The Meaning of the Sangha

Following are reflections on the meaning of spiritual community (sangha) by three teachers at the Center for Sacred Sciences (CSS).

Todd Corbett:

We often use the Buddhist Pali term sangha at CSS to designate our community of practitioners. In Buddhism, sangha is regarded as the community of practitioners, and it's one of their three refuges which protect from the snare of worldly suffering. Worldly suffering is what we experience when we struggle within delusions of self-identity.

The three refuges of Buddha, dharma, and sangha are ultimately esoteric in meaning, so although our mind uses these terms to designate a shelter from suffering, the true meaning is ineffable. Until our attention is spontaneously capable of cutting through the din of conceptual mind, we, as sangha, rely on practices handed down by Buddhas in the form of dharma (teachings) in order to stabilize attention and allow the possible recognition of This which we already are—this ineffable One.

These three refuges are a teaching in themselves. When we first hear of Buddha, we may think of an artist's rendition of the Omnipotent One sitting on a lotus or under the Bodhi Tree, as the mind imagines who he might have been. It is only through practice and calming of our fragmented mind that we begin to recognize Buddha as that which is aware of that rendition. Buddha is recognized as the sublime teacher that cannot be found in images, and from which all images arise. These images of "him" and "me" and the entire world are all sameness arising in this One Buddha Mind. The more mind sees this, the more dumbfounded and quiescent it becomes. The more we see all the ways we struggle to hide from this reality through reified metaphors, the more likely that Awareness or Buddha Mind will Recognize Itself.

Initially, we might tend to see sangha as our group of like-minded practitioners, all striving for something more than our worldly predicament offers. We look around at our familiar seeking friends, and just as we saw that original rendition of the Buddha, we imagine who they might be. In fact, we might be quite sure who many of them are. But as we practice, and as we come to see into the subtle nature of mental designations, we begin to find that all of them are clearly, and always, mere designations of mind. We come to see that not only do we not know who or what they are, we also do not know, at bottom, who or what we are.

Sangha becomes a mirror for us. It is particularly valuable because here we are seemingly "mingling together" on the one hand, and mysteriously non-existent on the other. Further, how in the world can it all be One, as the mystics say, if I'm here and she or he is there? This becomes more compelling whenever we feel embarrassed around them, or prideful, or irritated.

Sometimes we think we understand that we are all One and then we feel a certain pride, then maybe embarrassment or confusion, and our apparent separateness pops up everywhere—that is, if we are attentive to these feelings as they move through. Sangha gives us the nuts and bolts teachings for examining the delusions that impregnate our social relationships, not only at CSS but back at the job and in the community. It provides a springboard for opening up to Truth in the midst of worldly friends, relatives, and events.

In my early practice, when I was suffering the loss of loved ones, I found immense consolation through the CSS Practitioners Group as the three refuges of teacher, teachings and community. The refuge of sangha reminded me that I was not alone on this path to Truth. There was strength in remembering those many practitioners who had walked this path before me, who had developed these very practices. My fellow practitioners served me deeply and directly, as they earnestly shared their experiences of practice and the development of their own skillful means.

As we wrestle with difficulties of meditation or the application of selfless precepts to our life circumstances, the sharing of our successes and failures with other seekers provides everyone with seeds for insight, within the fertile soil of compassion and appreciation. When we experience the true benefit of sangha, we see that it is not about having others to lean on and to thereby avoid facing our difficulties. Rather, it is through sangha that we are able to fully acknowledge our own difficulties by seeing into the intimacies of how others work with theirs. As we share our insights into ways of working with our stubborn and grasping mind, it serves as inspiration for others who then do the same for us.

As we move deeper into sangha awareness, we are able to notice that behind the designations, every face is Buddha teaching dharma; every face is Consciousness expressing Itself. Ultimately, all that arises is expressing dharma, pointing the way. When attention rests in what is truly here rather than clinging to the artist's rendition, all "forms" of sangha are the shimmering windows of dharma that open into Buddhahood.

Fred Chambers:

Sangha is a Buddhist term roughly meaning the spiritual community. For our purposes at CSS, I'd like to give it a generic meaning of anyone who has an active interest in, or is walking, a mystical path and seeking to know the Ultimate Nature of Reality for themselves. One of the best descriptions of how sangha works is a quote from Zen Master Seung Sahn that was in the last issue of CCN. To paraphrase, he says,

"The best way to wash potatoes is to put them all in a tub of water and use a stick to push them up and down. This makes the potatoes rub and bump against each other and this causes the dirt to fall off. It takes a long time to clean potatoes one at a time, but if they're all together, many potatoes clean each other."

To follow that up, I think it might be helpful to create a simple mandala of concentric circles and place the sangha within that so we can get a better idea of how to make use of sangha. The center of the mandala would be Consciousness Itself, or whatever name you prefer to call the Ultimate Reality (God, Buddha-Nature, Tao, Allah, Brahman, En-sof). The next circle would consist of spiritual teachers. This would include Enlightened teachers, your inner teacher, your personal guru, and all other teachers who have had a taste of their True Nature but aren't fully Realized. The next circle out I would label sangha. It would contain everyone on a mystical path, including people at the Center as well as people in other traditions throughout the world. The next circle would contain everyone who considers themselves religious, but are not on a mystical path. The outer circle would consist of all the remaining people in the world, be they neutral or antagonistic toward spirituality.

The value of the sangha is twofold. First, there is the great advantage of having access to Enlightened teachers (through direct contact, books, or audio/video tapes) who can provide guidance and support on the path. Secondly, if you are in a group that meets regularly, you have the support and company of like-minded seekers, and this can be very beneficial, especially in a Western culture where the search for mystical Truth is given little if any credence. People in a sangha have similar doubts, fears, and experiences, and sharing these makes us feel less alone in the world. On my path, the sangha was like an extended family that provided much support. When conflicts and obstacles arise, the opportunity to grapple with them from a spiritual perspective is always available and encouraged.

Our compassion and understanding, for everyone we meet in life, arises when we realize that most of us at one time or another have been in all the circles of the mandala. In my youth, I was an active member of a Christian church; then for the next twenty years I was in the outer circle of the mandala and held at best a neutral view of religion, and most often a negative view. I then found my way to CSS, soon joined the Practitioner's Group and started walking a mystical path. From your own experience, you realize that anyone you meet or know (family, friends, or strangers) could do something similar; no matter where they are in their life at present, they could be walking a mystical path in the next month, year, or decade.

Furthermore, Consciousness Itself is the ground of the entire mandala, so whether a person is in a sangha or not, they can encounter the divine. For example, Ramana Maharshi was a teenage boy in India with very little interest in anything spiritual, yet when he felt like he was going to die, he let the fear that arose drive his mind inward and, when everything disappeared, he Recognized his True Nature. Remembering this can help us guard against the spiritual pride which can arise as we think of ourselves as among the small percentage of people who strive to directly Know the Truth. Pride is often an obstacle, and evoking a sense of gratitude and humility for receiving the teachings serves much better.

Finally, the thing to remember is that the whole mandala and all its divisions are arbitrary and ultimately not real, but hopefully can be a useful visual way to view sangha and the field of practice.

Andrea Pucci:

Sangha is the opportunity for practitioners on the path to display Enlightened activity through the practice of precepts or vows that sequentially progress in depth to the highest practice of Nonduality. Nonduality is the culmination of the path, or the Realization that all appearances ("other" beings, all phenomena) have always been, are now, and will always be, none other than the reflection of Enlightened, birthless, deathless, selfless Being. Just Awareness remains, revealing Endless Being in all its infinite forms, with observer and observed melting in silence, into pure, ubiquitous Emptiness Awareness.

So to get there from here (dual vision of I/other, me/world) we in fact can learn gradually to practice the highest vow or practice of Nonduality, by remembering in each appearance, in each reaction to appearance, in each moment—that this appearance is none other than Enlightened wisdom emanation (or sangha). So far, so good, if we can but remember, in spite of our habitual tendency to react with habit patterns karmically engraved by unconscious repetition.

We can consecrate that moment as a precious opportunity for spiritual practice or Enlightened activity to manifest through us, by simply remaining Presence of Awareness while all the thoughts and emotions of aversion and grasping arise and dissolve along with the appearance in our sphere of awareness. In that lucid, aware space a compassionate, skilful response may emerge and manifest. It is often difficult to do this practice in the world (or sangha at large), which seems to be such a hotbed of confusion, suffering, and unconscious behavior. We can often feel failure and powerlessness as we succumb to our reactions of aversion (Self loathing) in the face of such a challenge. So we can practice with our intimate sangha of fellow practitioners, and use this sangha refuge as our gym to get in shape, to have the hidden secrets of our practice be revealed, and become more and more ready for the Bodhisattva Olympics.

The ego or habit tendencies of defence and manipulation to get what we want and push away what we don't like are revealed by paying attention to our conditioned reaction to spontaneous appearance. By ceasing to react through our karmic veils of self-interest (detachment), we can moment-by-moment renew our commitment to Realize Enlightened body, speech and mind (sangha). We surrender our personal self (story of I and its likes and dislikes) to that greater Reality or Realization of Nonduality (sangha). Through this surrender, the subject (story of I) and the object (appearance) melt into Silence. Without anything remaining there but pure space of awareness, the ongoing flow of clear spacious awareness or love radiates in nondual celebratory dance (sometimes known as the tango).

This is how sangha manifests as Enlightened activity. One forsakes the self for the Self. This joyful secret of liberated expectations, liberated identity, feels so good (da, da, da, da, da, da, da), and the dance goes on and on, and pretty soon, you want to learn how to dance with everybody as you gain confidence in your increasing capacity to boogie.

Good luck to all, and may all beings benefit.