Building a Healthy Sangha

By Jack Lawlor If we reflect on the life story of the Buddha, we see that the Buddha sank deep and broad roots in community, both before and after his enlightenment. His success at Sangha building was phenomenal. He brought together people from every level of a highly stratified society-kings and queens, wealthy merchants, warriors, farmers, prostitutes, the poor, families attempting to live moral and religious lives, the widowed, parents distraught at the loss of a child, religious seekers, criminals, and those lusting after power and wealth. People who ordinarily would have nothing to do with one another came together to form a healthy practice community. The Buddha was always looking and listening intently, and learning from others.

As we read the story of the Buddha, we see that one cannot go far on the path of spiritual practice without the support of good friends. Although the Buddha is usually depicted at the moment of his enlightenment alone beneath the Bo tree, it might be more accurate to show him surrounded by all those who contributed to his enlightenment: his father with one-pointed sense of purpose and service, his teachers who candidly and sincerely offered what they could, and his five friends who encouraged and challenged him along the path. Viewed in this way, the Buddha's enlightenment is a collective achievement, the result of the efforts of many.

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In Buddhism there is a term for this kind of spiritual friendship, kalyana mitra, or "good friend." Being present, looking and listening deeply, is at the foundation of any spiritual friendship. When we become the spiritual friend of another, we become a link in a long interdependent chain going back to the friendships that supported the Buddha himself. They remain alive and present in us. Being a kalyana mitra means being totally attentive to the needs of the person we are with. When we practice in this way, profound compassion arises.

In the Four Exertions of Buddhism, a practitioner strives to prevent the arising of unwholesome mental states, to eradicate unwholesome states that have already arisen, to develop unarisen wholesome mental states, and to maintain arisen wholesome mental states. Good spiritual friends can do the same for one another. We bring out the best in each other by practicing Right Speech consistently and lovingly, and by pursuing healthy pastimes that do not lead to craving or lust We each have Buddha nature, the ability to come into contact not only with what is wrong, but what is soothing and supportive in our environment. Some people have not had the opportunity to get in touch with this ability, but a good spiritual friend can lead them to a direct experience of it. In Buddhism, the preeminent skillful means for making this discovery are the mindfulness practices of sitting and walking meditation. Good spiritual friends introduce their friends to these simple practices. Many spiritual benefits follow from this.

If a healthy Sangha is available, our first exposure to the calm of meditation can be as memorable as a first love. Our first insights into the needs of others, borne of meditation, can be a revelation. When we seek refuge in our local Sangha and practice together, we can transform the wobbly way we sometimes feel into calm, centeredness, peace, and a quiet spiritual resolve.

Although we need the support of others, we may resist the idea of practicing together in a group for many reasons. We prefer our privacy. The intimacy of a small Sangha may frighten us. We may fear that it will become cliquish or political. Many of us .have witnessed arguments in the churches or synagogues we left behind, and we know that there is nothing worse than the kind of strife that arises in religious or charitable organizations.

Within the Buddhist community, there have been teachers culpable of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and questionable financial practices. There are frequently interpersonal disputes over personality differences, power, or which way the group should be "led." We sometimes think that a legalistic solution or bylaw provision can prevent or solve these problems. But I have found that it is often misleading to rely much on the written form of an organization. If you were to read the constitution of many nations, you would be quite impressed by their idealism and concern for society and the rights of its citizens. But the reality can be much different. So while words and procedures may be helpful, they are not enough. A healthy Sangha is not a matter of words or a particular structure or form, but practice.

When we concentrate on sitting and walking meditation, the incorporation of gathas into our daily life, and regular attendance and participation with the Sangha, our practice deepens and we make a healthy Sangha possible. Our practice transforms the Sangha in this way, not through words and form.

When Thay urges us to "look with Sangha eyes," he is asking us to look at the needs of the collective practice body. When we practice as a healthy Sangha, we find it easier to let go of the view of self and join others in practicing mindfulness and insight. We not only have to let go of our view of self, we also have to let go of some of our favorite baggage-our fixed ideas, including those about what the Sangha should be like. Nirvana is sometimes described as the absence of greed, anger, and delusion. Concepts of happiness, of "what is good for me" and "what is good for the Sangha" can limit our flexibility and isolate us from others, because we are not really in contact with them or the present moment. Instead, we are judging, weighing, and measuring what seems to be going on in comparison to our ideal of a perfect Sangha.

We should not leave a Sangha merely because it uses a few skillful means that do not appeal to us. We should be grateful to be exposed to new forms of practice from time to time, whether it is a new breathing exercise, the use of mindfulness verses in conjunction with conscious breathing, or sutra or precept recitation. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future, for we change over time, and our circumstances change.

In Buddhism, concepts that bind us are called "fetters." In contrast, the Diamond Sutra declares, "Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free of ideas." Some years ago, one of our Sangha members proposed an invention similar to the metal detectors at airports. A "fetter detector" could be conveniently placed at the entrance to Dharma discussion groups. People would be invited to leave their prejudices, preconceptions, and mental formations at the door. If they forget, the fetter detector will go off. If they choose to bring their fetters into the Dharma discussion, at least they will be aware that they are carrying this extra baggage.

There are certainly times when we don't feel ourselves, and may not feel like meeting with spiritual friends. But the happiness of a healthy Sangha of spiritual friends is contagious. The familiar faces, the glow of candles, the chanting-all are like bread crumbs leading us back to the miracle of mindfulness. We are invited to come to the S~ngha with an open mind and heart. When we practice in thiS way, we practice not only for ourselves, but for one another, much as the Buddha did.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained as a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992. He is a founding member of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha and practices law in Chicago.

A tape set of the Dharma talks on which this article is based is available for $15 (postage included). Checks may be made payable to "The Lakeside Buddha Sangha" and sent to P.o. Box 7067. Evanston, 1L 60201.

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