The Importance of Sangha I DharmaCrafts Blog

The Importance of Sangha- Koun Franz

All of Buddhism rests on three pillars, what we call the three jewels or treasures: buddha, dharma, and sangha. Strictly speaking, there can’t be a discussion of Buddhism without all three; take one away, and though some good things remain, it isn’t Buddhism anymore. But the fact is, it happens a lot. One gets taken away.

It’s rare, of course, that anyone tries to take the buddha out of Buddhism. Whether we’re talking about the person—the Buddha himself—or awakened nature, the notion of buddhahood is a big draw. We may spend our lives wrestling with what “buddha” means, but once the idea gets hold of us, it’s hard to get away from it. Dharma is the same. Sometimes it’s big-D Dharma, the teachings, the truth of Buddhist thought; sometimes it’s little-d dharma, a great word for each little thing in the universe—and by extension, the whole universe, but either way, dharma is the most immediate reward of the practice. We can receive it, study it, learn it, observe it, teach it, transmit it. It’s the part we can hold in our hands. 

Sangha, however, can feel optional. The word is interesting: as I understand it, it used to mean something like “guild” or “union,” so in ancient India there would have been, say, carpenters’ sanghas. But over time the word fell out of use, until it remained as a specialty term within Buddhism, at first meaning just the community of monks and nuns. That definition still holds today; in some communities, “supporting the sangha” might be distinct from being a part of it. But I think for most Buddhists, at least in the Western world, sangha has come to mean, at minimum, the larger community of practitioners including laypeople—either in a particular community, or perhaps even inclusive of all communities. It’s the club we’re in, a circle of support. Some go even further, using sangha as a way of talking about all beings. This is the truth of interdependence; we all support one another, whether we know it or not. But I want to speak to the idea of sangha as something intentional, something chosen.

The Importance of Sangha I DharmaCrafts Blog

It’s easy to skip this one. Maybe you live far from other practitioners. Maybe you were part of the sangha and it didn’t go well—that happens a lot, and “not going well” can cover a lot, from abuse to just feeling like it didn’t click. And let me be clear: there are sanghas we shouldn’t be a part of. Trust your gut. But these practices have survived—not just survived, thrived and expanded and evolved—this long precisely because people didn’t skip over sangha. They didn’t just practice at home, by themselves. They supported each other, learned from each other, challenged each other. They came together with a common goal: to uphold the dharma and to manifest buddha. This resulted in (and still results in) a remarkable balance of conservatism and creativity, of making sure the tradition holds together while also ensuring that it’s true, even as contexts and cultures change, even as the world shifts beneath our feet. We need each other. Buddha and dharma need sangha, which means they need you to either find sangha or to make it. Those are the choices.

Thich Nhat Hanh has famously said that “it is probable that the next buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving-kindness, a community practicing mindful living.” This speaks to the deeper truth of the three treasures, that if you have three things and you can’t remove one, then in fact you have just one thing. We can call that whatever we want, but in this vision, buddha manifests as sangha; this is a teaching in itself, an embodiment of dharma. Nothing is separate.

Joining a sangha can be hard. It might be inconvenient. You might feel like an outsider for a while (though I hope not). It may take some time to know if it’s a fit. And creating a sangha is even harder, though many people do it, and all you need at the start is a desire to practice and some way of getting the word out (flyers can work wonders). But these days, suddenly, it’s easier than it’s ever been in history: you can go online and join communities not just down the street but across the world, in any tradition. You can meditate with them, study with them, go on retreat with them. You can challenge them, too—you can be part of maintaining the integrity of these traditions. You belong. 

So many doors are open, waiting for you to go through. Which one will you choose?

 The Importance of Sangha I DharmaCrafts Blog

Author: Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.


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