DT-The Sangha as a Refuge

Historically, the community of monastics who followed the Buddha’s teachings was called a sangha. The first sangha consisted of five ascetic friends who had practiced with the Buddha before his enlightenment. After listening to his initial sermon about the Four Noble Truths, the five monks became his disciples. They assisted him as travelled around northern India and helped to spread Dharma teachings to an ever-growing sangha of monks and lay people.

During his 45 years of teaching, the Buddha attracted a wide range of followers from across the social spectrum, including spiritual seekers, kings, queens, farmers, and laborers. As monks and nuns gathered in spiritual communities, they developed rules to guide harmonious relationships. Eventually, monastic sanghas abided by several hundred rules. In neighborhoods within walking distance of monasteries, lay disciples still support monks and nuns by offering them food and clothing on their early morning alms rounds.

Over time, sangha has come to mean taking refuge in noble friendship (kalyanamitta). Ajahn Sundara writes that sangha “symbolizes the community of men and women, ordained or [lay], who have taken refuge in living wisely and compassionately, in accord with the dharma.” He feels grateful to his monastic sangha for providing him with the guidance and protection of following the precepts. In his words, “I was always very good at knowing what I should do, what I should be…. But somehow the energy of my desires had a very different agenda. My self-gratifying habits on the one hand and my yearning for truth on the other didn’t meet.”

In a sangha, spiritual friends help one another to live ethically and to respect all living beings. Within a community of mutual respect, each person is motivated to be wholesome in thoughts, words, and actions. There is a shared commitment to nurture inner and outer peace and to practice liberation from ignorance. The venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh taught that “Sangha is a community of friends practicing awareness, understanding, and love together.”

Sensei Koshin jokes that sangha is like a water barrel full of dirty potatoes that gradually rub one another clean. Rather than aiming for perfectionism, we recognize that all of us have eccentricities that can enrich the group as a whole.

Koshin points out that sangha gives each participant opportunities to explore what it means to belong. In community, we practice speaking truthfully, kindly, and courageously. Each of us finds our unique expression in relationships. In that process, we face what holds us back from being intimate with one another,

and we all carry responsibility for creating an atmosphere of harmony or discord in the community. 

Taking refuge in the sangha reminds us that we are not separate from one another, and that everything we do affects the whole community. Sensei Chodo likens sangha to rough stones in a river smoothing one another. He admits that, like other survivors of a dysfunctional childhood, he was a loner for many years. His attitude was, “I don’t need anyone.” Gradually, as he sat in a Zen community and observed individuals dedicated to waking up together, he softened and received the support of his fellow practitioners. Now he sees that community as one of the greatest gifts in his life.

We know in our own experience how much patience and compassion are required to train the body and mind. Each of us has strong conditioned habits. Spiritual friends can help us to uncover blind spots, to forgive unskillful behaviors, and to encourage skillful alternatives. In a sangha, we can let go of competitive relationships and drop our tendency to compare ourselves with others. Because our shared dharma practice emphasizes the essential Buddha nature in each person, we become less and less interested in evaluating ourselves as superior or inferior to anyone else. As we follow the dharma path together in a sangha, we find joy in cooperating and collaborating. 

The first night of last week’s Zen sesshin, I dreamed that I wake up in my assigned room and find the roof leaking. As the floor starts to flood, I hurry to collect my belongings and pile them on the bed above water level. Then I run downstairs to the basement for help. Instead of a maintenance crew, I find a dharma friend from the sangha. She listens compassionately but is unable to repair my leaky ceiling. Two young male newcomers to the sangha overhear us and kindly volunteer to move the bed out of my room to dry. Thanking the retreatants, I’m grateful to them for going out of their way to assist me.

Outside the bedroom window, I see the elegantly dressed owner of the retreat center lounging in an easy chair and chatting with the director of maintenance. Indignantly, I go to confront them about their lack of vigilance about holes in the roof. The owner is defensive. Although the maintenance director sympathizes with me, she cannot address the problem immediately. It’s clear that I must tend to the leaky ceiling myself and that I can depend on the support of the sangha.

When I awoke from this dream, I faced how my mind was inundated with thoughts that were leaking and preventing me from being present in the moment.

As I joined the sangha for meditation practice, the dream’s symbolism renewed my motivation. I imagined each mindful breath helping to repair my leaky mind. And I was aware of receiving supportive energy from the concentrated efforts of 100 meditators around me. 

The three refuges interrelate and reinforce one another. Sometimes the Buddha is compared to a doctor, the Dharma to good medicine, and the Sangha to a group of devoted nurses who encourage one another to live in healthy and wholesome ways. Ajahn Sundara writes, “When there is virtue and the intention to live harmoniously, with compassion and respect for oneself and [for others], then there’s a naturally growing awareness, in harmony with the Dharma, and we are more attuned to the truth.” In taking the three refuges, we have all the support we need to wake up and to liberate our hearts.