Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Almost from the beginning of this blog, I have tried to understand what ‘sangha’ is, and what it means to ‘take refuge in the sangha’. I figured out a few things: first, it’s not the Buddhist organization you belong to, nor the lineage or tradition, nor students of the teacher or guru you follow (but it could be some of them). I found out that the sangha is not what most Buddhist organizations call the sangha i.e. it’s not the community of people you sit or study with (but it could be some of them.)
After a few years, I gave up looking for sangha in traditional Buddhist communities. So then I thought perhaps I would find sangha in ‘progressive activist’ Buddhist organizations. But here’s what I found out about those kinds of organizations as compared to traditional practice sanghas: same shit, different day. Or should I say, same shit, different conference call. Nope, didn’t find ‘sangha’ there either. They are every bit as narrow-minded, judgemental and vindictive as any other Buddhist “community” I’ve ever tried to join.
About a month ago I started watching a Netflix series called Sense8, directed by Lana Wachowski (a personal trans hero of mine). The interesting thing about this series is that in the first half of season one, you have no idea what it’s about. It just seems like random characters from different cultures around the world who are having these seemingly inexplicable experiences with each other. The focus on ‘sensate’ experience struck me as kind of “buddhisty”, so I decided I would not try to figure out the narrative, but just “experience it”, which is what you are encouraged to do. You find out that these ‘sensates’ are connecting psychically through a newly evolved part of the brain called the ‘sensorium’. This brain capacity makes them a kind of super-empath: they can telepathically speak to each other and share each others mental and physical experiences. The story develops and you find out they are all part of a “cluster” that were all born, psychically, on the same day. And so on, it’s a very interesting and compelling story; I encourage you to watch it. (Btw, this post also qualifies as my “Buddhist sci-fi” entry for the month.)
I’m now into season 2 of Sense8, and it’s starting to shift my understanding of what a sangha is. A sangha is a ‘cluster’, a network of individuals who are deeply connected to each other psychically: intellectually, emotionally, even physically. Moreover, I went back over the psychic connections I’ve had with people over the last eight years that I’ve been practicing Buddhism, as I do from time to time. And what emerged from me was this understanding that my sangha was my own ‘cluster’: a collection of individuals that I have met in connection with my journey through a dozen different Buddhist and spiritual organizations, individuals that I have had a deep and powerful connection with.
I met these individuals in various Buddhist organizations and spiritual contexts. I usually met one or two in every Buddhist organization I joined, except for a couple. (Most notably, I didn’t make any spiritual connections in the ‘progressive activist’ organizations I joined.) But those people that I did make those connections with were critically important to my spiritual path. In some cases, I would not have made any progress on the path at all were it not for their friendship and supportive influence. Let me give you some examples:
Kate, a yoga teacher and meditation practitioner, who became my dear friend. She did not call herself a ‘Buddhist’ at the time, but she encouraged my connection to Buddhism.
Theresa, my 12-Step sponsor, who was a sort of Christian mystic, but who was responsible for helping me make a giant leap into spirituality as part of recovery, and as a result, I took up meditation and Buddhism.
Melissa, who became my mentor in Shambhala, whom I connected with on a number of levels, as a Buddhist, as a queer, and as a person in recovery. Notably, when she left Shambhala, Halifax, I completely lost my connection to that organization and dropped out of it altogether.
Cathy, whom I met through Nalandbodhi. We shared the experience of having felt betrayed by that organization. We met on a monthly basis for almost two years as ‘Meta Buddhist Inquiry’, trying to sort out our connection to Buddhism. Our close friendship became critical to our psychic survival during that difficult period.
Mike, the one guy I could connect with from Nalandabodhi, who became a good friend and neighbour. Interestingly, I did not have the same connection with his partner Molly, or Nalandabodhi as a whole.
Swarna, from Atlantic Theravada, who became my dear friend, with whom I worked on several projects, including publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. She was the only person from that organization that I made a connection with.
Marjatta, a woman from Finland whom I met at New England Buddhist Vihara, where I have been sitting for almost a year. She is my only ‘connection’ in that group,
Vimilasara, who was the first person I met in Triratna Buddhist Community. She was critical to my involvement with that community.
Triratna Gender Diverse Buddhists, a group of transgender and non-binary gendered folks in Triratna. This is the only group that I have made a strong connection with. However, I do. not feel that same connection with Triratna as a whole.
I have also felt connected to certain teachers in various contexts, but it’s more distant than the personal friendships. Sangharakshita, leader of the Triratna community, is one that I feel some affinity with. David Loy has been a strong teaching connection for me, as is Andrew Olendski and Stephen Batchelor.
Joana Macy has been a very powerful teacher in my life, and a primary source of my awakening, though I have never met her.
Josh Korda is a strong teaching presence in my life, since I listen to hist podcast teachings almost daily.
Krishna Das, a yogi whom I connect with as a musician and who always seems to have some gem of insight that comes at critical moments in my life.
The 17th Karmapa has been a crucial teacher in my life, though I have only read two of his books, The Heart is Noble, and Interconnected. His teachings have nearly saved me at critical points on the path when I thought I would give up altogether.
These are just a few examples, but the point is that while no one organization has been sangha for me, one or two individuals in each organization have become critical friendships that kept me going on the path. Many of these individuals were Buddhists, some were not. Amongst the Buddhists, they came from many different traditions, Vajrayana, Theravada and Mahayana.
The critical point is that it doesn’t matter what lineage or tradition they practice, or even whether they are Buddhists. It doesn’t matter what organization or community they belong to. What matters is that I made a deeply meaningful, intuitive, vibrant, spiritual connection with them, that their friendship was critical for my spiritual growth, and that this connection was also deeply meaningful for them.
These disparate individuals are my sangha in the way that they are my ‘sensate cluster.’ I can connect with them any time, online or in person, and I know we will have that same deep love and connection. These are the kind of friendships that Buddha said are “the whole of the spiritual life”, a sangha that I can truly ‘take refuge’ in.
This year, I began a new project with my dear friend Vance, a gay man that I have been friends with for years as fellow queers in recovery, and with whom I also share an interest in meditation and dharma. Vance is clearly one of my ‘sensate cluster’. We are developing a new kind of sangha called “Queer Dharma Circle“. If you check out the website, you will notice that the word “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” does not appear anywhere on the website; that of course is intentional. We decided from the beginning that we didn’t want to limit participation to only Buddhists. We wanted to reach out to a broad spectrum of queers and people in recovery, people who were interested in diverse forms and facets of spirituality.
I realize that what we are creating is a place for people to meet other spiritual seekers of the dharma vein (Buddhist, Hindu, yoga, pagan), a place where they might find and connect with a spiritual friend. Queer Dharma Circle is a place where people might connect with a ‘cluster’, or with someone who becomes one of their ‘cluster’. As such, Queer Dharma Circle doesn’t strive to be a sangha for anyone (although it could be for some people), but aims to foster connections between people on their individual and collective paths.
What I learned from all this is critically important going forward: first, stop looking for sangha in a particular Buddhist or spiritual organization, a particular teacher or guru, or a certain lineage or tradition of practice. Second, start looking for those individuals whom I can make that deeply meaningful, intuitive, vibrant connection with, who may become part of my ‘sensate cluster’, my true sangha. Third, be open to meeting your ‘cluster’ sangha anywhere, in any context that is conducive to a spiritual connection, even a walk in the park, because you never know where you might meet the next sensate in your cluster.