It was another early morning, sometime in March 2022, just after sunrise. I stood at my living room window in Washington Heights, looking over the panorama of brick and iron and sky outside, layered and still. I had already meditated, done my daily reading of Dogen, and poured myself some coffee. I stood in the open awareness I often find after meditation.
I had been meditating on my own for just over two years.
I started during the pandemic, on the recommendation of a friend, using guided meditations led by Gil Fronsdal on Insight Meditation Center’s website. These early forays into Vipassana meditation yielded a rush, or what I’ve come to learn is a common emotional and physical release for many first-time practitioners. As that rush settled into other forms of sensation during meditation, I explored other schools of Buddhism. Zen, with its brutally simple approach to open awareness, resonated most with the needs of my neurodivergent and philosophically obsessed body-mind. I settled fully into a self-guided meditation practice and regularly listened to dharma talks online, including those from Zen Mountain Monastery, which has a temple in Brooklyn an hour or so by train from my apartment.
For a long time, this seemed like enough. The dharma talks continued to yield new insights into how the dharma applied to my life, providing me guidance enough for the broader-stroke needs of my early practice. And my solitary sitting practice had proved to be a powerful force of good—helping me reduce ambient anxiety, gain clarity into areas of my life and past that I’d ignored for years, and just feel more grounded in my life. But as I continued practicing, my early-morning sitting became harder to get up for. What’s more, my practice hadn’t yet led to a meaningful dissolution of my feelings of isolation, which had, in some roundabout way, been a driving force in pursuing meditation at the height of the pandemic.
My apartment in the city—a rent-stabilized unit in a rundown building with noisy neighbors—had proved difficult for me even before the pandemic. I’m from the rural mountain stretches of New Mexico, and, despite the awkwardness of being a queer person in rural spaces, I’m more comfortable in places where trees outnumber people. My inability to leave the apartment during lockdown brought my mental health to a critical point. And while my meditation practice did, in the end, help me cope, it also clarified how much I struggle with living and making meaningful connections in the city.
I’d moved to New York following my husband, then boyfriend, after graduate school in Minneapolis, where I studied creative writing. I hadn’t received any fellowships or job offers after graduation, but my husband was accepted into his top-choice graduate program, so it made sense to follow him. Yes, love had been a positive force in that decision, but it also came from a hollow place in me that found its only source of movement in being part of my husband’s new start. In any case, I followed and, to some extent, enjoyed the poetry of the move. Even as antiquated and romantic as the idea feels now, New York still seemed a place a poet should live for at least some portion of their life.
Many of the people I met in the city early on found each other in the cramped bars of the Village and Lower East Side or at poetry readings. They rode the same winds because they carried them closer to similar desires. But the longer I practiced, the less I shared these desires. Even in the beginning, I found myself quickly caught in a different current, carried away slowly into increasing solitude. This solitude was intensified by the isolation of lockdown, ultimately leading to a great deal of time in which I clearly saw how much mental and emotional baggage I needed to process.
As my practice matured, little by little, restrictions began to lift, and I began to feel an increased pressure to become part of a community. Teachers of almost every Buddhist tradition emphasize the importance of the third of the three treasures, the sangha, or the community of practitioners. The sangha is often mentioned in conversations around support and encouragement to continue your practice even when, as I’d begun to feel, it seemed difficult to grow further on one’s own. So, too, folded into the idea of the sangha, is the importance of having a teacher, something especially stressed in the Zen tradition.
I’ll be honest: dharma talks about the sangha or teachers are the ones I bristle at most. The arguments for both a community and a specific teacher to support your religious practice were familiar to me. I’d heard it in my upbringing in evangelical, fundamentalist Christian churches. As a queer nonbinary person who has known for most of my life that I am queer, I felt conflicted about the religious community I was raised in. While I saw a great deal of good in the church—deep generosity and kindness, a genuine interest in the well-being of others, and solidarity—I had also felt it was impossible to be open about my queerness in these spaces where, theoretically, I should have felt safe. I did this for so many years that, even after leaving the church over a decade ago, I still feel that conditioning arises in me when mention of the sangha is made in Buddhist spheres.
This means that, even after two years of near-daily practice, I’ve never meditated with a group in the same space, nor have I met with a teacher. I was comforted at the time reading this passage from Red Pine’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, as quoted in The Spirit of Zen by Sam van Schaik:
With a still mind, you will know it yourself.
Without mind, your spirit will rise up.
Without thought, your body will be at peace.
Living in solitude, you will sit in purity.
Guarding the source, you will return to the principle.
I found myself returning, perhaps even clinging, to “living in solitude, you will sit in purity.” But I was also reading The Truth of This Life, a book of short dharma talks from Katherine Thanas that proved to be a formative resource for my early practice. Thanas complicated this comfort I felt about my solitude when she said:
Dogen tells us we tend to reject that which is near, close at hand, and venerate that which is far and unattainable. Whatever seems unattainable becomes a pure mind, an open heart, or something else. What’s near is everyday confusion, feeling hurt, wounded, restless, or bored. The practice is not to reject what is near our immediate experience, nor what is far, our dreams, our passions, our idealizations, but to become proficient in both the near and the far. We practice to know all of it in order not to be caught by any of it.
I found myself caught between the nearness of my solitary practice and the far-off possibility of practice in a sangha. Was I idealizing sangha simply because it was far? Was I being overly critical of the practice that was in front of me, rejecting it simply because it was right here?
Some time in early October, I started my work earlier than usual and decided to take an extended lunch break in the park near my apartment. For months, I’d been dodging conversations with my therapist about the idea of “community.” The word alone made me squirm, eliciting a prickly defensiveness that bubbled up from my belly into my chest. My therapist insisted community was essential for every person, including me. After losing multiple communities—leaving them due to toxic dynamics, mutual neglect, or simply by choice—I believed the project of becoming part of another was doomed to failure. Sitting in that park, I felt the arguments I made to my therapist about why I couldn’t be part of a community rise into my awareness. Though the conversations in therapy were more general, they also applied directly to my relationship to the sangha. What if this community failed too? What if it was toxic? What if I tried and tried to become part of a sangha and it didn’t work out? What if it did work but it didn’t last?
This last question stopped me cold. My practice provided an answer, and I knew it: it wouldn’t last. No sangha would last, at least not in the way I was thinking of a sangha, a more or less consistent and stable group of practitioners gathered under a single teacher. A sangha like that couldn’t last because nothing does. My practice had shown me many times how suffering finds its root in my every effort to thwart the inevitable changing of things, their arising and passing. I had, by this point, applied an understanding of impermanence and emptiness to many aspects of my life. It showed me how often I suffered, because I clung to what I wanted and avoided what I didn’t. I then remembered one of the first Buddhist phrases that hit me directly in the chest, the line from the Third Patriarch of Chan, Seng-ts’an, that goes, “The ultimate way is without difficulty—just avoid picking and choosing.”
I had been doing a lot of picking and choosing when it came to community and sangha. I had been picking and choosing how I characterized them: a sangha needed to be part of a larger formal organization. It needed to be part of a specific tradition. It needed to be LGBTQ+-informed. It needed to be close enough that I would actually attend sessions. It needed to be large enough that it would go unnoticed if I wasn’t there. When I couldn’t find a sangha that met these self-imposed requirements, I only allowed myself to pick and choose the worst parts of my past experiences with different communities to define it. I chose to associate the idea of community with the idea of being hurt and chose to believe that being part of a sangha would only lead me to further pain and distract from my practice.
I had even picked and chosen what I saw as “my practice,” creating a fixed idea of sitting alone, of reading alone—I’d chosen to idealize a vision of practice as a solitary endeavor that was somehow at odds with being part of a sangha.
However, as far as Buddhism is concerned, that person, staring out at the George Washington Bridge in the chill of late autumn in New York, was the accrual of all the communities of which I’d ever been part. I was part of the community that lived in the buildings surrounding this park, the community across the river, the community of the churches in which I was raised, of those with whom I worked or grew up, those who I passed on the street. There was no world in which I was not part of the community, because the world is complete and co-arising—there is no living outside the unified sangha of existence. I exhaled from a deep place in my gut, looked out across the Hudson once more, and walked home.
In our next session, my therapist reinforced this realization for me when they brought up a definition of love bell hooks borrows from M. Scott Peck as a central pillar for her book All About Love. Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. . . . Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely both an intention and an action.” My therapist continued, “I think it’s very simple: community is love. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that. You do a lot of work to nail down a specific idea of community and why you can’t be part of one. What if you just acted in love for the betterment of those around you? No expectations, no attempts to foresee outcomes. What if you simply trusted others to support you and reciprocated that support as needed? That’s all community is. Even if it’s just with your husband, you already live in community. You just call it love, instead.”
We sat in silence for a long time.
As I began to use this more generous framing of community my therapist provided and applied to the sangha, I realized something: whether I practice alone or in a group or under a teacher, whether I sit in-person at a center or someone’s house or remote over Zoom, whether I take formal vows, remain a lay practitioner, go to India, or stay at home, my practice calls me to be with the sangha that’s in front of me. Not the imaginary sangha in my head or the formal sangha meeting somewhere else.
If I’m to become proficient in both the near and far, I need to become comfortable with my solitary practice and the idea of the sangha, which is going to require that I simultaneously expand and simplify what “sangha” means. The sangha, the community, those whose growth I can nurture, includes whoever is in front of me. Sometimes this will mean being in community with others. And sometimes, like now, as I continue to do, it means practicing by myself as a sangha of one. Because that is the sangha that’s here. And if it’s the sangha that’s here, maybe, for me, for now, that’s sangha enough.
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