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