Why the Sangha is So Important
The three jewels of Buddhism are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In order to become Buddhist one only needs to vow to uphold the three jewels. That is all. No special ceremony, no membership to any temple or group. Once becoming a Buddhist, one will find refuge in upholding the three jewels. In the Buddha, we find guidance both from the Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, but also from our own awakened nature. The Dharma provides the path of practice from which we gain understanding about our lives and how to find balance and harmony. The Sangha is the community of practitioners who come together to support and help each other on the path. All three jewels, Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma are equally important to Buddhism. Their inter-related nature can sometimes make them hard to distinguish from one another. While each jewel is of equal value, there are times when one jewel is in more need of attention than others. Today, our society is suffering greatly from a lack of authentic, healthy and supportive communities. So at this time, Sangha is the jewel that is in need of polishing, so it can sparkle as brilliantly as the other two jewels.
Sangha, is a Sanskrit (and Pali) word which means "community" or "assembly". At the Buddha’s time, Sangha was composed of the community of monks and nuns. Today, the Sangha includes the monastic community but also includes the laypeople. When we seek refuge in the Sangha, we are turning to our fellow practitioners when we feel afraid, worried or lost. When we uphold Sangha, we are responding to the calls of help from our fellow practitioners. Together, the Sangha, the community of fellow path followers, brings feelings of security and protection on a journey that is often challenging. The Sangha can be a source of friendship and love, for the members within are, in actuality, our spiritual family.
In today’s DIY-"spiritual but not religious" world, people tend to come to Buddhism alone. Self-guided through books and videos, the path of practice is generally an isolated path, where the individual walks the path alone and meditates alone. While it is true that no one can walk the path of practice but themselves, focusing only on the Buddha and the Dharma, the teacher, and the teachings, is not a complete practice.
Our culture is shifting further and further away from community. Each day we grow more comfortable with the limits of virtual connection and less comfortable with being physically present with others. Sangha is, at minimum, equally important as the other two jewels, and is essential in the practice of Buddhism.
Sangha is a safe harbor in time of distress, and guides our attention in times of distraction. The guiding teacher and co-leaders serve to guide the Sangha, to help make the path of practice a little easier, so that the Sangha members can, in turn, spread kindness to everyone around them.
In the Upaddha Sutra, Venerable Ananda said to the Buddha, "Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is half of the path of practice.”
The Buddha replied, "Don't say that, Ananda. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the WHOLE of the path of practice. When a practitioner has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, the practitioner can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path."
The Buddha stresses how crucial it is to have good company around us. A healthy, loving community and support system is necessary to lead us out of our own suffering to freedom. While walking the path, should we find ourselves at any time feeling lost, distracted or confused, the Sangha is there to help us by reminding us of what is most important in our lives, and inspires us to continue onward with head held high. Because our society devalues community, many of us don’t really know how to be part of a community.
The Sangha helps teach us how to build and be part of a group of individuals all working together toward awakening to our Buddha-nature. And, while it may be preferable for the Sangha to seek you out when you are suffering, it is important that when you are in need of support, you reach out to the Sangha. Sometimes we, as Sangha members, don't know when someone wants time alone or is in need of contact and support. Because of this, communication is invaluable. Let the Sangha know what you are needing! If you are not sure of what you need, when you feel lost or confused, show up to practice, no matter how much you want to hide away! Together we will help illuminate the path. We are all learning how to be a community together, and at times, the process can be messy! But always remember, Sangha, as a community, helps every one, no matter where they are on the path. Together we work at understanding our awake nature and learn what really matters in life.
To practice Buddhism, it is not enough to study the teachings and practice meditation alone. While it is necessary to learn how to find time to be with ourselves in order to better understand our own minds, Sangha cannot be dispensed with because it is not easy to find or because we are not comfortable practicing with others. Without Sangha, the practice is unbalanced, and the path of practice will be weak at best or corrupted at worst.
Sangha also teaches us how to set aside our own selfish egos and care for others. The very act of showing up can save a person. Sometimes we are feeling very reluctant to leave home, but despite the yell of our inner voice to stay and hermit ourselves away, we go to practice, every step dragging heavily! Our presence, just showing up, as reluctant as it may be, can lift another Sangha member out of a very serious personal suffering. Additionally, despite all our resistance, once we begin practicing with the Sangha, we find the resistance falls away and we end up feeling much better than we would have had we stayed away.
Our modern society discourages community and because of this, many of us are not very skilled in community building. We will make mistakes, we will hurt others' feelings and our own feelings will be hurt, but we will try our best to do what is right. We will apologize when we make a mistake and forgive others for their mistakes. It is important to point out that it's through these fumbles and finding of our way that strengthens our Sangha, like intense pressure produces the hard and brilliant diamond. This is why Sangha truly is a jewel to behold.
It is of utmost importance to practice with a Sangha on a regular basis. In doing so, our practice will flourish far beyond anything we could achieve alone. In the growth of our practice, our lives and the lives of those around us develop and transform beautifully, like glittering jewels beyond compare.
Ven. Myohye Do'an
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members