Usually the Pali term, Sangha, refers to the community of Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people. But many Buddhist teachers, including Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki, encourage us to take a broader view of the Sangha, to include not just the community of fellow Buddhists, or fellow students of a particular teacher, but also all those individuals we meet who show kindness, insight, wisdom, compassion and equanimity – from whom we learn and whose company we enjoy.
People come to Buddhism for many different reasons. Many seek solace, companionship and the support of a group of like-minded individuals – the structured practice offered by a group that meets regularly and shares a particular Dharma tradition or teacher. Such a local group provides refuge and an existing structure within which participants can develop and thrive. However, sometimes we can become over-dependent on the group or teacher – becoming over-reliant on the values and beliefs of the group, rather than testing these against our own experience, or, adhering to the forms, ideas, and routines of a particular teacher, without question or reflection. Over-attachment to the group, teacher or tradition, tends to inhibit learning, growth and realisation.
On the other hand, those who practice more independently, who are not necessarily part of a formal group, run the risk of wandering into cul-de-sacs and blind alleys, developing ineffective practice and understanding, and becoming too attached to their “own” opinions. Self-deception and hubris are tendencies that need to be looked out for and guarded against. Glorying in one’s own knowledge or virtue is just another form of attachment and is a hindrance to learning, growth and realisation.
Whichever course we take, a balance needs to be struck between community and individual, group ethos and personal belief, dependence and independence – if meaningful learning, growth and realisation are to arise. This is the way to real independence, compassionate wisdom and peace of mind. The Buddha insisted that we should always test his teachings against the reality of our own experience and leave the teachings behind – letting go of the raft when we’ve crossed the river, not putting it on our backs and carrying it with us. It is important we don’t become attached to the rafts of the Sangha, or of the ego-self.