the Sangha’s “nice” people with your acerbic comments (but occasionally a comment gets out anyway). We all belong in Sangha if we want to. You don’t have to be a “people person” to participate as long as you’re not willfully rude.

Whatever your reason for having a general aversion to social situations, I can’t recommend highly enough taking the step of volunteering for a practice role in the Sangha. Once you have a reason to show up – you’re unlocking the door, turning on the lights, starting the Zoom meeting, or cleaning the bathrooms – much of the pressure is off. You don’t have to engage in prolonged conversations unless you feel like it. You don’t have to experience that elusive “meaningful” social connection to justify your visit to the Sangha. You clearly belong simply through your active contribution.

Another thing you can do is look around for someone who looks even more uncomfortable than you feel. As I mentioned earlier, Buddhist communities (Zen in particular) usually have a disproportionately high percentage of introverts compared with the general population; if you find yourself alone during a social break, surrounded by people animatedly engaged with one another, you can be sure that most of them are introverts who are thrilled to finally know some people to talk to. The last thing an introvert wants to do is turn away from a good friend and go seek a social interaction with a stranger! So, take any sense of social exclusion as a sign you’re probably surrounded by introverts. See if you can find someone who is still sitting awkwardly off by themselves then perhaps the two of you can find a little solidarity in your social discomfort.

In the heading to this section, I suggested that participating in Sangha despite your social anxiety, introversion, or misanthropy gives you an opportunity to find deeper ways of making connections. Our social tastes and inclinations may differ widely, but we all like being liked and needed. We all appreciate sincere human warmth, acceptance, and support. In Sangha, we have an opportunity to forge deep and rewarding connections with others that have nothing to do with whether we’re a good conversationalist, an entertaining person to be around, or naturally at ease around other people. The benefits of Sangha come regardless of whether we’re an appealing or attractive person in any ordinary, worldly sense of the words. Our Way-Seeking Mind brings us together, and our primary shared activity is our Total Response to Life.

Sangha Challenge #3: Not Wanting to Be Seen, Fear of Rejection / Cultivating Courage and Sincerity

For some of us, our aversion to being part of a group runs deeper than a socially awkward personality or a preference for our own company. Some people suffer from mental illness of various degrees of severity or have experienced past trauma. Others have been deeply wounded by past abuses, cruelty, or injustice, and have a strong mistrust of others. If any of these things applies to you, you may find yourself technically participating with Sangha even while you keep everyone at arm’s length.

Honestly, discomfort with really being seen and known by others is something almost all of us experience to one degree or another. Our aversion to truly being seen manifests anywhere along a spectrum: At one end of the spectrum, we might be unable to trust anyone, while at the other end we may seem fairly confident socially but still feel vaguely worried that if people really knew what we’re like, they would reject us. Our concern may make us paranoid about what others are thinking of us, constantly imagining slights and insults. We may hide behind a persona, humor, endless stories, or nervous chatter. We may avoid revealing what we really think and feel when we’re with Sangha.

I talked about building trust slowly and gradually when discussing Sangha Challenge #1 (Resistance to Authority), and that applies here as well, although in a different context. No Sangha is perfect, but it’s the best place I can think of to gradually let yourself be seen and – hopefully – to have some of your fears allayed. Our aspiration in Sangha is to be inclusive, nonjudgmental, and compassionate. Individuals in the Sangha will certainly fail, at times, to fulfill that aspiration, but the overall culture of a healthy community responds to occasional lapses like an immune system responds to an illness. Contrary to what often happens in the rest of the world – where people band together to criticize – one person’s moment of judgment, insensitivity, or meanness gets outweighed by kindness of others. For that matter, even the person who expresses anger or judgment is not defined by their mistake.

It is incredibly healing to let yourself be seen within a community and find that – despite all your quirks and shortcomings – you are not rejected. You are not exiled, ridiculed, or ostracized. You are not reduced to a stereotype, synonymous with your worst moments or limitations. As I already mentioned, no Sangha is perfect because no human being is perfect. Undeniably, you run a risk of experiencing what feels like rejection if you cultivate courage and sincerely put yourself out there. But the rewards are definitely worth the risks, given that Sangha is supposed to be an accepting, compassionate community.

One way to overcome your fear of people’s rejection and judgment is to turn your mind toward being a good friend to others. As long as you’re focused on your own misery and are suspicious of others, you’re likely to suffer from confirmation bias and see rejection and judgment everywhere. If you want to see more warmth, acceptance, and compassion in your community, go ahead and manifest it. As you do so, any rejection or judgment you perceive as coming from others is their problem, not yours. (See Episode 190 – Leaping Beyond Fear of Rejection: Giving the Gift of Self.) In the Mitta Sutta (The Friend Sutta), the Buddha describes seven qualities of a friend who is worth associating with:

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.[i]

Sangha Challenge #4: Insufferable People / (Almost) Unconditional Acceptance

Our job in Sangha practice is to accept and embrace others to whatever extent we can manage. Some people are adept at fitting in, at learning the ways things are supposed to be done. Some people are nice, friendly, easy to talk to, generous, funny, or humble. It’s easy to accept such people and consider ourselves lucky to have the Sangha treasure.

Depending on your personality, though, you may find certain people in the Sangha insufferable. Even if you’re incredibly easy-going or see yourself as deeply accepting and compassionate, there’s bound to be at least one person, sooner or later, who really gets on your nerves. Some people dominate conversations, while others never share anything of themselves. Some people can be bossy and controlling, while others are tentative and nervous. You’ll meet people in Sangha who have lots of special needs that the people around them are asked to accommodate, and others who act like know-it-alls. The insufferable person may be someone else, or someone else may say it’s us! For example, after many years in Sangha, people let me know that, simply in the process of expressing my opinions and feelings, I regularly said insensitive things that intimidated others or hurt feelings.

Certainly, we encounter people outside of Sangha who annoy, trigger, or repel us. If we have the option, we usually avoid them. When we run into such a person in our Sangha, we’re in a tough spot. It’s like our karma and their karma react negatively as soon as they get anywhere near each other, like a smoky, smelly chemical reaction, and yet as part of the same community we keep encountering each other.

You may try to tell yourself your reaction is irrational and try to talk yourself out of it, but this rarely works. On the other hand, you may dwell on how insufferable the other person is, building a case for why they should be expelled from the Sangha – a case you may keep to yourself, or a case you may share with others in the community. Once you get others to agree with you, you’ve started down a road of divisiveness in Sangha that can cause much pain for all involved. (Believe me, I’m speaking from experience.)

So, what do we do when we find someone in the Sangha insufferable? Now, it is possible someone is behaving in a way that is breaking precepts and is abusive and disruptive to Sangha. It’s worth bringing your feelings to a teacher if you think this might be the case. If you are convinced the person is causing real damage, you may need to do something about it even if the teacher doesn’t seem concerned. However, when it comes to our negative reactions to other people, I would guess that ninety-nine times out of a hundred (maybe more like 999/1000 times), the person’s behavior doesn’t come close to the egregious conduct that merits expulsion from a Sangha, or even a good talking-to or demotion.

Once we realize that our insufferable person isn’t going anywhere, what can we do to make peace with that fact? It may help to avoid situations where you’ll be practicing closely with them, but at a certain point this avoidance may cripple your own practice. The most important thing is to work on seeing your negative reaction to someone as empty. When your karma mixes with theirs, when you have to be around them, negative emotions and thoughts arise in you. There are many reasons this happens, and some of those reasons live within you. Okay.

There may indeed be moments when this person acts unskillfully, but there is no inherently true and fixed narrative in this situation. You may be convinced that, should you have the opportunity to try this person in interpersonal court in front of a jury of their peers, they would be easily convicted. If you managed to find your way into such a court, however, it would probably be a rude awakening as you yourself got cross-examined, and your incontrovertible evidence was questioned and thrown out as insubstantial.

The important question becomes, “Can you find it in your heart to accept this insufferable person as part of your Sangha? Can you accept a Sangha that has this person in it?” If you treasure your Sangha, hopefully your answers to these questions will be “Yes.” Console yourself with the fact that everyone encounters someone they can’t stand to be around sooner or later. It’s not a comment on you – either your righteousness, or your unworthiness because you find someone insufferable. Take heart in the fact that every Sangha since the time of the Buddha has had insufferable individuals in it, and yet the Dharma and Sangha survives. Use acceptance of your difficult relationship as a chance to work on dukkha – relieving your dissatisfaction by letting go of your resistance to how things are.

You might also try doing metta practice toward your insufferable person (see Episode 66 for a discussion of this practice). It may help to keep in mind that if someone behaves negatively – if they’re bossy, judgmental, controlling, attention-seeking, insensitive, whiny, whatever – they are, at some level, suffering. If – as you wish for them in metta practice – they were free from fear and anxiety, at ease, and truly happy, it’s unlikely they would manifest the behaviors you find insufferable.

Finally, keep in mind that if your insufferable person is embraced and tolerated by the Sangha, you can be confident that you will also be embraced and tolerated, even when you make mistakes.


That’s it for today. I will release the third and final installment of this discussion of Sangha Challenges soon, offering three more difficulties you’re likely to face in Sangha sooner or later, and suggestions for practicing with them.

Read/listen to Part 1 or Part 3


[i] “Mitta Sutta: A Friend” (AN 7.35), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.035.than.html .


245 – Desafíos de la Sangha: Cómo y por qué abrirse al tesoro de la Sangha – Parte 1
246 – Desafíos de la Sangha: Cómo y por qué abrirse al tesoro de la Sangha – Parte 2