the original kStyle blog.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Taking Refuge Gets Confusing,
Probably Part 1 of Several

I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

My retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh impressed upon me the importance of the Sangha, a community of Buddhists that support one another in practice. Buddhism is a practice, something requiring cultivation. Belonging to a sangha strengthens us in our practice. It helps to meditate with others; meditation actually becomes easier. It helps to be accountable to the sangha for regular practice. It helps to receive inspiration from one anther. It helps to have friends with whom to discuss the Dharma and its application in our own lives. During the retreat, I felt the strength of practicing with a Fourfold Sangha* of over a thousand individuals, the power of sharing our joy and suffering, and returned home with a resolution to practice with a sangha here.

We all belong to the great, capital-S Sangha of all Buddhists ever, but it's also nice to have a more concrete, little-S manifestation for support.

My 30-person dharma discussion group from the retreat has kept in contact through email. This contact with my retreat small sangha has been incredibly nourishing. We became very close from only a few days physically together, and I've already received great support from these wise people via email. I've shared some support, too. Lots of love flowing there.

But finding a local sangha with which to practice is more tricky. In a sense, I'm very fortunate; there are two local sanghas I could choose from. I was initially more inclined to join the sangha in Thay Nhat Hanh's tradition. They meet every Monday evening for an hour of meditation and an hour of dharma discussion and tea. I've been twice.

The first time, last week, there was only one woman there. She said that many people were on vacation and there are usually 8-12 members at a meeting. We hit it off terrifically. She expressed to me some reservations about the sangha, however. She indicated that they are not as "formal" as many sanghas, and she would prefer a more formal group. I wasn't sure what she meant. She also said that the group was not as centered in the Order of Interbeing (Thay's tradition) as they had been under past leadership. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I liked her very much and felt refreshed after the meeting, eager to return. Let's call her "Wilma".

Last night I attended for the second time. To my disappointment, Wilma was away for the long weekend and therefore not at the meeting. Three members were in attendance, including the woman who is the de facto sangha leader; let's call her Tory. Tory has been there the longest and so runs the group.

Tory told me straightaway that they are "less formal than many sanghas". She was clearly happy about that, telling me that it may take getting used to if I'm accustomed to a "more formal" practice. I still wasn't sure what she meant. We began with meditation, which was fairly standard, even if posture was poor (as Wilma had warned me it may be).

Then, as soon as meditation ended, the chattering began. The excessive chattering about nothing; the kind the Buddha warned against. Tory was the biggest culprit, which is alarming, because she is the one setting the tone for the sangha. Now, don't get me wrong, these are very nice, friendly, good people. But it struck me that this lack of "formality" was sort of undermining the effort of mindfulness. Then the ladies settled in for the dharma discussion. They quieted a bit. We took turns and listened fully to each other, as is the point. But then Tory started interrupting people, talking over. Before long, the conversation was a chaotic free-for-all with much more talking than listening going on.

So I'm left to tease out whether this is my own negative judgment getting in the way, or a legitimate concern about whether this is a good sangha for me. I'm leaning toward "legitimate concern" right now. No group will be perfect, to be sure, but this dharma discussion was not nourishing for me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Still, I'll go back again to see whether last evening may have been a fluke. Yet it strikes me that strong, grounded leadership may be important for a sangha to thrive.

The other option is a sangha in the Tibetan tradition run by a very good monk who lives locally. I've been a few times in the past and enjoyed it. But it in isn't the Zen tradition, which is the lineage I best relate to, and here is no dharma sharing between members that I know of. Still, I'm thinking that a strong Buddhist root may be more important than the exact right tradition, especially since the chatty sangha seems to have sort of abandoned having any strong roots; and I get lots of dharma sharing from my e-sangha. I'll revisit the Tibetan sangha on Thursday to see.

I mention all this in the hopes that one of my smart blog friends (and y'all are smart) will read the whole looong thing and chime in with sound advice.

Choices, better to have 2 than none!

*monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen


Blogger Larry Jones said...

Seems to me that you should go where you feel most at home. Or, can you not gently lead the chatterboxes by your example?

2:54 AM  
Blogger Narya said...

First off, what's a dharma discussion?

Second, I was reminded of the "Peace and Power" book; w/o being judgmental, it doesn't sound like the informal sangha is going to provide either the form or the content that you would like to practice. And it's not "like" to practice, as in "I like tomatos," it's that you're on a particular spiritual path/journey right now, and, even as you may recognize that all paths are One, or connected, or however you conceptualize it, you can also recognize that the . . . paving stones? scenery? (I'm stretching this metaphor WAY too far) isn't going to help you, at least not right now in your practice.

Third, what does it take to start a sangha? Can you start one?

9:48 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Thanks for your responses!

Larry: My first thought was also to lead the chatterboxes by example. But my dear husband pointed out, "It sounds as if they like their sangha that way." I couldn't argue with that. That's a sound and simple litmus test you propose, to go where I feel most at home. Thanks, I like that.

Narya: A dharma discussion usually has a dharma talk (ie, dharma lesson from a teacher or a reading from a book) or topic (eg, "transforming grief") as its starting point. And then people are invited to share their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences around that lesson or topic, hopefully but not necessarily tying it back to the Dharma as they go. Each person is listened to fully before the next speaks.

You're right, the Peace and Power book had some good things to say about group dynamics. In that light, Chattering Dharma Sangha (ha!) is definitely not the right choice.

As for starting a sangha, I'm about to cover that in a post, Taking Refuge Gets Confusing: Part 2. We're thinking along the same lines.

12:06 PM  

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