Friday, January 28, 2011

Ameland Reflections II--Relationships and Roles Within the Sangha.

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,



  1. Thanks for these great reflections Mugaku Sensei. I think it's important that we don't take this complex issue for granted and that part of any second tier Sangha's context would include open discussion and an evolved definition of this imp...ortant topic.

    Here at the Integral Dojo we are constantly looking into what this means and one thing has become clear; leaving this subject out of the discourse and in the shadows creates the very conditions for relational lines to be blurred in favor of individual interests that have the potential to damage the sacred container.

    Your blog post is a step towards a much needed clarity in inter-sangha relations.

    I'm sending your post to all of my students. Thanks again and considering that this is just the tip of the iceberg I suspect that you have much more to say on this. I'm looking forward to the book. ;)


    Miles Kessler
    Director, Aikido Sensei, Dharma Teacher
    The Integral Dojo

  2. Michael, you did a great post!

    I am aware of many of these issues from my work with business organizations, even if some aspects might be somewhat different there. Bringing risks of power and misuse into the light early and proactive is already a great starting point.

    I am personally using the Levels from the Integral /AQAL model to interpret observations and design sustainable organizational solutions. And the good old ZEN way of just claiming infinite, unconditional power for the Roshi, because he is the Roshi looks very Blue Meme to me. And blue meme sangha structures have been appropriate hundreds of years in the blue meme times with blue meme monks, a blue meme society and maximum blue meme understanding. But today deep in the orange/green meme times with Yellow evolving seriously, we should reflect that also in the sangha structures.

    Todays mainly orange and green plus some yellow sangha members need adequate rules, structures and power distributions (colors refer to the Spiral Dynamics model of development levels). Clear role and responsibility specifications are a key element already since we use distributed expertise and power in orange meme environments. Approaches to establish secure containers, which also enable green free exchange, appreciation and inclusion of extreme diversity and indiviruality is another characteristic of todays healthy organizations.

    And finding out the required organizational characteristics for yellow meme participants is our task at hand for today. Fortunately the share of yellow sangha members is still low and tolerant towards inadequate yellow structures. But the yellow meme wants to grow and the sangha members on that level will be more and more demanding but also willing to contribute to this situation.

    And who if not a Sangha led by Diane Hamilton and Michael Zimmerman should be the one to create and establish these new structures. I am happily looking forward to be part of the emerging yellow sangha structure here. This post is a great starting point.

    With warm regards


    Zen Student of Mugaku Sensei

  3. Thank you sensei, for starting this very important discussion. Like Andreas, I am very curious about how to establish new structures, with a touch -or more! - of yellow meme. Just follow the yellow brick road for a brandnew day...

    At the same time I am also very aware of the subtlety of this path. And the fact that it is such a personal journey. Could you elaborate a bit more on the necessary structures and rules within the sangha in order to strenghten it? What would they look like in your new center?
    I feel we have a warm, strong sangha in Amsterdam and it's strenght has a lot to do with the guidance and integrity of my teacher: Nico sensei. He is the guide but also very much in our midst, always sharing. I feel this is important in a teacher, it helps me realizing that I am the one responsible for awakening and saving all sentient beings and not to be tempted to hand over my power to a teacher.

    Looking forward to more blogs integrating all colours!

  4. Connie: I would say that the example Nico sets is a manifestation informally of what it takes to have healthy sangha. Leadership that acknowledges its own participation in the horizontal as well as its station in the verticle. That cultural value can be expressed in many ways that are not hard to imagine. The willingness to move this way shows a certain integral awareness, it seems to me. -Mugaku