As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.

During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.

Prof. Ling further notes that,

Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”

Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”

Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.

The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.

What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.

When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”

Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.

The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.

Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,

[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”

The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.

* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976

** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955


Taking Refuge

Traditonally, Refuge (Pali: Ti Samana Gamana) is a ceremony in which one formally becomes a Budddhist or adopts the precepts and teachings of Buddhism. Sometimes it marks an ordination. Most people probably view refuge as essentially a religious ceremony, but  there are different ways to think about it. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, says that refuge is not an expression of faith, it’s a practice.

However one sees refuge, I don’t think it needs to always be a formal thing. You should be able to take refuge anywhere, anytime, and as many times as you want. You can go for refuge this moment.

Take refuge in the

Buddha as an example

Dharma for a path

Sangha for companionship.

I don’t remember where I found that but I thought it sounded great. The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the Three Jewels, the Three Treasures, the Triple Gem. The Buddha represents potential for liberation, happiness, enlightenment in all people. Dharma is the teaching, but it can also be phenomena, truth or anything in life.

We constantly enlighten ourselves by taking refuge in the Three Jewels of our own true nature, our own minds. Buddha means enlightenment, dharma means truth, and sangha means purity.

– Hui-neng, The Platform Sutra

I like the word community for sangha. Historically, the sangha has usually referred to the monks and nuns, and everyone else as more or less an afterthought. But there is the “Fourfold Assemby” of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Personally, I don’t care for sangha with distinctions. I suspect that they were layered on after the Buddha’s passing. I am really uncomfortable with the idea that the monks come before everyone else.

It seems more in keeping with the Buddha’s democratic spirit that each individual in the community be equal. But if anyone comes first, it should be the people. Sangha, to my way of thinking, should always be about the people.

You can be a refuge yourself. Shantideva wrote,

Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and others
Should make the interchange of “I” and “other”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

In Tenzo kyokun, “Instructions for the Cook”, Dogen uses cooking as an analogy, and says, “Not only do we have the fortune of being born as human beings but also of being able to cook meals to be offered to the Three Jewels.” I like to turn that around and think of the Three Jewels as food, take-out food to be exact. We take refuge, but then we should take our refuge with us, to share with others. Refuge can be thought of as shelter, sanctuary, asylum, a haven, but it is also sustenance and nourishment, a provision we carry along as we fare on the path.

Let’s go for refuge together right now:

We take refuge in the Buddha
We take refuge in the Dharma
We take refuge in the Sangha
We take refuge in the Three Jewels within ourselves


The Jewel of Sangha Part III: Online Sanghas

Besides this blog, I have a couple other websites, and I’ve had others in the past. I host websites and blogs, design them, set them up, etc. It’s something I’ve been doing for over a decade. So I like to think that I understand the internet to some extent.

Online sanghas are great, but I’m concerned that folks are inflating their importance and will come to rely on them too much.  I feel that an online sangha or practice is at best an auxiliary tool.

Cyber world is not a real world, it’s a surreal world. For every byte of truth you can get from the internet, there’s another two or three bytes worth of fantasy and delusion. Interaction online is often unreal. People can hide behind anonymity; mask their identities by creating false personas, and so on. These are just a few of the reasons why it’s called virtual. It’s almost real.

When filtered through a modem, it’s simulated reality. Plus, we’re distanced from actual reality. One step removed from the real world. It may sound hokey but I feel that sanghas should be about the kind of heart-to-heart connections that you can only have when you share the same physical space with someone.

I don’t remember where I read this,  but someone on another blog suggested that we should view what we do online as part of our practice. I agree. Many things are a part of our practice. Washing dishes, drinking tea. Yet, we also need to remember that those sort of activities are not the primary practice.

But if our online activity is to be part of our practice then we should start learning to behave better. The uncivil, nasty comments that I have read in some online forums is really disturbing. Most of these people would not think of behaving like that in an actual reality sangha situation (I hope), why do they think that online, civility can be suspended?

We should behave online as we would in real life. That’s not even a point of faith or dharma. That’s about treating people with respect, being polite. Buddhists should aspire to a higher standard of dialogue. We should be the standard.

I see stuff here and there about whatever is going on in the Treeleaf community. I don’t know much about it, nor do I particularly want to know, but it seems like just a lot of bickering to me. Apparently, someone was kicked out, prevented from making comments, or whatever. You’d think it was an excommunication or something even heavier. Makes you question the perspective there. After all, I think it’s just an online forum.

Some folks might have too much time on their hands and are spending most of it on their laptops and Blackberrys. I wonder if they have ever thought about going out to visit someone in their real sangha, if they belong to one. Or someone in another sangha, why not? The practice of “home visits” is another way to build human bridges and to build sanghas. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking that “sangha-time” should be only the organized activities. Spending time with the members of our sangha, especially practicing together in-between the regular group sessions is a great way to cement the kind of camaraderie that aids everyone’s spiritual growth.

Lastly, for this post, I know that in rural areas it’s often a challenge to find Buddhist temples, centers or groups close by.  This can also be a problem in a large city like Los Angeles where everything is so spread out. I hope that when people find themselves in those situations they will still explore every avenue to find people to practice with.

If there are no places nearby, then why not try to find Buddhists who might also live in the area, regardless of what sect or group they are affiliated with, and reach out to them, try to practice together? Visit each other’s homes, or just meet for tea somewhere. The benefits of being together, sharing space, even doing casual things, let alone practicing with other people who on the same spiritual path are just too great to let to pass by.

I also like to see the future of Buddhism in the West including the creation of neighborhood sanghas, spiritual communities practicing together in their communities. Ideally, to me, these would be Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over sectarian lines to practice with one another where they live.

Somewhere I read a comment from a guy who said he had never actually met another Buddhist or spiritual seeker in his real life. Since I have no knowledge of his situation, there’s nothing to do but let the statement stand by itself.

I don’t believe that anyone absolutely has to belong to a sangha, but I do feel it is absolutely necessary to practice with others.


The Jewel of Sangha – Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, the Buddha introduced the idea of community based spirituality into the Indian religious tradition. A strong community to support individual practice is vitally important. Some individuals have the right mind-set and particular kind of spirit to practice in isolation successfully, but most of us do not.

Thich Nhat Hanh:

There are many things that are very difficult to do on our own, but when we live together as sangha, they become easy and natural. We do them without growing tired or making a strenuous effort. The Sangha has a collective energy. Without this energy, the practice of personal transformation is not easy.

It’s not always easy to practice in a sangha either. One has to deal with irritations, conflicts, misunderstanding, and so on. No sangha is perfect or filled with perfect people. But we need to see this human factor, no matter how challenging it may be, as another tool for our spiritual growth, while also recognizing that practice with others takes a little of the weight off of our shoulders.

When Thich Nhat Hanh says, “we live together as sangha,” I doubt he is implying that all sanghas need be communal living arrangements.  What is he’s saying is when we live together in daily life as sangha. Sangha is the ultimate refuge where we can go and interact with others who face the same problems of work, family, relationships, money, etc., that we do, and are engaged in the same spiritual practice. When we come together as sangha we can be encouraged both by the mutual understanding and the insights that others have gained from their experiences.

The above quote comes from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community. I’ve only read a portion of it on Google Books. However, from my own experience, I would say that the art of building a Buddhist community is the art of creating bonds between people.

This is another important lesson I learned from my days with the Soka Gakkai, although I can’t say that I really understood it deeply at the time. Back then, I had a pretty high wall I had constructed around myself. I once saw an ad in Time Magazine that asked, “When you put up a wall, who are you really shutting out?” That was my situation exactly. The wall is not yet reduced to ashes, but it has surely crumbled.

The first step to creating bonds is actually tearing down walls. These walls are portable, you know, and we often carry them around. It’s interesting how many people, while they are seeking  something new, often become resentful when they encounter anything unfamiliar.

This is a form of “destructive resistance,” where learners will sometimes resist being taught. In this case, it’s a wall that can come down only when a person feels at ease, and it’s is a two-way street. We always need to remember that because many elements of Buddhism are unfamiliar to Westerners  someone’s first Buddhist experience, up close and personal so to speak, can be a daunting one. Sometimes I think Buddhism is just thrown at people, or they are thrown into it, and it’s a sort of take it or leave it proposition.

Continue reading “The Jewel of Sangha – Part II”


The Jewel of Sangha – Part I

I have more than a few thoughts on the subject of sangha. Too many to cram into one post, so I’m going to spread them out over a number of posts which may not be consecutive.

First, a little background:

Thich Nhat Hanh walking with sangha members

In the Buddha’s day, “sangha” was a common term used to describe various assemblies and groups, some of which were governing bodies. Sangha had the connotation of “collective” and “republic” and it appears that it was interchangeable with another term “ganas” meaning “flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe” etc.

It’s likely that the Shakya clan to which the Buddha belonged had a form of republican government, and that the Buddha’s father, instead of being a rich and powerful monarch as popularly described, was actually the elected head of the tribal council.

J.P. Sharma, in Republics of Ancient India says that in the tribal sanghas “each member of the assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mold the decisions of the assembly.”

The Buddha infused his sangha with this same spirit. He repeatedly told his disciples that “It is [not] I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.” The original sangha functioned as a small, mobile republic. You could even call it a form of collectivism, and certainly it was a community founded on the values of “sharing, participation, and fellowship.”

The community may have been centered around the Buddha as the founder and the teacher, but the sangha did not exist for the Buudha. Its purpose was to serve all the members of the community, and society as a whole.  A sangha should not exist for its own sake, as a sort of corporational person. The jewel of sangha is people. Sangha is about people.

The members of the Buddhist community were called Bhikkhus, which normally we see translated as “monk,” but they were not monks. The word bhikkhu means “sharesman.” The sangha members were sharesmen in two senses: they shared in the life of the community, and they received shares of food from the householders who supported them.

While based on the republican ideal of earlier sanghas, the Buddhist community was something entirely new in the way it introduced the very idea of community into the spiritual tradition of India, stressing the importance of human interaction. Prof. Trevor Ling writes,

One of the important achievements of early Buddhism was that it developed a new context for the spiritual quest. Traditionally, in India, the search for salvation from the evils of human existence meant a life of solitude. For the Buddhist it meant a life in the community. For a time, however, in the earliest period of Buddhist history, the old idea seems to have survived. So strong a hold did the Indian tradition of solitude have that even among Buddhists there were those who tried to practice the Buddha’s teaching by the old method and, as an ancient text [Khaggavisana Sutta] puts it, ‘fare lonely as rhinoceros.” But it was among the Buddhists that there soon emerged, for the first time in Indian history, an ordered community of those who were seeking for salvation from the human malaise as they saw it.

The sangha was not to be a community set apart from the larger community, either. The Buddha and his followers almost always stayed on the edge of cities and towns, and daily went into these places and interacted with ordinary people.

Continue reading “The Jewel of Sangha – Part I”