Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Last night our introductory course joined with the regulars' group in a celebration and exploration of Sangha - the Buddhist community. It was a lovely evening led by Sthiradharma with meditation, discussion, a puja (with great mantra chanting) and of course a break for tea, chat and biscuits!
"The discussion was so lively and engaging last night that I didn't get the chance to share some thoughts I'd written on what Sangha has meant to me over the last twenty or so years, so I thought I'd post them here on our blog instead"
When I first began to explore Buddhism it was through books. That was just the other side of this millennium (showing my age!). I had no internet connection at home and I devoured any books about any type of Buddhism I could find in bookshops and libraries all over the place. Most of the books I read emphasised the importance of practicing with a Sangha, but something in me resisted that call. I suppose I had this personal idea of what Buddhism was and that, and my simple practice, were something special to me that I didn't want challenged by anyone else. I also kept my interest in Buddhism secret as I didn't think my friends would get it. I worked in TV news then and imagined most of my colleagues would think I'd gone mad if I told them I thought of myself as a Buddhist.
Then I began to experiment a bit with trying out different Buddhist groups - looking for the "real thing". But when I first sat down to meditate in a group I had a powerful urge to get up and run out of the door because the experience felt so alien to me. That was at Triratna's Birmingham Buddhist Centre where I continued going for a few months before falling back into my comfort zone of books and practicing at home on my own.
It was actually the Twin Towers attacks that made me start earnestly looking for a Sangha. After such terrible, negative energy had been unleashed into the world I felt I had to make an extra effort (partly because I had a baby daughter due any time). There was a strong feeling I had to take my practice deeper and make it more engaged to put something positive into the world and I knew I could only do that with the support of a Sangha.
Because of my work I could not meet weekly, but a small group of us would get together once a month for a day of mindfulness in the "engaged" Buddhist tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I left the first of those days on such a high! I can remember walking back to my car with a huge smile on my face thinking “I’ve found my Sangha at last!” I was very disappointed and upset when the cosy group’s dynamic changed as new people joined, some left and one died. What I hadn’t appreciated was that Sangha is constantly evolving and changing just like everything else and I’d brought my everyday attitudes and conditioned reactions along with me!
I still sometimes struggle with the reflection “how can we go for refuge to Sangha when it is constantly changing, evolving, shrinking and growing - in energy, size, commitment and enthusiasm. How can we rely upon it when people leave, people have conflicts, people fall in love, people split up?”. I’ve come to realise that we can absolutely reliably go for refuge to the Arya Sangha - or enlightened and stream entry Sangha who have walked this path before us. They’ve managed to get to the point where their enlightenment is inevitable or has happened and they were once just as fallible as me. Imaginatively and very occasionally in real life it’s very possible to go for refuge to such beings. But I also know I can take refuge in the mutual support that I share with the people I practice with and am friends with at Worcester Buddhist Centre and further afield.
Over the years I've been a member of three Sanghas from three traditions - Plum Village, New Kadampa and Triratna. My first group meditations and classes were with Triratna in Birmingham and now I'm back home as part of the Triratna Sangha again. Triratna for me is not just the people I practice with at Worcester Buddhist Centre though: Most mornings I meditate with the Buddhist Center Online where people from around the world practice together. I listen to talks on Triratna’s Free Buddhist Audio. I go to courses and events at Birmingham Buddhist Centre. I visit Adhisthana retreat centre and have friends who live there. I’ve been on retreats at Adhisthana and I go to retreats at Padmaloka in Norfolk which is part of my training for ordination.
Doing all of this gives me the great feeling I'm developing a network of Buddhist friendships around the country and beyond. I feel very lucky to have found a tradition with so many resources and to have the opportunity to be a part of a worldwide Sangha.
The special thing I’ve found is that wherever I go where Triratna Buddhists practice, I find Sangha I can relate with: People who are individual and diverse, with different qualities and gifts but who have one special thing in common - the wish to develop in a positive way by putting the teachings of Buddhism into practice as presented by Sangharakshita and the Triratna Buddhist movement.
One final thought - The the very best thing about Sangha is that it's different to any other "group" I’ve belonged to. In the company of Sangha I feel like I don’t have to impress, I don’t have to be funny, I don’t have to be clever, I don’t have to be anything other than just myself as I am right here, right now in the ever changing present moment.