Issue 10: Summer

Some Thoughts on Sangha
"Cooking in the Cauldron of all Beings"

Michael (Ko Gan Mu Ju - Radiant Light Vow No Abode dwelling)

Just as the dawn is the forerunner of the arising sun, so true friendship is the forerunner of the arising of the noble eightfold path.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Just now in late Spring, South Devon is a paradise; it’s always a paradise but at this time its true nature is more obvious. The sun shines from dawn to dusk out of a sky more reminiscent of Provence or Catalonia. Trees are alight with the green energy of the season laden with a perfection of blossom unsullied by rain or wind. The banked, steep lanes are strewn with the yellow and golds of primroses and dandelions, purpled with tiny shadowy violets. All this gathering of energy and beauty is caused by the changed relationship of the sun to the northern hemisphere of our planet. Clear evidence if we need it that the Earth, indeed the Universe, exists and depends on the constant harmonious relationship of one thing to another. Life is relationship. The world is sangha. In the Lotus Sutra, Dogen even views space and time as bodhisattvas upholding our practice.

I had intended to write this earlier in the week but the sunshine and the garden drew me outside. As I planted and hoed and watered I reflected on this enigmatic word ‘Sangha,’ and the deep often unnoticed intimacy that we have with earth, sky, sun, wind and rain. In the evenings, tired, I watched a TV series ‘How to Live the Simple Life,’ in which an Anglican priest Rev. Peter Owen Jones, realising his subtle estrangement from his parishioners and society, decided to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century nobleman who gave up everything to become a mendicant (wandering) monk, depending on the generosity of others to sustain his simple life as he preached. The ‘others,’ famously included the birds, beasts and trees to whom Francis would also preach and care for. The Reverend discovered that by making himself vulnerable and open even in a society such as ours that is based on a creed of gross materialism, the kindness that is our original nature would still shine through. He received many acts of generosity even from strangers. Benevolence and a longing for community is deeply embedded in us as our very essence.

The word ‘sangha’ is from the Pali and may be translated as ‘an assembly’, ‘a community with a common goal or vision.’ Immediately this definition clarifies the difference between a sangha and a group. Essentially a group is a collection of people who happen to be in the same place for sometimes quite different personal reasons. As we've all experienced, it is possible to be part of a group and never really get to know or appreciate the other members in any deep way. A dharma sangha – a community of friends – has a much better chance to do this because, ideally, a sangha is a group of people who care for each other's well being. When deeply practiced, this level of caring can weave everyone together in a beautiful brocade of wisdom and support. The Sanskrit word ‘kaliyanamitra,’ means ‘good friend’ and often in Buddhism we hear of the necessity of such friends to practice. There is the proverb relating to this: “If you wrap sweet grass around a rotten fish it will soon smell of rotten fish. But if you wrap a leaf around a piece of incense the leaf will smell of incense.” We are strongly influenced by those around us.

The first Buddhist sangha was established soon after the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha 2500 years ago, in the Deer Park at Sarnath when he gave his first sermon to the five ascetics who had once been his companions. This act to form a community was not an original or inspired thought on the part of the Buddha. Sanghas were already well established in the cultures of India at the time. There were all kinds of religious orders, communities of naked ascetics, communities of forest dwellers, communities of sadhus. Society at that time tolerated what today might be thought of as groups of drop-outs, antisocials, travellers. Their way of living was even admired. Though the lay people may not have felt that they could be monks they were often happy to feed and give support to the sanghas. It was a way of contributing to the well being of the greater society, of participating more meaningfully, much like the priest in the TV series was encouraging in himself and others. The lives of the monks were always pointing to a path of sane, communal living; a reminder of something precious yet freely available for everyone if they wanted to avail themselves of it.

To be ordained into the Buddhist sangha at this time apparently was very simple. The Buddha said "Ehi bhikkhu" and snapped his fingers, and that was that. ‘Ehi,’ means ‘come’. ‘Bhikkhu,’ in this context means ’to wander.’ ‘Come wander forth for the good of the many folk’. ‘Ehi Bhikkhu,’ could just as well mean; ‘come, wander forth, freely questioning and investigate the natural world of inner and outer, the laws of nature for the benefit of all’. The wider lay community then was happy to give monks support in the form of food, clothing, medicine and shelter and, in return, the sangha provided a clear example of mindful living. In this way the sangha supported the society and society supported the sangha. It was a co-operative endeavour that the entire culture was engaged in.

As the years went by and the fame of the Buddha spread more and more people came to join the community. Five monks became many. All of them were not necessarily mature in their aspiration to cultivate wisdom and compassion and there were disputes. Even the Buddha became fed up with this discord! One story says he went off into the jungle and lived with a monkey and elephant as his preferred sangha! Maybe St. Francis with his deep love and acceptance of all creatures heard of this story many centuries later?

We live in an utterly different culture to the one where the early Buddhist sanghas thrived, but human beings today are essentially the same as then. Surely the same questions of how we can live together harmoniously, how we can accommodate our essential longing for oneness arise. More particularly perhaps, how do we in Dancing Mountains Sangha meet the challenges posed by these questions? When we meet on retreats and other sangha occasions the sense of oneness that always exists between us, even though we mostly live many miles apart, is strengthened and its depth and inherent loveliness is perhaps made more apparent. But these times together are brief. We do not live in close community for extended periods of time where the difficulties of life together are manifest. How do we nurture our sense of community of supporting and enhancing everyone’s practice when we are physically so far apart? Can our digital age assist us in this or are e-mails and mobile phones and video conferencing just chimera, a dodging of the essence of relation and community? What is the way forward to develop our strengths and soften our weaknesses under such circumstances? Indeed is a dharma sangha possible under the circumstances we live in? After all we are lay people and it does seem in Buddhist history there has often been a sharp distinction relating to sangha between monastics and the lay community.

Scott Peck in his book ‘The Road Less Travelled,’ comments that many of the church communities he was involved with in U.S.A. were only superficially communities, in that they failed to embrace and descend into darkness and chaos when deep differences arose. This chaos he viewed as a vital precursor to true community. Is this an aspect of sangha? Perhaps so. When we look at the history of San Francisco Zen Center we see it endured such phases and emerged from them maybe stronger and more resilient.

Tenshin Reb Anderson in his book ‘Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains,’ describes the nature of sangha robustly: “Each of you – not separately, but in the cauldron of all beings, cooking and being cooked - is realising awakening. Not you by yourself, because that is not who you really are. You by yourself are not buddha nature; but your total being in the cauldron of all beings is realising the buddha way. This is the total exertion of your life.”

My thanks to:
an essay entitled ‘Sangha Work’ by Tarchin Hearn which helped to direct my thoughts on this article.
to Tenshin Reb Anderson for his book ‘Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains,’ from which the quotation ‘ Cooking in the Cauldron of all Beings,’ is taken.

Michael (Ko Gan Mu Ju) Radiant Light Vow No Abode dwelling

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