2021-1-24 Sangha Sculpting Sangha
11:08PM Feb 6, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is January 24, 2021, and my teisho this morning will be on Sangha. Sangha of course is one of the three treasures, or the Three Jewels, that are right at the heart of the Dharma of Zen teachings as well as Buddhist teaching of other kinds. The three treasures, just to review, are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
You know, in every teisho and Dharma talk and most articles in Zen Bow, there is a lot said about Buddha and Dharma, but less about Sangha.
Buddha would appear often, especially in the form of Buddha nature, or original mind, our true nature, as well as the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Dharma, maybe even more so, more integral to any exposition on the Dharma, Dharma as the truth has various definitions, the truth, the way, the law, the teaching.
But to talk about Sangha is not as simple, maybe because it really means the people -- the people who practice the Dharma and who maybe believe in Buddha nature. So maybe it's because it's particular -- Sangha is particular to the congregation.
The simple definition that you see in Zen for Sangha is harmony. That's more of an abstract way to understand Sangha -- a very good one, a very important one. But community is the other word for Sangha. And I think in churches it would be would be called congregation. We talk about the Rochester Zen Center Sangha. And it can be broadened, and I've said this in many teishos, that we can think of Sangha as anyone practicing the Buddha Dharma. It can go even further. Really, we can say that the ultimate Sangha are all beings. But it's not that useful to just broaden the word to all beings.
So this morning, I'm going to be talking more about Sangha in the more limited definition of the congregation. It's a beautiful word Sangha. And I know that in talking with non Sangha members, sometimes you have to, if you use the word Sangha, you have to say how basically it means congregation. But I don't want to give it up because it's so, it's such an ancient, rich word -- Sangha.
I want to start with some overview, or some retrospective, by Steven Batchelor. This is from an article that appeared in Tricycle online. Tricycle is one of the three or four national Buddhist magazines. And the article is called "Creating Sangha."
He wrote it a long time ago -- winter of 1995. But the part that I'm going to be reading from, which is a part of a historical retrospective on what Sangha meant, is, of course, much older than 1995. So he talks about the fact that historically, the Dharma was practiced by monks, by the monastic Sangha. In fact, the original definition of Sangha was monks -- all the way back to India, the time of the Buddha. And here in this 25 year old article, he's considering how -- he's considering the role of traditional monasticism in 20th century practice. I think we here at the at the Zen Center have been considering this for decades, about how we might adapt a tradition with monasticism at its core historically, to our own conditions, historical conditions here in the Western world. But let me not get ahead of of what he's saying here. So I'm just going to read straight from what he wrote.
He says the issue of monasticism today does not concern its validity as an exemplary way of life in which to practice the Dharma. Okay, so he acknowledges that it's a magnificent way to really delve into the Dharma through monasticism. He says, but it concerns its relationship to the Sangha, the Buddhist community as a whole. Should communities of monks and nuns still be considered as the essential core of the Buddhist Sangha?
Or does the present situation call for a definition of Sangha in which the role of monastics is less central? Let me just interject that that ship has sailed. There are almost no monasteries, Buddhist monasteries, in the Western world. There are some, but vastly outnumbered by lay Sanghas. But it's still, I think, an important question to pose, given that it was the core of the Buddhist Sangha for 2500 years.
He goes on. As Buddhism developed over centuries in different cultures, its form was determined by the economic and social conditions of former times. All traditional forms of Buddhism share in common, the stamp of a medieval social structure. They emerged in societies with fixed class distinctions, in which the course of a person's life was determined at the time of his or her birth. The division between monastics and laity was as sharply defined as the division between classes. This, of course, what he's leading up to, is the contrast between most of Buddhist history and 20th and 21st century Western world. Life for the laity mostly consisted of agricultural labor and raising families. Formal education was very limited, if not absent, with no family responsibilities, monastics, in contrast, were largely relieved of manual labor, and so were free to devote themselves entirely to the Dharma, through the study of philosophy, the practice of meditation, and by serving a pastoral role in the community. As a consequence of this split, the practice of Buddhism assumed two distinct forms. The laity (just paraphrasing here a little bit), the laity was without much time on their hands or even education -- their main practice was in prayer and devotional practices, with the aim of improving their lot for a future lifetime -- rebirth, of course, being a central part of Buddhist teaching for all these centuries.
And then he (skipping here down) he says, Batchelor says, the question today is whether the modern world is so significantly different that monasticism should no longer be considered central to the Buddhist Sangha. Let me just again, stream of consciousness, my apologies -- well, it hasn't been central, as I just said, with virtually no monasteries, true monasteries or monks. But that doesn't mean that we can conclude that it's, it's unimportant, because it's early yet. We still have decades or centuries to go before we can really judge or assess what the Dharma has become, what the teaching has become, without the the great prominence of monasticism.
He goes on. Nowadays, the condition of the laity, even in traditional Asian Buddhist countries is being transformed. No longer is the intellectual or moral superiority of monastics taken for granted. Education is no longer the privilege of minority groups such as the aristocracy and monastics. Intellectual inquiry and philosophical thinking are possible for whoever is inspired to undertake them. State education and the development of telecommunications provide the basis for an active and critical spiritual life for a growing number of people, including lay people. Leisure time in which to pursue such matters is also no longer the privilege of minority groups. And he says, moreover, these pursuits are no longer confined to men. So in conclusion, he says, the concept of Sangha and the role of the monastic in Buddhist societies arose in dependence upon the socio economic conditions of former times.
Now, let me take over for a minute. This project of changing with the times and changing with the conditions, with contemporary conditions, is arguably the, the challenge -- the project of projects. Roshi, Roshi Kapleau, one of his favorite phrases was the importance of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is, we do need to adapt the form of Buddhism, Buddhist and Zen practice, we need to adapt the form of it without losing the essence of it.
What is the essence of the Dharma? It's change. It's change itself. It's flux. It's shunyata, emptiness. No, no permanent thing. No thing is permanent. And so it's a tradition, Buddhism and Zen by extension, it's a tradition that invites change to the forms without sacrificing the essence. Now the, the essence in practical terms is zazen, sitting. It's indispensable. Sitting, yes, sitting a certain period of time, half an hour an hour or more each day, in a certain posture of stillness, sitting. But yes, more than that. Then carrying that, carrying that mind of meditation, that mind of concentration and mindfulness, into and through all the activities of one's daily life. So when I, when I say zazen, yes, definitely the sitting, but also the broader sense of Zen practice being done in activity. So that's the essence. We can't even consider to, to throw that out, is really to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
So things have changed over the centuries, especially, especially starting in the 20th century -- revolutionary change. And, to survive, and we know this from the survival of the species, we have to adapt. And that's what we've been trying to do. And I credit Roshi Kapleau with really getting the ball rolling -- recognizing, for example, that we need to have -- we needed to have -- the chants, the traditional sutras that are chanted in a Zen center, we need to have them in English, and not exclusively English, but we need to mostly have them in English. The Chinese chanted the Indian sutras in their own language, as did the Japanese and the Korean. So of course, we have to have chants in English, and in other Western countries -- same -- Swedish and German and Mexican and Spanish.
We've also made efforts to, to find non-foreign words as much as we thought it would be useful to do so we feel. So we've retained Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, teisho, dokusan, and some other things. We're not finished, probably, with finding English equivalents for Japanese and Chinese words. But Roshi was early, early to the to the party with that when other centers still continue to use Japanese terms, where I don't feel, Roshi didn't feel, we needed to. Sometimes when I go to our annual Zen teachers meeting, I haven't been in a while, but when I used to, sometimes they would toss around Japanese words. And I just have to say, what does that mean? There's.... I don't want to go too far astray now, but stick with with the matter of Sangha here.
He goes on, Batchelor, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the traditional monastic centered concept of Sangha may longer be relevant today. He's, he's so careful with his wording. And when I would say respectful of traditional monasticism. I don't know how many of you know that he himself was a monk, briefly. He was the first monk ordained, first Western person ordained as a monk by the Dalai Lama. He found soon enough that it just didn't work for him. Don't ask me why. But well, I think he's saying, he's saying why, somewhat. So it's, I think it's to his credit that he still respects the tradition, the monastic tradition, as much as he does. That he then he asks very gingerly, is it not it is not unreasonable to conclude that traditional monasticism may no longer be relevant. It would seem self evident, he says, that for the Buddhist community to survive, it must adapt itself to the changing world. To insist upon preserving traditional institutions, irrespective of circumstances, would be to indulge in a dinosaur mentality. The question of survival depends essentially on the structure of the Sangha, for the Sangha is the communal expression of the Buddhist experience that needs, needs to be rooted in the soil of society as a whole.
Another word about adapting; who's to say that the speed of adaptation we've done here in Rochester as compared to other Western Sanghas, who's to say that we're right. We don't know. Again, well, it will probably be a long time before we can look back and know whether we were too hasty or too slow. It's an ongoing question. And it falls largely to the teacher to try to feel his or her way in leading with these these particular forms that we're talking about. But even that is changing in some respects as well as we'll get to.
All right, so Stephen Batchelor made the case that monasticism, traditional monasticism, may be one of those things that we have to not cling to, if it doesn't really serve the Dharma.
So I found, in another very short article, a nice metaphor for the importance of Sangha that I'll just mention now. This is a from another old article, not as old, but it's by Thich Nhat Hanh. This was he wrote in 2008, and I'm just going to -- there's not a lot there's not a lot, I have to say, there's not a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching that I resonate to, but this is a nice metaphor. This is from an article called "The fertile soil of Sangha." And he says it's like, well, I'll just read the paragraph. If you have a supportive Sangha, it's easy to nourish your bodhichitta (that's the seeds of enlightenment the Buddha seed we say, in our what is it -- one of the three treasures, three refuges) if you have a supportive Sangha. If you don't have anyone who understands you, or who is or who encourages you in the practice of a living Dharma, your desire to practice may wither. Your Sangha -- that is family, friends and co practitioners (so he's he has a bit of a wider understanding of Sangha -- not just your co practitioners, but your family and friends), your Sangha is the soil and you are the seed. No matter how vigorous the seed is, if the soil does not provide nourishment, your seed will die. A good Sangha is crucial for the practice.
I learned years ago how helpful it is to have a spouse who is supportive of practice and so I, I started asking people, new members of the Center, I would ask them, usually in dokusan, I would say, "How is your how's your husband feel about your undertaking this practice -- or your wife?" Because it makes a big difference. I mean, it's okay -- the spouse can be neutral. That's fair enough. If the spouse just says, okay, each to his own. But if the spouse is against it -- against you practicing zazen -- then it's going to be harder on the practitioner. You've got some, some strong headwind that you have to work with, which is one reason why I encourage people, if your partner and your house is not on board with your practice that you find times to sit where there's no conflict with a person with a quality time, your partner or your children.
One of the other ways that we've kind of charted our own course with adapting the Dharma to the United States is not using the word monk the way a lot of other centers use it -- I would say misuse it. I have enough respect for traditional monasticism that I don't see that it's appropriate to refer to people who are in residential training as monks. A monk for two and a half millenniums, a monk meant taking vows of homelessness. That became actually the translation for being ordained is to leave home. It really means committing, vowing to be celibate -- your whole life -- not just while you're in training -- to be celibate your whole life and to forego having a family of your own. I think we honor that, as I feel we should. We honor that commitment. Or we don't honor it as much when we get too loose with terminology and call people in training monks. It's kind of an easy shorthand. I get that. But it becomes a little bit ludicrous. I once saw an article about someone at the San Francisco Zen Center. The caption said so and so, a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center, and he had two of his kids with him.
Okay, so that aside, this process of examining Sangha, what it means, will be an ongoing process. But it occurred to me that there's maybe no better time to look at what Sangha means to us then after this long pause -- the pandemic.
Thanks to online sittings, we've been able to reach out and embrace our out of town members in a way I never thought possible. It's been wonderful. And it will never, we will never stop offering online sittings. I'm convinced. I think everyone is on board with that. And with both our city and our country centers having been closed now for some -- what is it -- 10 months? And with our residential staff, now numbering just 11 altogether -- four at Arnold Park and seven at Chapin Mill -- I've also been reflecting on the model we've always used for staff, which has always been primarily residential with some exceptions, and for those of us who are who are married. So this seems to be -- what is that -- strike while the iron is hot? So this seems to be the time to reevaluate what Sangha means to us. And to even visualize what it might become.
I would start by suggesting or probably positing that Sangha as a community, it is a community, embraces change. And, and by change, I mean, certainly inner change. That's why we sit. The sitting is essential, in order to change most quickly. But also embracing the change that is inevitable in the in the wider world. In an article about Sangha, or rather a chapter in a book by Aitken Roshi about Sangha, he uses this nifty phrase. He said that we want to be a Sangha, we want to become a cadre of change. And also that we work together Of course. That's Sangha -- working together. No one would, I think, dispute that. When I think of some of my most joyful experiences of Sangha, besides sitting together -- remember that? sitting together in one room, in sesshin or outside of sesshin -- but I also think of (as far as working together) at our Chapin Mill work retreats. I love those work retreats. Just banding together with -- oh -- at times, we've had 50 other people out there and doing manual labor. Together.
This is the the joy of community and the common task. And we can extend that now to working together in whatever way we feel we can -- and not just through manual labor. This working together is itself the functioning of the Dharma. We're improvising. We're all improvising. I think every Western Zen center is finding, finding its way -- improvising, experimenting, trying different things -- some people making change faster, others less so. This collaborating, this experimenting is, I think, the very, the very heart of Sangha work -- Dharma work.
Every Sangha in the Americas, in Europe, in other Western countries, and really also in the East Asian countries, the traditional Buddhist countries, though it may be less obvious because they've been at this for so long, and there's a tendency to stick to the traditional forms. But certainly in the West, every Sangha is a work in progress. Because each one of us is a work in progress. Each one of us is unfinished, to use a word that the wonderful Amanda Gorman used in her address at the inauguration. Each one of us is unfinished. Every one of us has a lot of work to do. Every one of us, without exception, has still degrees of the three poisons -- greed in its many forms, some more blatant than others; hostility in its many forms, ill will, anger; and the third one, delusion in its many forms, in many degrees. Every one of us is still working, polishing. So let's appreciate that our Sangha, as a whole, must be unfinished.
Aitken Roshi used another nice phrase. He's so, he's so articulate. He said that we can work on Sangha so that our members can have a good experience on the first floor of a psyche, while the basement remains full of dust and spiders. The basement, our afflictions. We're not going to clean all that up in one lifetime. But we can work together to find ways to be -- to work together in harmony. That's how I take "have a good experience on the first floor of the psyche" -- just interpersonal relations, learning to find, to work together, which, which I would say includes psychotherapy, as a kind of an adjunct to Zen practice. Or "working together on the first floor of the psyche" with nonviolent conflict resolution -- and other other forms of collaborative work.
All of this rests on trusting one another. And there's no better way to trust one another than to have seen to some degree into the original nature that we all share -- to see that no matter how difficult one of our Dharma sisters or Dharma brothers is, still, as we, as we say in our repentance ceremony, everyone we practice with is a Dharma brother or sister seeking to realize himself or herself. More than that, more than that, more than just seeking. It's a lot. But it's also it's -- each one of us is finished. There. Just as we're unfinished, we're finished. We are all of us, from the very beginning, all beings are Buddha. We are all equally endowed with this mind, this luminous mind of wisdom and compassion and virtue.
The more we can, the more we can realize this through practice, through sitting, through sittings and sesshin, the more we can, we can, we can reach into that, the easier it will be to work together as a Sangha. The more we can realize, confirmed through our experience, that we're all in this together, we're all Buddhists. Until we've confirmed this through awakening, just even remembering it or believing in it, will allow us to exercise patience with one another.
The Sanskrit word is kshanti -- it's one of the perfections, one of the six paramitas or the six perfections is the original word is kshanti, and I think the best translation is forbearance, being patient with one another, but also patient with this whole process of finding our way. Patience is such an immensely important virtue for practice. And now we can also look at how we might further develop a Sangha organization that reflects Western values in particular -- that is values that are participatory and egalitarian -- very different from traditional East Asian structures. So, we want to develop an organization that within our own Sangha is participatory and egalitarian, while also being involved in the broader community. In that, too -- we're already seeing it's been going on for a few years now, I think -- more of our Sangha members are getting involved in climate change work and, and other things.
In closing, let me just emphasize the importance of non-abiding. This is one of these rich Buddhist words you see in the old texts. It took me some years to really appreciate what it means. It means not not dwelling in notions of what we think Sangha should be, in this case Sangha, or anything -- the way anything should be -- but the notions of who we are, or anyone is, but here now in terms of Sangha -- not being tethered to ideas of, of what it should be.
Over and over again, we see in Zen practice how, how vital it is to return to this realm of not knowing. That's what practice is. When we're doing breath practice, we're coming back to not knowing, because breath practice is a way of detaching from thoughts, notions, ideas, concepts. Breath practice, koan practice, shikantaza, all the particular Zen practices, are all delivery systems to get us back to this realm of not knowing, of not abiding, not clinging. That's the essence of it all. That's why sitting is essential. Literally essential. It's the essence of it all. And then the rest will follow from that. The rest -- we can we can sculpt our way. It is. This is. We're sculpting, we're sculpting a Sangha. We don't start, we don't to want to start with an idea of how the figure should look, but to work on it, take some of it away, put some back on, and, in that way, with faith, with faith, we will find our way to this, this realm of no end. Ongoing, endless, beginningless Dharma.
We'll stop now and recite the four vows.