Sangha — What’s In A Word?

July 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

Like Buddhism itself, the meaning of the word "sangha" has shifted over time. One may feel the need to say 'goodbye' to the ancient word and use a new one that is more relevant to Western practitioners.

I’m going to start this post in an unconventional way … with the concluding paragraph of Martine Batchelor’s article “Sangha in the West”:

Sangha is the third jewel and refuge on the Buddhist path. In the West there are many opportunities to cultivate and develop this jewel in a modern setting. We can learn from all the different models we can find, from traditional hierarchical ones or more modern consensual ones. Each will teach us and support us differently. This is a very important aspect of the practice that Westerners who come to Buddhism cannot ignore. It is inspiring that people are being creative in finding new ways to create meaningful communities.

Over the past few weeks, the Skeptical Readers of SL reading club has gotten together to talk about an article by Stephen Batchelor, called “Creating Sangha”. The article talks about what “sangha” means — right from what it was when Buddhists first gathered to practice, to what it appears to have come to mean in modern, Western practice. For those who are completely new to the term, Sangha is a community of monks and/or nuns who devoted their lives to attaining Enlightenment. Martine Batchelor’s article quoted above explores the various attempts in Western cultures to adopt the notion of sangha in Western culture, both for those who might have the opportunity to practice as a monastic, and for those who are lay practitioners (like myself!).

Between the two articles, and the discussions we’ve had in Second Life, it is clear that in order for Buddhism to survive in the context of modern, Western culture, a compromise of some sort must be reached. Stephen explains the how and why of the origination of Sangha as it has existed until now:

As Buddhism developed over centuries in different cultures, its form was determined by the economic and social conditions of former times. All traditional forms of Buddhism share in common the stamp of a medieval social structure. They emerged in societies with fixed class distinctions in which the course of a person’s life was determined at the time of his or her birth. The division between monastics and laity was as sharply defined as the division between classes. The life of the majority of the laity consisted of agricultural labor and the raising of families. A formal education was very limited if not absent. Monastics, in contrast, were largely free from having to engage in manual labor and had no family responsibilities. They were able to devote themselves entirely to the Dharma: through the study of philosophy, the practice of meditation and by serving a pastoral role in the community.

Stephen then goes on to question whether in today’s modern, industrialized, Western culture,  if there is still the need for monastics such as has existed previously. During our group’s discussion, I believe we unanimously agreed that in the context of OUR culture, there is no need for this structure. Monks and nuns really aren’t as needed as they were previously. We live in an age when public education makes literacy *almost* universal. Access to information is *almost* even across the plane. Inequalities do exist, but unlike in Buddha’s time, most people today learn to read, write, do math, use a computer and more. Speaking of computers, they also have made information more easily accessible. We also have much  more leisure time (though some may be hard pressed to agree — I’m making PBJs and fetching milk for my kids between paragraphs). I no longer need to seek out a Buddhist monk to give me the teachings. I can Google it, verify that the information is good, and use it if I so choose. I can commune with individuals on Facebook, in Second Life, and on various other discussion forums.

Don’t mistake me, we all still need teachers, and personally, I do see value in the existence of those who are able to devote their time to attending retreats and on their own, closely examining the teachings, right from their original forms in Pali or Sanskrit. Many people who do just that are, in fact, monks and nuns. In our North American and European cultures, there are many who do become ordained monks and nuns. There are many others who do not, because we have the reality of familial and/or professional obligations and commitments to which we cannot or do not wish to stray. Those individuals, however, may yet pursue knowledge in the field of Buddhism without becoming ordained. I’m lucky enough to have learned a great deal from people who have never been ordained, but know a LOT about the teachings in Pali, about Buddhism, and what the Buddha taught. In many ways, to my eyes, these academics are our modern-day ‘monks,’ to whom I don’t give bowls of rice … but who do give me invaluable pieces of insight and information.

In order for Buddhism to survive, and in order to practice Buddhism successfully, what has always been called ‘Sangha’ is necessary. Many of us who gather weekly (or more

In its 3-D virtual environment, the Skeptical Readers of SL group meets in what many of its members consider to be their 'sangha.'

often) in Second Life consider our group of peers our “sangha.” Could Sid have EVER imagined that one day, in a virtual 3-D environment, humans would have gathered to discuss, talk, and learn about his teachings? Would he have considered that to be a Sangha? What is the essential in the idea of Sangha, that third pillar of what is called the Triple Gem? If we take away the idea of having monks be a part of the group that gathers, talks, learns and teaches about Sid’s words, is it no longer a ‘Sangha’? If we’re not going to call it “Sangha,” what should we call it? Would we still call our practice ‘Buddhism’ if we don’t have monks in our sangha? Christians have ‘church,’ in Islam we have ‘mosk,’ in Judaism we have ‘temple.’ What should the new Buddhists have?

Ultimately, the answer probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps then, neither does the label — both the label of ‘sangha’ and of ‘Buddhism’. For the sake of simplicity, though, wouldn’t we want a word? Would sticking to ‘Sangha’ really be so terrible? Or would something in a romance language be more apropos?

After all, what is in a word?

I don’t pretend to have any answers to these questions, and while we discussed this topic over a few weeks, we definitely didn’t narrow down to any answers either. Here ARE some ideas that came out of the gathering, though:

  • We all value our gatherings, and basically consider the spirit of ‘sangha’ to be present in our gatherings and the groups that exist in this virtual platform. This includes Second life, Facebook, our various blogs and web sites, too.
  • Specifically considering Secular Buddhist communities, it is probably in our best interest to try to unify the various groups scattered throughout the virtual environment into one cohesively networked unit.
  • Networking with additional, existing Western Buddhist groups in Second Life would help connect with other like-minded Buddhists who may not yet have discovered Secular or the closely-related Skeptical Buddhism.

Tonight, the Skeptical Readers of SL group will be meeting to talk about these bulleted issues, specifically regarding networking and creating a cohesive unit. I realize this post is coming really late, but if there ARE any readers of this blog who can make it to our meeting tonight (July 3, 5:30 p.m. PST), you can do so here:

http://slurl.com/secondlife/Eclipse%20Forest/219/181/23

Most of all, to further the development of a strong practice in our culture, continued, mindful discussions on topics such as this are very important. Do consider following any one of my links, and engaging in a healthy discussion on a message board somewhere, post a comment here, or just join a group to learn more. The more you engage, the healthier our practice will be.

Hopefully, I’ll get to meet you soon!

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§ 3 Responses to Sangha — What’s In A Word?

  • Dana Nourie says:

    Well said! The whole model of nuns and monks, I feel, is a religious one anyway, and a culture one that just doesn’t fit our modern day needs or problems. Let’s face it, monks/nuns who can spend 24/7 in meditation practice and living within the confines of their sanghas are hardly people who can relate to how practice must be applied to the hustle and bustle of modern city/suburban living and issues.

    While we are on the low side of expert Secular Buddhist teachers, we do have the practice itself and we can provide invaluable to support to one another via in person meetings and inworld virtual gathers. It’s a bit like the blind leading the blind, though many of us have had instruction from traditional monks and nuns, and modern day teachers. Plus, with the internet, we have so much information at our fingertips.

    Sangha is see as taking on a new kind of support system for Secular Buddhist, one that can be global because of the wonderful virtual worlds and places like Facebook.

    Great post! I’m linking to my blog: http://thesecularbuddhist.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/supportive-virtual-buddhist-communities/ Supportive Virtual Communities!

    • Thanks Dana! And I appreciate the link as well 😀 You beat me to adding a link to your blog, which is great (let me know we’re thinking along the same lines hehehehe).

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