July 4

Cherish the Sangha Treasure

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by Jan Chozen Bays

In Buddhism there are Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The emphasis in the United States seems to be on the first two. People think, “I’ll meditate at home, read lots of dharma books about enlightenment, and go to some retreats. In three to five years I’ll get enlightened and be able to get on with the rest of my life.” This is, at its center, a selfish view: “Take the Dharma and run.” It is like thinking that true intimacy and the end to loneliness can be found in a series of one-night stands. It’s not the way human or dharma relationships work. They take a lot of work.

I have heard a lot of people say, “I practice on my own but I’m not really involved with the sangha.” Why do we want to skip the sangha jewel? Because human relationships can be messy and uncomfortable. One teacher calls the Three Treasures “two jewels and a rock.” At the end of sesshin we might think, “Oh, I love everyone so much!” During a long board meeting we might think about the same people, “Let me out of here! These people are driving me crazy. I don’t practice Zen to attend meetings and argue over how to run a corporation!”

Why should we cherish the sangha treasure? We cherish the sangha as the testing ground of our practice. To love a theoretical person is not hard. Tetsugen Roshi once said, “It’s easy to open your heart to the suffering masses overseas. It’s much harder to love the people in your sangha or your family.” Maezumi Roshi used to say that the sangha treasure is like a rock tumbler. As we rub together we eventually smooth down each other’s rough places.

The Buddha called harmonious relations in the sangha “blending like milk and water.” We might think that the Buddha’s disciples lived in ease together, but they represented the full range of human suffering and clarity, just as we do.

Once two factions of monks “had taken to quarreling and brawling and were deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers.” Finding three monks living “in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing,…viewing each other with kindly eyes,” the Buddha asked them how this occurred. They responded that they maintained silence, and an attitude of loving kindness in their thoughts, speech, and actions with each other, both openly and privately. They always considered setting aside what they wished to do and doing what the others wished to do. They told the Buddha, “We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.”

We cherish the sangha as the support for our practice. Even beginners are able to feel the added strength and concentration of zazen that occurs in a group. At home alone someone might sit only 20 minutes. With the sangha that time can stretch to 30 minutes.

When we do sesshin we are making a commitment to each other to practice together all day for three to seven days. As we leave home for sesshin we might think, “I’m too busy to do this. Maybe I should call and cancel.”” But because we have promised each other to come to sesshin and to do certain jobs, we show up. Peer pressure keeps us going forward. We begin the retreat and find once again, to our relief and delight, that we are able to enter an experience of clear, quiet mind together.

Sesshin provides the clearest experience of the sangha jewel. In sesshin we are able to put aside our individual plans, anxieties, ambitions, and power moves. We eat, sit, walk, work, and sleep in a harmony of body. Doing zazen together hour after hour we also bring our minds into harmony with each other and with the Singing Voice of the Universe.

When the Buddha questioned the monks about how they lived together in harmony, they said, “We do not break out into speech.” There is a wonderful feeling of accord that arises during sesshin when we are not speaking. At first it seems clumsy or even cold and rude. By the second day it becomes smooth, like silent dancing partners who flow in unison. With more open, subtle awareness we see and move with each other effortlessly. This is the actuality of, “We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.”

We cherish the sangha as a multiplier of our practice effort. If the Buddha had gone out and taught alone after his awakening, how many people would have been reached? A few thousand perhaps. It is through the sangha, the life example of his lay followers and the teaching of his ordained disciples, that the Buddha’s teaching has spread throughout the world. It is the sangha that manifests and spreads the wisdom and compassion of One Clear Mind to society.

We cherish the sangha as good companions in spiritual life. When Ananda said to the Buddha that good companions are half of the holy life, the Buddha responded that good companions and friends in practice are the whole of the holy life. But we can’t just sit and wait for ideal companions to happen along. We create these good companions by how we think, speak and act.

How would we practice if the least bit of progress for ourselves was dependent upon everyone else making progress first? We would be very motivated to help everyone along. We’d suddenly be very busy pulling them from the front and shoving them from behind. It’s not theoretical. It’s true. Our own awakening is absolutely dependent upon the awakening of everyone else. Why? Because we’re part of one thing. One part of a ball can’t move unless the other parts move in the same direction.

It is by means of the sangha that our individual practice is supported, tested, and extended, strengthened, magnified, and dispersed. It is by means of the sangha that our practice emerges from the gestating place inside of us and is given birth, grows steadily and enters lively activity.

The degree to which we cherish the sangha is a measure of our perception of the truth of interconnectedness. We need to practice with the sangha until we can see clearly at all times past the exterior appearances to each person’s shining Buddha Nature. When we can do this we will want to practice in the company of all these Buddhas. Then we look toward each person who comes toward us with anticipation. What can this (well-camouflaged) Buddha teach me?

We can’t take our choice of which of the Three Treasures we want. The Three Treasures are intertwined. They are often pictured as one gem with three tiers. I’m sure the sangha jewel is the largest, the one at the bottom that holds up all the rest. Only out of that solid base of sangha is it possible to realize the Buddha and the Dharma treasures. The real test of how well the other two jewels have become part of us is how we live with others. Can we see others through the eyes of the other two jewels? Can we speak and act from the glowing center of the Triple Gem?

How can we cherish the sangha? People say to me, “We should have more sangha activities.” Fine, then do. The teacher is not a cruise ship activities director. Sangha building comes from inside. From inside you. To cherish the sangha means to help everyone feel valued, welcome, and able to participate in spiritual practice. Let us practice together diligently and wholeheartedly, cherishing and upholding the sangha. This is how Buddhas give birth to Buddhas.

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