The Pali and Sanskrit term, Sangha, means ‘bring together’ and usually refers to the community of Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people. The Sangha is considered to be one of the three ‘refuges’ or ‘treasures’ of Buddhism. These are: Buddha – the awakened one; Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha; and Sangha – the community of Buddha’s students. Traditionally, one joined the Sangha by giving up all one’s possessions and by shaving one’s head. These acts symbolised a person’s vow to set out on life as an itinerant monk or nun.
However, particularly in contemporary western societies, many Buddhist teachers, including Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki, 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, and who help ease suffering and dissatisfaction, and who increase our insight and understanding. Indeed, the sangha, can be considered as including all sentient beings, united in one community of beings – the sangha of all life on earth.
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, can 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. Ultimately, meaningful learning, growth and realisation can only be assessed by each individual in relation to how far their own suffering, and that of others, is eased. To what extent are we better able to deal with life’s ups and downs – the rainy days and sunny days – the troubled days as well as the days of peace? This balance between communal learning and sharing, and individual practice, is the way to real independence, compassionate wisdom and peace of mind.
The Buddha advised his students to always test his teachings against the reality of their 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 to enjoy and learn from our community, but it is also vital that we don’t become attached either to the raft of the Sangha, or of the ego-self. Learn and let go could be his motto. And there is no end to this process.