Issue 10: Summer

Sharing Life in Sangha

Written by An Ryu Chi U, Francis Checkley

Though conventionally we may speak of "Sangha", in truth it is completely inter-dependant and so inseparable from the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The richness and intimacy of our sharing of life springs forth from the great Bodhisattva vow to save all beings, and from taking refuge not in our small selves but in the truth of our Buddha nature. We witness today almost unimaginable suffering as our environment is challenged by crisis after crisis, the disintegration of social cohesions, the resultant alienations and loneliness, and the widespread apathy about just what to do in the face of such challenges. It is as if the very fabric at the heart of all existence is being wrenched apart, as if the connective bond which unites all beings is in imminent danger of collapsing around us. And so we vow to meet and to sit together in silence and stillness. And to sit upright in the midst of our personal and collective suffering so that in doing so we might become more intimate with our fears and compulsions. In this simple yet profound act of faith we find the courage to share our vulnerability and our longing for meaning.

Then gradually through our continued practice of Zazen we stumble upon an inherent gratitude for our ancestors, teachers and friends in the Dharma, and words cannot express our thankfulness. In Sangha we share the sacred ordinariness of daily life in eating together, working together, in our mutual concern for each others wellbeing, and in the music of our words after long silences. And slowly in time the harsher judgemental overtones of our interactions give way to kindness and appreciation for those we previously avoided. So yes, there is a transformation that comes upon us in Sangha, unexpected but welcome, as if our confessions and repentance have been working on unconscious aspects of our karma and in so doing freeing us of its effects. This, despite our practice being one of not seeking beneficial gains. It seems paradoxically to invite healing.

No wonder then that Sangha in its many different cultural forms has not only survived, but flourished in the West where so much healing is necessary at this time. So at the heart of Sangha is a profound sense of commitment towards a practice which has been faithfully transmitted to us down through the generations since the time of the Buddha. More recently this commitment has shone brightly through the life of Suzuki Roshi and for many of us our teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson who has dedicated his life to the Transmission of the Precepts, which he sees as "a prerequisite for, and inseparable from Dharma". It may seem an obvious statement but Sangha is first and foremost a group practice, it is not a solitary, individual activity which we do alone. Our ancestors warned of this so that we might not deceive ourselves into believing our practice was wholesome, when in fact we were simply following our own prejudices, likes and dislikes. For this reason Sangha is about accountability, having intimate friends who can give us feedback as to the appropriateness of our efforts as we try to practice with the forms and ceremony of daily life. This can be very difficult because we all tend to seek approval and so can easily be offended when challenged or confronted in any way which does not reflect the greatest of sensitivity and compassion. In this respect sharing life in Sangha requires us to show courage if we are to practice right speech because most people desire harmonious relationships, and challenging someone, however delicately, might well lead to an even more hostile situation. Honesty is often compromised therefore, in order to maintain a fragile harmony rather than address interpersonal resentments. Tenshin Reb has suggested that a bilateral approach to any kind of personal problem is preferable to simply taking someone by surprise. This gradual softly-softly approach prepares the way for both parties to realise that a meeting is necessary to clear the air. The great respect and even veneration in which some priests and teachers have been held in various communities in the West has quickly evaporated and turned to hostile condemnation when behavioural issues have not been addressed when they arose. Silence may be noble and inspiring but not when it is used as an escape and method of denial.

In its most limited sense, Sangha means "the community of monks and nuns" who seek to practice the Buddha Dharma together. This meaning may be expanded to cover all those who love the Triple Treasure even if they do not practice Buddha teaching. And ultimately it can extend to include the vast inter-relatedness of all being, which for most of us leads to the painful truth that even those we might thoroughly despise, must be counted as potential teachers. Tenshin Reb, in his book “Being Upright”, speaks of Sangha being “Harmony”, of being “the community of those who practice the truth, realised by a Buddha” and describes it as “the release of beings from suffering and bondage to the world of birth and death”. Later on he refers to Suzuki Roshi’s understanding of the Triple Treasure as an act of adoration, where Sangha is “The adoration of the community of beings who practice the way of awakening”.

And then as if to emphasise beyond any possible doubt its absolute importance, Reb speaks of Dogen's final days of illness before death. When, at this time, he wrote the words Buddha, Dharma, Sangha on a large manuscript, pinned it on a pillar in a room, then roused himself to walk around the pillar chanting “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha”.

It is now a little more than 50 years since Suzuki Roshi left Japan to lead a small Sangha of lay Japanese in San Francisco. Since that time his teachings have spread throughout the U.S.A. and beyond. And in perhaps no more than 25 years, Reb's understanding and commitment have begun to bear fruit in the U.K. Now almost imperceptibly we witness the beginnings of Sangha right here as the need for commitment is made manifest in the growing number of people receiving the Precepts. And I believe it is understandable that as we come together to sit in silence and stillness, and as we wake up to our private and collective suffering, there will be growing pains and much to learn. So our daily confession and repentance and all forms and ceremonies that we vow to practice will be of utmost importance to us all. At this time then I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Buddha, Dharma Sangha. To all those near and far who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of all beings and continue to do so and especially to my dear wife and friend Bernadette for her continued support.

And, in closing a special thank you to Reb for his help in bringing about the forth- coming visit of Catherine Gammon without which none of this would have come to fruition.

With deep gratitude
An Ryu Chi U, Francis Checkley

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