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.
Most people are introduced to the Soka Gakkai by someone they know. A friend, acquaintance, co-worker, or relative. The Soka Gakkai does not advertise (not in the strict sense of the word, anyway), so outside of running across them on the Internet, about the only way to hear about their form of Buddhism is by word of mouth. The first in a long string of very human connections.
Attending a Buddhist activity accompanied by someone you know makes for a very different experience, I think, as opposed to calling a dharma center on the phone, inquiring about activities and then showing up as little more than a rank stranger. Which I’ve done plenty of times.
In some other sanghas I have visited, there seems to be a lack of personal warmth and friendliness. This is something I have heard others mention, so I know I am not alone in this feeling. Not that these places are unfriendly, just somewhat cold and impersonal. Some are not really sanghas at all, but an ever revolving group of people who meet once a week or so. There’s no sense of community, very little bonding beyond the brief time they spend together. It’s like attending a class, and I don’t care for that approach.
Newcomers to Soka Gakkai meetings are made to feel extremely welcome, even to the extent that they are often fawned over. This is because the real purpose of the weekly meetings are to introduce people to their Buddhism. As a consequence, this display of friendliness is at times superficial, yet I’d have to say that for the most part SGI members truly want to help others, and they sincerely believe that their practice of chanting can help anyone.
For myself, introductory meetings got old after a while. I yearned for more substance. Besides, I was always a bit uncomfortable with the SGI’s propagation mania, and even when I tried to get into that spirit, my heart was never in it. Maybe it was that wall I put up, and maybe it was because it seemed excessive.
Other sanghas I’ve had experience with seem reluctant to accommodate new people, because they feel it is somehow unfair to the “regulars” or interferes with the schedule, or whatever the case may be. Obviously, the key is to find the chudo, the Middle Way.
I also feel that people who know little about Buddhism but want to learn and are activity seeking a place where they can do that and also practice, should do some homework first. There are a number of good books that introduce Buddhist ideas and practice. When people take the time to study a little about Buddhist history, philosophy, and about the various Buddhist schools, they are able to make a more informed decision about which sangha to join. When you know next to nothing, it’s very easy to be misled by someone who is misinterpreting or misusing Buddhist dharma.
To be continued