Sangha in a Capitalist Culture?
I have been following the engaged Buddhist blog of Harvey Daiho Hilbert for a few years now, and enjoy his short, clear posts on the dharma, social justice and service. Over the winter, he had a post that caused me to pause. It was an announcement of the closing of his zendo, and end of the sangha as a non-profit institution. Given that he is still teaching and working with students, the decision could be viewed as a lesson in impermanence. Or a response to changing conditions calling for a new way forward. However, the end of the post points to another issue. One that continues to plague many convert American Buddhist sanghas today.
“This decision has many roots and we have been considering it for months. Over the years I have had to make up the rent and other expenses myself most months. I felt good doing that for the most part, because I had faith that eventually the Sangha would be self-supporting. This has simply not been the case. Attendance is down and remains low. In the end, however, I will say that the primary cause of my decision is the evident lack of Sangha cohesion and mutual support of each other as Sangha. We have talked about Sangha often. We take refuge in Sangha. Yet this vow must be more than words, it is action and as a Sangha, we do not act like a Sangha. This was made painfully clear to me when yesterday only Rev. Dai Shugyo, Rev. Shukke Shin and one friend were able to make themselves available to support me as we went through a memorial service for my deceased brother. Many emailed me their reasons for not attending and I understand them. Still, I am deeply hurt. I do not ask for much from members and offer myself to all those in need. It has been rare that I have not been willing and able to set aside my own needs to meet the needs of others at a moment’s notice. This is what Sangha is all about. So, quite frankly, illnesses aside, it was hurtful that Sangha members could not for one morning set their own needs aside to be in support of me during this very emotionally painful period in my life. This is all I will say on the subject.
I have a feeling of sadness reading these words. It’s probably true that one could argue that a priest’s vocation is to let go of their needs in service of others, and to not expect anything in return. However, there’s also the compassionate angle which says that you make an effort to support people when something like a loved one’s death occurs. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Harvey’s response to people not coming may have been different if they had otherwise been a strong sangha. If he hadn’t felt again and again the sense that those coming together weren’t really a community of spiritual friends, but more an assemblage of folks doing zazen and studying in the same room.
My own sangha is, thankfully, much stronger than this. I’ve felt supported during difficult times over the years, and have offered support to others as well. There is a decent sized core group of practitioners that “show up” for each other in numerous ways. Generously funding sangha projects that need a “little extra.” Giving copious amounts of time through leadership and service. Freely teaching the children and youth in the community, the next generation of dharma practitioners. Cooking meals and making tea for other members. And the list goes on.
And yet, even in our community, I can see issues. Places where the insidious “me and mine only” consumer mentality seeps in, cloaked in words like “practical,” “pragmatic,” and even “practice.” There’s something a little off when people “have the time” to show up for zazen and dharma text study, but rarely, if ever, have the time to show up to help stuff envelops or sweep the zendo floor, offer support to a sick sangha member, or volunteer to clean up after an event. For a variety of reasons, Buddhist practice for many folks doesn’t really move beyond the “my” stage. Despite all the teachings that point to something so much more expansive.
The capitalist notion that what we pay for has “value” seems to be one of the driving forces behind this. Offer a class or retreat, and place a price tag on it, and people will make space in their schedule to come. Beyond this, though, is a base level greed that is constantly stoked by consumer culture. We regularly pack the zendo for dharma talks that are given freely by members of the teaching staff and senior students. People come to hear the dharma, and to learn something about Buddha’s path. A noble impulse. But I also think that for many of us, myself included sometimes, there is also an acquiring mind behind showing up. A mind that wants to “get something” from the talk, or from the sangha’s zazen energy.
Now, I don’t think this is anything particularly unique to the United States. However, when coupled with a society built on hyper individualism and capitalist economics, it tends to make things really difficult in terms of building sangha. In addition, many who have come to Buddhism as adults have unpleasant or even oppressive experiences in their past of being in some other religious community. In some ways, I’m guessing that taking refuge for a lot of convert practitioners is, in part, seeking shelter from the mechanisms that can glue communities together. How much of the desire to “get rid of” rituals and forms in Buddhist sanghas today is being driven by collective experiences of the past? Of fears of becoming a part of “another church” that feels oppressive or deadening somehow?
Regardless of how well or not our individual communities uphold the treasure of sangha, the culture that surrounds us is decidedly anti-community. Which means we have to be creative when it comes to “building sangha.” Everything from funding structures to communal rituals needs to considered and reconsidered. Furthermore, cross sangha ties need to become stronger. Developing active networks amongst centers in the region, between “lay” and “monastic” communities, and beyond also would reinforce the teachings of sangha for everyone. These things are happening already, but the impulse to focus on “my practice,” and for individual communities to focus solely on the needs of “our” sangha,” still prevail.
I’d love to hear your reactions, experiences of sangha, and any creative approaches you’ve seen groups do to develop sangha.