Over the last year, the Bright Way Zen community, our Sangha jewel, has grown significantly. This growth has not just been in terms of numbers (we now have 50 members), it’s been in terms of maturity, commitment, investment, and strength.
More and more people consider Bright Way Zen to be their community – a group of people with whom they find social connection and support, a sense of being seen and appreciated, and a feeling of being needed. Belonging to a community can sometimes ask a lot of us – our time, energy, commitment, money, patience – but the knowledge that we’re a vital part of something can give meaning to our lives.
What does maintaining a vibrant, healthy, warm community have to do with Zen? At first it may seem like community is just a side benefit (or necessity) to maintaining a center of Zen practice. We come together to meditate and study, and sometimes we get to know people a little. Volunteers and donors are needed to make possible the practice place and schedule, so people have to work together. The important thing is our personal practice in our daily life, and we just come to the Zen center to strengthen that, right?
But loving community is absolutely central to our practice. Although we value our independence and privacy, as human beings it’s also essential we connect with others and have a sense of ourselves as being valued in relationship. We certainly can get some of our social needs met through intimate partnerships, immediate family, coworkers, and personal friends. However, for many people those personal relationships are lacking or not very close or supportive. We often live at a distance from family, and relationships with people we work with can be fairly superficial and limited to the workplace. Personal friends are great – but in modern society, our friends are rarely in same place at the same time, so we need to set aside considerable time and energy to maintain each friendship separately.
Sangha is different than our other relationships. It’s like family in that you don’t get to choose who’s in it, but it’s unlike family in that it’s a voluntary association of at least somewhat like-minded people with a common aspiration. It’s like our personal friendships in that, over time, we end up being known, seen, understood, listened to, and appreciated, but it’s unlike personal friendships in that our belonging has nothing to do with preference or whether we find one another fun or entertaining, or share hobbies or interests. You show up with sincerity and treat others with basic respect, and you belong. Period. As much as anyone else – regardless of your life circumstances, intelligence, social skills, financial situation, opinions, personality, etc.
Sangha’s like your social environment at work in that it requires you to interact and cooperate with all kinds of different people, some of whom inevitably challenge your ability to be patient, generous, honest, or kind. But Sangha’s unlike your work relationships in that we consciously aspire to do more than just tolerate one another; we strive to recognize the buddha-nature in each and every person, and create a harmonious and loving community. Like all relationships, Sangha can be frustrating, confusing, and disappointing – but, like all relationships, it can also help us know ourselves, progress on the path of practice, and put our growing wisdom and compassion to the test.
It’s difficult to prove, but it seems fairly obvious the fractured nature of our society and increasing isolation contribute to the current opioid crisis and other modern ills. In a fascinating study in the 1960’s or so, researchers placed rats alone in a cage and offered them two water bottles, one with plain water and one with water laced with heroine or cocaine.(1) The rats developed heavy addictions, choosing to drink primarily the drugged water, and most of them continued to do this until they died. A follow-up study in the 1970’s tried placing rats in cages with rich environments – fellow rats, toys, tunnels, good food – and again offering them the two types of water. These rats tried both the drugged and drug-free water, but very few ended up with an addiction and none of them died. Humans aren’t rats, but I think we all recognize how our behavior is incredibly affected by how supportive our environment and relationships are.
You personally may or may not need your Zen center to serve as your place of loving community. If you don’t need it, presumably (and hopefully) you find community elsewhere, and that’s wonderful! But if you recognize – or just want to explore – your need for community, and you’re fortunate enough to live near a Zen center, you have a great opportunity. Communities are what their members make of them, and there’s really no limit what we can do together.
(1) The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, Huffington Post, 1/20/2015