Spiritual Practice for a Global Sangha
Sangha in Historical Context
The term sangha, a word that means “assembly” or “gathering,” has now become part of English parlance, together with other terms from the Buddhist tradition, such as nirvana, dharma, and of course, Buddha. Buddhists throughout the world chant in the Pali language, “Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami, ” which means “I go to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Dharma for refuge, I go to the Sangha for refuge.”
What is the sangha in this context, when it is invoked as a “refuge,” along with Buddha and Dharma?
Historically speaking, “Buddha,” a term meaning “Awakened One,” was used to refer to a man who was born, lived, and died around the sixth or fifth century before the Christian era in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. He was named at birth Siddhartha (literally, “one who accomplishes one’s purpose”), with Gautama as his family name. He was the designated heir of a wealthy local ruler, but at the age of 29 he renounced his privileges and went off to become a wandering ascetic. Six years later he is said to have arrived at a profound spiritual experience while sitting silently meditating under a tree. Emerging from his silence, he began to teach those who asked him for advice about their life problems and their own spiritual search. He was now referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha, the Awakened One, Sage of the Shakya clan. A band of followers, who also renounced home and family ties, gathered around him to form a community of seekers of the path under his guidance.
After his demise, his followers gathered together to recall the words he spoke to them during his teaching career. These they compiled, first orally, in verse forms that could be readily memorized and then later in written forms. Their numbers increased greatly and spread from northeastern India to the rest of the country, and to neighboring and farther regions of Asia, and in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, to the Western hemisphere as well.
The truth realized by the Buddha in his initial spiritual experience (called the Great Enlightenment), and the teachings he expounded to those around him based on this experience, handed down through the centuries and further developed and elaborated upon through different epochs and cultures, are collectively referred to as the Dharma. Sangha refers to those who hear and accept the Buddha’s teaching and live in accordance with it. It refers first of all to those men and women throughout the ages who renounced social status and family life in order to devote themselves entirely to spiritual practice following the path forged by the Awakened One, living either as forest dwellers or as monastic followers in community. Sangha also includes those countless persons throughout history who, while maintaining their lay or householder status and continuing their different occupations in society, provided support for these monastic communities.
From this socio-historical context, to recite “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha” is to declare allegiance and indebtedness to the Sage of the Shakya clan (Buddha), who imparted teachings of wisdom (Dharma), to countless people who sought to cultivate this wisdom and live in the light of these teachings (Sangha).
The Sangha: Companions on the Path
As Buddhists themselves would affirm, however, the truth realized by the Awakened One concerns not only those who identify themselves as Buddhists by reciting the Triple Refuge, but all living beings. To realize this truth leads to liberation from suffering and enables a life of wisdom and compassion. Thus it is a truth that is valid for all, and not just for some.
This is affirmed in the following expression from an early collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha. “The truth is one, there is not a second. One who knows does not dispute what is known.” (Sutta Nipata 884)
Thus, all those who seek the truth that leads to liberation, to wisdom and compassion, are included in a deeper level of meaning of the word “sangha.” On the part of Buddhists, this reflects an inclusive attitude, or in technical terms used in the theology of religions, an inclusivistic Buddhist stance, one that would embrace all beings in search of the truth as included in “sangha.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
If we acknowledge that we too are seekers of the truth, we realize that it is we ourselves who are being referred to by the term “sangha.” In other words, “Sangha are us.”
The question that each one of us faces then is this: what is the scope and extent of this “us” which we acknowledge as our circle of belonging?
One level would be the community that we identify with in our search for ultimate truth. Our sangha is that community that we find ourselves belonging to in this endeavor to live a true and meaningful life, the community of fellow seekers of truth in whom we find inspiration and support.
It can be our local church congregation, our Bible study group, the book club to which we belong, the circle of friends with whom we can freely discuss important issues of life. For those who are fortunate in belonging to a group that engages in spiritual practice in common, such as meditation, prayer or other forms of devotion, the people in that circle are the ones who constitute one’s immediate sangha.
It is really a joy to be with people who are on the path, seeking the most important things in life, together. We experience one another as treasures, and we seek to uncover more of what these treasures contain. Therefore, we behold one another and relate to one another with mutual appreciation and gratitude.
If this horizon of sangha dwells in our minds and is kept alive in our hearts, we will have what we need to go beyond the petty conflicts and squabbles that inevitably occur as we humans do things together. The manifold issues that come up or don’t come up in group meetings take their toll on the way people in the same immediate circle relate to one another.
Each of us carries our own baggage from our heredity, our environment, our temperament, our past associations, our past successes and failures, which cannot but affect the way we see things and want to do things. The unacknowledged or ‘unclaimed’ baggage we carry can become an obstacle in the way we relate to one another and can lead to open conflict or dropping out of the group altogether.
Seeing in a New Light
How do we bring to light and address those items lurking within each of us that can cause fissures in a spiritual community? Let me offer a way of looking at this in a roundabout way, recalling an experience related by Thomas Merton. This is based on an account in his journals dated March 1958, which he revised and published in the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It was like waking up from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being.
I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…
As we are able to see one another in this light, that is, in the light of this wondrous vision whereby each living being is recognized as a bearer of infinite beauty and truth and holiness, the way we relate to one another in our day to day existence will inevitably be transformed.
Who belongs to my Sangha?
Let us pause at this point to reflect on our own life context, to enable us to see the dimensions of our sangha more clearly.
We can ask ourselves: who are those who belong to my sangha? Conversely, what is the sangha to which I belong?
An intimate level of sangha that we belong to is our family. We are who we are because of our parents, our siblings, our immediate family and relatives. So, our familial relations would be a basic level in which we can identify our sangha. These are the persons who have made us who we are, from birth and childhood on. We may still have struggles with some of them, or we may have issues we need to settle with family members. But we are invited to look at each of them, and realize that we are who we are precisely because our families have allowed us to be who we are. Gratitude arises from that realization.
Widening the circle further, all the people we have met in our lives, such as the people who may have taken care of us when we were children, or whoever friends of our parents may have been who came and hugged us even once, are also part of our lives. Kindergarten, grade school, high school teachers and classmates, and all our friends and acquaintances through the years, all have made us who we are. All are included in our sangha.
In Japan, there is a saying, “Even the touching of the sleeves in meeting another on the road is a wondrous karmic connection.” Even if we do not know the person we pass by walking in a corridor, that encounter already determines who we are, and that person becomes a part of the circle that makes me who I am.
In taking a meal for example, if we consider how that meal got there, we will see the hands of many people behind this morsel of food. We may see the truck driver who brought the bread from the bakery to the retailer, the farmers who grew the wheat in their fields. If we consider all those connected to us in eating this piece of bread, we realize we are naturally connected with many living beings, and owe a debt of gratitude to each one, for helping us become who we are.
As we look at this circle of interconnectedness, we will see that it excludes no one in this universe. In some way or other, everything, every sentient being is part of that sangha that makes me who I am.
Their medieval monk, Saigyō, was sitting on top of a hill one early evening, just after the sun had set. He was looking at a village nearby, and saw the rooftops, and the smoke coming out of the chimneys. He describes what he felt in a short poem: “I do not know the reason why, tears of gratitude moisten my eyes.” As he thought of the families preparing their evening meal, the mothers taking care of their children, the fathers returning from their farm and washing their feet before entering the house, the scene brought to him an overwhelming sense of gratitude. When that sense can come to us, we realize the wondrous reality that makes me who I am right here, tears of gratitude can overwhelm us.
As I am led to see who my sangha is, I realize that I am never alone in this life. Cicero reports the dictum, “Never less alone than when alone.” In other words, I feel least alone when I am by myself. That sense of being-with can come to us more profoundly when we are by ourselves, just sitting in silence, and able to appreciate things for what they are.
The whole earth community then is our sangha. Each child who goes to bed hungry at night is “us.” We cannot hold back the tears, this time not of gratitude, but of pain and sorrow, that there is such a fact that children have to be hungry or die of malnutrition and poverty. They are “us.” Each person treated unjustly, discriminated against, harassed, assaulted, murdered, is us. Yet also each one who treats others unjustly, who discriminates against, harasses, assaults, or murders, a fellow sentient being, is us.
There can never be anyone we can regard as “those others” apart from ourselves. There can never be anyone who is left outside our field of concern. As we see the world, and see all beings as not separate from ourselves, we are able to feel the pain of the world, inflicted from many different directions, as our very own pain. This experience of the world’s pain as our very own is what can unleash the power of com-passion in us, drawing forth energy and vision and zeal to give ourselves more thoroughly toward the healing of the world’s woundedness. Each one of us who is able to embrace the world as his or her sangha is then called to self-giving, to putting time and energy and resources in directions that would lead to this healing.
Christians and Buddhist Practices
Christians who take up Buddhist practice are confronted with a decision: to chant or not to chant the Three Refuges? This practice may be perceived as a setting aside, or even a betrayal, of the primary Christian allegiance. “We have Jesus, we have the Gospels and the creed and the authoritative teachings of the Church, we have the community of followers of Jesus Christ, so why is there need to turn to and seek refuge in another person, other teachings, other communities?” This perception may be accompanied with an underlying resistance to acknowledging whatever is good and true and holy in the Buddha, his teachings, and his followers.
A friend who also has been engaged in a form of Buddhist meditative practice for many years while staunchly affirming her Christian identity identifies the dividing line here between Christian and Buddhist parameters as follows: Christians recite the Apostle’s Creed, Buddhists recite the Three Refuges. She thinks that to recite the latter would compromise her Christian commitment, and thus she remains in respectful silence as her fellow practitioners in a retreat chant the Refuges.
This friend draws a distinction between herself as a Christian and her Buddhist friends and co-practitioners. Such demarcations that separate Christians from Buddhists and from followers of all other religious traditions divide the human community. Our different religious affiliations, with their different ways of expressing commitment to whatever is taken as absolute truth by each group, cause us to look at ourselves in terms of “us” versus “them.” This attitude is at the root of the world’s conflicts, and causes us to commit internalized as well as externalized acts of violence against one another.
Is there another way of looking at the matter which can overcome this danger? Can a Christian acknowledge what is good and true and holy in another tradition without undermining his or her primary allegiance to the Good News of Jesus Christ?
It is perhaps not difficult to mentally agree with a proposition proclaimed clearly by the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which addressed the question of Christian attitudes toward other religious traditions: “We the followers of Jesus Christ reject nothing that is good, true, and holy in the world’s religious traditions.” But it is another matter to actually acknowledge, and accept, and going a step further, appropriate into one’s own life and practice, those particular elements, attitudes, or practices, theoretically recognized as “good, true, and holy” in another tradition. Christians can be all too sensitive and easily react to charges of “syncretism,” failing to note that “traditional Christian” elements related to our Christmas and Easter celebrations, such as the very date assigned to the birth of Jesus, features such as Yule tree, Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, and the like have non-Christian origins. Further reflection on the historical and cultural manifestations of Christian faith and devotion throughout history and in different parts of the world may open our eyes to the variety of attitudes and practices derived from the religious cultures of peoples that were there long before the coming of Christianity, which have been fully adapted and integrated into the life of Christian communities in these places.
The Maria Kannon Sangha
Here in Dallas, Texas, we are blessed to have a community of persons who come together to practice Zen meditation on a regular basis, at a small zendō we call the Maria Kannon Zen Center. As “Kannon” is the Buddhist icon of compassion, “Maria” is the Christian icon of compassion.
Among those who come to join in our zen meditation sessions, some identify themselves as Buddhists, some are Christians who also continue their own church attendance and Christian devotional practice, some from the Jewish tradition, and others not sure of their religious belonging, or do not particularly care.
Sitting in the same hall together in silence, facing a wall, putting the mind to rest in focusing on the breath, we find support in one another’s presence, and feel a deep bond with one another. This is so even though in some cases we may not even know one another’s name, or hardly know about one another’s personal background or occupation. Despite this, we experience what sangha entails in a most intimate way.
In this silence, there is no longer Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist or agnostic. In this shared silence, our eyes are opened to the Mystery that allows us to breathe every breath, step every step, live every day of our lives here on earth, and our hearts are filled with gratitude for this web of interconnected life that allows each one of us to be who we are.
At the end of our meditation sessions, we also recite together or chant verses and passages from Buddhist scriptures, including the Four Sublime Attitudes (Loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), the Heart Sutra, Zen Master Hakuin’s Song of Zazen, and others. It is in this context that we also chant the Three Refuges.
In chanting Buddham saranam gacchami , we call to mind the Awakened One, not just the historical being that lived two and a half millennia in the past, but the living reality that is within each and of us, the manifestation of our deepest, truest self, which grounds us in the path of awakening. In chanting Dhammam saranam gacchami, we give expression to their earnest search for the Truth which holds everything together in the universe, that which manifests itself in the way things are, that which liberates us from our delusions. And in chanting Sangham saranam gacchami,” we acknowledge reverence and express gratitude to the assembly of all beings, past, present, and future, with whom we are connected in an intimate bond of being-together.
Further, in chanting Sangham Saranam gacchami, we embrace all that sangha is, which is none other than the reality that we are as interconnected with one another and with all living beings. We are thus given the vision, and thereby empowered, to live in a way that accepts and cherishes the entire community of living beings on this Earth as our very own family. And at the same time we are enabled to take a straight look at the pain and woundedness that our Earth sangha bears, experiencing this as our very own pain. As we bear this pain of the world which is our very own, we are moved to offer all that we are and all that we have, each in our given unique individuality, toward the healing of this pain and woundedness that we carry together as Earth sangha.
In this we find our inspiration in Maria the Mother of Jesus, who stood by her Son at the foot of the Cross as he bore the pains and sufferings of the world in his own body. We find our inspiration in the figure of Kannon, Hearer of the Cries of the World, symbol of Boundless Compassion, using all kinds of skillful means in alleviating the pain and suffering of living beings.
Honoring Maria Kannon, we chant:
In the light recall this, in the dark recall this.
Moment after moment the true heart arises
Time after time there is nothing but this.