Cultivating Healthy Community: towards a universal sangha

We are bombarded daily by reports of conflict, atrocities and proliferating social dysfunction. Surely many of us must be asking what, if anything, we can do about this nightmarish situation. The following essay is extracted from my e-book, “Sangha Work”.  Re-reading it the other day I felt it is as relevant today as it was when I initially wrote it 14 years ago.


All of life is relationship – relationship in action. Atoms are relationships of electrons, protons and neutrons. Molecules are relationships of atoms. Minerals are relationships of molecules. Cells are relationships of all the above, both within and outside the cell membrane. Groups of relatively stable relationships are communities. One person could be considered a community. Our body is a continent inhabited by countless micro beings, a living fabric of interacting relationships. This seemingly separate human body inhabits the relating bodies of others which we call the biosphere. The world is a sangha, a community of interbeing. It’s what we are. Relating is co-operating and in the co-operating, we form a larger whole. In spite of so much ambivalence and difficulties in the area of relationships, relating is not an option. It’s already happening. Rather than struggling over whether to relate or not, a much more meaningful question is how can we relate in ways that are healthy and support wellbeing in everyone?

Sangha is a Pali word meaning community. When I use the term ‘sangha work’ I am using the word ‘work’ in an intentionally ambiguous way. When we say a clock works, we mean it is able to keep the correct time – it’s functioning. Sangha work is the work of discovering real community and realising that it has been functioning well, since the beginning of life. The entire world is sangha in action. Sangha work is work to bring forth a knowing of community – a sangha that is an interweaving of the talents and energies of many beings which all together make up a larger, functioning whole. Sangha work is relationship work. It involves doing what is necessary to cultivate a potential that is in everyone – the potential of being profoundly present for each other. Sangha work is work to awaken our valuing of community. It is work to enable us to interact skilfully together, even when difficulties arise. Sangha work involves actively nourishing whatever strengthens community. It means living in a continuum of bright, alert, responsive, well grounded, presence. Sangha work supports us in waking up to the vastness of what we are and, in so doing, developing the strength and confidence to be able to appreciate and interact with a diversity of talents and understandings in others – talents and understandings that are sometimes very different from those that are in us. Pragmatically, sangha work is about exploring how we can live together in ways that are mutually supportive. This is dharma in action.

What is community? Where does it begin and end off? Are there different types of community? What is special about a dharma community or sangha? How can we deepen our understanding of community? How can we deal with problems that arise between community members? How can we raise community to the highest level rather than sinking, through the tyranny of the group, to the lowest common denominator? How can we support community while simultaneously supporting the uniqueness of each individual?

At the time of the Buddha, the sangha of dharma practitioners was not considered to be separate from the larger society. Both sangha and lay community were profoundly intermingled and intermeshed. Each supported, inspired and nourished the other at many levels. To really appreciate and understand this, you need to be open to the possibility of a well functioning culture with very different sets of values than those we have in the market driven world of today. I’m sure ancient Indian society had many traits that we could easily recognise. A caste system separated people according to ethnicities of money, vocation and religious beliefs – not much different from the social strata that we generally take for granted today. One big difference though was that in India there was a huge respect for people who left their worldly careers in order to pursue truth and the quest of enlightenment. One could shave one’s head and wear simple robes and be called a samana meaning “one who is calming, tranquillising, soothing, allaying, extinguishing or destroying the passions of attachment.” The word samana also has the flavour of one who is honoured or respected – honoured or respected for grappling directly with the great issues of how to live well as a living, conscious, thinking, feeling being, immersed in a matrix of mystery – a mystery of birth and death and grief and feelings and curiosity and wonderment – this world we humans inhabit.

Two thousand five hundred years ago in India, there were all kinds of religious orders: communities of naked ascetics, communities of renunciates, communities of forest dwellers, communities of sadhus. In the sutras, the Buddha often referred to these gatherings of yogis and meditators that acted as de-facto families and homes for aspiring seekers. The main stream society at the time of the Buddha, not only tolerated what today might be thought of as dropping out, dole bludging, or simply antisocial, neurotic or at least irresponsible behaviour but, by and large, admired this way of living and saw it as a heroic quest. Even though the average person may not have felt that they could follow such a path (calming, tranquillising, soothing, allaying, extinguishing or destroying the passions of attachment), they were often happy to feed and give support to those who tried to do so. It was a way of contributing to the well being of the greater society, of participating in a larger scope of meaning. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, the samanas of old held the prestige of astronauts today. They were the rare, brave, determined, explorers of the ‘beyond’. Their lives were a visible compass always pointing a path of sane, integrated living; a reminder of something extraordinarily precious yet freely available for everyone.

In the 1960s many of us tried to form communities that aspired to something more meaningful than making money and blindly increasing the human population. Unfortunately we identified with a word that eventually helped to marginalize a lot of the good efforts. The word I’m thinking of is ‘alternative’. We pursued and celebrated alternative life styles, alternative healing and so forth. This was an understandable attempt to separate ourselves from the madness of a society that was arming itself with nuclear weaponry, engaging in horrific wars over political ideology, and learning to methodically condition, through advertising, even in the youngest of children, a life-long insatiable desire for acquiring merchandise. Unfortunately, our attempts to distance ourselves from this insanity meant that these ‘alternatives’ were at best, tolerated as benign aberrations, and so they had very little direct effect on the lives of most of the human population. Many of my friends became interested in Buddhadharma in its various forms. They helped to create meditation centres in mountains and forests, and teaching houses in cities but, by and large, these efforts ended up as little cliques and clubs that fell short of positively influencing the direction of the larger society. In those youthful days, when we tried to build communities for dharma study and practice, it often involved cultivating a sense of being at least slightly morally superior to the rest of the population who seemed to be blindly supporting the collective madness. ‘Dropping-out’ became synonymous with being a great yogi and, filled with self righteousness, we tried to ignore the rest of the world in order to lead what we hoped would be more healthy lives. We had quite a strong sense of us and them; in the dharma and not in the dharma. When this ‘us-ing’ and ‘them-ing’ became strong, it actually hindered our ability to realise true sangha. Unbeknownst to us, it tended to obscure our knowing of the deep communal nature of everything

When the Buddha began to teach, many came and wanted to live and study with him. His presence inspired people to wake up from the murky conditioned dreams of greed, hatred and delusion. To be fair, he probably had a lot less competition. Try to imagine the Buddha arriving in New York city today. Supporters would place advertising in the New York Times for a weekend retreat. It would appear along with the other 450 ‘spiritual’ workshops and related activities happening that weekend, not to mention the movies, theatres, nightclubs and glittery shopping. Perhaps at the time of the Buddha, when he came to a village to teach, a much higher percentage of beings would attend. He was the best show going, perhaps the only show!

In those days, to be ordained into the sangha was very simple. The Buddha said “Ehi bhikkhu” and snapped his fingers and that was that. Ehi means come. Bhikkhu in this context means wander. Come wander forth for the good of the many folk. Right from the beginning there was a sense that joining the order meant going forth from a life of blind habit to a way of living that uplifted everyone. In Tibetan, the word for bhikkhu is gelongand it carries the additional meaning of ‘one who is free to ask question’. Ehi Bhikkhu could just as well mean; come, wander forth, freely questioning and investigating the natural world of inner and outer for the benefit of the entire community of life. My waking up inspires your waking up. Your waking up inspires my waking up. Our lives are profoundly interwoven at multiple levels of being – multiple streamings of becoming. There is an orderliness to life – the laws of nature. That is why entering the Buddhist sangha is sometimes called entering the Order. Becoming ordained.

I imagine a relatively small group of beings, living and studying the dharma together. The wider, extended community was happy to give them support in the form of food, clothing, medicine and shelter and, in return, the sangha provided a very visible example of sane and mindful living. In this way, the sangha supported the society and the society supported the sangha. Each benefited the other. Sangha was not an alternative lifestyle choice. It was a co-operative endeavour the entire society engaged in, to support community building. Today we could call this, ‘sangha work’, the work of discovering the true communal nature that we are.

As the years went by and the fame of the Buddha spread throughout the land, more and more people came to join the community. Five monks became ten, became five thousand and I imagine the Buddha could have spent all his time snapping his fingers and saying Ehi Bhikkhu.Eventually he allowed the senior monks to ordain beings into the sangha in the name of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. In those early years the sangha was small and the monks quite gifted in their aspiration to awaken for the sake of all beings. They spent their days in a continuous exploration and cultivation of compassionate awareness. As the Order grew, however, the calibre of the monks gradually diluted. What would you expect? You could be a servant and get ordained. With the snap of fingers, suddenly, the tables were turned and your former master would be offering you food with respectful bows. As Namgyal Rinpoche once remarked, a lot of monks were in it for a free lunch! They were not necessarily mature in their aspiration to cultivate wisdom and compassion for the sake of all beings. In the grip of desire and lust they would hunger after the visiting men and women and sometimes get sexually involved. They would speak angrily when caught up in frustration and, sometimes, when floundering in general confusion and unawareness, they would lose the inspiration to meditate or engage in any exploration or practice at all.

The lay community of supporters began to grumble. Why should we support these lazy do- nothings? They went to the Buddha and complained. Understanding the suffering that was arising in these situations and recognizing the importance of harmonious interactions between the ordained community and the lay community, the Buddha ‘allowed’ the monks to have more and more rules, guiding their behaviour. By time the teaching of Buddhadharma was established in Tibet, monks had more than 226 precepts! In the early days of the Buddha’s teaching it would take a matter of seconds to ordain someone. When I received the full ordination from His Holiness the 16th Karmapa the ceremony took more than two and a half hours and I was the only person being ordained at that time.

Today, in many Buddhist communities, there is a clearly visible gap between the ordained sangha and the lay community. This gap manifests in numerous ways and has contributed to many unhelpful attitudes and beliefs. Monks and nuns and the lay community are identified as separate from each other by the clothes they wear and the life styles they follow. Too often, there has developed a belief that only monks and nuns have any possibility of awakening and this tends to support further beliefs that the ordained sangha is somehow superior while lay people are inferior. These beliefs are mutually colluding and often actively carried by both groups. This sense of separation has lead to all sorts of conceits, rooted in comparisons such as better than, worse than or equal to. In the process, the living dharma which was originally to help beings cultivate wisdom and compassion has often become so utterly obscured under rules and rituals concerning ‘us’ and ‘them’ that the Buddha himself would have been saddened to see it.

Turning to sangha work today, could we cultivate a sense of dharma sangha that is thoroughly inclusive? Not a sangha of celibates but a lay bodhisattva sangha – a community of beings who are waking up to their interdependence with all living creatures and cultivating their abilities to be of service to others. Could we work towards a sangha that was visible and concrete enough to give people a sense of belonging to something wholesome and clearly defined, while at the same time, spacious and open enough to not exclude? This means not excluding others from the sangha but also, not excluding the sangha from others. Could we cultivate a lay sangha that is non-hierarchic, yet carries a deep valuing of the wisdom of experience of those that have lived and practised before us? Could we cultivate a vibrant appreciation for the talents and life experience of each of the current members of the community? Could we bring forth a sangha that has the strength and resilience to act as a place of refuge and support for its members when they are lost in states of difficulty while simultaneously being flexible and responsive to the needs of the surrounding larger world? Could we live as a community of friends in dharma who support each other on the path of awakening love and clear seeing and through this, become an inspiration for others even when they are from very different walks of life?

The year 2005 seems to be a time of mounting sectarianism. Fear is has become a tool of governance. Suspicion of difference is on the rise. Race, religion, economic status, and political affiliations have become powerful motors for divisiveness. The challenges of ecological change continue to grow and yet we humans seem to be retreating from addressing and exploring in any practical, meaningful way the huge question and immense implications of true sangha. How do we live well together on this cosmically tiny sphere of living rock we call planet earth? Who are we? What are we? Where do we begin? Where do we end off? What are we doing? How is what I am doing affecting what you are doing? How can a thinking feeling human being function well in this vast mystery? Contemplate the stars. Contemplate the creatures living in a drop of pond water. Marvel at how a caterpillar can transform into a butterfly, how the moon stays up in the sky, how an acorn becomes an oak, and further still, how it is possible to raise any of these questions in the first place. Just to embark on such questioning is to enter into sangha work.