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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.

Comments (16)

  • Dawn Haney

    This line is blowing my mind: “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.”

    I’ve been checking out a non-Buddhist spiritual community as a possible support to my dharma practice. I’ve discovered that the silence in dharma communities has served as a kind of refuge for me – it really limits the possibilities for someone to say something I find to be sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise politically at odds with me. In dharma communities, there’s an opportunity for a loose-knit feeling of community, and I can duck out before people start talking too much (I literally hid out in my room at the last Vipassana retreat I was on when the group started practicing with coming out of silence).

    There are a lot of positive qualities that knit a community together, but historically, a big ingredient of community glue has been dividing people into “us vs. them” – requiring folks who reside on the margins of “us” to make clear whose side we are on. In comparing dharma communities with other spiritual communities, I’m feeling the sweet refuge this provides, even as it leaves me feeling not as connected as I’d fully like to be.

  • Richard Modiano

    Although I’m a convert Buddhist I belong to an ethnic temple that celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago. There are about 200 families and individuals who belong to the temple, and last weekend we celebrated O-Bon with the help of our affiliate organizations: the Fujin Kai (Buddhist Women’s Association,) Adult Buddhist Association, Young Adult Buddhist Association, Dharma School, Sangha Teens, Cub Scout Pack and Girl Scout Troop.

    Our temple is a small temple and for regular weekly practice about 40 people show up, but for major events like O-Bon everyone pitches in. To date Jodoshinshu temples have been largely ethnic institutions composed almost entirely of Japanese and Japanese-Americans with a small but continuous participation in temple life of non-Japanese priests and laymen since the early 1900s. Further Jodoshinshu has always been a laymen-centered, non-monastic sect of Buddhism so as an organization it was designed to serve a lay community rather than a separate order of monks and nuns. The Jodoshinshu clergy is by doctrine and tradition a married clergy, and its temples are committed not to a mountain seclusion but to towns and cities.

    Convert Buddhists who are faced with forming new communities are starting from scratch. The Zen based traditions are monastic, mountain centered and walled off from the dust of the world so that the sangha can spend its time practicing za-zen without distraction. In contemporary US society that’s not a realistic option, so those in the convert Zen tradition have to somehow create a place to practice within an accessible urban environment and at the same time maintain the necessary seclusion for practice. The residential practice center is the solution adopted by many Zen sanghas, and their sustainability seems to depend on the affluence of at least a part of their membership and the voluntary labor donated by other who lack disposable income. I’m also I’m familiar with sanghas of one of the Tibetan traditions, and here I’ve seen a variety of organizational forms, from the practice center to the mountain center and even the rented house with a resident teacher (very much the way many Jodoshinshu temples started in the US.)

    Anyway, this is how it appears to an outsider like myself.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Sangha = Change.
    It seem so odd to expect other groups of people to make political, social, emotional, and monetary changes when the attempts to build a small community simply fails due to the same components that drive most humans.
    There is no group mind.
    A collective direction at the best of times.
    Sangha is a group of individuals. Who are all driven by different needs, wants, and desires.
    Sangha evolves. Changes, Is born and dies.
    Like everything.
    Giving.
    Real giving. Is to not cling to a return. Now or in the future.
    If I was disappointed in not “getting back” because of my actions then what were my actions for?
    Expect nothing from giving. We give to Sangha what we are able. Not what may be expected.
    To see any of this one needs to truly look deep into the ones own nature.
    In Loving Kindness.
    Bryan

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “There are a lot of positive qualities that knit a community together, but historically, a big ingredient of community glue has been dividing people into “us vs. them” – requiring folks who reside on the margins of “us” to make clear whose side we are on.” Yes, I definitely agree with this. What’s interesting is that my sangha, under its previous teacher, was very much an “in-group” – “out-group” kind of place. Those who burned both ends of the “practice” candle were in, and everyone else was basically out. This seems particularly true of sanghas with dysfunctional leadership, like ours was, but not exclusive to them.

    This issue of silence as a refuge in the way you speak of it is something worth looking deeper into. I find myself longing for that as well sometimes, and making efforts to avoid conversations and interactions. For me, given that I’ve been on the sangha’s leadership team as Board president for multiple years now, there’s this internal battle that goes on sometimes between just wanting to sink into quiet and stillness, and being available for others (and or ready to do board work). I also resonate with wanting refuge from dealing with talk that I’m politically at odds with. Folks mostly assume I’m just another white liberal, middle class Democrat type, and even though I can be pretty outspoken, at zen center I blend in through silence or non-response a fair amount.

    Part of the challenge of creating truly dynamic sanghas is that they’re not terribly safe for a lot of people. That’s definitely a flip side of what I wrote about above. Being in silence together can allow for some level of safety and connection, but then the quiet is lifted and it’s a whole other story.

    How’s this other community you are checking out like? Do you find the us/them, in/out divide moreso there, or less?

  • nathan

    “The Zen based traditions are monastic, mountain centered and walled off from the dust of the world so that the sangha can spend its time practicing za-zen without distraction. In contemporary US society that’s not a realistic option, so those in the convert Zen tradition have to somehow create a place to practice within an accessible urban environment and at the same time maintain the necessary seclusion for practice. The residential practice center is the solution adopted by many Zen sanghas, and their sustainability seems to depend on the affluence of at least a part of their membership and the voluntary labor donated by other who lack disposable income.” This is pretty accurate. There is a history of lay Zen practitioners in Japan, China, and other nations, but very little of it has been preserved. Little stories about Dogen visiting lay practitioners or narratives about folks like Layman P’ang and family, but that’s about it. I can imagine there have been formal and/or informal lay Zen sanghas throughout history as well, but without any real records, communities in the US and elsewhere have had to adapt and make things up as they’ve gone along. And I think this is part of the reason why cultural norms at odds with our teachings have penetrated our community building efforts. Adopting capitalist approaches to funding programs, for example, has often been a survival issue for communities. As well as a “we don’t have the time/energy to risk some “new” way of doing things” issue.

    Jodo Shinshu’s emphasis on serving the lay community makes sense to me. Perhaps this is what other Buddhist traditions in the US need to become more explicit about. There is sort of a let’s try and do it all attitude – be quasi-monastic and also support people in their everyday lives approach – that is common amongst convert Buddhist communities. And it isn’t working terribly well.

  • nathan

    “Real giving. Is to not cling to a return. Now or in the future.
    If I was disappointed in not “getting back” because of my actions then what were my actions for?
    Expect nothing from giving. We give to Sangha what we are able. Not what may be expected.”

    I agree that giving is done without attachment to results/fruits, otherwise it’s not really giving. Or it’s giving plus something else.

    The expectations issue in sangha is complex. I’ve found that those of us who give a lot of time, and/or who are in positions of service in the sangha, are often expected to give more and more. The casual member who pays for their classes, or simply attends talks or retreats, arrives expecting the center to be ready for them. That whatever needs to be done behind the scenes to have a functioning event will be done. By someone else. It’s an almost unconscious expectation. Before I started working on the board at the zen center, I had no idea how much work was being done by a small percentage of the community to keep everything going.

    On the other hand, there’s this issue is “giving what we are able to.” In some sanghas, monetary donations are held as the gold standard of dana, and those who give larger amounts are seen as being generous, even if they could give a lot more without any financial “damage.” And there’s the struggle some folks have with giving too much and burning out (or going broke). Social conditioning and/or family conditioning play a role here. Many women, for example, come from backgrounds where they were expected to place their needs secondary to everyone elses. And this gets translated into over-extending in the sangha in various ways.

    In other words, there are a lot of unexamined tangles when it comes to giving and expectations that we’d do well to really dig into as sanghas. What does dana mean in the face of the dominant US culture? How does one learn to untangle the narratives of social conditioning around stinginess and/or over-giving to truly be able to practice liberated giving? How do we build communities that help folks aim in the direction of generosity without reinforcing cultural patterns of sickness around giving and receiving?

  • nathan

    I really liked some of the ideas in this article. http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/community-yoga-a-community-healing-movement-or-what-yoga-can-learn-from-community-acupuncture/ It’s aimed at yoga centers, but some of it could also be applied in Buddhist sanghas.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Perhaps the answer relies on the individual.
    The decision.
    Do I give just because I want to, without expectations of return?
    If that is true then it is simply up to me how much I want to give to the Sangha.
    Or as I prefer to call it Planet Earth.
    How do we change the cultural norms without changing ours first?
    It resolves itself back into the questions of clinging.
    We are dealing with human nature. The macro and micro presents itself. If I need to choose to make a change the best place for me is inside.
    Giving is thankless.
    And should be.
    Unfortunately humans seem to have confused the concept of giving with the concept of “lets make a deal.”
    This for that.
    I give I get.
    It may be a softer version of egos dominance games but a game non the less.
    I know that internally it is difficult for me to give wholly without expectations.
    It’s fun to catch it though.
    And, has resulted in less resentments and anger that is expectation based.
    If we are talking the macro systems, then we need to realize that macro systems have always been built on the pyramid model. If you want to look at it in depth, and I have due to research on my current book, there has never been anything else but a simple pyramid shape to all social, financial, emotional, and intellectual systems. Period. I am doubting that there is an alternative paradigm but at this point I will keep looking and asking.
    In Loving Kindness.
    Bryan

  • nathan

    “How do we change the cultural norms without changing ours first?” Bryan, I have heard variations of this question for years. Nearly every time social action or systemic issues are brought up.

    It doesn’t wash for me. Because it assumes we are “separate,” acting solely or primarily as individuals.

    Whereas the way I see it, perhaps it’s through social action that “my” individual patterns are transformed. Or through doing something together in sangha that individual lives are shifted. And it also can be the case that through individual practice, and personal discernment and practice, social norms can be transformed. By upholding individual examples of something different.

    But it’s not a one way street. It’s dynamic functioning of all these “wheel turnings” that shifts and transforms.

    “Do I give just because I want to, without expectations of return?” Here’s why I am complicating all of this. Because while I think this is a great question to ask yourself, if you can’t see all the layers of expectations that you may be tangled in, then it’s damned hard to give in a liberated manner. Buddha dissected the crap out of our mental patterns, in large part I think because he saw how many layers to social and familial conditioning are present. And how much help and support even the most dedicated and “wise” monks and nuns needed at times to break free.

    Yes, we each are completely on our own and responsible for our own lives in certain sense. At the same time, sangha isn’t just a bunch of individuals practicing together in the same locale.

    When talking about things like giving and receiving, seems to me that both sides of the leaf are present. And somehow need to accounted for.

  • Todd Townsend

    Thank you, Nathan.

    I think many Western Buddhists have a caricature of greed, like Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly Game, that doesn’t reflect the full nature of greed in each our lives. Greed is such a natural component of a capitalistic society that the threshold at which we recognize it in ourselves is already very high.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Interesting.
    Has there been a social culture that has transformed the individuals within its boundaries internal struggles with greed and power and ended these attributes? I have been looking. I can’t think of or find a single example. If there was I would be spreading the word. (It’s why I am attached to Zen, it has promise.)
    Or, has the individual through the greed and power transformed the individuals into a culture of greed and power?
    Nazi Germany.
    (And just about any power structure I can think of.)
    Interesting.
    In Loving Kindness
    Bryan

  • nathan

    I don’t know. I don’t think we can know for sure. Because the history of so many smaller cultures has been erased, or romanticized. In the modern world (since colonialism began en masse), it’s highly easy to find dysfunction. Even many small, marginalized ethnic groups have been highly impacted. The Ladakh project is an example of research on just this. The original film study from the early 90s can be found in pieces on You Tube. http://www.localfutures.org/ladakh-project/learning-from-ladakh/learning-from-ladakh Ladakh pre-capitalism was a much more healthy, functional society. Not perfect, or without issues. But the contrast between then and now is pretty stark.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Ladakh of course has had it’s share of violence (2006, etc) and I agree that pre technology the culture had much going for it. I do not think it presents much of a model in today’s world except for this.
    Communication. Being able to reach agreement concerning meaning within shared terminology. In the group I am affiliated with there is much communication concerning values, boundary lines, acceptance, responsibility, all starting with an shared understanding and agreement on what say the word “greed” or “compassion” actually mean.
    Definition of terms is always vital to communication.
    Honesty in communication. This has become considerably easier after agreement is reached on what definitions terms represent.
    Power. Everyone takes the lead in a rotational basis.
    Ladakh culture was instrumental in achieving part of this paradigm.
    I do think all the isms lead to the same pyramidal form.
    And
    I don’t see any ism particularly producing much good in the world.
    Hey thank you for the info on Ladakh.
    In Loving Kindness.
    Bryan

  • Murray Reiss

    Then there’s the question of the extent to which sangha is displaced/supplemented by the market. In a capitalist society the teachings come to be seen less as a gift and more of a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. (I never ceased to be amazed by the advertising in publications like Shambhala Sun.) I oon’t know that this is happening yet, but I can easily see the different schools of Buddhism take on the aspects of competing brands for the discerning consumer.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    ” I oon’t know that this is happening yet, but I can easily see the different schools of Buddhism take on the aspects of competing brands for the discerning consumer.” Yes, there’s definitely this issue of the teachings being “owned” by the market, and that sangha itself has the potential to be sold off, or reshaped completely as another “product.”

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “Communication. Being able to reach agreement concerning meaning within shared terminology. In the group I am affiliated with there is much communication concerning values, boundary lines, acceptance, responsibility, all starting with an shared understanding and agreement on what say the word “greed” or “compassion” actually mean.” This does seem to be a vital issue. I tend to think that giant nation-state model of the modern world is part of the problem. I envision a future where smaller groups are networked together into larger groups. Not quite tribes per se, but something including elements of tribes. And no doubt power has to be considered in depth.

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