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Sangha (Community)

From a Dharma Talk by Kyogen Carlson, one of Domyo's teachers and co-abbott at Dharma Rain Zen Center

Sangha as Practice – 4/18/1999

Traditionally there are said to be are three “treasures” in Buddhism – buddha, dharma and sangha. There are several aspects to the three treasures. We can speak historically of buddha as the person, Siddhartha Gautama, who became Shakyamuni Buddha, and of dharma as the teachings that he and his spiritual descendants left us. Historically, sangha is the people who commit to Buddhist practice and follow the teachings. 

In our particular tradition we understand another way of looking at it, a deeper way, where buddha is awakened mind itself, dharma is the truth of all events, and sangha is our deep connection with everything. Awakened mind is the whole universe itself; when we look deeply into everything that happens in this world, it is so construed as to point us toward this truth. For example, even dukkha  works to do this, to get us to release our attachments. Everything is just so construed, which is a remarkable thing. When we acknowledge this – that awakened mind is the quality of this universe and that dharma is everything that points towards this truth – then we find sangha in the sense of that deeper connection with everything.

There is yet another way of looking at the three treasures: as practice. To understand this it is useful to consider the Zen teaching that there are two prerequisites for awakening: samadhi power and karma relationship. Samadhi power is the time spent in deep zazen, committing time to it and really doing it over an extended period of time. What happens as a result is samadhi power is said to accumulate, which in a way doesn’t make any sense. But what this means is that through time spent in zazen our perspective shifts from the phenomena that move through body and mind to the space they move through. This has an effect – just spending time in this zazen practice, being aware of the space through which thoughts, feelings and impulses move. As we shift our perspective to the space itself, a profound change is beginning to happen in us.

Then the second aspect, karma relationship, is where practice is completed – it is meeting events and conditions. Karma relationship is where our practice of precepts comes in, our practice of meeting sangha comes in, and we make an effort to bring practice into daily life. Learning to let go of our habit energies and patterns and learning to find that spaciousness in difficult circumstances – thats karma relationship. There's a point where it all matures; there is a ripening of conditions and a rather profound awakening can occur. Sometimes a deeply profound awakening will occur. Karma relationship is a way to summarize what is going on in the Zen stories of the way master and disciple meet each other – there’s a ripening of karma relationship that’s expressed in those moments when the turning word occurs and the student has an awakening experience. But all events in our lives, and all the people we meet, can be teachers in that same sense when we understand karma relationship. 

We can think about samadhi power as cultivating buddha, or the practice of buddha, where buddha is spacious, awakened mind. Karma relationship is dharma and sangha as practice – meeting each thing or being, understanding it as dharma and letting it turn us toward awakened mind. With buddha and dharma it fairly easy to see how those things relate to samadhi power and karma relationship, but sangha is a little different. It’s a little subtler. 

Part of the way karma relationship is found in sangha practice is the way that we end up being seen – we come out of hiding, let who we are be without any veils at all, and end up seeing ourselves as well. One of the most challenging and valuable things about spending time in a monastery is that everyone there can see very clearly who we are because there’s no place to hide. You’re just there, relentlessly, with the same group of people, and since everyone else can see you so clearly, you may as well see it, too. This is like coming out of the closet and being ourselves, and it is is karma relationship – sangha and connection and being seen.

Sangha as karma relationship is also seeing others. This is another part that is really important – to open to other people, to see who they are and start to recognize how practice works in their lives, how samadhi power and dharma is expressed in who they are. We recognize other ways of practice and how awakening manifests in other people. When we do that, in some way those things become accessible to us. When we’re in non-opposition to the way others manifest, in some way we have access to it, we are informed by it. 

We speak sometimes of sangha as this deep connection with everything, and that’s great when we understand what that is – but for the most part, the whole universe as sangha is good on paper, its good in theory, but in practice it is difficult to realize. The real value of a sangha is usually found first in a specific sangha, a local sangha, a community of people who practice together. It is a group of people that sees and values the inner process, and validates deeper vision. A sangha is a community in which everyone is working to understand and thereby validate this shift in perspective to deep mind, to big mind – that shift in perspective that occurs when we stop attaching to phenomena and open up to spaciousness. It’s really important to have this kind of sangha – or a teacher, but sangha is really where it happens. We are informed as we see other people practice, and we are seen practicing – both our failures and our successes are witnessed. This is what’s going to guide us and help us understand how to do this training. A community like this is hard to find, it is a very precious thing. It’s difficult to encounter. That does not mean the first sangha we encounter is “the” great jewel that everybody needs to find. There are different styles and forms of practice – devotional practice, and this concentration practice that we do, among others – so there are different types of community. It’s important to find a match, a place that works for each person. 

There is great value in practicing together in a group, and keeping a form – for example, putting your shoes straight in a particular place and making space for others – but there is also a paradox here (Zen is big on paradox). That little gesture of putting your shoes straight creates a connection with others that’s subterranean, like the root system of grasses. The little ways that we bow, all those things that we do the same way cultivates this connection. However, much of the time, our practice in zazen, in Zen, is a very solitary thing. No one else can do it for us, it’s something we have to find out on our own. I have learned from being in the student position that no matter how clearly anyone explained it to me, it was like fuzzy distant sounds that didn’t quite resolve, and I had to work my way through and figure it out for myself. Part of me thought this was because I’m just kind of different from other people, but I’ve found out that this is actually true for everybody. I can explain it as clearly as I can, and people look at me like, huh? What it comes right down to is that people have to work it through with their own body, and experience with their own mind.

This paradox of sangha practice is yet another manifestation of the great paradox, of which all others are expressions: the paradox between difference and sameness, which is the subject of our first chant in morning service. This is called the harmony of difference and sameness, or we can also call it the relationship between the one and the many. My teacher used to say that to see that all is one and all is different, at the same time, is to be enlightened. Understanding that paradox and breaking through it is what our practice is all about. One of the big issues for Americans is the paradox between our individuality and our collective nature – the paradox between that which we do alone, and that which we rely on others for. Connection versus individuality. There’s a very solitary component in this practice, but the other part is that although we do it by ourselves, it finds completion in connection, through community and relationship. We don’t really understand it all except in connection with others. I’ve come to understand that there is no way to do this by yourself. Even if we are in isolation, even if we decide to be a hermit and live on top of a mountain, that’s in connection. “Hermit” is an expression of our relationship to everybody else. There is no such thing as complete isolation or independence. It does not exist. We are always in community in some way, so be conscious about it and make good use of it. 

Buddha and dharma, those two treasures, find their completion in sangha, or to put it another way, there is no buddha and dharma without sangha. Sangha is the key. There’s a saying that without sentient beings, there are no buddhas. Without buddhas there are no sentient beings. This is true because they are in relationship. It may sound true on kind of an abstract level, but what I’m saying is it’s very tangible, and this is what our own personal experience is about. Right here, right now, this is true.

One of the vows of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra is to rejoice in the happiness of others, which is a wonderful, wonderful vow, an expression of something deeply important. This is not just about rejoicing in the happiness of others, but in the awakening of others, to rejoice in the dharma experience of others. When I went into the monastery, I went in thinking, “Well, I just want to get some zazen instruction and I don’t really care what anyone else is doing.” That was true for about six months. Then this whole thing around comparison and rank came up. When we see others progress and receive recognition and go forward in rank, eventually what it does is raise comparing mind and jealousy. We have to go through that phase, there’s no way around it, but when we’re at this long enough we really see how irrelevant it all is. In the monastery it took me time to learn to just have my own experience and not resent anybody else's, but eventually I realized that people awaken in ways that I cannot do – and in fact I don’t want to do it their way. But I don’t have to resent their way or their progress or anything. When I simply do my own training and have no opposition to others, the way they awaken and the way they practice suddenly becomes part of my own experience. 

This principle was illustrated clearly to me when, still at the monastery, I encountered a person in sanzen I could just not understand at all. However, I had an idea about who would be the right person for that woman to talk to. Later I asked the person I suggested she see, and they said, “Oh yeah, we hit it off, I understood her perfectly.” I thought, “Wow. I’m glad you were there, because it made no sense to me!” The very next time I was on call for sanzen, a person came in and asked me some questions and I could see exactly what was going on. We had a good conversation, and he told me, “You must be a really accomplished person. I’ve asked this question all over the place and you’re the only one who’s been able to answer it.” I thought to myself, “Well, you should have been here last week!” What we come to understand is that collectively there is great wisdom – we only can possess a certain part of it. Still, I had gained the wisdom to know who to send that person to the week before by having access to this other woman in the monastery – her experience, I could see, was a match. So it was my experience too. 

There’s a phrase in the sutras and some of the Zen writings, particularly by Dogen: annuttara samyak sambodhi. It is sanskrit and means “unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.” Enlightenment’s a pretty big word, and then you put these three superlatives on it! Unsurpassed is the highest, complete is the widest, and perfect is without blemish; it’s a way of saying buddhahood. I’ve come to understand that annuttara samyak sambodhi is not an experience of awakening – it’s not a moment of realization, and it’s not obtained. Rather, it is non-opposition to the joy, enlightenment, skillful means and awakening of all being throughout space and time. It’s not something we can possess, but it’s something we can have access to. There’s a phrase in the parinirvana sutra which became really important in many schools of Buddhism, which says all beings have buddha-nature. There’s a whole set of buddha-nature teachings, and a school of Buddhism built around them. This teaching was fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism. Then the Japanese Zen master Dogen got hold of the phrase, and he had a way of playing with words and language. The meaning of the Chinese characters in the phrase are very clear, but when Dogen translated it he changed the characters around so that it’s pronounced exactly the same way but says all being is buddha-nature. All being: this universe, the sky, rocks, tables and human beings. Annuttara samyak sambodhi is great, big, awakened, universal mind. It is not something we can attain, but we can start to connect with it and touch it by simply letting it in. That’s what I’m talking about as sangha as karma relationship, as a practice, a way into annuttara samyak sambodhi.