This month marks the 20th anniversary of Karuna Tendai Dharma Center, better known as Tendai Buddhist Institute and Jiunzan Tendai-ji. Shumon and Monshin wrote about an anniversary ten years ago and we would like to reprise it with a few small changes to update the information – what is the meaning of Sangha?
Sangha is one of Three Treasures, Sanbo. It consists of Buddha (Butsu), Dharma (Ho/Po) and Sangha (So). A sangha was the Buddhist community of a particular area or monastery, which consisted of monks, nuns, and novices in a narrow sense. In a wider sense it included lay followers who were affiliated with the monastery.
In common Japanese terminology, Danka is the closest word to Sangha with a meaning of Buddhist community. Danka is translated as a supporter of a Buddhist temple; hence, he or she is a parishioner at a temple.
Every family in a village or neighborhood was required by law to be affiliated with a local temple. The temples maintained birth, death, marriage records, etc. Ceremonies, rituals, and most social gatherings took place at the temples. A character for Dan is transcription of Sanskrit Dana 'charity' or 'donation'. Ka is a character for house or family. Danto is the term used for a member of a temple who contributes dana to support the temple.
As we mark the twentieth anniversary of our center this year, it is also appropriate to mention a Japanese term, Arigato. As many people know Arigato means thank you in Japanese. The word came from Arigatai. The character for Ari is to exist, have, or obtain. The character for gatai means difficult, hard or not easy. It describes the appreciation for someone who did something difficult.
Since the first weekly meditation meeting in the April of 1995, Karuna Tendai Dharma Center has grown steadily until it became the Tendai-shu New York Betsuin and expanded further into the Tendai Buddhist Institute. It is due to all of the Sangha members. Without you, the center could not have survived. Monshin and I would like to take this opportunity to say Arigato to all of you who have supported the center with us.
Choosing to follow the Buddhist path without a Sangha is akin to crossing an ocean without a boat. It is possible to reach the other shore, but . . .
Twenty-one years ago Shumon and I were living at Tamonin in Japan, a small temple that has been serving the families of Matsuzaki village for over 800 hundred years. Living in this environment provided us with a deep respect for the role of a Buddhist Sangha in everyday life. While the pattern of Buddhist practice is different in Asia than what non-Asian Americans are accustomed to, the role of the Sangha is vital to the well-being of the village. We desired to bring the best aspects of such a village sangha to a western setting.
We knew that there were many fine retreat and program centers in the States. Many of these centers are exceptional in providing Dharma teachings and authentic practices. A person leaves a weekend retreat filled with a sense of spiritual well-being, devotion and resolve. However, without a local Sangha the resolve begins to fade, the devotion becomes less important, and the sense of spiritual connectedness dissolves, until the next week-end spiritual fix, perhaps a year later. Shumon and I knew that for Buddhism in the West to mature and become more than a curiosity to most people, we in the West must develop Sangha. The Sangha should be local. People need to develop ongoing relationships with teachers and with other Sangha members as part of their community.
So it was that Shumon and I thought we might establish a small village temple in a rural area of the U.S. for a Sangha. We specifically chose Columbia County, New York for a host of factors. The most important was that we felt an inherent spirituality to the Berkshire Hills. There are no coincidences. The gentle, peaceful, mature Berkshires hills were exactly the right place. It felt like the right place. Time and place converged with the Triple Gems.
The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not discrete components of the Buddhist Path, they are interrelated aspects of a single practice. In order to provide people with the opportunity to encounter the Buddha that dwells within there should be a supportive, nurturing environment. The dharma is all around us at all times. But like a fish we are not aware of the water, or the dharma, in which we swim. The Sangha is that environment for the realization of the Buddha awakening within, for the Dharma to manifest in our actions.
Without a local Sangha the Buddha and Dharma are in danger of being marginalized in our lives. A person's spiritual life must be interconnected with one's day-to-day commonplace life. This happens in many ways. A small village temple provides many services a community needs. These may be funeral and memorial services, wedding ceremonies, blessings, etc. These serve not only to mark an event in time, to perpetuate the religious system, but also to bring together the spiritual community in times of joy and sadness for the benefit of all.
Each member of a Sangha brings a different vision of what a Sangha is and should be. A Sangha reflects the spirit and heart of its members. Some of these visions will seem to conflict. The Sangha teaches us many lessons about attachments; our desires, our frailties and our strengths. These visions will come together to create a quilt of extraordinary magnificence.
A Sangha is more than a support network for those on a particular path of meditation and practices. It is more than a vehicle for perpetuation of a Buddhist philosophy, though it is certainly that. It is more than a community of friends, though friendship is important. It is more than a congregation of co-religionist who assemble together on a regular basis, though there is that function. A Sangha is all of those things and taken together, it is a vibrant, dynamic process of exploration and discovery. Being with a sangha is embracing the very structure established by Shakyamuni Buddha millennia ago.
Love and Gassho . . .Shumon and Monshin