My Year In Institutional Buddhism

[Editor’s note: I began writing this article three months ago, but held back on publishing it until now. It has been revised several times, and I reserve the right to revise it again. But I stand behind everything I say here, as this is a reflection of my direct experience of Buddhism.]

“We must surrender our hopes and expectations, as well as our fears, and march directly into disappointment, work with disappointment, go into it, and make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do. Disappointment is a a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else: it is so sharp, precise, obvious, and direct. If we can open, then we suddenly begin to see that our expectations are irrelevant compared with the reality of the situations we are facing.”

― Chögyam Trungpa

“Be open to explore, be open to non-existence, be open to being disappointed, finding nothing.” -Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Ironic, isn’t it? how this quote from my teachers perfectly describe my experience of institutional Buddhism in the last 12 months. I came, I explored; but for a few friends, I found little of substance that actually worked as relationships that support spiritual growth. I was hugely disappointed, and indeed, on the whole, I found. . . nothing.

I remember when I was talking excitedly with my friends in Fredericton that I was going to Halifax to a Buddhist church, to its largest sangha and the international headquarters of the community. Our local shastri (teacher) leaned over to me and said (paraphrasing), “Now you will see the real neurosis that drives this community.” Duly noted, I thought; I filed that in the back of my mind.

Up until then, I had gone to the local Buddhist centre just to meditate. I never took courses, never did weekend retreats. I never formally became a member, except to be helpful where I could and make donations toward the upkeep of the centre. The sangha that ran the centre was not one that I thought I “belonged to”; it was just the place where I went to meditate on a weekly basis.

After four years of this, I was offered a job in Halifax, and with it, I thought, an opportunity to really get on the inside of a Buddhist organization. I was going to take courses, go on retreats, deeply practice meditation, and maybe even become a member of a Buddhist church.

My year in institutional Buddhism has been both amazing and awful. I’ve had many intensely beautiful experiences and leaned a lot; but I also saw some pretty ugly things that I can’t quite stomach. First and foremost, Buddhism is highly classist; Buddhism is for the rich and upper-middle class. It is structured to shut out the poor and working class. If you are not rich enough, not educated enough, and don’t display the right class markers in terms of consumption and behaviour, you will most likely not feel welcome in most Buddhist sanghas. You certainly won’t be able to afford most of the services offered.

But of course, they don’t see themselves that way. They’re impervious to the same kinds of social critique that we apply de rigueur to any religious institution. Don’t challenge them on classism, sexism, racism, or any of the other “isms”. They are holier than “holier-than-thou”; how dare you even broach the subject? Buddhadharma is perfect, so they are obviously “above all that.” They have transcended this world, implying, in essence, that they have transcended capitalism, another smokescreen of their privileged class status. In fact, they are the capitalists.

If you come with a lifetime of education and experience that has taught you a few things about wisdom, forget all that, it’s of no use. You may only think, speak and act according to the buddhadharma as they teach it, (if you think at all), and you must hide what you know otherwise. Insist on using what you know and you are denounced as an “intellectual”, which in American Buddhist culture is synonymous with “frequenter of pornographic movie theatres.” Don’t bother to ask questions about anything; they don’t have any answers, so they take it as an insult. You’re just being a smartass.

Second, it is highly patriarchal and very white, with straight white males controlling everything and running the show. Women often do the day-to-day work in the sanghas, but they run them under the thumbs of men who are either lamas or senior teachers or husbands. Some of these men are abusive and have no sense of the harm they do to others.

Institutional Buddhism is also very cult-like, centred around a guru or the core leaders of a sangha, through which people establish authoritative regimes that they impose on everyone else. Because of this cult-like behaviour, it resists any challenge to it’s ideology and practice.


From the moment you walk into a Buddhist shrine or temple (or rented yoga studio), you are taught that Buddhists take refuge in three things: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Okay on the first one, Sid (Siddhartha, Gautama) is still number one in my book of yogis who taught a path to liberation. And good on the second one too, because the more dharma I learn, the more my curiosity and fascination is aroused to learn more, and much of what I learn is of direct benefit for dealing with my overly complex and confusing life.

It’s number three that’s got me spinning here. Take refuge in the sangha. That sounds like you are going to find some “refuge” in these places, something like safety, like warmth, like standing in a bus shelter in the rain. It gives one the sense that this group of people can be trusted, relied upon, a group that you can draw from and also contribute to, give of yourself, your friendship, your time, talent and energy. Nothing could be further from the truth of my experience, at least. My year in institutional Buddhism was so far from that ideal it makes me wonder why we even attest to this third “refuge.” It seems like a total dissimulation. Worse that that, it creates a false sense of security that there is something exceptional about sangha, something sacred and almost divine that has the power to promote your ultimate enlightenment.

Let’s go to another Sanskrit word in the examination of this issue: samsara. Because, truthfully, that’s what sangha is in actual experience: sangha is samsara, the whole brutally confused mess of human power trips, hierarchies, delusions, deceptions, denial, betrayal, resentment; and an encyclopedia of “isms”: ableism, cisgenderism, classism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, all at play in a tangled web of relationships. It’s samsara, and it works exactly the same way that samsara operates in the “outside world”, that vast territory that lies outside the supposed shelter or “refuge” of Buddhist sangha.

Only, that’s not what’s on display when you walk through the sparsely decorated and incensed halls of your Buddhist sangha. Everyone seems so. .  . nice; peaceful, calm, always polite, smiling blissfully, attending to themselves and others as needed, making pleasant conversation, being pleasantly helpful, listening attentively, offering verbal support and an occasional hug.

So long as you can maintain the initial delusion that sangha is exceptional, things are copacetic, for a while at least. But in the seamless, gauzy haze of specialness that is sangha, you start noticing little holes, tears, rips, gaps, and those gaps get bigger as time goes on. They become patterns of interaction that work like the supple diamond-shaped holes of a woven fishing net. They become snares, nets that capture you in moments of verbal abuse, derision, subtle put-downs that leave you in a state of anguish, confusion, and powerlessness. You are caught blindsided, you weren’t expecting that, you had no idea where that was coming from. So then you are prompted to dismiss those moments as products of your own confused projections. You must prove once again that you are worthy of belonging to their special company, so you act nicer, kinder, more understanding. You are expected to ignore the regular sequence of insults that you are subjected to. And you are expected to become ever more blind to the insidious power-trips and hierarchies that are at the core of sangha relationships. Sangha, for me, has not been so much about mindfulness, but mindfuck.

Should you begin to point out this pattern of abuse and oppression, you are quickly cast into the role of “trouble-maker”, a neurotic malcontent who just can’t get along with others. If you don’t agree with a particular teaching or dharma, if you don’t like the political stance of the sangha on a particular issue, if you dare to simply ask questions about what you are being taught, you quickly find yourself persona non grata. You already have one foot out the door.

Then there is what you are trying to give to a sangha, your particular gifts, talent and energy. Good luck with that. I quickly found out that none of them really wanted what I had to offer. Instead, I had to find places outside the sangha where my gifts would be used and appreciated. You try to give your friendship, your loyalty and support. But it’s not really welcome; its considered intrusive, clingy, dependent. It is construed, not as love, but as the greatest Buddhist evil of all, attachment. Better to offer your upscale suburban home as a place for dinner for sangha members, where you can show off your largesse, your upper middle-class status. That’s much more appreciated amongst sangha members, especially if you’re a gourmet cook and serve really expensive wine.

In my year in institutional Buddhism, I’ve learned that sangha is samsara. But if you can “take refuge” in the samsara of sangha, then what’s so special about that? You can just as well “take refuge” in the samsara that is the rest of human civilization. And you’ll probably learn more, love more, and have more to give.

The counter-argument is that, true, sangha is the place where you come into close contact with the brutal mess of human failures, including your own, so that you can intensively work out your karma in a Buddhist context until you are fully awakened. But again, you can do the same “out there” as well. You don’t need to belong to a special group of Buddhists to free yourself from said brutal mess. You just need to belong to that ubiquitous breed of social predators known as homo sapiens.

I have spoken about my issues with Buddhist communities with a long-time member of the community. He confirms that to expect the community to support you with genuine friendship through the slings and arrows of life is to expect too much:

Let’s talk about the specific manifestation of the Buddhist community of Halifax. It’s a very small group of people, mostly straight, white, middle-class, old people like me who have connected with or are inspired by the Buddhist teachings as presented by a lama. Is this a diverse, warm, supportive and welcoming community? No. Is that troubling to me? Yes. . . That a certain Buddhist community in Halifax has not met your needs as a supportive community, etc. for all the reasons you mention is no surprise to me—how could it? What were you thinking? Seems like a pretty high level of expectation to lay on this group with all it’s obvious shortcomings and imperfections.

So lower your expectations; the “refuge” here is less like a warm, inviting home and more like a room at a roadside motel. But is this the necessary result of being a Buddhist community? Or is it the way that some communities choose to relate to each other?

Sangharakshita, founder of Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, said that top-heavy, guru-centred sanghas tend to produce “vertical relationships” where people compete for status in the community, in order to climb the hierarchy and be closer to the guru. But it doesn’t have to be that way. He said that a Buddhist community should be based on genuine friendship and mutual support:

One of the points that emerged from my recent discussions with Buddhists in America was that not enough emphasis had been placed on what we call “horizontal spiritual friendship.” Instead the emphasis tends to be on the relationship with the teacher—what we call “vertical spiritual friendship.” One of the practical consequences of this has been that when a teacher has died, the people who were supposed to continue his tradition found out that they hardly knew one another; of course, difficulties arose. So, in the FWBO, we stress both equally: your friendships with those with more experience than yourself as well as with those who are roughly at the same level. It is important to have strong spiritual friendships—not spiritual in the rarefied sense, but in a really down-to-earth way, to have good friends in the dharma with whom you can talk things over, share experiences, share difficulties and whose spiritual support you’re assured of.

Thus, the expectation that a Buddhist community should be a warm and supportive sangha, one that you can take refuge in, is not too much to ask, but it is very hard to find.

We are taught in Buddhism, as well, that before you choose a guru, especially one who will take you on that wild ride through Vajrayana, you should examine your teacher from a distance, very carefully, and for a long, long time. Because once you make the vow of samaya with the guru, you are bound to him or her for the rest of your life, and perhaps into your next life, if there is such a thing.

I would say, same goes for sangha as well. Krishna Das, who practices in both Yogic and Dzogchen Buddhist traditions, said in a recent talk: “Learn from many teachers and communities, but never join anything. If you join, you set yourself up to be exploited.”

Don’t be too quick to become a member of a Buddhist organization; don’t allow yourself to get caught up or coerced by the social pressure to join. If you feel that you don’t quite trust your prospective sangha, that you don’t feel comfortable with them or certain key people in the sangha, listen to your gut. You should examine and test a prospective sangha the same way you examine and test a prospective guru: very carefully, from a distance, for a long, long time.

Buddhism itself has certain tendencies in the doctrine that create conditions that allow people to misconstrue or avoid reality. The third refuge of Buddhism, taking refuge in the sangha, is a foundational doctrine that can mislead one to believe that one should take refuge in the Buddhist organization that one currently practices in, or in the institution (lineage) that one currently practices in. The doctrine itself can provoke an unearned trust in a group, organization or institution that has not proven itself to be trustworthy. Trust in the doctrine of taking refuge in the sangha  as an essential Buddhist practice can lead to a misplaced trust in people or groups that are not worthy of your trust.

Through rigorous and patient testing, the group or organization should prove to you that they are trustworthy, that they are not exploitative, dismissive, prejudiced, or oppressive. They should prove to you, over a long period of time, that they are supportive, kind, and do not practice oppressive forms of discrimination, such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, classism, or other “isms”. They must at least regularly and actively examine their process as a community to identify these kinds of social oppressions and work to correct them.

I have yet to find such a Buddhist group. The “sangha” that I take refuge in now is not a Buddhist organization or institution, but in the teachers who have taught and inspired me—both Buddhist and non-Buddhist—and in the fellow travellers with whom I have engaged in mutual support along the way—both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

I accept that Buddhist organizations are made of humans that are as conniving, neurotic and self-deceiving as humans generally are, especially in religious organizations. It was a shock to go through this awakening about Buddhism itself, but now that I have, I can begin to practice and study Buddhism with the kind of detachment and critical view that will facilitate more awakening. I can benefit from Buddhism while also remaining skeptical and finding for myself my path to awakening through the dharma. I will not accept teachings at face value, as true just because “the Buddha” or some lama in robes said so. I will continue to rigorously challenge and test Buddhism against my own intelligence and experience.  As for the third refuge, I have left institutional Buddhism altogether and have begun practicing, with a huge sense of freedom, as a post-Buddhism Buddhist.

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