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Why Build Sangha?

mb51-Why1 Thich Nhat Hanh shares the fruits of monastic civilization with lay practitioners so that we, too, can experience community as a resource for awakening. Meditation can seem easier when we’re in a group, and we learn from each other, so we build Sangha to enjoy and support our practice.

The Buddha was explicit about the value of community: “Monks, as to external factors, I do not see any other factor that is so helpful for the arising of the seven factors of enlightenment as this: good friendship.” (Samyutta Nikaya, Bojjhangasayutta, 51)

My first experience with Thay’s community was at a five-day retreat. Someone in our Dharma discussion group suggested we could keep meeting after we returned home, so we created a roster, and someone volunteered to host a gathering. Two weeks later, we sat, walked, listened to a reading, and shared our experience of the practice. We couldn’t agree on a name, but the No-Name Sangha enjoyed practice together enough that we met each week for several years!

I enjoy it when people visit our Sangha, and I like to visit Sanghas, too. When my teenage son and I went to check out some colleges, I used the Mindfulness Bell Sangha directory to locate friends along the way. [Editor’s note: the Sangha list is now online at www.mindfulnessbell.org under “Directory.”] One woman I called said that the Sangha in her town hadn’t actually met for over a year, but she was happy to meet me, and even offered us a room for the night! We meditated in her garden, and then talked about what made practice nourishing, what some of the difficulties could be, and so on. A few months later, she called to thank me for the visit, adding that she had talked to some of the people in her old Sangha and they had started to sit together again.

How Does Sangha Support Practice?

First of all, Sangha is an explicitly safe place. “Alone together” in community, we make the practice visible, credible, accessible. When we’re alone, we may routinely get carried away by our thoughts, but Sangha reminds us how to be diligent and observant. We recognize what’s true and nourishing, and we create a foundation upon which we can stand when we encounter adversity. The gardener makes the garden, and the garden makes the gardener.

A practice community is a creation, and takes time, but the work of Sangha building isn’t about planning and hard labor. It requires involvement, but when it feels difficult, we’re not doing it correctly. Learning how to build Sangha, like meditation, means learning how to get out of our own way!

Sustaining a Sangha is practice, too. If we’ve been nourished in the Sangha, we’ll have patience to learn to trust the “Sangha eye” to arrive at decisions that will be in everyone’s best interest. Lay practitioners can implement practices that the monastics rely upon, like Beginning Anew and Shining the Light, but as Thay says, “What is most important is to find peace and share it with others.”

“This Is the Entire Holy Life”

On one occasion, the Buddha was dwelling in the Jeta Grove of Anathapindika’s Park, in Savatthi. His attendant, Ananda, mused to his master how the company of like-minded people constituted such a big help: “Venerable sir, this is half the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” Vehemently, the Buddha corrected him: “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire holy life, Ananda ...When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.” (Samyutta Nikaya, Part V, Ch.1)

Dictionaries define Sangha as “the community of Buddhist monks,” but more inclusively, it applies to any group that meditates together. With practice, we may recognize that Sangha actually consists of everything that supports us. We bow to a cushion, smile to the bean in our soup spoon, attend to the rustling of leaves, the splash of the rivulet.

mb51-Why2Caleb Cushing, True Original Commitment, practices with the Pot Luck Sangha and the Open Door Sangha in the East Bay Area of Northern California.

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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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Deep Listening

By Brian Kimmel I have found the practice of deep listening, both being heard and hearing others, to be very effective in dealing with the stresses and pressures of lay life. It takes effort to be present with our own suffering. We want so much to be happy, and yet often we aren’t doing the things we need to do in order to make happiness possible for ourselves.

When others listen deeply to us, we are better able to listen deeply to ourselves and to find answers to questions such as, “What do I need in order to support my practice, and to remain safe, solid and free?”

An Intimate Circle

Deep listening meditation is part of our Tuesday Night Sangha in Las Vegas. We offer members an opportunity to speak about what is in their hearts. We’ve had many people share intimate things about their lives, feeling safe in the support of the Sangha and the atmosphere of harmony the Sangha creates. Many people have cried in our circle and afterwards have felt so relieved and grateful to have had the opportunity to tell others how they feel. They also enjoy offering deep listening to others.

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At each Sangha gathering, we start the evening with sitting and walking meditation. Then we may listen to a talk, sing songs, or introduce ourselves. We always end the evening with deep listening.

We invite a sound of the bell to start the session of deep listening. Whoever would like to share joins their palms together. The rest of the group joins their palms to acknowledge them. This is a vow we offer, a promise to allow them the space to be heard. We vow, silently, not to cross-talk or interrupt anyone as they are speaking, and then allow at least a few breaths when they are finished before the next person shares. To conclude each sharing, the person speaking joins their palms to express their gratitude to the attention that has been offered.

Getting Out of the Way

Deep listening is about healing and transforming whatever suffering is in our heart and store-consciousness. One important aspect of deep listening is allowing what is said to come from emptiness and return to emptiness. We don’t want to be the bearer of another’s suffering. To do deep listening effectively, we must listen and invoke the heart of Avalokita, the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening and Compassion. We listen with compassion and nonattachment. If we listen deeply to what is being said, our understanding transcends words.

People often attach meanings, views, or judgments to what is being said. We may not even hear the other person. We may only hear our own thoughts and perceptions. We only think about ourselves — what we are going to say or how we will respond.

To listen deeply, we must get out of the way. We must give our full attention to the person who is speaking. Even if the person is silent, our attention remains with them. I’ve often suggested the practice of saying the person’s name silently in order to keep our mindfulness on them, and to keep our own thoughts and feelings from wandering aimlessly.

We need to be calm in body and mind in order to listen. That is why sitting, walking, and singing precede deep listening. Deep listening is a meditation and takes practice. We learn through experience how to be better listeners.

Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and has supported mindful living in Nevada and Utah since 2004. He works as a massage therapist, musician, and inspirational speaker.

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