Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Sangha

According to the Buddhist calendar hanging on my kitchen wall, yesterday was Sangha Day. I don't really know what that means - we've never observed it at the Atlanta center - but I commemorated it with my monthly trip up to Chattanooga to sit with the Zen Center up there.

Sangha is one of the Three Treasures, and Elliston Roshi, our teacher, has described the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) like a mountain. The top of the mountain is Buddha practice - the air up there is thin and few make it up to that altitude, but the views, the insights, are incredible. Buddha practice is the practice of shikantaza.

Dharma practice is like the side slopes of the mountain. The effort is strenuous and long, but there are occasional glimpses of the views that are available up on the Buddha summit. Dharma practice is reading and studying the sutras, the koans, and the words of the ancestors.

Finally, Sangha practice is like the foothills, the Piedmont, of the mountain. The mountain cannot exist without the base, and the terrain is more level and the going is easier, but one can get hung up in the brambles and undergrowth at these lower levels. Sangha practice is joining the harmonious community and working with others.

The brambles and undergrowth of sangha practice are the personal relationships and associated social entanglements. While there are many in both the local and the universal sangha whom I consider good friends, there are some with whom I gladly practice but probably would never have gotten to know in any other walk of life - and there's probably some who would never have otherwise associated with me. And while we can put aside all of this baggage while we're sitting in zazen, when the bell rings and we arise, all of the usual societal issues reappear. While the community is harmonious, it is not without the occasional petty rivalries, political differences, and class issues. And then there's the added entanglements of the romantic kind.

But still, a Sangha encourages our practice and helps carry us through the difficult times, and is truly one of the Three Treasures. It is said that any time four or more Buddhists are together, they form a sangha, and such an association should be revered.

The Chattanooga sangha has always been very kind to me. After the Sunday service, we went and dined outside at a local restaurant (four of us - a sangha!) and enjoyed the beautiful spring day and our conversation. And I was able to get home while it was still light and enjoy the remains of the day.

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