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.
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/