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What Makes a Sangha?

by Fleda BrownAugust 08, 2011

“All the siblings in my family are authentic members of my family. Because our identity doesn’t depend on our possessing some unchanging “common thing,” we don’t have to argue over who has more of it.If we understand identity in this way, all Buddhists are 100 percent Buddhist. ”

This is a quote from an article by Linda Heuman in this summer’s issue of Tricycle. It’s long, but it’s worth it and it’s right on the subject of the book we’re reading now, Joseph Goldstein’s book, One Dharma.  I would sum up the article this way: Recent discoveries indicate that Buddhism didn’t evolve like a tree, with one “original” trunk and a lot of later branches. It evolved more like a bush, with a lot of different branches springing up almost immediately and simultaneously.

I’m thinking about our own local sangha.  I’m asking myself a question:  “What IS our sangha?” We vary week to week—from six or seven people to as many as 25 sometimes. Some people come rarely; some come often. Some are deeply committed to the practice; some are not so sure but are trying it out.  Some have trouble staying with it but keep returning to try again. Three of our group regularly attend long Vipassana retreats. Several of us have a Zen teacher and many of us have done longer retreats in that context. One has just taken refuges in the Shambala tradition. A few engage in serious study of Buddhist texts. A few don’t care to read anything and just want to sit. Some are in between. Some who would consider themselves part of our sangha don’t ever come to sit with us because their lives or the day we meet makes it impossible. But they read what we’re doing and write to let me know that. Some sit with us in their own homes at the same time we’re sitting at the UU and let me know they’re doing that.

What do we have in common that makes us a sangha? What do the branches of Buddhism have in common? That’s not hard to figure. As one group member said last week: We have the four noble truths. We are aware that there is suffering; we know there is a cause of suffering; we know there is a way to end suffering; and we know that following the eightfold path will do that.

These may sound like a set of beliefs—an “unchanging, common thing”—but that’s not it, is it? We’ve acknowledged our suffering, and then we have these guidelines we can follow to see if this path does what it claims. As Bob Brown frequently says, “Don’t take my word for it.”

As we know, there are many bells and whistles, incense and chanting connected with some branches of Buddhism. It has evolved into a religion. Whether we choose to engage in those religious practices has to do with our own temperament and our own needs. What will help us wake up? What do we need?  What do we not need? This is not a question to be answered quickly, I’d say, but one to stay open to, moment by moment. What do I need right now?

We need the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—we know that. Each of those is a many-faceted jewel that cannot be easily defined.  As the saying goes, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” If you think you’ve met the Buddha, you’d better think again.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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