Elizabeth responds to a friend who is looking for a practice community or “sangha.” She suggests that searching for a spiritual community is similar to looking for romance: you can’t avoid the challenges, and yet there has to be chemistry too.
Question: Dear Elizabeth,
I have been involved with Buddhism for the last 5 years. I have tried many different traditions, Theravada, Tibetan, Shambhala, plain meditation without being linked to any of those however I reached a point or I think I reached a point that my heart is asking maybe to choose one and stick with it. I’ve gone to many centers and more and more, unfortunately, I see a lot of power struggles and unfortunately people who are not so enlightened. I don’t know if it’s just me or if I haven’t found yet my place, my people in a certain tradition. So I feel and ask myself: am I alone in this path? Do I have to go through this path alone? What advice do you have?
Response: Dear Friend,
Thank you for your question…I had to mull over this one for a while!
It is true that when you enter into a community or sangha you see a lot of neurosis…and if you don’t at first, you will eventually! On one hand, we are looking for sanity in any situation we get involved with, but it’s kind of like a romance (or life in general), you can’t avoid the challenges.
I just read this humorous book called, “10% Happier” where the author – a green practitioner (Dan Harris) – goes on his first (silent, 10 day-day long) retreat.
As you would expect he faces a lot of challenges. Throughout the retreat he refers to the other retreatants as zombies. And he has a lot to say about the teachers too. He makes all kinds of judgments about them…but after the retreat comes to a close he gets a chance to talk with them individually and realizes that he really likes them. Overall, his retreat experience has a deep impact on him and he is now a dharma enthusiast, writing books encouraging others to practice.
So, I guess I am trying to say that we bring our own judgments and skepticism to these situations. We also bring our own ideas of ‘perfect’ or ‘enlightenment’ that often don’t leave much room for people to be human. In fact, we should be suspicious of any notion of enlightenment that looks outwardly for peace or perfection. That’s just the ego wanting the world to conform to its preferences.
It’s not a realistic way of look at life or spirituality.
Now I am not suggesting that you should join just any community. That is like saying: “oh, just marry anyone – it doesn’t really matter.” There has to be some chemistry there. But you are the only one who can discern whether you are being critical in a way that prevents you from finding a “good fit”… or, if you just haven’t found your place… yet.
I would ask you to reconsider any conclusion that there are no good dharma communities out there. I just got back from a three week teaching tour where I taught at five different centers and felt deeply impressed and moved by what they were doing. I thought, “The dharma might survive here in the West after all!” It got me thinking about the value of the spiritual community and how important it is. I was struck by how many people were willing to take the time out of their busy lives to listen to the dharma with such deep longing and genuine openness. In truth, most people spend their lives distracting themselves without any curiosity at all. So to meet like-minded people in this way is rare. Furthermore, it is not easy to keep a center running. It is basically a time-consuming labor of love where no one gets paid. So we have to at least appreciate this level of commitment.
I remember the challenges we faced in the growing stages of our community. I don’t think we knew exactly what we were doing, or even what it meant to “practice.” The relationship with the teacher was also new and bewildering and we had a lot to work out. This is not to say that after over twenty years of being together we have “arrived” at some state of perfection (I don’t even look at things in that way anymore) but we do know how to value and utilize the challenges that arise to deepen our practice. We support each other and love each other. I have found in our community that people have become less reactive and more patient and much, much more socialized and refined! This aspect of the sangha – having to work it out together – is very powerful if people are committed.
To enter a community is to ask for feedback, and I don’t even necessarily mean direct feedback, as in constantly hearing what they feel about us. What I mean is that the world continually responds to us based on how we relate to it…whether we like it or not. It’s easy to feel “spiritual” when there is no one to provoke you. Again, I’m not suggesting you throw yourself into a chaotic situation that doesn’t attract you. Best if you can find a place where you can see at least some qualities of practice in the senior students, some humility and graciousness in the situation. But the commitment to a sangha means we have decided to utilize the situation to grow…rather than react or simply bail.
We are social beings and need community. In a sense, everyone we encounter in our life is part of our community…and we can learn to be skillful and flexible enough to create harmony in the world we move about in. It’s really up to us, individually.
I think it is truly wonderful that you have the aspiration to find a community to practice with. And you may have to do more investigation into what you are searching for, your expectations, and whom you feel comfortable with. Please don’t give up!!
Best of luck!
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is known for her willingness to question the spiritual path in order to reach a place of genuine practice and awakening. Using the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness as lens, she asks us to take a fresh look at all the assumptions and beliefs we have about reality and liberation.