Bodhilia’s Notes – Sangha
I’ve been reflecting a lot on sangha this week, not surprising given that it was recently Sangha Day, one of the major Buddhist Festivals celebrated by Buddhists around the world. On Saturday we marked Sangha Day with an online celebration across time zones in the international Triratna community and then on Sunday we celebrated it with members of our local sangha at the WLBC.
I was wondering if we could have a meaningful Sangha Day online. Of all the festivals, that is one where it feels important to experience sangha by sharing space and being together in real life. And again I was reminded that we don’t have to share physical space to come together as a spiritual community and to experience a depth of connection. We began by meditating together and ended with a puja, an opportunity for collective devotional practice – both felt very special. However, the highlight for me was three talks given by members of our sangha, Derek, Patricia and Ratnadeva who each shared on the theme, ‘What sangha means to me’. The talks were very different but so much of what was said resonated with my personal experience and I found them deeply moving and deeply inspiring. My heart opened and for days afterwards I was left feeling quite joyful and so appreciative of our particular spiritual community.
Sometimes I’m amazed by how important and how central the sangha jewel has become to me. Years ago, when I first started attending the London Buddhist Centre I had no interest in joining the community, was wary and distrustful of most of the sangha and especially of all the Order members. I was on the lookout for anything that would prove I was right not to trust anyone and of course it was easy to find fault and then question the effectiveness of people’s spiritual practice. I really didn’t understand why anyone would ‘Go for Refuge to the Sangha’ and how it could be considered one of the ‘Three Jewels’ on equal footing with the Buddha and the Dharma. Those ‘jewels’ I had an immediate and heartfelt response to but the sangha? No way! It was obviously imperfect, made up of many flawed individuals who often behaved messily and unskilfully so why would I even consider the sangha as a refuge?
It took a while for me to understand why the Buddha placed so much value on sangha and my attitude began to shift once I understood the distinction between the aryasangha of enlightened beings, (including all the archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas) and the aspiring sangha of fellow practitioners within the Triratna community. I still didn’t really get sangha until I began to drop some of my protective barriers and allow myself to experience sangha through developing friendships and recognising how supportive it was to practise alongside others who shared my spiritual values and commitment. I also came to realise that sangha is a practice, just like meditation and ethics, it doesn’t just happen by itself. It requires energy, commitment, effort, the intention to create and participate in a spiritual community.
This can be challenging as we are all individually imperfect and bring our particular histories, conditioning and views that inevitably get triggered in our interactions with each other. My experience is that this happens most intensely when living and working with fellow Buddhists. I lived in a Buddhist community for seven years after 25 years of living alone. I’d previously been reluctant to join a community as I was convinced that everyone would be acting out their family dynamics and also that I would not be able to hide all those sides of myself that I believed were unacceptable. (I was also convinced that everyone would find out I was a ‘bad’ Buddhist).
And of course I wasn’t able to hide those parts of myself and at times everyone did act out their family dynamics (no-one told me I was a ‘bad’ Buddhist though). What surprised me was how all this became part of our individual and collective practice and how we developed respect for each other and strong friendships in the process. For me this is part of the practice of sangha; not just meditating together and studying together but also seeing through our conditioning and views in the context of our relationships with each other and learning to be more ethical and skilful in real life situations.
So for me sangha can be both a delight and a challenge but is very important to me. I feel so fortunate to be part of the the West London Buddhist Centre sangha, thanks to all of you who make it such a special community.