Dharma and community for meditators

Like all practices worthy of the name, every form of meditation is informed and moulded by a tradition – the Buddha’s tradition (‘the dharma’) in our case. And like all practitioners, dharmic meditators rely on a community to transmit and renew the tradition, and to support each individual in her or his development. That’s why the Buddha anointed community (sangha) as one of the three central values in his tradition, along with the project of awakening and the teaching that inspires and guides it.

So what is community, and what is it not? We’d be wide of the mark if we adopted the common ideas that:

(a) institutions constitute communities;
(b) a particular identifiable group of people make up a community; and
(c) ‘the community’ is a catch-all phrase for a horde of people with no organic connection – as when politicians use the word as a fuzzy term of endearment for all those who (they hope) will vote for them or agree with them.

No, community refers to an active process whereby people with common interests actually engage with each other. Community doesn’t imply fixed membership and rules. It does imply warm interaction between people on the basis of mutual commitment, equal worth, equal influence, and inclusiveness.

This is how the Buddha understood sangha, his (Pali) word for communities of practitioners. But after his death the word came to stand for an institution – monasticism – that had strict hierarchies and rules of membership, and in most cases failed to satisfy each and every criterion of community listed in the previous paragraph. Theravadin Buddhism has even gone the further step of restricting the word sangha to its male-only monastics, thus excluding all women and all male non-monastics from a sense of practising in a dharmic community.

Obviously such conceptions of dharmic community won’t cut the mustard in the modern west, with its values of equality, inclusiveness and democracy. So we face the challenge of restoring community to its original dignity and essential role as part of our retrieval and cultural adaptation of dharma practice (including meditation) as a whole.

It’s a big ask, but we also enjoy some distinct advantages in nurturing the communal aspect of our practice. The requirements of equality, inclusiveness and active membership of voluntary organisation actually help define western civic culture as such. For all but the most privatised among us, these features are second nature to us – familiar aspects of our civic lives. It’s no wonder, then, that more and more western dharma practitioners form communities outside of hierarchical and deferential (that is, institutional) settings.

Sometimes we choose to register our sanghas as formal associations for pragmatic reasons (such as opening bank accounts!), but the typical constitutions of such associations support equality, inclusiveness and democracy anyway. They’re not going to stop us being able to look around the room as we settle into a meditation session and seeing our good friends going about the same business.

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