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