Sangha in Buddhism
A sangha is an important part of the Buddhist meditation path, and an principle that is common in many other spiritual and religious traditions. It’s one of the three jewels, or places in which we take refuge. Although we often focus on meditation practice, ethical guidelines, and cultivating compassion, we also need to look at how we relate to those in our community, how we build unity, and what a sangha can offer us.
The word sangha is Pali, an ancient language from the Indian subcontinent. Translating as “community” or “assembly,” the word sangha refers to the community of meditators. Traditionally in Buddhism, the sangha is the community of ordained monks and nuns. Sangha may also include laypeople, as it often does when we use the term today in the West.
However you decide to define sangha, it is one of the Three Refuges. That is, it’s something we take refuge or solace in. Together with the buddha and the dharma, we have a place toward which we can turn for refuge. Although the sangha traditionally refers to a community of meditators, we can find a “sangha” in other ways to support us. Perhaps it’s a twelve-step community, church congregation, or friend group. This principle of community is an important one in many traditions, and Buddhism is no different here!
Why Sangha is Important
Community is important for several reasons. First, we really are not separate from our sangha. If you take the word sangha to mean our fellow humans, it’s easy to see how we are interconnected and interdependent. Without a community, we couldn’t have meditation groups, support networks, and many other things. Think about how intimately connected we are with others in the world, from the way we get our food to the home we live in. Countless individuals put time and energy in to make these things happen, and we are deeply dependent on a larger community for our lives. As a community, we come together to support one another, help one another, learn from one another, and grow together.
Sangha is also an important refuge, somewhere we can turn toward for safety and wisdom. Much as we may turn toward mindfulness, meditation practice, or the Buddha’s teachings, we can turn toward sangha. There is much to learn from our community. By asking questions, listening to our fellow meditators, and engaging with them wholeheartedly, we can learn about ourselves and our practice. The sangha offers us an opportunity to learn in a way that we cannot learn otherwise.
When we engage with a community, we can learn about interacting with wisdom and compassion. If we just sit by ourselves all day, we don’t ever really practice cultivating mindfulness or metta in our interactions. The engagement with a sangha allows us the opportunity to cultivate our practice in a new way.
My Sangha Experience
Personally, I think sangha is one of the most under-covered topics. We don’t talk about it near enough, and it’s a deeply important piece of the path. In my own life, communities have played a powerful role in my journey with meditation. I look back at the various sanghas I have had the joy of engaging with, and I am grateful for each and every one.
I started meditating and practicing without a community. I read books that my family gave me and tried meditating by myself. My practice really took off when I began engaging with two communities in Southern California, Against the Stream and InsightLA. Two very different sanghas, I found myself able to connect with individuals and the group as a whole. I learned a lot from the questions that were asked, the people sharing their experiences, and the support that was offered. I made some of my best friends at these meditation centers, sat retreats with the community, and built a new understanding of the dharma.
When I moved to Northern California, I lost that sense of sangha a bit. I was able to stay in touch with a lot of the community, but it was certainly a change. I have been able to build a new sangha at Spirit Rock and with Refuge Recovery, which has been beautiful. What I’ve learned is that building sangha is a practice. We have to make some effort to build community and connect with others. Like many things on the path, the effort can be a lot, but the payoff is wonderful.
Finding a Community
One of the difficulties is that we all don’t have the opportunity to connect with a community. We may live in an area without local meditation groups, or our schedules may not permit us to attend local sitting groups. If you can, try to find a meditation group near you so you can interact with a sangha. If you simply cannot, it may be worth trying to find an online community. There are communities that chat on social media, online meditation groups, and teachers with whom you can connect virtually. Doing so may make a huge difference in your practice!
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