Sangha essentials – creating community & bonding

February 21, 2019

We all have some thing or things that occupy the centre of our life-worlds – often objects of daily devotion on which our sense of meaning and security depend. For some it’s a career, fame (real or online), a healthy bank balance, an office crammed with tech, insurance policies, or a snappy car. For others it might be a relationship, or a network of them – family life.

In Buddhist terms, these are called ‘refuges’ – refuges from the scary ‘unmasterable contingency of the world’ that we heard Galen Strawson mention in the previous talk. The trouble is that all these refuges belong to that contingent world, so they’re likely to fail us when we need them most.

For this reason the Buddha proposed as the centrepiece of his practice tradition three refuges that aren’t like that. Nothing, no-one and no contingency can take them away from us. They’re always there for us, come what may. They are our human capacity to awaken, the teaching and practice that invokes it, and the community of our fellow dharma practitioners – sangha. In short, the traditional three refuges of Buddha, dharma and sangha.

How does sangha get a guernsey in such august company? I can meditate by myself in my own bedroom, where I can also jump online and read or listen to a cornucopia of dharmic teachings. I can listen to podcast dharma talks anywhere and any time. If I need to talk to others about it, I can join an online chat room.

Okay, I understand that in other times and places people needed their sanghas because they had nowhere else to sit in peace and had no other access to the dharma. But it’s not like that any more.

Besides, I’m a busy person and can’t afford to be tied down to a fixed weekly commitment (unless it’s for something important like football training). And, frankly, I’m simply not a joiner. Sorry.

Two refuges are enough for me.

Does this sounds familiar? Doesn’t it also sound unconvincing? It’s worth pondering just why this common talk does sound so unconvincing. One of the more interesting writers today is the feminist historian, Barbara Taylor, and in The last asylum: a memoir of madness in our times, she puts her finger on it:

We become who we are through relationships. This ‘I’ is born at the interface of self and other, the helpless and help-giver, infant and parent. As babies we learn about ourselves via the minds of those around us; inchoate sensations take on shape and meaning through the responses of others. Selfhood surfaces on a tide of recognition: this is who you are/this is who I am. We human beings are dependent creatures who discover ourselves in communication with others, spoken and unspoken, conscious and unconscious. Without such communication the individual remains undiscovered, lost in a limbo of unintelligible being.

So lack of community hollows out our inner life – confines us to ‘a limbo of unintelligible being’. Taylor introduces her bold statement with this one from her famous friend and sometime co-author, Adam Phillips from his book Missing out: ‘There is nothing … that can solve the problem that other people actually exist, and we are utterly dependent on them as actually existing, separate other people… [E]verything else follows from this.’

Note Phillips’s phrasing here: ‘actually existing, separate other people’. Christopher Bollas, in his book that I cited in the previous talk, vividly describes a tragicomic scene that we will all recognise: good friends meeting to share a meal and to ‘catch up’, but ending up spending most of the time on their phones. Privileging virtual entities over the flesh and blood friends actually present. ‘Virtuals’ over ‘actuals’.

Unmediated communication with actual others actually present is a rich, subtle and complex business. Meaning is communicated by words, yes, but also by gestures (including touch, perhaps), body language, tone of voice, facial expression, shifting direction of the gaze, intonation, hesitations, and so on. No wonder we find ‘talking’ among the activities of the body commended by the Buddha in his discourse on the focuses of awareness. There’s a lot going on right there!

So mediated communication (with the partial exception of audio-visual conversations) with virtuals is stunted, single-channel communication. In ID: The quest for meaning in the 21st century, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield warns that we actually stunt the development of our very brains if we habitually communicate with virtuals online instead of meeting up with actuals. Our brains need the complex challenge of unmediated interaction with actuals in order to develop physiologically.

And our hearts and minds certainly need to tap into the rich source of actual, dynamic community in order to deepen and expand our inner lives.

What sort of sangha?

The term ‘community’ refers to a process of interaction and bonding between people, not to a mere sum of the members of a group. A shared purpose provides the focus for the interaction and bonding in question. The community’s shared ethic drives it, and clarifies and supports the main ethical principles that its individual members each seek to cultivate and realise in their own life. It would be odd if it were otherwise – we humans are herd animals, after all.

We live in a wider, modern western culture with its own civic ethos that stresses equality and inclusiveness within the membership of any voluntary association. This in turn requires us to consort on democratic terms. A western sangha needs to honour these values above all. If we join in building a sangha, or join an existing one, we should demand that our age, gender, ethnicity and all the other ascribed differences that constitute our identity, are accepted equally, and without question.

These requirements flatly contradict the sangha models we find in the traditional Buddhist world. In almost all cases women are institutionally or informally marginalised and subordinated.

Monastics are exalted over lay people. Authority is exercised according to monastic or quasi-monastic rank. Vertical communication trumps the horizontal alternative. In the Theravāda school, the word ‘sangha’ itself is reserved for the monastic collective – which leaves one wondering under what name the fellowship of lay practitioners is to be known and honoured.

The modern western sangha thus represents a radical departure from the organisational model that comes down to us through the Asian lineages. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that whether a sangha thrives or not is the responsibility of each of us members. It doesn’t belong to a service industry: having decided to participate in it, we can’t just grump about the quality of its ‘services’ and walk away. Each of us must own and seek to identify and overcome the sangha’s shortfalls. They’re not someone else’s responsibility.

One final, important requirement: our sangha must have humour pumping through its veins. As we delve into our inner lives, we’ll find plenty to laugh about. And remember to look for the aha! moment each time you do have a laugh. It could be a vital awakening moment!

• This talk was given to a daylong workshop in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand on 16 Feb 2019. Audio of this talk can be found at: