Taking refuge in … what? Sangha Edition

This post is the fourth in a series on the Zen precepts. If you want to start at the beginning, you can start here.

Sangha is a relatively new development in my Zen practice. I did not officially join a sangha until 2007 when I began attending sesshins in Atlanta with our guiding teacher Taiun Elliston, and not even officially-officially until I received Jukai in 2008. Before then I was an attendee at a series of Zen groups in the different places I lived, but I did not have a teacher. Beyond that, I did not feel a part of any community. This was, in part, a geographic issue, related to the now-standard itinerant nature of early-career academia. I did not want to make a commitment to a group or teacher not knowing how long I might be in a particular location.

However, there comes a point in everyone’s practice, when it becomes necessary to have a teacher and a community. I moved to Little Rock in 2005 and slowly came to the realization that my practice would not grow through haphazard daily sitting and the occasional Buddhist-related book. I felt unmoored, even spiritually bereft at times, and a CBS Sunday Morning broadcast sometime in early 2007 brought that to full consciousness for me. They did a story on Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, and it showed images of people sitting and practicing and living together in community. I was touched so deeply I began to cry. Immediately after the broadcast, I looked up GGF online and found that they took guest students during the summer. By the next day I had sent off an application for a two-week stint that coming May. Meanwhile, I made a commitment to more dedicated daily practice and attended some of the different groups at the local Buddhist center.MZC3

While at GGF, I got a taste of what it was like living in community, and I had the immediate sense of feeling at home, like an accepted part of a big family. In fact, I know for certain that if I had been aware of this option when I was in my twenties, I would have bagged everything and moved out there or to a place like it. But by then I was in my mid-30s. I had a life, relationships, responsibilities that I could not rightfully abandon, as much as I felt deeply pulled towards monastic training. I realized that the only viable compromise would be to join a sangha and practice as much as I possibly could under the circumstances. The nearest Soto practice centers were in Atlanta and Austin. The Atlanta Soto Zen Center was slightly closer, geographically, and they had a sesshin set for the upcoming Labor Day weekend. I attended it and every one I could make it to after that.

MZC2At a certain point, however, even practicing with a long-distance sangha still left me feeling somewhat disconnected, and I came to realize that there was no substitute for a local sangha. Elliston-Roshi entrusted me with Zaike Tokudo (lay ordination) and suggested I start a group here in Memphis, where I’ve lived since 2010. I took steps to make this happen starting in 2011 and began a weekly sitting group by early 2012.

Memphis Zen Community has had its ups and downs and false starts since then, but after we moved to our current location, things have really gelled. Especially within the last year, a true sangha has formed. And by “sangha,” I don’t necessarily mean a specific group of people, but rather a tangible synergy that has taken on a life of its own beyond the sum of the people who have chosen to make their Zen home with us. Newcomers feel it when they join us for the first time. There is a sense of acceptance, curiosity, and fun within our group, even as we strive to honor Soto tradition in our practice. Having never been a part of a local sangha before, my practice has grown immensely by taking part in the group.

When we chant the refuges in English, the third refuge in its complete form goes, “I take refuge in sangha, the harmonious community.” Taking refuge in sangha is a lot like the refuge one (hopefully) takes as a member of a family: beyond any minor ripples or annoyances, at the end of the day it is about caring and acceptance. We are that modern institution called “family of choice.” We live in an increasingly itinerant world where biological families become separated geographically and otherwise. Sangha, I have come to discover, makes tangible the sometimes abstract-seeming Buddhist concept of interconnectedness or interdependence.

Sangha is an opportunity to practice the precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path in an intentional way with others. We create a space that is conducive to practice and welcoming to newcomers. We perform little kindnesses for each other. It is a place to train in how to treat others in our everyday lives: giving folks the benefit of the doubt, listening to them wholeheartedly, and challenging each other to deepen our practice. And being serious practitioners who don’t take themselves too seriously we also laugh a lot.

Notice that the beginning of this post, where I write about my pre-sangha life, there is a lot of “I.” And suddenly it turns to “we.” Sangha shows us that we are not alone, that we’re not these disconnected entities that have no bearing on one another. We are in a constant practice of co-creating the community, and each newcomer and each member matters a great deal. That is the meaning of refuge in sangha.

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