Sangha as Post-Breakup Cohabitation
That awkward period when you’re no longer in a relationship with someone, but you still have to live together — ever been in that situation? If you haven’t, it’s a period of time that is marked by “in-your-face” and subtle complexities: Are we both allowed in the bathroom at the same time? Should you wish each other a good day? Is hugging okay? Do you attempt to just sleep there, spending as much time away as possible? Or do you hang around, hoping beyond hope to rekindle some element that made the relationship, at one time, work?
Sangha — the third jewel and the one that most people feel conflict over — can have this same quality. Sangha has the capacity to corner us, and make very clear our intentions and relationship to it. It can be a great gift, if we allow it to be.
Put a Ring on It
The Buddhist Refuge Vow asks all practitioners to put their faith in three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As my meditation mentor pointed out to me, the first two jewels are no-brainers. Put my faith in the Buddha — an enlightened being who is meme-friendly and died because he was too nice to turn down some offered pork; of course you’ll do that. The dharma — another no-brainer; why would you still be practicing if you didn’t think the view and teachings were valuable?
The sangha — well, that’s a bit different. On one level, sangha points to the global buddhist community. Since the Refuge Vow is in a sense non-denominational, you’re committing to the idea that you will work with your fellow practitioners in a harmonious and mutually supporting way. You’ll be nice to people when you go the Zen Center in another town for a program. It makes you feel like you’ve just become a cousin who always gets invited to the family barbecues.
Then there’s the specific sangha. That’s the people that you actually sit with. And maybe that’s when things start to get a little tricky. You really like these people, but you get a sense that, underneath the calm exteriors, there’s probably a melodramatic scandal brewing. You’ve heard things during tea. What seemed like a warm group of people with their shit together is actually a bit of a façade; these people are maybe just as neurotic as your own family and work colleagues. But, hey, we’re all meditating together and everyone is so nice. And the teachings on sangha suggest that sangha is, ultimately, pretty awesome. So, yeah, you’ll “put a ring on it,” as Beyoncé says. You’ll commit to that third jewel.
Taking the refuge vow is a lot like moving in with someone. You’re in a committed relationship — you’ve stopped dating Unitarianism, the twice-monthly kirtan at your yoga center, or whatever other spiritual traditions you’ve accumulated. You give away your spiritual books and you start buying the ones by your lineage’s teachers and associated luminaries. You’re all in. You begin to attend events other than sittings at your center — celebrations, dharma talks, social events. You’ve found it, you say to yourself, the spiritual community you’ve been looking for.
While Buddhism encourages us to go into everything eyes wide open, there’s always some naiveté (or hopefulness, take your pick) at the beginning. We’re very hopeful that we’ll be loved, supported, and nurtured by this group of spiritual compatriots. If these practices work — really work — it means everyone who has been doing this longer than you will likely provide inspiration and role models for practice. They’ll be better humans than you are right now. And so you invest in this relationship, giving it your time, energy, and money (even sanghas want jewelry, after all).
There will be a point, however, when things go south. Maybe it’s a long-time practitioner losing their shit, or visible tension between leaders of your sangha or dharma center. Maybe someone disappears and only vaguely explains why. You begin to experience fear. That inkling of melodrama that you detected was really there. These people are not the perfect role models you hoped they would be. And even though you’ve been meditating on non-attachment, you actually discover how ensnared you are.
Getting Cornered and Clear
Every relationship has “the fight.” It’s the knock-down, drag-out one that occurs when you’re heart has been broken, or you’ve broken their heart. Maybe it was a series of little things that finally came to ahead, or maybe it’s one major hurt or slight. But it happens, and it’s the moment where all of your hopes and fears around the relationship come to a head. Suddenly, you’re without any ground, completely confused and unsure that all the stories you’ve told yourself about the future are going to come true.
This happens with sangha, too. And when it does, you suddenly feel like you’re co-habitating with an ex. You tip toe in, hoping not to get notice. You take your meditation seat, and as soon as the closing bell rings, you rush to the shoe rack. Perhaps some minor pleasantries are exchanged, or you give a hug to someone, but nothing will stop you from getting out the door and away. You ask yourself, “Why do I keep coming back here?”
This a tricky and potent moment. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “Things become very clear when you are cornered.” Sangha has a real power in cornering us and making things very clear. When we experience the direct neurosis of others, particularly those we trust, our ways of operating and expectations get put right in our face. Neither the buddha nor the Dharma can do that. It can give us pause, but it can’t throw right in our faces all of our hopes and fears around being with others.
Not Running Away
There’s a lojong slogan that says, “Don’t make gods into demons.” Acharya Judith Lief restates this slogan as “It is possible to take the very best and turn it into the very worst.” In the case of sangha, it can be very easy to turn the benefits of sangha — community, acceleration of awareness, and its ability to “corner us” — into demons. We make sangha a demon when we overload it with our expectations and hopes, when we turn it into a source of fear.
The alternative is to be as wise and a compassionate about sangha as we are about ourselves. We learn, through meditation, not to take ourselves too seriously, and to get rid of all the false assumptions and images we have ourselves. We need to allow sangha to be what it is — a collection of similar seekers wrestling with the same inheritance of neurosis, fear, and goodness. When we can do this, it becomes possible to see the gifts of sangha. And, it allows us to stop tip-toeing when things get difficult, and hold our seat with dignity, humor, and compassion.