Sangha or Samsara?

What am I Taking Refuge in?

I’ve been over this about a million times since I made Refuge vows in 2011. What is the sangha, and what the hell am I Taking Refuge in? My bewildering experience with two Buddhist communities in 2013 and 2014 just added to the frustration and confusion. (See “My Year In Institutional Buddhism” for a synopsis.)

imagesI’ve been associated with Triratna Buddhist Community for barely three months, but some of that confusion is starting to abate. And I have to give credit where credit is due. Sangharakshita. the founder of the Triratna Order, explains repeatedly that a Buddhist organization is not a sangha. A Buddhist organization or community is a group, and as a group, it is subject to group dynamics, herd-mentality, group think, competition, pressure to conform, one-ups-manship, power trips, etc; all the crap that I associate, not with sangha,, but with samsara. Most Buddhist organizations are samsara it’s the same shit and works the same way. This was the intuitive conclusion I came to, based on my experience in two Buddhist communities.

Sangharakshita teaches that a sangha is a spiritual community, and he insists that a Buddhist group is not a spiritual community. It is a group of people attempting to become a spiritual community. Bhante defines a spiritual community as a network of individuals that inspire and support one another along the path to awakening.

Bhante’s teaching helped me to further separate the Buddhist community from the idea of sangha. Some teachers call it the Noble Sangha, to distinguish it from the typical Buddhist organization. The Noble Sangha, as I’ve read many times, is that lineage of teachers and enlightened practitioners who have set an example for our spiritual practice, who inspire us on the path.

But I will go beyond this traditional notion of Noble Sangha, and even one step beyond the teaching of Sangharakshita. The sangha is the process of awakening that is inspired and shared by a network of practitioners. So the distinction is this: don’t confuse the process with the people. The sangha that I Take Refuge in is not the people, not the group, not the teacher, and not the organization or community. The Sangha is that transformative moment, however brief, when my interaction with other practitioners leads to spiritual growth. It’s a process, not a group of people.

That doesn’t mean that the only time I experience sangha is when I’m blissed out and everything is groovy with the folks around me; we’re all getting along great and everything feels good. As we all know, most spiritual growth is painful and difficult. I experience the most growth when my weaknesses and faults are being challenged. Even worse, sangha appears when I have to deal with other people’s shit, as they are working out their own awakening—on me, thank you very much.

tumblr_ktodsak4sA1qzzx47o1_400I must also attribute my understanding of sangha as phenomenon to the German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, who has been a huge influence on my academic work. Luhmann was a phenomenologist who theorized the cybernetic society, society as a process of communication. He made the quite controversial argument that the social is not the group, or the individuals involved a group. The social is communication, the event they share in common, the process of interaction that becomes formulated as a social system.

So the Buddhist community or organization is indeed samsara. It is filled with oppressive power dynamics (not to mention racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, and the exclusion of the disabled and the poor). BUT samsara becomes nirvana, that is, group becomes sangha, when the process of interaction between members leads to spiritual transformation and support for each other on the path to awakening.

To see how this process of creating sacred community relates to race relations in the United States, see the article below: “In Order to Form a More Perfect Union”


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