This March is the 11th anniversary of Winding Path Sangha. I feel so grateful for opportunity I’ve had to practice with so many sangha members over the years. Sangha, or the community of practitioners, is one of the three jewels of Buddhism. Buddhism exists today because of an unbroken thread of community that can be traced across cultures, back 2500 years to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Our sangha that exists in Springfield and online right now is here because of those who have come before us. We are laying the foundation for those who will follow us.
A healthy sangha offers a space to prioritize spiritual development. We encourage each other to be diligent in our practice, and we lift each other up in times of difficulty. Sangha members investigate Buddhist teachings and practices together, working to deepen our wisdom and compassion. In sangha we share responsibility for the bodhisattva vows: liberating all beings from suffering, putting an end to harmful desires, mastering the Buddhist teachings, and actualizing our own awakened nature.
However, all of this doesn’t happen just because we choose to call ourselves a sangha or just because we get together to meditate once a week. Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, creating a community conducive to deep spiritual growth has required a deep commitment to ethical behavior. Various Buddhist sutras and vinaya offer frameworks for ethical behavior through both visionary descriptions of behaviors to aim for and more concrete rules and prohibitions. Within Buddhist teachings there is no external authority who is going to judge whether we are following ethical behavior. Instead, we choose to follow the ethical trainings because this leads to “freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, [and] freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.” (quoted from the Abhisanda Sutta).
It seems to me this description of what the ethical trainings can free us from could also serve as an aspirational description for the kind of sangha we are trying to create: a community that is safe, supportive, and inclusive. At the anniversary of our sangha, I’d like to take a bit of time to reflect on what this means and what this might look like. I hope this newsletter will prompt further conversations about this topic during future sangha community nights. I want to preface my reflection by noting that the work of creating community together IS practice. We won’t always get it perfect, but we should keep getting better.
When we think about safety, we should consider both the physical safety and the emotional safety of the community. We’ve had a lot of practice with attending to each others’ physical safety over the past couple years as we’ve met in various iterations of virtual and masked gatherings throughout the pandemic. When I think about sangha as a mentally and emotionally safe place, I think about a climate where each of us is able to let go of the external performance of perfection we put on for the world outside and work on recognizing the perfection that exists within. We feel safe to speak openly. We also work to understand where we carry power or privilege and we recognize the impact of our words and actions, not just our intent. However, sangha that is safe, is not necessarily always a place that feels comfortable. In order to grow, we need to have our assumptions challenged. In a safe sangha we become more comfortable with making mistakes and holding space for not-knowing in order to examine the roots of our own suffering.
In addition to being safe, we want to ensure we are being supportive. In essence, when I think about support I think about how we encourage each other and hold shared responsibility for our success as a community. If someone has shared a joy or concern one evening with sangha, we might check in with them later to follow up. We recognize the value of being present at in-person or virtual gatherings, and show up whenever possible. Within this, we also recognize the fact that, as lay practitioners with full lives outside of time we spend with sangha, not everyone is able to attend every event. It is not supportive for us to judge each other for the frequency or infrequency of our attendance. It is supportive to recognize the incredible value each sangha member brings to our community and to hold gratitude for the ability to show up whenever it’s possible. Beyond the act of attending a service or gathering, we can support each other by asking questions or offering insights during discussions and by helping take care of our shared practice space. I often feel a deep sense of gratitude and joy after our Saturday services when, sangha members take full charge of cleaning up the hondo, serving tea, taking care of new visitors, and washing dishes. In those moments I see how we are all working together in a dance of interdependence. Everyone is is looking out for each other. We do all of this with humility.
In order for a sangha to be safe and supportive, it needs to be inclusive. One way to think about inclusivity is in terms of the Tendai teachings themselves. One of the core teachings of Tendai Buddhism is ekayana or “one vehicle.” As a school we embrace the idea that there is an inherent unity within the diversity of Buddhist traditions and that holding space for all of these traditions is important. Within our school we offer a varied assortment of approaches to study and practice, recognizing that different people need different pathways at different times. This is one reason we offer both the more traditional formal Tendai service (gongyo), with all the smells and bells, chanting and prostrating, and also a version of the service that is more scaled back. I personally have experienced great value from the gongyo practice, and I have worked with sangha members over the years who, although initially intimidated or put-off by the amount of ritual in the service, have also come to appreciate the service’s value. By offering different types of services, we offer people different entry points to join our community. We don’t want newcomers to feel like they have arrived at an exclusive club where they aren’t part of the “in-group.” This is also why I created an annotated version of the gongyo a few years back, to offer newcomers another entry point into the service and why we have had a temple assistant role to greet new members and give them a brief orientation.
Even with those supports and with our best intentions, I’m honestly not sure that everyone who steps through our door (or drops into our virtual hondo) feels like they belong. Creating an inclusive community within a 1500 year old tradition, is a balancing act between holding to our roots and adapting to meet our cultural context. We have periodically considered the right balance of Japanese culture (since Tendai originated as a Japanese school of Buddhism) and a diverse array of American sensibilities as we’ve adapted our way of practicing together. Ultimately, we try to hold onto elements of the tradition that support us in our practice. Our version of Buddhist practice won’t work for everyone; recognizing this is part of embracing the idea of ekayana. If someone is looking strictly for a secular mindfulness organization, it’s likely that the feel of Tendai may not appeal to them.
Despite the idea that not everyone who walks into our community will decide to stay, it is incredibly important that we create a space where anyone who is interested in walking the path with us feels welcome. This is where we need to examine our own way of showing up to ensure we are holding space for those with different identities. When we gather together as sangha, it’s important for us to step back to invite multiple voices in addition to articulating our own ideas. It’s important to let go of our assumptions and to practice deep listening so we can better understand other members of our community. This is the model of Avalokiteshvara, who listens to the cries of the world. Her ability to skillfully provide aid to all of those experiencing dukkha comes from the fact that she listens and truly understands each person’s situation.
As we move together into this next year as a sangha, I invite you all to engage in this work of strengthening our ties as community. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the next Buddha will be the sangha. If we can learn together how to create a truly safe, supportive, and inclusive community within our sangha, the effect of those efforts will ripple outward. We will begin to also heal the divisions that exist in our nation and across the world. It will take each of us taking our own practice seriously to move toward collective awakening.