Should you join a Sangha? Sangha, or community, is one of the “Three Treasures” of Buddhism, but is it really necessary? How important is it? There are many “Sangha Challenges” – reasons you might feel resistance to joining a community, or difficulties you might face as you practice with one. I discuss ways to relate to various Sangha challenges as opportunities for practice and growth.
Read/listen to Part 2
Quicklinks to Article Content:
I often get inquiries from podcast listeners about whether or not they should join a Sangha. Many people live far from a Buddhist community they can join in person (or, to put it more accurately in the age of online practice opportunities, in “three dimensions” or “in the flesh”). Others may live near enough to a Sangha but it doesn’t practice the kind of Buddhism that resonates with them. Then there are plenty of people who feel ambivalent about joining a community even if it is available to them, virtual or otherwise.
I spoke at length about the merits of practicing with a Buddhist group in Episode 16 – Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community. I will review those merits briefly in this episode, but I recommend listening to Episode 16 if you haven’t done so recently.
Here I will briefly review the benefits of Sangha, and then discuss various reasons you may resist joining one. I’ll also talk about challenges that are likely to arise for you – sooner or later – if you aim to practice with a Sangha long-term. I’ll recommend ways to relate to your resistance or difficulties as opportunities for practice. I hope what I share will give you the courage to open up to the Sangha jewel if you haven’t already, or help you find ways to maintain and deepen your relationship to a Sangha you’re already part of. In this episode I will only get to the first in my list of “Sangha challenges,” but I’ll release Part 2 in a few days and continue with the list.
The Benefits of Practicing with a Sangha (Review)
Unless you’re a very open-minded, extroverted people-lover, chances are good that joining a Sangha requires a certain amount of effort – figuring out what community you might like to join, making the time to do it, getting out of your comfort zone of private practice, meeting new people, getting used to a new shared culture, and facing whatever social anxieties you might have. So why bother?
As I described in Episode 16, there are many different reasons why Sangha is considered one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism (the other treasures being Buddha, the original teacher or our own potential for awakening, and Dharma, the teachings or the truth itself). First, Sangha is the vessel by which you encounter the rich, multi-faceted Buddhist tradition. Even if you prefer simply to read (and listen to podcasts!) and practice on your own, you’re still partly dependent on Sangha for the ideas and practices you enjoy. There are countless other aspects of the Buddhist tradition which can’t be adequately conveyed simply through words, especially if you don’t encounter the speaker or writer in person, or absorb those words in the context of a community of people practicing together.
Second, Sangha provides us with social support. We are social creatures, and most of us are much better able to apply discipline to our lives and engage with challenging teachings and practices when we’re doing so with others. We are profoundly affected by the attitudes and actions of those around us. This is why the Buddha admonished his disciple Ananda, who exclaimed that “admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie” was “half of the holy life.” The idea that such relationships are even half of the holy life is a bold statement, but the Buddha replied:
Don’t say that, Ananda. 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.[i]
Some people in Sangha may serve as our teachers, others as peers with whom we can share our spiritual life, and others as dear Dharma friends. It’s amazing how nourishing it can be to discuss your practice with other people who are trying to follow a similar path. In addition, simply through our presence in the Sangha we support others, giving us an opportunity to practice generosity and compassion.
Third, the relationships within Sangha challenge us in ways that promote personal and spiritual growth. It can be disconcerting to open ourselves to questioning and learning but eventually our efforts to express our experience of the Dharma to others deepens our understanding. When we find ourselves surrounded by imperfect people, we are invited to let go of our ideas and hopes about how practice might deliver us from our humanity. Other people often bring out the worst in us. From a Buddhist perspective this is a very good thing because it helps us see ourselves more clearly and gives us a chance to work on our karma. Human relationships are almost always messy; Sangha relationships are no different, except that within Sangha our aspirations are to take responsibility for our own reactions and learn from them.
Episode 16 makes my full case for why you might want to practice with a Sangha, although there’s much more I could say about the preciousness of long-term, deep, personal Dharma friendships (I’ll probably do a full episode on that topic someday). If you aren’t convinced and prefer to practice on your own anyway, that’s totally fine. I’m convinced that any part of the Buddhist path is beneficial, you don’t have to engage it all.
However, if you practice on your own and ever wonder, “How can I deepen my practice?” My first and ready answer will be, “Join a Sangha.” Fortunately, there are many more options when it comes to choosing a Sangha these days, with most practice places offering some kind of online participation. I recommend practicing with a Sangha in three dimensions at least occasionally if you have that option, even if your “heart” Sangha is online, but there are great benefits to connecting with a community virtually too, as I discussed in Episodes 206 and 207: Dirt Zendo, Cloud Zendo, One Sangha: Buddhist Community in the Digital Age.
You don’t have to have everything figured out – what kind of Buddhism you want to practice, what kind of community you want to belong to, whether you even want to commit to a community – in order to drop in on a Sangha’s practice. Dharma centers and temples differ in their offerings and how accessible they are to the public, but most places are happy to have a new person come check them out (in three dimensions or virtually). You don’t need to commit to coming back or to staying there long term. In fact, it’s better if you join a Sangha’s activities for a while and see if the community is a good fit for you. Unless you absolutely love it, check out some other communities too.
Sangha Challenges and the Rewards of Facing Them
Let’s say you’ve decided to give Sangha a try. Or at least part of you has decided this is a good idea. Chances are that other parts of you feel resistant, apprehensive, ambivalent, or even anxious about joining a group. I’m going to discuss some of the reasons you might think twice about participating in Sangha – whether that’s for the first time, or over the longer term. I’ll suggest ways to practice with these challenges and use them as opportunities for learning and growth.
I’ve ordered my “Sangha challenges” roughly in the order you might experience them when beginning your relationship with a Buddhist community. However, if any of these areas are a challenge for you, they’re likely to arise repeatedly over the course of years spent with a Sangha – but hopefully, over time, you will appreciate how valuable it is to stay in the community and practice with the challenge instead of simply leaving. The heading for each topic states the challenge followed by the opportunity for practice it presents.
Before I begin, though, a quick but extremely important disclaimer. I am going to talk about how you can meet each of these challenges and learn from them by staying engaged with a particular Sangha. Please understand that every challenge I talk about could get so unworkable for you that leaving a Sangha is the best thing to do. It’s tricky knowing when to stay and practice with something versus when to give yourself a break and move on – it’s part of the learning process.
When contemplating whether to stay or go, it may be helpful to keep the Middle Way in mind. When we practice the Middle Way, we aim to avoid getting caught in either side of a dualism – when it looks like we have only two not-so-great options, we look for another way to relate to the situation, usually a way that’s more responsive, open, and dynamic. In the case of facing Sangha challenges, one extreme is to passively accept everything about a Sangha no matter how dysfunctional it might be, or no matter how much stress it causes us. This is a bad idea, and such an approach has led to the tolerance of corruption and abuse within Sanghas in the past.
The other extreme is allowing ourselves to be oversensitive and fussy, finding fault with a Sangha almost immediately and expecting everyone else to fall into line with our preferences. If you find yourself trying Sangha after Sangha and finding they are all disappointing, you might be caught in this oversensitive or opinionated extreme. The next Sangha is going to emphasize meditative discipline too much, or its members are going to be shallow and materialistic, or it’s going to be too involved (or not involved enough) in social justice work.
You know you have found a great Sangha for you when you’ve found a good enough Sangha for you. It will always have its shortcomings and flaws – immediately evident, or only evident over time – but those will be outweighed by other factors like inspiring teachings, a teacher you resonate with, like-minded Sangha members, or the opportunity to do retreat. Things that allow you to trust the community enough. Enough trust means you can open up to the next step on the path. You don’t have to fall for everything hook, line, and sinker. Keep your wits about you and practice self-compassion as needed, but also don’t let yourself be deprived of the treasure of Sangha because you’re holding out for a perfection that can’t be found.
Sangha Challenges #1. Resistance to Authority or Organized Religion / Learning to Trust a Little at a Time
Many of us, especially if we’re steeped in western culture, are highly individualistic and wary of authority. Ironically, we may be attracted to authoritative people or movements, but we feel comfortable with them only once we’ve decided they’re legit, and we’ve invited them to have authority with respect to us. If you’ve only read about the Dharma and practiced on your own, it may feel jarring to join a Sangha and find a whole system of authority in place. There are usually teachers, senior students, revered texts and teachings, established ways of doing things, and a deep respect given the Buddhist tradition as received in that Sangha’s lineage.
Spiritual practice is, by nature, deeply personal and subjective. How can anyone else know what is your mind and heart, how can anyone else know what is right for you? These are very valid and important questions – as long as they are really questions, and not actually convictions like, “No one else can know what’s right for me.” What can a tradition – created and passed down by other human beings, designed to be applicable to lots of different people – offer you? You don’t know until you explore it, and you might be – I think you will be – pleasantly surprised. Fundamentally, all of us human beings have much more in common that we usually think.
The important thing to remember when we explore participation in a Sangha is that, as I just mentioned in the previous section, we don’t have to surrender our autonomy or intelligence in order to do so. We can extend trust a little at a time and see what happens. Depending on your personality and history, it may initially be uncomfortable listening to a talk or a class on Buddhist teachings and practices delivered by a so-called “teacher” who supposedly knows something about spiritual practice you don’t. Or it may be awkward submitting to a Sangha’s forms, the established ways things are done. Or you may not relate to the reverence other people in the Sangha have for the tradition, or for bodhisattvas, or for people who are supposedly great Dharma masters.
Honest skepticism is fine – or, at least, it should be. As long as you are respectful to the community at a basic, human level (no one is there to listen to you get on your soapbox to critique Buddhism or propose alternative paths), you can quietly hold your own counsel about what you think about all of it. A good teacher or Sangha leader will welcome your questions – again, as long as you ask in a sincere and respectful way, as opposed to an aggressive way. Aggressiveness involves an effort to prove the Sangha’s authority wrong and establish your point as right, like arguing at length that Shakyamuni Buddha never existed or devotional practices are stupid. You’re welcome to do that on your own time, elsewhere, but to come into a Sangha space to do it is obnoxious. You can easily ask fairly provocative questions with honesty and humility, such as, “I find myself doubting Shakyamuni Buddha ever existed. Does that matter?” Or, “I don’t relate to devotional practices, why do some people like them?”
It can be awkward joining a new group if it has any formal aspects to it. Few people relish being told what to do, or being at the bottom of a hierarchy, or being the new or relatively ignorant one. We tend to feel at least some apprehension about situations where we’re not the main authority, or we’re not totally in control, or we’re not completely left to our own devices. However, that apprehension is at least in part based on fear of what other people will do to us when they have the upper hand. Will they lord it over us, humiliate us, take advantage of us, disrespect us, or exclude us? In a good Buddhist Sangha you will probably find authority, hierarchy, and many of the fixtures of organized religion, but every person in the Sangha will be respected, honored, and valued.
That’s it for this episode, but in Part 2 I will discuss the rest of my list of “Sangha challenges.”
Read/listen to Part 2
[i] “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html .