Democratic secular sanghas

When western societies imported various strains of Asian Buddhism from the 1960s on, few converts noticed the organisational culture that came with the imports. Rather like the tarantula that arrives in the crate of imported bananas. Where one or more monastics are involved in a practice group, s/he or they wield all the power. Major donors self-evidently exercise great influence and are not to be criticised or contradicted. Even in lay groups formed around a more or less charismatic teacher, s/he makes the decisions: ‘My way or the highway,’ you hear them cry.

There’s nothing uniquely Asian about this organisational culture. Religious institutions in general tend to generate head honchos (‘patriarchs’, ‘abbots’ and so on) and oppressive hierarchies. Oddly, many western converts – people who’ve grown up with quite different understandings of how adult humans should associate with each other – put up with this organisational culture as if it were an integral part of the ‘Buddhism’ they’re now seeking to practise.

More and more practitioners are re-orienting towards secular understandings of the dharma, and coming together in supportive communities (or sanghas) to do so. They’re also seeing the need to abandon the old Buddhist organisational culture in favour of more conducive principles to guide their interaction.

Fortunately they don’t have far to look for those principles: our normal way of associating in everyday civil groups and clubs exemplifies them. Membership is inclusive and equal, everyone is expected to pitch in to make the group work, and an individual’s influence is commensurate with her or his contribution to its life.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, sanghas worked in much the same way.

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