The evolution of the sangha Barry Magid April 21st 2012

I’d like to talk about the evolution of the notion of sangha as it has come down to us, how it has evolved from what we know of the time of the Buddha into the different forms of community in modern day practice. The word “sangha,” which probably most literally means community, referred to the group of monks gathered around Sakyamuni, and the original sangha was defined in two distinct ways, which still affect how we think about it today.

The first had to do with the monks as disciples of Sakyamuni, and their membership in the community was defined by the fact that they had come together to study with this particular teacher. Second, it was defined by the precepts, the rules for living together as monks, and those rules were meant not just to keep the peace among the group but also in some way to embody the teaching of the dharma. To a very large extent, the life-style, the following of the rules, was synonymous with the teaching, particularly when you think of the teaching in terms of non-clinging and impermanence. The rules centered around being a home-leaver, having no fixed permanent abode, having no possessions, having no security in the normal sense of the word, not engaging in sexual or family relations, not having those kinds of connections or fulfillments in one’s life. All these were ways in which one vowed to live a certain way that would both reflect and instill these ideas of non-clinging or impermanence.

By and large, what the Buddha originally taught was his perception of the way the world is, that nothing has any kind of fixed, essential nature, all dharmas are empty, and that seeing this is the path of liberation from the attachments that bring suffering. Much of the eight-fold path is geared towards, again, creating a life that is in accord with this realization, and only one of the aspects of that path is right concentration or meditation in a way that focuses on the emptiness of things. So much of that teaching was to live a certain way in accord with a certain view of reality. I think it’s only much later that all the different streams of Buddhism become, to one extent or another, technologies of consciousness, and you get more or less elaborate instruction about what to do in your sitting practice, in your meditation, whether it involves elaborate visualizations or very specific step-wise deconstruction of awareness and perception and concentration practice and koans. All of these things are later elaborations as far as I know.

Buddha, of course, did not invent monasticism or this whole life-style. He in some way was attempting to reform it, away from extreme asceticism. The notion of the middle way was something between the life of a house-holder and the life of an ascetic, for whom elimination of desire meant the mortification of the body, so there’s a move away from that as a technique to eliminate clinging, but there was still an emphasis on the monastic life as a way to embody non-clinging.

Now, the discipleship aspect of the sangha becomes much more prominent in Chinese and Japanese Zen, and it probably did after the time of the Buddha in India. As far as we know, the Zen stories of Buddha holding up a flower and transmitting the dharma to Mahakasyapa, is a later projection back into the history. I don’t think there’s any Pali source for this story or any of the stories of dharma transmission, early on. Buddha, on his deathbed, did not say, Follow Mahakasyapa’s teaching the way you followed mine. He said, Be a lamp unto yourself. Very explicitly he was saying, each monk had to depend on themselves and the life of being a monk, to investigate this dharma for themselves. But later the role of the teacher and the centrality of the teacher-student relationship really over-shadowed the centrality of the life-style as the essence of what this practice was about.

I think that’s what’s happened, as we move away from that life-style into different versions of lay practice, or even into the Japanese model which mixes a householder life of married priests in a temple, away from the homelessness, lack of possessions, the model of Southeast Asia vinaya, so that more and more the student-teacher relationship becomes the central factor and the sangha becomes less and less of a community and more and more of an entourage. It becomes a whole group of people gathered together around the teacher, and everybody is sort of looking up at the teacher like spokes on a wheel all focused on a hub.

I don’t know if any of you have had the experience of sitting for any length of time in a teacherless group, a peer sitting group. It’s a very interesting and different experience. These groups are often very hard to sustain. People want teachers, they want an idealized figure to embody what practice is. It’s hard to maintain a group of people who simply take responsibility for maintaining a schedule, sitting together, and trusting a practice itself rather than thinking in terms of who’s the teacher, who’s going to show me the way or tell me if I’m there yet.

Some of us did that years ago at Nora Ephron’s place after we had left Eido Roshi and Bernie Glassman. We had a peer group sitting in Nora’s loft. It went on for some time quite successfully. Unfortunately, then Joko showed up. That stopped the whole thing and we got focused on teachers again.

That’s all I’m going to say about it for now. We have an open-ended discussion group scheduled for this afternoon, so I’d like to see if we can carry this discussion forward a little bit later, rather than my going on and on with my ideas about sangha. Let’s see if the sangha itself can be expressive about what it is and how we deal with this dialectic between sangha as community and sangha as discipleship.

The last thing I’ll say about it, is one of the ways it plays out here is in the notion of membership. Membership here is defined both as making a commitment largely financial in terms of dues, a commitment to supporting and being responsible for this place, literally, getting the rent paid. Being a member is to say, first, I’ll take some responsibility for keeping the door open here, paying the rent, and second, membership is defined in terms of becoming my student, and that’s a more ambiguous issue for most people, and I try to keep it that way. I try to keep people thinking in an open-ended way about what it means to be somebody’s student. What kind of relationship are you entering into? So we have that dialectic between responsibility to the group and connection to the teacher. That defines everybody here one way or another. So let’s try to keep those two aspects in mind and see if we can carry the conversation forward at noon.

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