Community as Practice

Wynn Fricke, leader of Common Ground Sangha in Minneapolis, MN, began her presentation by reviewing the evolution of her meditation community from its start in 1993 to its current non-profit status. As an impetus for discussion, Wynn used a book chapter (previously sent to InterSangha participants), titled The Challenge of Community by Ajahn Tiradhammo. The author was born in 1949 in Canada and became a student of Ajahn Chah, an esteemed Thai forest monk, before moving to monastic communities, first in England and then in New Zealand.

In his article, Ajahn Tiradhammo describes Thai attitudes of non-confrontation and of unquestioning obedience to authority figures, which did not work in monastic communities in England. He listed the following impediments to smoothly functioning communities:

  1. Poor awareness of inner process
  2. High-minded idealism that denies the “Shadow” (spiritual bypassing)
  3. The “schizoid defense” of withdrawal into elevated states
  4. Taboos about community norms (exclusivity and “group think”), which stifle individuality and diversity.

Ajahn Tiradhammo recommends listening circles to discuss conflicts. He views careful attention to community as a priceless opportunity for developing compassion and suggests three categories for discussion:

  • Leadership dynamics (teacher-student relationships)
  • Personal dynamics (mastery versus magic in leadership)
  • Conformity versus diversity (homogeneity versus individuality).

Referring to the first category of leadership dynamics, Wynn reviewed the power issues that can arise in teacher-student relationships, whether community leadership occurs by position, by attainment, or by default. Even in the ideal situation of a wise community elder, sage consultants are necessary. Some leaders tend to “over-spiritualize” and pontificate, “All is empty.” Wynn mentioned three forms of charisma: authentic or natural, role or position-based, and neurotic (inflated or narcissistic). In the last case, the charismatic leader is unaware of misuse of power due to unconscious needs and lacks consciousness about followers’ projections and desire to please a guiding teacher.

In the second category of personal dynamics, Wynn warned that unprocessed spiritual and relationship issues are dangerous for sanghas. She commented on differences between Thai centralized leadership and Western sangha-led or peer-led leadership models. Relevant questions were, “How is leadership shared in sanghas?” and “Is there a balance between solitude and group friendship in meditation communities?”

Regarding the third category of conformity versus diversity or homogeneity versus individuality, Wynn proposed the following questions for InterSangha participants to discuss in small groups about their own Dharma communities: “Is there elitism in the sangha?” “What is the purpose or meaning of the sangha?” “How does the sangha define itself within and to outsiders?” “Is the meditation community restrictive or open, exclusive or inclusive?” “Are there any unspoken community assumptions?” and “Is the Shadow side addressed in the sangha?”

Wynn asked us to divide up into three groups, each discussing one of the three categories that she had outlined. In my group about leadership dynamics, three sanghas were experiencing the pulling-back of a guiding teacher, as he or she moves toward retirement. In all cases this brought some instability and reduction in membership, and sometimes included conflict. Sanghas that were more in a period of stability or even “revival” nonetheless noted that it is vital for leaders to have mentors or peers with whom to share issues of leadership.

In sum, our group agreed about the importance of regular individual practice and retreats for Dharma leaders and about the value of interaction and shared responsibilities among sangha members. Leadership change is a dynamic and challenging process, and is likely to become a central issue for Insight sanghas in the next decade as more of the elder teachers retire.

When the three discussion groups reconvened with one another, it was evident that each had discovered common areas of resonance, as well as wide variation in individual circumstances. Insight sanghas come from the same family, but are also as variegated as family members. Kim Allen reminded us, “Don’t expect a uniform level of diversity in all sanghas.” Wynn confirmed the need for time and space to care for healthy sanghas and invoked Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom about watering the right seeds with wise speech and a counsel process for decision-making.