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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,
[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,
[iii] From Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities (2002) by Thich Nhat Hanh, reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, at


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:

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.”

From the Individual to the Global Scale: Greed, Hatred and Ignorance Cause Suffering

From the Individual to the Global Scale: Greed, Hatred and Ignorance Cause Suffering

For millennia, spiritual traditions have recognized that greed, hatred, and ignorance cause suffering in the human heart. Now it’s time to recognize that greed, hatred, and ignorance inevitably cause suffering at whatever scale they manifest: individual, family, community, national, or global.

For too long we have separated our values from our economic and political systems. Few of us would ever consider tormenting or stealing from our neighbor, or watching him suffer without lending a hand. And yet we think it’s okay to allow injustice, inequality, and exploitation to be the outcome of our political and economic systems. We have allowed almost every sphere of human life to become governed by a profit motive, relegating things like education, social support, and generosity to a list of “nice” services that will be offered as long as they can fit in the budget. Concern for the well-being of others at the systems level is seen as a soft, bleeding-heart pastime of middle-class people who don’t have enough to do.

We have been hoodwinked by the people who have gotten immensely rich and powerful through our current system. They have led us to believe that unregulated competition, unbridled profit motive, and unending growth are essential to a healthy “economy,” and any attempt to introduce other values into the system will cause stagnation and collapse. They encourage our fear by invoking images of demoralized people standing in bread lines during the downfall of the Soviet Union. “See what would happen?” they say. “Communism doesn’t work.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of examples around the world of thriving political and economic systems that fall in between the two extremes of communism and unbridled capitalism. We don’t have to buy the story the rich and powerful are telling us.

We can adopt the values of generosity, tolerance, and understanding no matter what our religious or spiritual leanings. We can refuse to let these values be confined to personal or religious spheres, and insist on seeing them incorporated into our political and economic systems. It will not make us soft. It will not destroy our economy. It will not dampen individual creativity or productivity. It will not lead to a bleak society devoid healthy competition or rewards for hard work. Instead, systems that no longer depend on sustaining greed, hatred, and ignorance will increase the quality of life for the vast majority of us and allow us to heal our planet.

In Buddhism, greed, hatred, and ignorance are called the Three Poisons. (In Buddhist imagery, a rooster-like bird represents greed or grasping, a snake hatred or aversion, and a pig ignorance or delusion.) For over 2,500 years – and probably much longer than that – wise people have identified these three factors as being the root of all suffering. Those same wise people have also insisted that human beings are perfectly capable of recognizing and letting of the Three Poisons, and cultivating positive values and wisdom instead. Other spiritual and religious traditions have similar teachings. Why do we limit the sphere of our collective wisdom to the personal? Why don’t we apply what we know to be true to life at all levels, from the individual to the global?

It may be because we fear the totalitarianism that social change movements have become trapped in before. No matter how lovely the values a movement is fighting for, if the methods of oppression, judgement, persecution, and propaganda are employed the results are a disaster. Fortunately, there are also alternatives here. We can work to advance the values of generosity, tolerance, and understanding in our political and economic systems while allowing those values to guide our actions. In other words, we walk our talk. We don’t intimidate people into being generous, and don’t vilify people while we fight for tolerance. At the same time we speak out, work for change, and vote our conscience.

Let’s get the Three Poisons out of our economic and political systems. All the beautiful things about life on this planet depend on it.

Four Ways to Remain Open When We Witness Incredible Suffering

Four Ways to Remain Open When We Witness Incredible Suffering

How do we remain open when we witness incredible suffering without being overwhelmed with despair? If we close ourselves off, we deactivate our conscience, hide out in denial and ignorance, reduce our sense of intimacy with all life, and let our heart atrophy. How do we walk the middle path that is neither denial nor despair? It’s possible, although it’s not easy.

One: Allow the Awfulness to Be

First, we have to allow the awful stuff to be. That is, we have to give up the relative comfort of denial. We can’t wait to face what’s going on until we have a complete solution. We have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and – for the moment – just perceive. This may be scary. It may hurt. But it’s a necessary part of the process of becoming a full human being and doing our part to benefit the world.

We naturally want to protect ourselves from the pain of facing suffering, whether it is our own suffering or the suffering of others for which we bear some responsibility. We keep ourselves busy, entertained, or numb. We create stories of shame or blame to give us an illusion of control over the suffering. We’ll ordinarily do anything but just “allow” it to be true (as if we can make it untrue simply by wishing it). This is why Buddhists meditate – it helps us get to know our minds, and to use our faculty of awareness without dependence on all of our reactions and commentary.

Two: Embrace Not-Knowing

Second, we have to embrace not-knowing. We can think all kinds of things about what’s going on – who’s to blame, what should be done, how horrible the future might be – but then forget that, actually, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what the next moment is going to bring, let alone the next year or decade.

This is not the same as saying as willful ignorance, like, “We are running toward a cliff, but who knows? Maybe once we hit the edge, we’ll be able to fly!” Embracing not-knowing is realistic, not optimistic. The most important aspect of it is, “My thoughts are just my thoughts, not reality itself. I can’t control the world with my mind.

Three: Cultivate Determination to Save the World

Third, we have to cultivate determination to save the world. You won’t do it singlehandedly, but you don’t have to. We may not know exactly how we’re going to do it, but we know human beings are immensely resourceful when they finally get their acts together. Our determination to save the world can’t be based on how likely we believe we are to succeed. There’s no other option. And in order for me to save the world I need others, so convincing you to get on board is all part of the process. It’s not about moral superiority or inferiority, it’s about advocating for an inspiring cause: Let’s save our planet and the wondrous creatures that inhabit it!

This is another area where meditation can help. Over time, you can develop greater facility in using your mind instead of letting it use you. You can turn it, like a horse being turned with reins, toward a healthy, fruitful path (such as loving determination) and away from a negative, dangerous path that leads to ruin (such as despair). You don’t make a choice like that based on “objective” facts. You don’t become determined to help save the world because you become convinced that the “save the world” side is winning. You just change your mind. It’s not easy, but it is that simple.

Four: Do Whatever We Can within the Context of Our Own Lives

Fourth and finally, we have to help however we can and stop comparing ourselves to others. Activists aren’t just those with the time and inclination to attend protest rallies.

At the same time, we don’t have to keep on with business as usual just because everyone else seems to be. There are no rules limiting your generosity with respect to the world. In fact, revered spiritual teachers throughout human history have sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. A legend about Shakyamuni Buddha tells of how, in a previous life, he jumped off a cliff in order to offer his body to a starving tigress and her cubs. Stories like this may seem extreme, but they remind us of what’s possible, and of the depth of the connection between ourselves and all living beings.

If you’re unwilling to abandon your comfort and pleasure in order to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others (and few of us are!), at least own that fact for what it is and don’t take refuge in justifications. Even as you decide what to do within the context of your own life, remain open to new possibilities and keep witnessing. You don’t have to be perfect to care, and you don’t have to have the solution in order for your empathy and sense of responsibility to matter in the world.

If you sincerely practice the first three steps of this process, a way forward will open for you – a middle way between despair and denial. A way for you to help save the world.

Photo by Freedom House, Flickr Commons

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