By Daniel Scharpenburg
Ananda went to his cousin, the one we call the Buddha.
Ananda was the Buddha’s assistant, so he was around all the time. That’s important to the story, just to say that Ananda heard essentially everything that the Buddha said.
So, one day Ananda went to his cousin, like I said. And Ananda said,
“I think spiritual friendship, sangha, is half of the spiritual path. It’s so important to our journey.”
And the Buddha replied, “Ananda, spiritual friendship is the whole way. Find refuge in the sangha.”*
I remember when I first heard that story and it has really stuck with me.
Spiritual friendship is the whole way. Could that be true? I think we can reflect on this a lot.
When I first learned about Buddhism, many years ago now, it really spoke to me on a deep level. It was like “This is what I’ve always needed.” I got to some of the teachings around Sangha and I wondered if I could put that aside.
I didn’t want to, like, go meet people and stuff. I thought I was too introverted, that I had too much anxiety, that I didn’t know how to talk to people and express myself. In other words, I had excuses.
Eventually I did do it.
I’ve actually joined and then left two communities. I’ll put aside the stories about why for now, but the short answer is I simply didn’t feel like I could fit in. But it is important that I tried. I’m sort of dipping my toes into some other ones now and may still work on starting my own. (I’m actually struggling to decide If the Monday night meditation that I lead is or is not Buddhism. It’s starting to feel like a community, though.)
Who knows why, but it’s an aspect of humanity that we feel weird about going to things.
If it’s people we don’t know, it’s hard for us to do it, especially to do it alone. “I want to do this thing, but I need to find a friend to go with me,” is a very strong thought a lot of people have. Whether it’s attending a meditation event, going to the movies or taking a cooking class. Even people who don’t seem to have problems with anxiety still stick to this rule a lot of the time.
So, there are many, many people that are interested in Buddhism that aren’t finding their way into communities to meet like minded people. I have no idea what sanghas can do about that. I hear a lot about how these communities are struggling to get people to show up and to get them to keep showing up. I don’t have any answers to that. I think these problems are complex and probably impacting lots of other religions in similar ways.
But why is it so important, anyway?
Can we do this alone?
Other people supporting and encouraging us in our practice is good. But I think it runs deeper than that.
I think being around other people who are committed to mindfulness and compassion is automatically good for us. It helps, inspires and encourages us. And if we can actually make friends at the sangha, that’s even better.
I don’t know how people make friends as adults, really. But I know this. Most of our lives we have made friends based entirely on proximity—someone we met in our neighborhood, or school, or work.
AND the people we spend time with influence us in ways we’re unaware of.
So is having a sangha important? Do we need to go to a temple?
I don’t know. But I think spiritual friends do us a world of good. Surround yourself with people who have the same goals and values that you do. If you’re not doing that, why not? And if it’s hard, can you find ways to do it anyway?
I think you can.
*paraphrased from the Upaddha Sutta
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