Sangha Karman procedure

The Practice of Collective Wisdom

In a world dominated by individualism and competition, it is a real challenge to live as a spiritual community. "Please use the Sangha eye to understand the nature of suffering in our times," urged Thich Nhat Hanh during the 21-day retreat in Plum Village last June. The metaphor used by Thay was to practice like bees in a beehive or ants in an anthill, like a true organism. In our case, as humans, "a mindful organism, which is even better." Realizing that, opinions and ideas are among the greatest obstacles to our practice together. To be a real Sangha—a "living being" that communicates awakening (Buddha) and compassionate love (Dharma)—it is crucial to learn to harmonize different views. "Everybody," Thay said, "wants to do what he or she likes best. To take care as a Sangha, of the different opinions, restoring communication and practicing permanent sharing, is what we have to do." Not an easy task, especially when living in big cities in the West.

Fortunately, the retreat was a wonderful chance to meet friends in the Dharma, and enrich the understanding of these teachings. Among the many, I met Dennis Bohn, one of the more involved members of the New York Metro Community of Mindfulness. I still remember very well an article written by Dennis in The Mindfulness Bell about how to practice consensus in the delicate process of decision-making. ["Deciding How to Decide," Issue #20] When the article appeared, our Milan Sangha was going through a very difficult moment of its quite young history. The problem was deciding how to decide. We shared about the article, and wanted it translated and published in the Italian Sangha newsletter. The deep inspiration and the support we received from that experience was part of our growth, even though conditions in our environment were not the same as the New York Sangha Dennis described. Three years later, at Plum Village, Dennis generously shared with me the latter part of his Sangha's story.

Q. Do you think that, in New York, you developed already as a group, the capacity to express togetherness and live as a mindful organism, at least as related to decisions?

A. I don't know if we have evolved to that point yet. I think that decision making by consensus was just the right process for our group. What I might stress today is that we cultivated the value of sitting there and working over a decision. It reminds me the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Everyone has a little bit of a different viewpoint, but if you can sit a little longer, a more accurate picture of the elephant emerges.

Q. In Milan, the core members of the Order of Interbeing wondered if it was more helpful to include everyone in the process of decision-making rather than invite to the meetings only the more committed friends. Now, Thay has explained very clearly that also lay Sanghas can apply the Sanghakarman procedure, a mix of democracy and seniorship. What is your experience?

A. We started thinking about how to make decisions as a community, because at the first meetings to formally organize the New York metropolitan community, no one agreed on anything. It took a year to get a definite proposal for a decision making process, inspired by the method used by the Quakers. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. In fact, anybody in our community has the right to attend a meeting and speak out. But for an individual to block consensus and prevent the community from moving forward on an issue, we ask a commitment. The person must have practiced with the Sangha for a year and have attended two of the previous four meetings of the core community. This way, they are more likely to fully understand the background of the matter being considered by the Sangha. Our opinion is that to make a decision, like how to coordinate a day of mindfulness or how to use donations, is very important, but the process the Sangha uses to come to it is far more important.

Q. Patience is the key, I guess.

A. Sure. The meetings are not been always completely wonderful, but now the qualities of tolerance, patience, and skillful speech are part of the culture of our community. We have learned not to be in the hurry to get a decision right in that meeting. Furthermore, we take as much time as we need, so as not to push things before their time has come and allow the whole group to cope with different ideas.

Q. Might we call it the embodiment of the Sangha eye?

A. I only mean that in my experience of this consensus model, the collective vision, the Sangha eye, is much clearer and purer than in any single individual. Ultimately, I have seen the collective wisdom of the group grow and become much stronger. To me, this is a real wonder.

Alberto Annicchiarico, True Gathering of Understanding, is a journalist for a daily newspaper, and practices with Dharma Door Sangha in Milan, Italy.

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Is There Harmony in the Community?

By Jerry Braza mb51-IsThere1

Over five years ago at the Winter Retreat, Thay suggested that local Sanghas practice meeting on a regular basis to formally recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Since then, at the River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, we continue, with nurturing results, to practice with a formal ceremony every month followed by a Dharma or book discussion. The formal ceremony always includes a Sanghakarman procedure, which “ is the way we make decisions on all matters that arise in the Sangha.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyfully Together) This process has helped us to stay connected to the core community, enhance the greater community, and overall has contributed to open dialogue and peace within the Sangha.

Several years ago, during the Sanghakarman procedure we were awakened by an honest response to the question “Is there harmony in the community?” At that gathering an individual shared “No, there is not harmony and here is why.” Apparently she and others were concerned about the amount of political discussion that seemed to be infused in several weekly Sangha gatherings and she felt the Sangha was not the refuge it had been in the past. Courageously, this individual responded from her heart and shared her deepest truth at the time.

Since the Sangha had already gathered to recite the Trainings, the Sangha continued. Following the formal recitation a discussion began that continued on several other occasions; the issue was resolved one month later at the next formal recitation. If a person is aware of difficulties within the Sangha, this needs to be brought out. Perhaps a facilitator can announce, in the weeks preceding the formal recitation, that if anyone feels there is a lack of harmony please say so now, so that the Sangha can resolve the issue beforehand with either a Beginning Anew or other dialogue process. In this way harmony will be reached before beginning the next formal recitation.

In Joyfully Together Thay shares, “Being in harmony does not mean that we do not disagree or make mistakes and miss opportunities to understand one another. It means that we are doing our best and there is no division or split within the Sangha.” Reflecting on Thay’s description of Sangha harmony, it was obvious to me that we naturally had disagreements and that we were all doing our best at the time.

However, the gift that came from our Sangha member’s sharing was the call to stop and have several discussions on the matter.

When all views were heard, we were then able to move forward with insights and suggestions for the leadership corps in order to more skillfully guide Dharma discussions, select Dharma discussion topics, and promote understanding.

We learned how important it was to have had those discussions and to subsequently encourage others to answer the “harmony question” mindfully. This may be one of the best skillful means to look deeply into Sangha dynamics and involve everyone in the process of resolving all conflicts, however small. It became clear that we were practicing the “Four Skillful Means of the Bodhisattva” as outlined by Thay:

  • Offer "non-fear" and provide protection for all. Sanghas should be a safe place to practice and leaders need to provide support for this deep sharing.
  • Practice loving speech. Creating an atmosphere to practice loving speech is the opportunity that formal recitations and discussions provide.
  • Do things for the benefit of others. It is very empowering for all Sangha members to see that everyone benefits through skillful speech and true understanding of “interbeing” is achieved.
  • Practice the path of understanding and love. Through processes such as the Sanghakarman procedure and heartfelt sharing, we are able to listen deeply and practice true love through our understanding of each other.

One simple courageous response helped our Sangha to look deeply at itself and has helped create wisdom and clarity. Harmony is possible through our daily practice of the Mindfulness Trainings. As with the Trainings, harmony is the direction we all aspire to and this can be our most essential practice.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a professor, a private consultant, and the author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. In 2001 he was ordained as a Dharma teacher; he practices with the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon and leads retreats.

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