This is a second reflection on sangha as an organism which arises out of my anticipation of the opening of our new space in Salt Lake City, sharpened by this year's Ameland gathering.
The student-teacher-sangha interrelationship is central to Zen practice, and critical to the constitution of a healthy sangha.
Ananda asked the Buddha who would lead the sangha when he had died. Ananda was concerned the community would be leaderless. Buddha responded that the sangha did not need to be concerned about having a leader. He said, in effect, that we each are our own refuge, we are each our own light unto ourselves, we are each the vehicle of our own awakening. To me, this means no teacher is going to save us from our craving, from our delusion. We are responsible for our own awakening.
Yet Zen posits a strong role for others in our practice. Members of the sangha join together to create the container within which we practice, they provide mutual support. And the teacher provides the direction for the group's practice and assures that the sangha's culture and structure, the interior and exterior of the sangha, are maintained. Here, as I wrote yesterday, it is critical that the members of the sangha and the teacher have a shared understanding of its values, its culture, as well as of the necessarily congruent structure that provides the container for the practice. Part of the culture, and of the structure, is the definition of the roles to be occupied by each member of the sangha, including the teacher.
I said I see the teacher as responsible for maintaining the direction of the sangha's practice and assuring its continuity. But the teacher does more. The teacher has a relationship to each member of the sangha. At its best, a close and confidential relationship that supports the unique practice of each member and its manifestation, both the interior and the exterior of the individual practitioner. To me, the teacher's role is to be a supportive guide, someone who assists the student in working toward their own awakening and who works to make the accumulated wisdom of the lineage available in a way that is accessible and that furthers a particular student's practice. This is an intimate relationship, one that has perils for both the student and the teacher because of its intimacy. As I see it, the perils are of role confusion.
The teacher and student have a defined set of roles. In fact, the very terms "teacher" and "student" mean nothing without a definition of their respective roles within the context of an institution. These definitions limn the relative powers and responsibilities of each. Only if both have a shared understanding of those definitions can each function smoothly in their role. In turn, those definitions are the reference point for determining what constitutes ethical behavior for each. If either acts outside the scope of their role, they invite confusion, both on their part and on the part of the other, with the potential for resulting ethical problems. These problems will not be only the concern of the teacher and the student, but will reverberate through the sangha because they will result from conduct inconsistent with the sangha's self-definition.
Both the student and the teacher share responsibility for assuring that role confusion does not occur, but the teacher's responsibility is paramount. In fulfilling their responsibilities, it seems to me that both teacher and student should be aware of the teachings of western psychology about the problems posed by transference and counter-transference, as well as the universal tendency, as Lord Acton put it, "of power to corrupt, and of absolute power to corrupt absolutely". The power given to the teacher by the sangha, and by the student as his or her spiritual guide, is perhaps the teacher's greatest aid in doing their work, and their greatest challenge.
My years in the judicial system, and of working for and with those who exercise political and financial power, have firmly convinced me that the most difficult challenge confronting those with power is to avoid being seduced by it, to avoid coming to think that the power is given to me because of personal entitlement, rather than institutional or role-related entitlement. The difference is profound. For if I see power as a personal entitlement, then there is no aspect of my personality, no egoic preference, that is not a legitimate criteria for the exercise of the power. But if the power is seen as invested in the office, in the role I occupy, then that role's definition circumscribes that legitimate scope of the exercise of that power. And importantly, the limits of that power are relatively clear for all to see.
A spiritual teacher is no different than any other human being when operating in an institutional role in which power is vested, and no more immune to the seductions of that power. It is for this reason that it seems so critical that a sangha have a shared and clearly understood culture and a set of congruent structures, both of which are regularly revisited. This assures that all know the parameters of their joint venture. The challenge of putting these in place, and of maintaining them, is apparent from the troubled history of a number of religious communities over the past forty years. I do not minimize those challenges, but if those who seek their own emancipation through the Dharma are to be well-served, we must take this challenge seriously. It is our mutual responsibility.
Student-teacher-sangha: the interrelationships within which our practice is contained and refined, and through which we manifest its fruits. A healthy sangha requires their constant conscious cultivation.
With palms together,