Buddhism Without the Bull 4: Who’s Your Sangha?

What is the Sangha?

The Sangha is the Buddhist community with some definitions narrowing it to those of “sufficient attainment”.  Unfortunately, this definition raises more questions than it answers. Even ignoring whether “sufficient attainment” is something we could figure out, questions about the community arise. What defines the community?  Is it the local temple?  All the Buddhists in the area? All the Buddhists in the world?

To explore what’s a Sangha (both in terms of a definition and what makes a good one), it helps to understand it’s purpose.

The Sangha’s Purpose

Reality is largely a social construct. Social groups supply pressure which shapes values which in turn shapes perception and self-image. This pressure comes in many forms such as acceptance, rejection, reward and reinforcement.  This pressure is so powerful that it is often internalized and hence operative even in the absence of any group or stimulus. For example, one who wears a silly outfit in private may feel silly even though no one is around. Or take self-image: people often identify themselves differently when at work, with friends, or even when being berated.

Social groups can shift in the course of a day.  Sometimes they consist of friends, other times peers, other times the nation.  Additionally, they sometimes conflict and hence one group would exert greater pressure than another.

Given the above, it’s logical to seek social groups that reinforce one’s values and puts social pressures to work for them. For instance, a weight loss group can combat the social pressure to eat badly.  When pressured to eat fatty foods thanks to peers or commercials, the weight loss group can keep one on a diet by exerting stronger pressure in the form of shame or disapproval.

Therefore, the sangha can be seen as a source of social pressure to reinforce adherence to the dharma.  This also helps clarify what qualifies as a Sangha.

What is NOT the Sangha?

So the Sangha consists of the fellow Buddhists one has contact with right?

Wrong.

I found this out early on:

I found a new Buddhist Temple to attend.  On my first day, I headed for the largest building there, which was where most of the people went.  However, I discovered it housed traditional services. Fortunately, someone directed to the much smaller meditation hall, outside of which lingered a much smaller group.

Since my motivation was improving my life, people who used Buddhism as a traditional religious practice would not reinforce my values. Hence, the Buddhist Temple at large was not my Sangha.  

So the Sangha was the meditation group, right?  

Wrong.  

I too found this out early on:

The people in the meditation group had a variety of motives. For example, some were Wiccans who meditated to improve their magical skills. Others believed meditation would make the universe cooperate with them. Yet others meditated to improve life skills and hence get ahead through more mundane means.

Since my motivations for practice were to improve the quality of my life via inward means, people who meditated for other reasons would not reinforce my value.  Hence these people were not my Sangha.

But the remaining meditators were my Sangha, right?

Wrong.

I found this out a bit later:

One time I chatted with a lady after meditation.  We were talking about various Buddhist topics when she  said “Buddhism is so nice.  Unlike Christianity where you are damned if you screw up, in Buddhism you get many chances [rebirths] to get it right!”.  I smiled politely and said nothing.  Another time I was talking to someone who started going on about No Soul and Buddhism’s Atheism.  It was very clear his understanding of Buddhism was motivated by his Atheist (or anti-religious) agenda.  I wanted to explain to him that it was no-self and the Soul as a metaphysical construct was a different matter and Buddhism’s “atheism”… but I realized there would be no point so I said nothing.  

Since my agenda in Buddhism was my mental state, people who used Buddhism to grind religious axes would not reinforce my values.  Hence,  these people were not my Sangha.

Very well, but at least those remaining ones who actually shared my motivations were my Sangha right?

Right???

WRONG.

It took a bit longer to find this out:

A friend invited me to a naming ceremony — the ceremony where one “officially” becomes Buddhist.  I showed up out of respect, but objected to the whole thing: one was Buddhist if one lived by the dharma, and a pointless ceremony wouldn’t change that.  Nothing in the ceremony changed my mind.  It was entirely in Chinese even though none of the “converts” spoke it. It was actually amusing to see the bewildered smiles on their faces; it was clear they didn’t know what the hell was going on.  Then they had to recite their vows — which of course were not in English. For all they knew, they could have been reciting the recipe for steamed dumplings.  Once done each got an envelope with their new Buddhist (Chinese) name and were presumably closer to Nirvana.

Since I consider rituals to be pointless at best and damaging at worst, those who are attached to rituals would not reinforce my values.  Hence these people were not my Sangha.

In all fairness, the use of ceremony may make something “official” for some people and hence strengthen social pressure. However, one must take ritual seriously for this to happen. So while I understand why some may go through this ceremony, it still changed nothing.

What is the Sangha?

Applying this filter can leave very few people. However, just as the Sangha can shrink, so can it grow. Since a social group need not be physically present to assert influence, remote groups like discussion boards and personalities can qualify as part of a sangha.

Additionally, the sangha can be extended in another dimension. Since the sangha supports the dharma which is not just Buddhist, the sangha need not be Buddhist either.  Anyone who seeks inward happiness can be one’s sangha. This means Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics can be far better sangha members than “Buddhists”.

Is a Sangha Necessary?

The social influence on thought may bother some, who may respond with cliches of not being sheep and rising above the herd.  Some may even claim that meditation and other Buddhist practices liberate them from conformity.  However,  one could counter that this independence implies the independent self that Buddhism rejects.

Of course the point is finer: we are all conditioned and liberation from social pressure simply shifts the conditioning to other — possibly better — variables. However, while that is going on, why not take advantage of our condition where we can?  Until social pressure is no longer a factor, careful selection of a social group can be a boon.

A sangha is not the people who happen to be in the same room or who adopt the same label. The sangha is the group with shared values.  All types of people are in Buddhist groups, from some very inspirational people, to toxic individuals who are valuable only as an example of how NOT to live.  There is no magic that comes with the label “Buddhist” that makes Buddhists better sangha members or non-Buddhists worse sangha members.    The sangha is everyone of any philosophical and religious orientation who shares the inward  search for happiness.

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12 thoughts on “Buddhism Without the Bull 4: Who’s Your Sangha?

  1. I think this is the best one in the series, BR! I really like your approach to the sangha and I agree. Most of the thoughts you describe I can easily recognise from a personal perspective. I’ve been present when people made vows and received buddhist names or when they became nuns. And I, too came away with a feeling that I really disliked ritual.
    The people who organise the meditation group I currently visit have done a weekend course on the buddhist concept of sangha. I remember one of them saying: “Thank god, sangha doesn’t mean that you have to like everyone.”
    The other person had learned that as sangha members, you should never let yourself be leaned on by others. According to him, being a part of a sangha meant that you should not be of use, or of help, in order to stimulate people to find their own answers and stand on their own feet. In that sense, sangha members are clearly not your friends. According to them, at least.
    On principle, I am fine with what anyone perceives his or her sangha to be, but I mention this because it points at something I have often noticed in buddhist circles: when you get to know them better, many people seem to be a bit distant and cold. Sometimes to the point where they’re almost afraid to be human.
    Have you experienced anything like this, or is it maybe a thing that would be particularly noticeable in zen sangha’s?

    PS: The confrontations you describe, like when somebody mentions reincarnation, are also very familiar for me. Sometimes I wonder whether I should speak out, but when I ask myself if I think the other person would want to know what I think…I usually don’t say anything.
    So, I am really grateful for being able to discuss these ideas on a blog. Because this is the most frank an honest discussion on the subject that I have ever encountered! Thank you for this, BR.
    🙂

    1. Wow, thanks! Considering the great things you said about previous articles in this series, that’s serious praise.

      I like that quote about not having to like sangha members. But how often would this dislike would arise if shared values and emulatable members made up the sangha?

      What you say about being leaned on is on the mark. Some people who enter Buddhism have personal issues, and if not careful, one could end up playing therapist.

      I’m not sure if I’ve experienced this coldness, although this may describe me. Buddhism can easily appeal to those who want to suppress emotions, who value reason over passion, who wish they were computers. The whole philosophy is about transcending (attachment to) desire after all. I imagine Buddhism or Stoicism was a motivation for Star Trek’s Vulcans…

      Again, thanks for the kind words!

      1. Hi BR. That is an interesting point you make, about not wanting to play therapist. I do agree that it makes sense to be very careful with that. I also know that there are other methods for meditation that are much more ‘therapeutic’. That is definitely not for me; to do half an hour’s meditation and then discuss what you thought for an hour afterward…
        About you being cold: after I’d written it I thought it might be me who is just a bit more lively than most people. So either could be true here. 🙂

      2. The meditation discussions are a sort of mixed bag. On the one hand, I like learning more. On the other hand, there is the danger of building expectation and having the discussion veer off course.

        🙂

      3. I agree with the risk of building expectation. You might easily create exactly the experience you’re expecting from reading books and hearing others! 🙂

    2. You know, that I think about it, I do remember one unusually cold person from the first group I attended. Fact is, I didn’t generally associated too much with sangha members, so I could only see deeper issues if I spent more time with them. Of course that’s just one person, so it’s hardly statistically significant, but it would not surprise me at all if this were a common problem.

      In fact, the first group I attended spoke of this phenomena. They said that when meditating, people may start to feel above it all, and forget where they were and as such may find that they start lacking empathy and have to be reminded to come back down to earth.

      I’ve seen a similar problem on discussion boards, where people of some “attainment” showed a surprising coldness, like they forgot what it was to feel pain. They apparently decided that because they realized pain was an illusion, it was that way for everyone. They completely ignored that there was a time when pain wasn’t an illusion to them, nor did they do the simple logic which would have shown them if pain’s illusory nature were obvious, no one would ever need to practice!

      1. It’s weird how you often get a double discussion on a blog…But for clarity I thought I might answer each of your answers separately.
        On the ‘having to be reminded to come back down to earth’. That is something I immediately recognise from what I have seen. It’s easy to use meditation as a method to overcome pain and that can lead to people acting in a certain way.
        BTW: I am by no means talking about everyone I met in buddhism. On the contrary. Some people were pretty sharp observers and doing meditation can be really helpful in learning not to take everything personally. I’ve certainly learnt a lot from that.

      2. But shouldn’t the people who are advanced be more empathic, if anything? At least according to everything I’ve read…
        There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time which is not related to this article and is vaguely related to what you just said. For some years now I haven’t been afraid of death: however, I am still afraid of it when I think of the consequences it would have on others. That is, it doesn’t matter how much I meditate: if something bad happens to me, my wife and my parents are going to suffer.
        There’s also this: imagine my wife is suffering. Now, I could use mindfulness techniques to make my empathy towards her less painful (the same way I make my own pain less painful) but the idea makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. So, as long as my wife is not “enlightened”, even if I am, I am bound to suffering when she does.
        How do you get out of this? I’m assuming you have an answer since you usually seem to have pretty good ones…

      3. Agreed; people who are more advanced should be more compassionate, which is one of the reasons for all the rats I smelled in the article on killing the Buddha. But how is attainment measured? Some measure it as progress in meditation, which may have nothing to do with compassion and hence can lead to the phenomena of people being colder as they become “more advanced”.

        In fact, Buddhism has a meditation called Loving Kindness (Metta) which is supposed to work on compassion…

        For your feelings about death, I would first start with a bit of logic. Yes, those who love you will be hurt. However, they will also recover. Finally, you don’t know when you’ll go or if you’ll outlive them. So this should at least show that fearing your death for this is pointless. Now if the fear remains, realizing there’s no logical ground, you can focus on it for what it is: a feeling.

        Watch the feeling as a feeling. Don’t judge, don’t identify with it, don’t push it away, don’t cling to it, don’t ask what it means. You already undermined any logical foundation in the previous step. Now it’s exactly what it is: a feeling. We live with gastrointestinal sensations, why not sensations of fear? It’s the thought that builds them up into something more.

        The key isn’t to try to make it stop, but to simply not identify with it, for that’s causing the real pain. In fact, trying to make it stop is identifying with it (or its opposite) which is the cause of the problem. Put another way, the fear is a problem only because you believe it to be a problem. Once it stops being a problem, it will either remain (but won’t bother you) or it will go away.

        Does that help?

  2. And now a comment that’s actually related to this post: I actually laughed out loud a couple of times. Is it me or there’s some frustration (or the memory of some frustration) seeping through?
    I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying this series. And I like your idea of the Sangha and how it can be smaller and bigger than you think. In this context, you may even consider dead people (philosophers come to mind) part of your Sangha…

    1. There’s definitely frustration and/or the memory of frustration :D.

      I went in with more skepticism and with eyes wide open, so I wasn’t necessarily disillusioned, or if I was, it wasn’t a deal breaker. Yet, I kept thinking of those who would have went in thinking it was completely rationalistic only to see this. What would their reaction be? In a way, that troubled me more than anything else.

      Yes, dead people like philosophers may very well be part of a sangha. After all, if we’re encouraged by books or life accounts, then what difference does it make if the author is alive or dead? If we couldn’t get in touch with them in either case…

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