By Tyson Davis
When you practice Zen, Zen has a specific job it must perform on you.
It breaks down your ego. It works on your sense of “you.” After awhile you realize that you don’t hold on to your likes and dislikes as tightly. You see that your resistance to things that you previously disliked start to diminish.
All of this comes together to decrease your suffering. And all of this starts in the sangha.
In Zen Buddhism, your sangha is your community. The group of people that you practice meditation with, usually once or twice a week. Practicing with a sangha is important. When we are meditating with a group of people, the dynamics are different than when we meditate at home by ourselves. It’s not as easy to get up off the cushion when we are sitting with other people.
When we are at home, and our only witness is our French Bulldog who would rather we be playing with him instead of sitting silently on a funny cushion, we might be tempted to get up and play. There usually aren’t any French Bulldogs to distract us with our sangha. And if you get up and play during meditation with your sangha, there might be someone that yells at you. So, a sangha can hold us accountable to our practice.
What is not important is the actual makeup of the sangha.
It doesn’t matter who is in your sangha, as long as you have one. And my argument is that maybe being surrounded by people we think are jerks is better for our practice. Meditation—and Zen in particular—is about facing things, not running away. It’s about taking an objective look at life, your life, and the objective truth of it. It will be much harder to find that truth if we surround ourselves with rainbows and unicorns.
The sangha is there to help support our practice by leaving us alone and letting us get on with it. We will be better served in the long run if we are challenged, than if we are encouraged.
You will notice your resistances much easier and you can deconstruct them faster. You and your sangha should be like stones with rough edges; rubbing up against each other smooths both rocks out. The jagged edges become soft and level over time. The same will happen to you in your sangha.
You will have people you don’t necessarily like and some that you don’t get along with. For instance, you might be one of the few non-progressives in your sangha and you really wish people wouldn’t talk about politics (hint, hint). Or you have a guy that always rails against discussing politics in the sangha (blushes).
People don’t always agree. That’s normal in a sangha, and it’s okay. When we inevitably bump heads, we should take a look at why. At first you will probably tell yourself, “That person is a jerk! I can’t believe they just did that to me!” Eventually that will change to, “That person thinks I’m a jerk. I wonder if they have a valid point?”
I’ve been with the same sangha for almost 10 years.
When I started out we weren’t a very warm and welcoming sangha. People showed up, meditated for an hour, then went home. There wasn’t much interaction. Fast forward a few years and now we go out of our way to be welcoming and “warm and fuzzy” without coming off as cult-y. I’m not sure it has made any difference.
We have the same amount of members now as we did when I started. Yes, we know each other a little better, but knowing the people I sit with hasn’t helped my practice. That sounds selfish, I know, but that’s why I’m there.
Bodhidharma didn’t care who he sat with in his cave, he just wanted them to stay quiet. The Buddha didn’t care who he sat with as long as they didn’t disrupt others. The only support we need from a sangha is them showing up. That’s it. It’s about meditation, not feeling comfortable.
You can sit with saints or sinners, as long as you are all sitting.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Tyson Davis is not a Zen teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He studied Buddhism for a decade or so before he began practicing Zen. He’s been practicing meditation and Zen for about 10 years now. He grew up on a farm, retired from farming at age 22 and moved to civilization. He has a wonderful fiancé and a French bulldog named Ombre.