Sangha is a Sanskrit word that in its narrowest sense has as its referent the community of those who follow the Buddha’s teaching. As limited as this application of the term might be, the community of Buddhist followers nonetheless consists of a vast network of sangha within sangha arranged like concentric rings of mutual inclusion. The Chico Zen Sangha, for example, which I once founded and teach is a sangha in its own right. But it is as well a sangha within the larger sangha of both Soto and Rinzai Zen, having established formal affiliation with both traditions. But the Zen tradition itself is in turn a sangha within the larger sangha of the whole Buddhist community. Whether it be Tibetan, Theravada, Insight Meditation, Pure Land, or whatever, the community of those who follow the Buddha’s teaching constitutes one vast world-wide sangha.
But it doesn’t end there, for it is taught that Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, a concept descriptive of a virtually limitless sangha comprised of the intimate and intricate interweaving of all beings into one seamless whole. This being so, what is there to exclude? What stone, what drifting feather, what clot of earth or sky, what soiled and drunken soul sleeping in the doorway of the convenience store, what cranky or cheerful clerk at the checkout stand, what mother, father, child, what family rich or poor, hungry or full, what being of any sort, anywhere, at any time, is not sangha?
A sangha category inclusive of everything is everything and isn’t a category at all, Buddhist or otherwise. Ironically, the notion of a fellowship of all beings might seem so vast as to seem somehow remote from whatever beings lie readily at hand, more of a disembodied thought than an expression of immediate reality. A sangha inclusive of all beings is a thought difficult to wrap the mind around, a little like trying to relate the infinite scope of universe to the bit of ground you happen to be standing on. And yet, while a sangha comprised of Buddhist followers holds for me a particular sense of belonging, the most intimate instances of Dharma fellowship have sprung up from within this greater sangha in places and among people I could never have anticipated. Sangha, after all, implies something other than the simple existence of contiguous beings, no matter how radically integrated and interdependent they might be. At the very least, it implies the perception of such interdependence. Sangha is a realized relationship between beings acknowledged by the participating parties, and this participation consists of more than merely identifying with others, and is primarily a matter of doing something with others. When sangha happens, it happens as a living event, often unforeseen and unattached to any formal tradition.
I came upon such an event in late March of 1986 in a barren dirt lot adjacent to the town dump in Barstow, California. It was there on the windswept high desert amidst the drifting dust and flies and burning trash of the dump that the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament had set up camp on its 3700-mile, 225-day walk from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. When Karen and I, on our way east to Shoshone at the southern entrance to Death Valley, chanced upon the Barstow camp, the marchers had just received word that their sponsoring organization, PRO-Peace, had dissolved and no longer existed. Along with the collapse of PRO-Peace, the marchers had lost their main source of funding, most of their equipment and supplies, and all of the logistical support they’d counted on during the long walk east. With this bad news, the camp was breaking up and many participants were heading back home. But not all were.
Some were sticking it out, seeing what might be done to keep the march alive. As busloads of walkers departed and tents were torn down, the remaining tents were gathered together to form a temporary community out of those who remained. It was a hard time and a decisive moment for many, families sometimes splitting up as some stayed and others headed back home. A college-age daughter, seeing her father off at the Greyhound bus depot, headed back to the camp where the women were heating water to wash the dirt out of each other’s hair.
When the exodus homeward had ended, 600 remained in the Barstow camp. What Karen and I saw the day we arrived there was the birth of a sangha, an ad hoc sangha responsive to the need of the moment, made up of members without formal lineage or credentials of any kind other than those of a human being. It was a sangha of the best kind with a consummate aim to realize a merciful and compassionate outcome and to do so by virtue of a willing cooperation with each other. Within hours, the camp had set up a kitchen tent and identified those among them with experience in cooking. They’d set up a first aid station and found members with nursing or doctoring capabilities. They’d also implemented a governing structure in which all 600 members could participate directly in decisions. They’d given themselves the name of “Peace City,” and had drafted a statement of purpose with the following preamble:
The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament is an abolitionist movement. We believe that great social change comes about when the will of the people becomes focused on a moral imperative. By marching for nine months across the United States, we will create a non-violent focus for positive change; the imperative being that nuclear weapons are politically, socially, economically, and morally unjustifiable, and that, in any number, they are unacceptable. It is the responsibility of a democratic government to implement the will of its people, and it is the will of the people of the United States and many other nations to end the nuclear arms race.
This preamble was written and approved on the spot by people most of whom had never before known one another. Nonetheless, on that dirt lot in Barstow, California, 600 marchers, by their own courage, trust, and good will, had undertaken a task deemed certain to fail, and had bound themselves to the performance of the most difficult of the four Bodhisattva Vows: “Beings are numberless; I vow to enlighten them all.” The undaunted heart of The Great Peace March Sangha had given birth right there in the Barstow dump to a movement that brought the hearts of a nation to their support. While they sometimes had little to eat and no adequate shelter, they persevered, fed by their sense of the right and the good and sheltered by courage to continue on. Despite predictions of failure, their ranks gradually swelled to 1200 marchers and they were met in town after town with well-wishers who aided them along the way. One might say that it was love that at last delivered The Great Peace March Sangha to the very steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C where they were met by 15,000 supporters.
Sangha is a heart of inclusion. It’s the act of turning toward rather than away from each other.
For me, sangha is not constrained by definition or sectarian affiliation. Sangha is where you find it. Jesus is quoted as saying, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I.” I would say as well, “Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of kindness and healing, there is sangha.” If you think to look for it you’ll find it everywhere, springing up in response to circumstance. Sangha isn’t necessarily borne of extremity either and can occur virtually without notice, not being perceived by anyone including its participants as being anything out of the ordinary. Members of the high school girls’ choir washing cars on a Saturday morning to pay their way to the regional finals might well be such a sangha; or the folks in their work boots and gloves gathered at dawn in the city parking lot for the day’s creek and park cleanup; or the women sitting round a table stitching a quilt for auction at the Center for Nonviolence; or the volunteers spooning out soup for the homeless at the Jesus Center.
In my mind, I draw a parallel between the great Soto teacher Dogen’s observation that “the koan appears naturally in daily life,” and my own lifetime observation that sangha as well appears naturally in daily life. The incidental formation of a naturally arising sangha gives testimony to the living sangha itself, arising of its own volition just as it once did in the time of the historical Buddha.
I’m glad to take refuge in a traditional Zen sangha that traces its roots to the teachings handed down to it by its Soto and Rinzai ancestors. But I also realize that sangha is not so much a matter of form or lineage as it is a gathering of the moment. Sangha is a state of mind, a capacity of the heart. In this sense, Buddhism has no monopoly on sangha. At this very moment, some little band of people gathered at a public event or a neighbor’s house or a downtown street corner may very well be plotting to do some good in the world, something borne of kindness that’s suited to a particular need. It is this unlikely and unforeseen sangha of the human heart that I most take refuge in.
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