A “Re~Collection” on building, renewing, and sustaining sanghas

Last month, I was invited to a Re~Collective online meeting, “…discussing the conversation that took place during the October 28th Sydney Insight Meditators meeting in which the focus was building, renewing and sustaining community.” I was able to review the SIM meeting minutes and a related article, Sanghas R Us, by Winton Higgins – and even to attend despite time zone confusion on my part.

First, in my experience it’s rare for a group to really consider multiple facets of an issue as well as creative, intersectional approaches or solutions to it. So, while I don’t personally know anyone in SIM, I am deeply impressed by what I found in their meeting minutes. (These minutes, compiled by Gawaine Powell Davies are no longer available online, so they are quoted here:)

Sanghas and their programs
The discussion showed that sanghas had very similar issues: determining their purpose, attracting new people and sustaining existing members, having a coherent program, and getting access to resources and teachers. There was strong agreement that they could learn from each other, and that occasional visits to other sanghas would be a good idea. Specific ideas which were discussed included:

  • For new people:
    • recognising that they may feel confused and having a person to welcome them.
    • Having resources on basic meditation and dharma for them (SIM could help here).
    • Having periodic beginner’s sessions, with more guided meditation.
    • Referring them to beginners’ meditation courses and any introduction to the dharma workshops
    • Having a Facebook page for them.
  • For the sangha’s program:
    • Varying the program, and having some sessions without teachers
    • Considering having a retreat for sangha members, or meditation days.
    • Reviewing how sessions went; have an occasional planning/review discussion.
  • For the sangha:
    • Exploring the use of social media, and having an email list (SIM might help here)
    • Considering the purpose of the sangha, and how much commitment it expected from its members. Considering the sangha as community, and that as the interactions between its members.
    • Considering what membership means: what are you belonging to? May need to define membership more closely. Pay ahead for attendance.
    • Support for sangha facilitators: the possibility of a sangha facilitators course (Subhana has a course from Christopher Titmuss) (SIM might assist here)”

Honestly, all of this is strategically solid, and in my experience, effective. As Community Director for Secular Buddhist Association (USA), however, I could have a unique perspective on such topics from other attendees (mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but also Austria and Finland, if I remember correctly). I was then asked if I had any further thoughts and to write them up to share with all who may read this blog:

Full Disclosure: I was offered an opportunity that I had to prioritize and am only now free to write this. …I’ve forgotten a good bit. However, I offer what I do have, and may it be of benefit to any and many!

  1. If there’s any location or sangha that has a significant number of members who could be considered minorities and/or to have particular group interests (e.g. Maori as opposed to European/New Zealander or LGBTQIA+ – perhaps immigrants, women, men, etc), it has been found to be helpful to offer a specialized meeting geared specifically towards them. This is not to be exclusive in any way, but instead to give them a special spot to meet with each other and to deal with any issues that they may specifically face and that would not take priority in a larger community. Also, it can create a particularly welcoming space for a new person who might be anxious about being the only person of their type (whatever that may be) in a group. Again, this would be IN ADDITION to regular programming. For guidance, I’d look to Mushim Patricia Ikeda and East Bay Meditation Center (USA).
  1. Be open to allowing some people to attend events (etc.) completely gratis. Some people just can’t fit something beyond basic necessities into their budgets. This also means making it known that such things are common and welcome. Alternatively (and/or), be open to alternative payment. For example, free attendance in exchange for keeping notes, doing transcription, cleaning up afterwards, serving tea, minor repairs to a center or garden work, cooking for a potluck, etc. I’m not an expert in the cultures involved here, but for some groups of Americans, the former is necessary. For some groups, the latter is necessary (because of certain ideas found in some of our sub-cultures – they will not take ”free” or “charity” to the point of starvation but will accept work).
  1. This one might be a bit selfish, but broadcasting or recording and uploading some content online. That’s not just for those (like me) outside New Zealand, but also because I’ve encountered people who like to watch to see what a gathering is like before going in person. Also, it can help people to continue to attend during adverse weather (i.e. winter) or similar circumstances (e.g. unable to find childcare for a certain time).
  1. Developing a sort of guide or package for starting a local sangha for the new sanghas (i.e. example advertisements, lists of resources, hypothetical formats for events, etc). This gives people who need it a starting point to specialize or localize from. Just be sure that they know that these are suggestions that can be used as much or as little as they find effective for them and their group.
  1. Offering a monthly event that is purely social (e.g. a game night, talk and tea, etc). This forms community in the way that silent meditation does not.

Now, this was all via email ahead of the actual Re~Collective meeting. The meeting itself seemed to have a slightly different focus from what I’d seen in the minutes and emails up to that point (perhaps because this was a continuation of those conversations instead of their beginning).

From what I recall, there was a questioning of the fundamental need to constantly be seeking new members for sanghas. (Or it might be better to say that there was questioning of the implicit goal of having high numbers of attendees.) There was the observation that there were low numbers of youths (i.e. people under about age 40). And there was some expressed overwhelm related to what to do about completely new meditators coming to spaces that were predominantly experienced and experimenting meditators.

First, while I don’t trust myself to quote or paraphrase exactly what was said about how maybe sanghas need not be preoccupied with constant high attendance numbers, I can say with confidence that I fully agreed at the time with what was said. In contexts that are predominantly non-Asian or non-Asian diaspora, there will usually just not be a lot of Buddhists period. Sangha membership will be relatively small and shifting – and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

Furthermore, recruitment should not come at the expense of other concerns, such as seeing to the needs of existing members. In fact, it can even be argued that the people interested in us find us on their own (as has been Secular Buddhist Association USA’s experience). Therefore, it’s not so much about going out and actively recruiting as it is making sure that those who want to find us can find us. As was noted at the time, this means a strong online presence and perhaps strategic flyer placement.

Second, I don’t doubt anyone’s lived experience in this context. However, I find the idea that younger people just aren’t drawn to various forms of Buddhism and/or meditation strange… just strange. My local area’s sangha is almost entirely college students (I’m 30-something), and that’s part of the reason why I prefer the online Secular Buddhist Association USA (most members are already done with college like me). Even where I previously lived while attending college (Miami), such spaces were often filled with youths.

Here (and I noted this in the meeting), I think this difference could be explained by it possibly being more common in the USA to reach out specifically to college students to join groups (or “clubs”) like this. We often have special days where groups from both the college itself and from the local community go and present themselves to new college students. Also, meditation and/or Buddhist groups often place flyers in venues popular with college students – such as coffee shops (cafes) and libraries – and that often emphasize stress reduction programming.

In other words, we know that our college students are often interested in continuing or learning about different cultures/religions/philosophies/practices and often experiencing significant psychological stress. So if they know about a Buddhist and/or meditation meet up, they tend to come at least once (for one reason or another). They just have to know that such meet ups are happening – which adds weight to the idea of making sure that people who want to find your sangha can find your sangha online or via strategic flyers.

Third, I’m not sure how well this was understood or received, but if there is a group of experienced meditators focusing on something like “experiments in meditation” (for lack of a better phrase), I see a couple of ways that they may respond constructively to the random appearance of a new person seeking to instead learn “standard and basic” meditation:

  1. Forgive the Tara Brach reference, but “radically accept” them. Allow a scheduled sit to change from what was planned to something emphasizing “beginners’ mind.” As part of the guidance for a “basic” meditation, invite ALL attendees to sit with questions about why a “standard” instruction may be “standard” and if there might be an alternative way to do some particular step. Invite them to try those alternatives right then and there. In this way, new meditators do learn basics – but they also learn to question those basics. Experienced meditators get not only a review, but a refresher on being open to exploring variations that can lead to new ideas and breakthroughs. In other words, experiment with ways that these two types of attendees may sit together and benefit each other.
  2. Direct them to a center or resource that actually does cater to their specific needs. There’s nothing wrong with being a slightly smaller, more specialized space. Keep the appropriate information on hand and offer new meditators proper guidance to the proper spaces – and invite them to return when they are more ready.

In fact, this second point has reminded me of something that I had forgotten… there was also a noticeable aversion to the idea of sanghas having a social element outside of sitting silently together.

There’s nothing wrong with having a sangha that is highly focused on simply sitting silently together.

However, it should be realized that such a sangha is not likely to grow. Silent (sitting) meditation can be done almost anywhere. By nature, it’s a primarily individualistic activity. The “only” or “primary” reason to go to a sangha (or community) is, well, for community. And while shared experiences (like meditation) are seminal to building community, so are casual, verbal communication.

If no time, space, or activity is given to allow for such casual, bonding conversations (even if they are about the meditation itself), then the vast majority of people walking into a Sangha for the first time will not find a key part of what they are looking for and will likely not return. That’s just the nature of humanity and reality.

Now, I point this out not as some kind of intolerant condemnation(!!!). Instead, I think it’s important that sanghas be clear internally about who they are and what they want.

Are members also members of minority groups that might want to spend some time focusing on areas of particular concern to them? Are they low income? Are they having trouble gathering face-to-face? Do they need suggestions for getting started or for strengthening what they have already developed? Are they all of a certain age or life experience? Are they all only interested in advanced topics or experiments? Are they (also) interested in forming friendships?

The answers to any or all of these questions are going to determine not only how to best serve existing members, but if your sangha should even prioritize recruitment. If the sangha wants to remain who it currently is, sitting silently side by side, and that is it – then that’s fine. Do what is most effective for you instead of trying to juggle a deeply conflicting recruitment aim. And if the sangha wants the opposite, then aim for that instead.

It can be said that a sangha is like a projection of its individual members. There cannot be healthy relationships with others if “the self” is not known, accepted, and sustained. So do that internal work first. Then if and only if new relationships are actually desirable, try out some of what is suggested here.


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