On secular Buddhist sangha

Sangha is considered one of the three ‘jewels’ or refuges, along with the dharma and Buddha. According to some Buddhist traditions, however, the sangha is reserved for monks or those who have achieved a ‘high level of awakening’. But interestingly, Gotama would have also summoned his monks to leave their monasteries to go and ‘expound the teaching for the good of the many’. In doing so, one can, therefore, assume that he believed that the layperson could also be enlightened.

According to the Upaddha Sutta, Ananda, referring to the sangha, said to Gotama: ‘This is half of the holy life, Lord – admirable friendship.’ Gotama then replied: ‘Don’t say that… Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life’. Is this also true for the life of a secular Buddhist sangha member? If yes, what makes it so? My personal answer is ‘yes’ and here are some of my reflections behind it.

I find that most regular members of my local sangha are, indeed, quite admirable. In one way or another, most are involved in some activism, being ecological or social. Some stand up for the preservation of our natural resources, for human or animal rights. Others volunteer in one capacity or another to help relief human suffering, or generously offer their time to care for the environment or animals. Others are involved in supporting healthy lifestyles, teaching ethics to children, to name only a few examples of activism. We can easily link all of these actions to the eightfold path and sila or ethics.

Even if we have not achieved a ‘high level of enlightenment’, whatever that means, the intentions and values of our sangha members seem pretty aligned with the dharma. They appear to be beyond a mere desire to meditate to relax or calm their mind (not that there is anything wrong with that) to raise their awareness of the four great tasks and to endeavour to make their life and those of all sentient beings around them more peaceful and satisfying. With such intention, it is not surprising to me that the sangha is a place when one can develop ‘admirable friendship, companionship, and camaraderie’, to use Gotama’s words.

The sangha might also be the ‘whole of one’s life’ because when we are quite clear on our values and ethics, we might also, at times, hold them too tightly. As a result, we can fall into judgment about the foibles of our ‘less admirable’ friends. Jack Kornfield calls this ‘spiritual pride’. I call this my ‘holytude’. At other times, it’s the opposite. I compare myself to other sangha members who are kinder or ‘better’, who know more about the dharma than I do, and so on.

So, at any time during my sangha interactions, I can fall into any of the three conceits: thinking ‘my self’ to be better, less or the same. Also, I came to realise that the way that I relate to others within the sangha is no different than the way that I relate to people outside it. I might be afraid of speaking up or be too blunt – craving for being liked or being right – or anywhere in between. So, everything that happens within the sangha can become grist for the mill.

By being actively involved in my sangha, I have a chance to cultivate compassion towards my foibles and those of my companions. I learn to trust, and with this trust, I can develop a sense of safety and, indeed, find refuge.

• Sylvie Vanasse has been a member of Beaches Sangha in Sydney, Australia for six years; she teaches recollective awareness meditation and is a member of the online community, Re~Collective.

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