A Sangha Without a Name (SWAN): Vajrayana roots, democratic and socially engaged practices

SBN Editor: Although the SBN website primarily focuses on the development of secular Buddhist sanghas and organizations, our goal of creating new forms of democracy, inclusiveness, and participation within sanghas is shared by practitioners from very different traditions, including Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. The following article by Fede Andino is about the formation, development, and current functioning  of a sangha in Argentina – the Sangha Without a Name (SWAN) – whose teachers and practitioners have deep connections to Tibetan Buddhism. Over the course of its evolution, the sangha has developed a democratic and participatory style of functioning. One of the key projects of the sangha is offering secular mindfulness-based resources for new practitioners to Buddhism.


SWAN’s history

The road to the SWAN was a rocky one. It started from a shamanism and meditation study group that in the beginning held mostly students that had completed the main courses of either Ethnology or Tibetan Religion with me at the University of Salvador, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While I was an assistant lecturer, I focused more with the passing of years on Tibetan Buddhism and was involved with others in several schools, including the Drikung Kagyu lineage. But due to leadership problems with that lineage, our group in 2006 started talking with a Sakya Lama, Khenpo Pema Wangdak, who would become the spiritual head of our sangha for a long time.

For several years the sangha grew without issue: several groups started practicing, from northern Argentina to southern Patagonia. We had several encounters of all groups together, with Khenpo Pema attending. It seemed that the sangha was to keep growing under the Sakya aegis, but there were challenges in the future.

We started to have issues with several teachers in this lineage who didn’t behave to the standards that we expected of them. Finally, in the middle of 2019, after 12 years of involvement with the Sakya lineage, we realized that we had irreconcilable differences with the institution itself. We preserved the relationship with Khenpo Pema Wangdak and those teachers that we felt close to, but faced with evidence of the gap in values, after a long discussion the sangha decided to dissolve institutional ties with the Argentine Palden Sakya institution.

But then, we asked ourselves, how do we go from here? We were a large group of practitioners, who had become sangha in more than just the sense of practicing together, strewn together all through Argentina. We had also a lot of friends abroad; teachers, practitioners, people who wanted to practice the Buddhadharma. We were family, Dharmic family. Of course, we would keep practicing, we all decided. But…practicing as what? We set up a discussion forum, which never reached a conclusion. Meanwhile, our WhatsApp group was called “Sangha Without A Name” …so it stuck.

Vajrayana Buddhism within a Rhime framework

Most of us are Vajrayanists. There is another Lama, Lama Johnathan Justinn, who trained in the Nyingma tradition. I also trained in that tradition after leaving the Sakya under him and completed the Lama requirements for that tradition also, so we’re two teacher-Lamas working together.

There is another group of teachers who are in our teacher training program; they are mostly training in the Vajrayana style. So, most of our teachings and practices are in that style, with a large overlap of modern clinical mindfulness, since a great number of our practitioners come from medical, psychological, academic or corporate backgrounds.

Like our sangha, we don’t give a particular name to our teachings. Mostly we keep within the Rime framework of presenting teachings: we teach from different schools but contextualizing and explaining the teaching’s place within the context of each school.

How we function

The SWAN works at several levels:

  • The first one, and probably the most important, is the root group. This is a WhatsApp group in which you must be invited to participate. This is the main group where everyone gets the same vote and voice, and most of our decisions are taken. This group also meets monthly to practice together, both online and/or offline.
  • The second one is the practice groups: SWAN is also part of the Tantric Sorcerous Underground, a private Facebook group in English for tantric practitioners seeking training with a lineage that emphasizes practice and not institutional profit. There are practice group for each of the six yogas that the TSU offers as gates to the practice, but localized and translated into Spanish.
  • The third one is the podcasts, books and how to guides offered in our site: https://budismo.ar/ These are both free and open to anyone, since they present Buddhism in a secular, mindfulness-based approach. But still, it is important that there’s someone to guide and answer questions of new practitioners. Different members take turns guiding newcomers.
  • The fourth way is an open group for rituals: this is a group that chants sutras, do tantric pujas and other rituals in a monthly basis. This is always free and open to anyone who needs help to participate. The roles of who records the name, the list of invitees and the ritual guide are rotated through the sangha.
  • Lastly, there are the discussion forums where the members discuss ethical questions, philosophical and social definitions and how we apply everything through social work. This level is open to all members.

While the SWAN is open to everybody, we find that we tend to attract practitioners who:

  • value interdependence and social work
  • are interested in both esoteric yogas and pragmatic, political issues
  • do not need a priestly or monkish class to be motivated

Most people here in the SWAN tend to slant a lot further left than most sanghas that I have known in the U.S. or Europe; this might be also influenced from the general position of Argentina’s political scene relatively to the U.S.;  a left-leaning liberal in the U.S. might be seen as a hardcore right-winger in Argentina. Still, there’s no denying that most of the members in the SWAN tend to be, in the terms of the U.S., either hardcore Marxists or Anarcho-communist.

A democratic sangha

This is reflected in our way of working together: there is no specific authority added to the title of teacher, and it is expected that roles change with time. Most of the decisions are made through discussion and consensus. Even when the people who are teaching think that a situation should go one way, the consensus of the majority sets the direction: what we use as a criterion is “70% agreement, a 100% commitment”.

There is no price to belong or receive teachings. Teachers do not ask money for SWAN teachings, and anything donated is communally shared. The costs (such as they are) are also communally shared. The people who are in charge of particular situations (for example, the person organizing the pujas) are rotated regularly so there’s no particular association between person and role. We all participate of social work.

Socially engaged

All the members help people communally. We have group actions, where we connect with and help NGOs to collect clothes and food before the cold winter months. Since we follow the Kalapa model of Pure Land, we see all work as Bodhisattvas helping all beings.

It is also expected of everyone training to be a teacher to work and help others in both a social and dharmic mode without expecting praise or payment. While someone might practice in a more engaged way or not, the teachers of the groups are expected to keep a more socially engaged mode as inspirations and role models for their students.

We see our society as part of the Mandala of our practice. Therefore, Bodhicitta is not the motivation for our practice. It is our practice.

Our goals

In the long run, the goals of the SWAN are to create a Shambhala world where everyone has the means to quickly become a complete Buddha, helping all beings without exception to reach enlightenment swiftly.

In the short run, the SWAN tries to be a place where one might train in helping others through the threefold training of meditation, ethical conduct and wisdom in a tantric context, with a clan of tantric practitioners that both help you and walk with you in the long road with all beings to Kalapa.

It is the hope of the author that these words might bring a quick overview of the SWAN, but if you have any questions, please reach out to me at contacto@budismo.ar

Sarva Mangalam!

May all be auspicious!


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One Reply to “A Sangha Without a Name (SWAN): Vajrayana roots, democratic and socially engaged practices”

Shaun Campbell

Very impressed with your mission and commitments. I like the flexibility of your mode of approaching Buddhist practice. You seem to be more fluid in a sense to match, perhaps, different temperaments that may avail themselves to your guidance. I hope to make use of your rich resources. Thanks.

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