Monday, August 6, 2007

Our Sangha

It's Monday morning. We drove back down to Laguna Beach on Saturday, and plan to spend the remainder of the summer in our little cottage here. (To clear up a misunderstanding from my last post: I used the word "retreat" very loosely. The Laguna cottage is simply our weekend and summer refuge from big city life. So I'll be posting as usual on The Buddha Diaries. Don't desert me... In fact, bring me your friends and relatives!) Yesterday, Sunday morning, we joined our sangha--our meditation sitting group--for the regular Sunday morning sit. For the past three months, it seems, we have been traveling, or staying in town for the weekend, or otherwise deterred, and our attendance has been inconsistent to say the least. So it was a joy to be back with the friends with whom we share this ritual of mind-work and spiritual connection.

Even though our attendance has been irregular, we have been aware of some discord between members of our usually harmonious group, and were not surprised when it came up for discussion yesterday, after the initial hour's silent sit. By no coincidence, the matter had been on my mind, and just the day before, Saturday morning early, I had sat down to put some thoughts together. (Remember my old adage: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?) So here's what I began to write, somewhat modified by yesterday's discussion:
Let me begin by saying how much I love our sangha—the meditation group of which I have been a part for now more than ten years. It’s a place where I have learned a great deal about inner peace and serenity, a great deal about the processes of my mind and the tricks it likes to play, a great deal about my life and the way I want to live it. I have learned a great deal, too, about the dharma--the Buddhist teachings--along with the understanding that there is a great deal more to be learned. And I have made deep and abiding friendships—friendships that transcend mundane, everyday contact and go to the heart and soul. These things I value more than I can say.

At the same time, I have been observing changes in our sangha in the past few months. Perhaps even the past few years. I understand that change is inevitable. And change is good. I do not want to be the stick-in-the-mud who resists it out of sheer intellectual inertia or, worse yet, laziness. But I want to acknowledge some discomfort with the changes I have observed, and perhaps to open this discomfort up for discussion at some appropriate moment in the group. (Which happened!)

What I have always loved about the group is its diversity. We all come from different social, educational and religious backgrounds, and we bring different interests and needs to our Sunday morning sit. We have respected each others’ contributions to our post-sit discussions, and have valued those who come from close personal experience as much as those who bring informed and knowledgeable insights, and whose passion directs them into deeper study of the historical and religious aspects of our common practice.

The change I have observed has been a movement toward an increasing emphasis on dogma—and I want to use that word initially without its frequently derogatory associations: it is, after all, another word for teaching. What I might call the “study group” quality of the sangha seems to to me to have gained in strength and in importance beside the more purely experiential values of sitting in meditation. And while I’m uncomfortable with the by-now easy and clich├ęd use of the words “spiritual” and “spirituality,” it seems to me that our orientation has become more religious/Buddhist and less lay/spiritual.

I make this observation not as an implied criticism of those of us who choose to put in the work and the study to deepen their practice. By no means. I honor their dedication and their pursuit of knowledge and further understanding. If I have not chosen to take this path more fully myself, it is partly due to the realities of my bifurcated life, living in two communities and lacking sufficient time in this particular one--Laguna--to attend the study sessions with any regularity. At the same time, I must freely acknowledge that there is choice in this: I would be dishonest in attributing it exclusively to the lack of time. As yet, the benefit I choose to derive from the practice is more about focus, concentration, mind-training and consciousness, than it is about religion. No, I respect that other path, even envy it a bit. My discomfort arises rather out of the sense of hierarchy and exclusion that threatens to accompany this change—and particularly from my having observed what I can only describe as dismissive reactions toward the less informed--or, indeed, the other-informed--amongst us in the past few months.

I think that I am by nature and intellectual bent a disestablishmentarian. (There. I’ve used a word I’ve always loved but never had cause to use before. I learned long ago—maybe wrongly, perhaps it was just teenage urban lore—that the longest word in the English language is "antidisestablishmentarianism," and I’m happy to be able to use even just a part of it!) For me, then, it’s not primarily about the dogma, even in the respected sense of that word; and I reactively shy away at the first sign that dogma shows signs of slipping across the line into dogmatism, a very different animal indeed. And--for me, again--it’s only partly about Buddhism, though I understand that Buddhism is at the core of it. I deeply value all that Than Geoff has brought to us as a teacher, and I feel honored by his commitment to bringing his wisdom to us; and while I have had less opportunity to learn from Bhante Ji’s teaching--Bhante Ji is the monk who visits our sangha on a yearly teaching break from his monastery in India--I understand that he has brought invaluable insights and experience to the group.

Amongst ourselves, however, as lay people, I have always appreciated the sense—though perhaps it was only my own!—that we are all teachers, and that respect for the variety of knowledge, background, interest, approach, level of experience and commitment is at the heart of what we do. There was, some of the longer-standing members of our group will recall, a moment at which a particular form of dogmatism threatened to take us over--a moment when many of us began to sense a dis-ease similar to the one of which I am now speaking. For myself, I take seriously the Buddha's injunction to take nothing as a matter of dogma, but rather to question everything, even his own teaching. And, as I look into my own mind and conscience, I must acknowledge emotional "ownership" of a significant part of my dis-ease: it is perhaps the result of wounds of childhood that I still carry with me a fundamental suspicion of all established religion, and I have not yet found away to exempt "Buddhism" from this deeply-rooted skepticism.
Well, I had not quite rounded out my thoughts, likely because I am not yet at the point where it's possible to round them out. I understand that the feelings I have been describing arise from judgments, and that my judgments have more to say about the person making them than about any "objective" reality. Still, I think they are feelings shared by others in the group, and I'm certainly happy that they came up, yesterday, for discussion. That fact alone suggests that my anxieties may be misplaced--and that the work I need to do, as usual, is on myself!

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1 comment:

Laurie said...


Loved your post about yesterday's discussion. I didn't get a chance to agree with your first comment: how important it is to be willing to give up our own need to be right in any discussion. There's the "being right" on a particular point I might want to make; and then there is the "being right" projection that comes unconsciously to the surface. It bubbles up from past patterns and style of speaking as when I used to argue with my father (and still do). I'm tired of that projection and want to expunge it from my mind; meditation has helped me at least see it, if not totally rid myself of it.

You wrote: "...I have always appreciated the sense—though perhaps it was only my own!—that we are all teachers... "

Yes, an idea I'm familiar with and hope to keep in my awareness as I go through life. How rich we are when we can learn from everyone and everything around us!

I'm always impressed by the articulateness (is that a word?) of some members of the Laguna group; my work is to learn and not envy those who can express their thoughts so with such facility.