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The Importance of Sangha Part 3

The Importance of Sangha Part 3

Part 3 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1 and Part 2):

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.”[1]

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.

 

[1] “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.

 

 

The Importance of Sangha Part 2

The Importance of Sangha Part 2

We learn from sangha when our ideas are challenged – and the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha.

 

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.”[1] 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!

 


[1] “The Song of Zazen” by By Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (http://dharmamind.net/readings/the-song-of-zazen/)

 

The Importance of Sangha (the Buddhist Community) Part 1

The Importance of Sangha (the Buddhist Community) Part 1

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 of the Zen Studies Podcast.) 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 series of blog posts, I’ll try to explain why Sangha is so important in Zen or Buddhist practice.

To begin:

 

The Full Buddhist Tradition Is Conveyed Through Sangha

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. 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.[i] 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. 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.”[ii]

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.”[iii] 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. [more to come…]


[i] “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.
[ii]“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.
[iii] 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/

 

What Zen “Acceptance” and “Non-Attachment” Really Are

What Zen “Acceptance” and “Non-Attachment” Really Are

What does it mean to practice acceptance and non-attachment? We stop resisting the way things are. This describes how we engage the present moment with our whole body, mind, and heart. It describes our subjective experience as a human being. It’s a practice, not a moral principle or belief.

If “stop resisting the way things are” was a moral principle, our practice would look like this: We would encounter some difficulty. We would remind ourselves of the principle, “stop resisting the way things are,” and do our very best to follow it. We would do this because we want to overcome our difficulty, and the powers-that-be have told us the best way to do this is to “stop resisting the way things are.” Once we have stopped resisting things as they are, we would know we were “in good” with God, or the Divine, or whatever forces are governing the universe, and things would start to go our way. (Right?)

When we practice in order to control the world, our feelings, or the good will of forces greater than us, the results are usually dissatisfying. Even though we’ve stopped resisting the way things are, they often still suck, and we still feel they suck. The worst thing about practicing this way is that it distracts us from the real practice – the practice that is actually liberating.

Here’s an example of what it feels like to engage the present moment and stop resisting the way things are:

I take a moment to be still, putting aside all activities in order to be aware of my own experience. I turn my attention toward my pervasive (or sometimes acute) feeling of dukkha – that is, the feeling of being dissatisfied with my existence, or the way the world is. If the dukkha is acute, I feel a nauseating tightness in my gut and chest as I strenuously object to whatever frustration, pain, misfortune, loss, or injustice I am facing. If the dukkha is subtle, I feel a pervasive sense of unease, as if something’s not quite right. I may also feel a sense of waiting, as if my life isn’t really happening yet, or now’s not quite the time to fully embrace it.

It is this dukkha that keeps me from feeling fully alive and authentic. It causes me to hold everything at arm’s length while I figure out what’s going on, or leads me to struggle to put everything right so the discomfort will go away. The thing is, I never manage to figure everything out with my mind, let alone get everything permanently fixed so my ride is perfectly smooth. Ever. In the back of my mind, however, I hold on to the hope that relief is right around the corner as long as I keep busy. (Maybe you react differently, and feel despair or become depressed, but the core of your problem is still dukkha.)

In the moment, I allow myself to fully recognize and feel my dukkha. It is an experience of my body, mind, and heart – not just an idea. Then I invite myself to give it up – to let go of it like a helium balloon.

After all, dukkha is just an attitude I’m taking toward my experience. In terms of how I feel about myself, I notice how limited, unmindful, selfish, silly, hopeless, irresponsible, unlikeable, predictable, etc. I think I am, and then I invite myself to say, “You’re okay.” I say this to myself like a kind parent would say it to a child, making it a comment on my fundamental worthiness as a human being, not an evaluation of where I rank on the human scale of success. I refuse to postpone taking my place in the world because I’m not perfect. I’m just the way I am, fundamentally no better or worse than anyone else. To my long list of proposed self-improvements I say, “Who really cares?” I dare to commit the sin of fully accepting my lame-ass self even though I’m nowhere near meeting my own ideals.

Then, in terms of how I feel about life “outside” of myself, I notice the ways in which life feels unacceptable, and resign myself to being fully present for it in spite of the pervasive inadequacy of my situation. This includes all of my feelings and thoughts of resistance to discomfort, loss, pain, shame, dullness, stress, injustice, or whatever is bothering me. “So, here we are,” I say to myself. “Surrounded by a mess. Forgot again. Stuck your foot in it again. You’ll never get it all done. This is incredibly unfair. Life can be so painful. Or horrifying. Or boring. Or lonely.” I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to approve of my own reactions to the crappiness. All I have to do is be with it all. All I have to do is not turn away from my life.

This practice is so subtle it’s almost impossible to describe in words, but I’ve still got to try. As I stop resisting the way things are, I refuse to postpone appreciation for my life until everything is perfect. I throw out the strident disapproval I’ve been carrying around in my heart as if it would shame everyone into changing. I loosen my grip on my almighty list of the way things should be, and experience the bittersweet intimacy of the way things actually are. I wake up in the driver’s seat. I come home to my life, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas and being so delighted to be back in the situation she had so recently run away from.

 

Want to explore this teaching further? Read a longer version of this post or listen to the podcast on the Zen Studies Podcast: http://zenstudiespodcast.com/zenacceptance/

Our Zazen Is the Most Profound Thing We Do

Our Zazen Is the Most Profound Thing We Do

Do you realize that zazen is the most profound thing we do? For many of us, zazen becomes a habit we maintain because it benefits our lives, and this is great! However, we’re missing out if we don’t realize – at least occasionally – that zazen is much more than we usually think it is.

First of all, how do we usually think of zazen? We just sit there, trying to be present. When our minds inevitably wander, we “bring them back” to the present by directing our attention to something simple like our breathing, or the sounds we can hear. We put in our time – 10, 20, 30 minutes – and there you have it!

Amazingly, even if we never get a sense that zazen is more than this, it still increases our sanity, peace of mind, and appreciation for our lives (among other things).

However, here’s another way to look at/experience zazen:

We diligently strive for the “sweet spot” between trying to make something happen and tuning out because nothing is happening. Our normal, self-centered way of being has three modes, or ways to relate to whatever it is we encounter:

  1. I like this or I think it’s going to benefit me, I want more of it!
  2. I don’t like this or I think it’s going to hurt me, I want it to go away or stop now.
  3. This is irrelevant to me, I don’t need to pay any attention to it.

Doing – or allowing – zazen (that is, shikantaza, or “just sitting”) directly challenges our normal, self-centered way of being. It asks us to be as alert and attentive as if our hair was on fire (!) even as we give up every single agenda, no matter how subtle. We let go of trying to improve ourselves, understand, feel more calm, gain insight, relax, everything. We even let go of “trying to be awake for each moment of our life” in a kind of greedy way. It’s amazing how pervasive and subtle our agendas are… there’s almost always one lurking below the surface if you look for it.

But then, as we let go of our agendas, we slip into dullness, distraction, or torpor. We’re not trying to get anything or make anything happen, so we check out. Frankly, we don’t even know how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved! Or maybe it’s that we’ve forgotten how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved; I like to think we naturally knew how to do this when we were children. We could just sit and be. We could just let time pass without even thinking about how mindful we were being.

It’s not at all easy to find that sweet spot between self-centered effort and self-centered tuning out. That’s part of the whole koan of zazen! We need to keep exploring and experimenting with our own being until we find zazen.

Here’s where zazen gets profound. We assume that if we manage to allow true shikantaza, it will be pretty boring. We’ll just be sitting there. Sure, we want to be awake to our life moment after moment, but how many moments of sitting staring at a wall do you really need? But our assumptions about what zazen will be like are entirely wrong. When we manage to allow zazen – even for a moment – it’s like waking up from a dream.

In a moment of true zazen, we just are. We need nothing else whatsoever to validate our life. None of our agendas need to be fulfilled in order for us to be complete. We notice how our Being interpenetrates the air we breathe, everything around us, everything we perceive, all beings, the planet, reality. There is no one who hears separate from that which is heard, there is only the intimate phenomenon of hearing, which depends on ear, mind, hearer, the heard, air, sound waves, the right timing, and everything that led to all of those things existing.

This is not a far-out, “spiritual” experience, it’s just a moment of simply being. The most profound thing we can do. It’s immensely calming, healing, and connecting. As Zen master Keizan put it, “zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.”

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