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The Joy of Community

It is difficult if not impossible to practice the way of understanding and love without a sangha, a community of friends who practice the same way.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

While Buddhism respects the benefits of solitude and interior listening greatly, from its inception the tradition has always placed community and relationships as one amongst the Triple Gem – the Three Jewels that are our holy, sacred refuges. We must attend to our Teacher, Buddha, and our Truth or Teaching, Dharma, but also to our fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen – our Sangha. Friendship and intimacy in the Sangha, whatever form it may be, is crucial to the flourishing of individual discipleship. It is the supportive foundation on which our practice is based.

Meditating, praying, and sitting in silence together are important contemplative activities that do not compromise the dignity of interior solitude. In fact, many lay disciples see their Sangha practice as invaluable to their own individual meditation. Without the communal energy and dedication to sit together, one can feel drained, easily tired and bored – in a sense, perhaps, even unappreciated for the efforts one is making. Encouragement and sharing experiences between community or sangha members is absolutely essential to a complete experience of discipleship. Without mutual support, individuals are missing a fragment of themselves inasmuch as they as missing each other. I cannot know who “I” am without knowing, understanding, and loving the “Other”. I cannot transcend my false self if I do not enter into dialogue and love with the selves of others. It is impossible for a self to be liberated in a world that is not made of selves, but interconnected, mutually dependent individuals (this applies to ascetics and yogis as well, for they are not actually alone, but guided by the Presence).

The Sangha, as an abstract concept, can theoretically take on any shape or culture. It can be an occasional community or a private group devoted to a particular tradition. But I would say that in practical terms, a Sangha is best served if its members meet regularly and participates in a global vision of the current Buddhist “diaspora”, the global Sangha of Buddhists. Serving the Sangha in this day and age requires an incredible sense of interconnectedness, where one is connected to other human beings across the world by phones, computers, and other tools of the digital age. In some ways, it is perhaps even easier to realize that we are all interconnected during this epoch of human history. This realization, which could be said to be a convenient byproduct of the Internet, entails a responsibility to this interconnected community.

The entire concept of sangha is based on the truths of non-self and universal compassion. There are few greater affirmations of the importance of friendship in the Buddhist way of life than this. A Sangha is built around the Buddha, and hence built to be purifying, revitalizing, and welcoming. A local sangha that is not open, inclusive, and respectful of the equality of all beings is not upholding the Sangha in the world.

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