Friday, January 28, 2011

Ameland Reflection I--The Elements of a Healthy Sangha

I had a strong experience in Ameland this year, at the gathering of the larger Kanzeon sangha.  It prompted me to reflect on the nature of and prerequisites for healthy sangha.  Because Diane and I will be opening a practice place in Salt Lake soon, it is an issue that has been on my mind over the past months.  I suspect I will be posting on this subject in the future as my thoughts clarify.

First, to have a strong, ethical, and honest sangha, it seems essential that all participants, from the oldest teacher to the newest student, explicitly join in a shared set of values that express why we are practicing together and what it means to be a member of the sangha.  Those values, which represent the culture of the sangha, need to be expressed clearly and regularly.  They are the interior of the container that holds each of our practices as well as our shared practice.

Second, that culture can be sustained only if the exterior of the container which embodies it--the structures which distribute power--manifest those values.  For this congruence to be maintained, both the values and the structures need to be regularly examined to assure their continuing capacity to promote, and not hinder, our separate and shared awakening.

Third, each member of the sangha has a responsibility to be aware of the inside and the outside of the container, of the culture and the structures, to continuously monitor their relationship to it as individuals, and to note when and where dissonance arises.  That place can be a rich edge for our practice.  And awareness of that edge can also tell us when the dissonance is intolerable and we no longer can comfortably be a "member" of that sangha.  Members who reach that point should be free to leave the sangha without pain or penalty.

It is my intention to strive to assure that these tenants are reflected in The Boulder Mountain Zendo's sangha.

With palms together,



  1. Thank you, sensei. Ameland for me was also a trip to the dark side, the dark side in all of us. What is loyalty, submission, morality? I've discovered some strong patterns in myself and am grateful for the teaching. But there is also the hurt and disappointment. Following the precepts is more about intention than actually living them - maybe an impossible task, but then: this path is impossible.
    Loved your comment in pathetic voice: to recognize that being human actually is pathetic. :-)
    In gassho,

  2. Thanks Mugaku. This is something that has been on my mind for sometime as well and I appreciate your intention to bring culture and the structural container of sangha into explicit awareness.

    Like so many westerners, bad experiences in the "WE" space; family, school, organized religion, have directly led me to a very "I" centered Buddhist practice.

    But what I see in myself, many others and western Buddhist communities at large is that this first person identification is pathological; it excludes and ignores a felt sense of "WE" with a larger group. Everyone is so concerned about "me" and "my practice" that it's impossible to have any meaningful sense of community or healthy social structure.

    Right now a healthy "WE" is what I am longing for.

  3. Connie, I agree that the precepts are about intention, and that mistakes are inevitable. But the intention is important. No amount of sophistry about "Buddhayana" views can avoid the fact that the precepts, the standards by which we act towards others, are an essential part of practice. Without a serious commitment to the precepts, our practice is solipsistic--an ego trip.

    Jethro, your comment expresses this tendency toward a pathologically self-centered practice well. A healthy "I" does not exist apart from a healthy "We".

    Thank you for your comments.

  4. Embodiment of precepts seem to be the only proof of true wisdom/realization in our life, isn't it?
    Gassho -

  5. Beautiful statement, Sensei. Virtue, kindness and wisdom keep the container strong. I miss your teachings! Good luck with the new practice.

    Michele Matossian