Sangha as Practice

Sangha as Practice

One of the first steps to becoming a Buddhist is usually taking refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We take the Buddha as an example, a guide, and a source of inspiration and vitality. The Dharma includes the many Buddhist teachings and practices that have developed in the 2,500-year history of the Buddhist tradition. The word Sangha means community. One takes refuge in the Sangha because it is within community that one realizes the interconnectedness of our practice and our world, and in this way our practice truly flourishes.

In North America and around the world, most Buddhists encounter Buddhism as part of community life. However, many people only encounter Buddhism through books. This is because many Buddhists live far away from an authentic Buddhist community or teacher, so books may be their only way to gain an introduction to Buddhism. As mentioned in the section on study as practice, Dharma study is an excellent way to deepen one’s engagement with Buddhism. Through study we learn about the life of the Buddha and his teachings, and encounter descriptions to the practices that help us live the Dharma. We also learn about the lives of those who have gone before. In the Tendai tradition, as in all schools of Buddhism, study is very important. But this approach may become “lopsided,” and overly focused on the individualistic approach to Buddhism. The three jewels should be thought of as a tripod, each reinforcing the other. This is why “Sangha as Practice” is central to the Buddhist tradition in general, and the Tendai Buddhist tradition in particular.


Sangha as Laboratory

Buddhist practice is about exploration, experimentation, learning from our mistakes, and trying again. Therefore, the Sangha itself may be thought of as a kind of laboratory. In Sangha we engage in various forms of practice: silent meditation, walking meditation, visualization, work practice, chanting, and so on. However, the people we practice with play an important role in supporting our practice. There are those who are helpful, share their experiences, help out by cleaning the area used for meditation, bring food to potlucks, and even some who help organize rides for those who live far away. However, as with all human endeavors, there are also those who at first seem less helpful: the person breathing loudly on the cushion next to you, the person who won’t stop talking about their new diet, the person who flakes out and does not do what they said they would do, the loud person, the awkward person, the impolite person, and so on. In general, these may be thought of as Bodhisattvas compassionately giving us opportunities to put skills like compassion and wisdom into practice! Participating in the life of the Sangha gives us the opportunity to support others, as well as be supported and challenged by others.


“Potlucks as Practice”

While some Buddhist traditions view “Nirvana” as a state beyond this world and this life, in Mahayana Buddhism, Nirvana is not some “thing” apart from this world or this life. It is right here and right now. For this reason, the awakening described by the Buddhas may be found even within ordinary life and ordinary tasks. Very often, people tend to think of their “Buddhist practice” as a thing separate from their ordinary lives, or their families. However, Mahayana Buddhism teaches that even something seemingly mundane like preparing something for potlucks at the temple is just as important to your practice as your individual cultivation upon your meditation cushion. This is because your practice is supported in many ways, by things seen and unseen. We are not isolated or on our own, but always reliant upon our friends, loved ones, teachers, and so on. Therefore, active participation in Sangha reveals that “potlucks” and such are just as important.


Planting Your Feet

In our society, it is easy to be a tourist. It is easy to remain detached, and float from one teacher to another. It is easy to latch onto minor things, and use them as excuses for not getting involved with a Sangha: maybe the teacher has an accent, maybe the community belongs to a cultural or ethnic group you are unfamiliar with, maybe the Sangha is small, maybe it is too big, maybe the rituals seem strange at first, maybe the space is not optimal, maybe you’re “too busy,” maybe someone in attendance annoyed you one time, and so on. As the Buddha teaches us, nothing is set in stone. Sanghas are like this as well. You are like this as well. Sangha is a place for you to plant your feet, a place for you to grow and change, and a place that will grow and change because of the gifts that you bring. Sanghas are not perfect, but a work in progress. We are all works in progress. That work is best carried out in community.


Light Up Your Corner

In Tendai Buddhism today, we have a slogan drawn from the teachings of Saichō, the founder of Tendai in Japan. Saichō said “light up your corner.” On the one hand, this suggests that we need not worry too much about “changing the world,” but rather, we can focus on our particular place in the world, and do our best in that place. However, because of the teaching that all things are interconnected, when we light up our corner, we do change the world. You are not on your own. You are not alone. You are part of a community, and if you really think about it, you are part of many different kinds of communities. When you light up your corner, you contribute positively to the corners of all others to which you are connected. In Sangha you plant our feet firmly where we are, and build up your practice in community. You can participate in the various activities of your Sangha: volunteer and attend regularly, and employ the Sangha as a laboratory for experimentation and starting over. In this way, we light up our corner, but how far that light reaches is incalculable.