Discovering the Jewel of the Sangha: Clarifying the Purpose of Sangha & Community


MSB Archive Newsletter Article by Vernon Mizner, Khenchung, first published in 1995

This months’ Study and Practice article is about the importance of Sangha. The points mentioned here are primarily a summary of comments Rinpoche has made over the years concerning Sangha, as well as some of my own contemplations based upon Rinpoche's teachings on this subject. Any misunderstandings are my own.

Three Jewels as Ground and Fruition

We all have some understanding of the Three Jewels as the basis of the path. Without the Three Jewels, there wouldn't even be a path per se. For those who have studied the Uttaratantra Shastra (Buddha Nature teachings), you may remember that not only are the Three Jewels the basis of the path, but they are the fruition of the path as well. For most people, there is very little difficulty in understanding the importance of the Buddha as guide and the Dharma as the teachings of the path, and the enlightened Sangha as companions and examples of how to be on the path. But for many however, there is some confusion or lack of clarity concerning the importance of Sangha as fellow travelers on the path. Sure, we know how Sangha is important somehow, but we may not know precisely how that is so. In this article, I hope to address some of the general aspects of how Sangha is important, as well as how an understanding of that (or lack of) may manifest outwardly.

There are many things one could say about Sangha. From a large view, the Sangha is the community of practitioners who are committed to an enlightened path. There are many levels of Sanghas: there is the larger Buddhist Sangha, consisting of all followers of the Buddha's teachings. There is a Sangha of practitioners of a particular type of Buddhist teachings—i.e. Theravada sangha, Vajrayana sangha, Zen sangha, etc. Within the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there are Sanghas focusing on particular lineage teachings as well. The closest Sangha is that of one's own Root Guru, and within that, the practitioners bound by the Vajrayana samayas. But most importantly, our understanding of Sangha must come from our understanding of what the enlightened path is and how to attain the fruition of that path.

Examining Our Narrow Views on Sangha

As Rinpoche has spoken of in the past, the teachings certainly help us to clarify what our suffering is, how it arises and how to be free from it. But if the path was simply a way to ease suffering and make us feel better in our lives, it would be very short sighted. The fact that suffering is eased and our intelligence grows is a benefit to be sure, but it is a side benefit to the overall importance of the path. That is, to take full advantage of the opportunity this life affords to attain complete enlightenment. There are many approaches to the teachings exemplified by the skillfulness of different teachers and lineages. And then there are the actions of students and what they do with those different approaches. In short, the importance of realizing a "big vision" of attaining enlightenment so one can be of unceasing benefit for all beings is the core purpose of all the approaches and lineages. As students, however, due to our own interpretations of the teachings as well as our own limitations, we may focus on the aspect of easing suffering in ourselves as the main motivation to study and practice the teachings. Others may simply engage the teachings to become decent people, benefiting themselves and others in any small way they can. Those motivations are certainly valid, but let’s be honest here: the main point of the teachings is for one to fully realize one's own enlightened nature, and in the case of the stainless vajrayana lineages, to do so within just a few lifetimes.

 It is said that the bond between sangha members who have the same Root Guru is among the most profound and deep relationship one can possibly have with another human being. Only the relationship between a student and their Root Guru surpasses this. That means the bond between sangha members is said to be far greater than that found between parents and children, friends, relatives and so on. Why is that so? Because the sangha is based upon a mutual vision of realizing the enlightened path. Since the goal is the most profound goal possible for beings to strive for, the community which supports such a vision is built with bonds that surpass all others.

Mutual Vision in Our Enlightened Nature

This link between sangha brothers and sisters is not just one of being close friends. Sure, there is that deep love and care that one feels towards close friends, as well as a deep loyalty. But there is a difference. In the case of close, lifelong friends, the relationship is based on mutual love, respect and the trust that comes from having been through many hardships together. But even such a friendship can break down if one of the friends crosses a line beyond which the other thinks should be uncrossable. Maybe it involves a dispute over a project or a political ideal or perhaps simply some petty argument that pushes the whole thing over the edge. In any case, such friendships, though strong at times, are ultimately fragile because they are based on ego clinging and maintaining some personal identity. When conditions arise that provoke the relationship beyond what it can take, it falls apart.

 In the case of sangha, we start with a mutual vision of attaining the fruition of the enlightened path. That very motivation is antithetical to ego clinging. Although friendships are built and one feels very well connected to some people in the sangha, while not so to others, the whole point of such a community should be kept in mind.

Contemplating this in depth allows one to see how caught we are in regarding sangha relationships as we do ordinary relationships. We can see how we treat some people with respect because we want to be treated with equal respect. Or how we give openly to some because we know it will be appreciated or recognized, while ignoring others altogether. Or how we see others neuroses, and somehow feel better because we don't feel neurotic in that particular way. There are countless ways we view each other with the same eyes that all humans view each other. In short, we get caught in focusing on our own and others' shortcomings as who we/they are rather than seeing how each person has the same enlightened nature.

How Everyday Activities and Our Greater Aspiration Interact

Having spelled out the main purpose of having a sangha we can speak of subsidiary functions of sangha as well. One of those functions is that sangha reflects back to us where our mind is. This may happen on a gross level, such as having a particular fault pointed out, or on a subtle level—through our own intelligence, we can know if something feels "off in our attitude or actions. We can all examine our own intentions with regard to relating with sangha. It becomes a matter of seeing whether our actual actions line up with our intention/aspiration.

If we have the intention to attain enlightenment in one lifetime, yet are so caught up with worldly aims that we can't even do our daily practice genuinely—then there is a huge gap between aspiration and fruition. It is not the case that one can have for long an aspiration which is completely different from what one is currently engaged in. One cannot go along for years with habitual patterns unchanged, then suddenly come to a place where one's aspirations can be attained. It is a gradual process.

For example, one may establish the aspiration to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. One knows that to attain such an aspiration one must apply oneself diligently to study and practice to the best of one's ability. But in daily life, if one is not only caught up in mundane activities, but is becoming more so, in such a situation, one's aspirations start to become either fantasy escapes, or more probably, a huge pressure upon one's shoulders.

The reason is the aspiration is either not a realistic one, or that one's current life is not beginning to reflect that intention. One of the benefits of establishing such an aspiration is that we can contemplate upon how our current life situation does or does not reflect such an aspiration. It provides a guiding principle in our lives from which we can make decisions which bring us closer to fullfilling our aspirations. If our activities do not reflect the aspiration, we can take steps to gradually correct them so they come more into line with it.

Sangha Activities - Where Intention and Actions meet

In the case of our attitude towards sangha, we know what the intention of sangha is and how relating with sangha with the right attitude can benefit our enlightened path. Our attitude towards sangha speaks clearly as to where we are with regard to understanding the importance of sangha. But often, attitude can be subtle and hard to see clearly. Our outward actions of body and speech are however, easier for oneself and others to see and indicate where one's attitude and motivation lie. Following the example above of examining aspiration and current actions, now we must examine to see how our actions of body and speech reflect the intention of relating to sangha through fully understanding its importance. One place we can check is how we behave regarding sangha activities, projects and so on.

We know the importance of practicing every day and making our practice the main priority in our life. Again, by intending to make it the highest priority, we see the myriad ways it is not so—but hopefully that is gradually being changed. Likewise, Rinpoche has said many times that how one can check to see if one is truly serious about the path is to see how much one's heart is involved with extending to sangha. The reason this is so is because sangha is a reflection of that initial enlightened intention. It is not really possible to be genuinely devoted to one's teacher and lineage, but to have negative attitudes towards the sangha. So, one can think about how we engage with sangha.

Do we put our ordinary life before sangha? Of course it is important to become independent people with regard to livelihood, family, etc. But attitudinally, does that come first, before our practice and/or sangha activity. If so, it doesn't mean that one is "bad", but that perhaps that there is some small misunderstanding as to what the importance of sangha is. Our habitual patterns will almost always support mundane activities before those oriented towards enlightenment. It simply is a function of how ignorance works.

Habitual Patterns within Community Relations and Activities

Do we make commitments to sangha work in a moment of inspiration, then when the time comes, decide not to follow through because of other worldly commitments? Again, not a big deal, but we can contemplate this, because such messages provide an opportunity to change. Do we remain aloof from sangha, not getting involved because we are too busy, or don't consider it important? Or perhaps we are so protective of our own preconceived "boundaries" so as to not overextend ourselves, yet with the net result that people perceive you as not really committed or that you can't be counted on? Perhaps one is involved with some aspect of sangha activity and do that fully, but with the attitude of being "involved", we won't be bothered by others to extend further? Perhaps we are deeply committed to our personal practice, so much so that we have no problem saying "no" to any inquiry about extending with sangha projects, because we will have to adjust our practice schedule? Perhaps one feels one has extended plenty in the past, so one has no problem declining when approached by another for some help or service? Perhaps one already had a very intact life outside of sangha before entering the community, and therefore relates to sangha only when "necessary", by only coming to programs?

Perhaps we are very respectful in the presence of someone 'higher' in the sangha hierarchy, but behind their back we have no problem criticizing them? Perhaps one puts up the face of being a good example to  'newer' students, but later talks about all their shortcomings? Perhaps we are an exemplary student in a sangha gathering, but  totally neurotic around our 'trusted' sangha friends? Perhaps one takes on so many sangha projects, always committing to more, but unable to finish any of them? Perhaps we go in and out, between being very involved with sangha activities, extending to everyone, then withdrawing completely so that nobody sees us for months or years? Perhaps one works so much that one cannot even rouse the energy to practice or come to sangha events? Perhaps one has very solid ideas of people in the sangha, even though emptiness nature is the fact of phenomena? Perhaps we have the intention to be open, but the minute some challenging thing is brought up, we retreat into a closed off silence and hold a grudge?

These are various habitual patterns we can examine within our own interactions with the community to see where our relationship and view of Sangha can gradually evolve and grow over time.

Discovering the Jewel of the Sangha

Only by looking exactly at where we are and bravely, honestly contemplating our own shortcomings can they be changed. Being students of such a profound teacher and lineage provides us the ultimate opportunity to change habitual patterns of body, speech and mind that impede us from realizing our ultimate nature.

 As such, we find ourselves in the most precious situation we could ever imagine. If we look around, we can see how few are the people who have such an opportunity to realize their enlightened potential. Sangha is a community manifested upon that very vision of realizing one's enlightened potential. By knowing the rarity of a jewel, we can appreciate its qualities. But more importantly, we must see that we have such this jewel in our possession. Likewise, through having contemplated the intention and rarity of the enlightened path, we can more fully appreciate our situation as students of Rinpoche and the Mangala Shri Bhuti lineage and as members of a community based upon such a principle.