When I went to a Buddhist centre ten years ago, all I wanted to do was learn how to meditate. I didn’t want a religion and I didn’t want to join a church. I certainly didn’t want a ‘family’ or a cult. But the only model of sangha available to me at the time was ‘Buddhist church’. That’s the typical interpretation of ‘sangha’ that has been institutionalized in North America.
In Buddhist churches, you are expected to devote yourself to that sangha and tradition, to ‘stop shopping’ for other spiritual paths, Buddhist traditions or sanghas. What often happens in these Buddhist sanghas is that they become ‘church’ for you: the assumed source of all your values, practices, spiritual ideas and experience. In some cases they become ‘family’, bordering on cults. All your friends are members of the sangha or other Buddhists. You don’t get teachings elsewhere, you don’t learn other practice traditions. You only read their books and you only take lessons and empowerments from their teachers.
For me, this quickly became an oppressive situation. After a year of belonging to a Buddhist sangha “hard core”, going to all their classes and weekend retreats, reading all their books and hanging out with them for soup dinners and holidays, I had enough. I wanted out.
I tried practicing on my own at home, which is barely sufficient, and going on retreats once a year. But after a few years of my annual retreats, I got sick of them also: the oppressive silence, the lack of engaging dialogue, sitting all day and not moving, not really opening up and sharing or making friends. Now they seem more like adult baby-sitting; weekends that wrap you in a warm fuzzy blanket of soothing words and positive affirmations. In a word: infantilizing. Had enough of that also.
But once I got out of the ‘church’ trap, I found that I had nowhere to go. I didn’t have another model of sangha in my head so that I knew what to look for, and I didn’t see any examples of other kinds of sanghas that I could try. All I had for several years was “dharma online”. I had lots of podcasts, websites, Facebook groups, Zoom meetings, online courses, chat forums–even a Twitter sangha (that I’m still connected with.) But as good as it can be, it’s also a bit hollow. I still feel pretty much like a lone practitioner.
I think it’s time we started working out new ways of teaching and learning Buddhist dharma and meditation. What we’ve got now is barely working, and I know lots of people that have already left. They are fed up with sanghas that become repressive ‘families’ and churches, and worse, abusive cults. Cult scandals in western Buddhism are piling up new stories of dysfunction and abuse almost daily.
So I started thinking about other models of sangha, and it occurred to me: professional practice communities. Ok, think about professions that require lots of ongoing training, developing new skills, acquiring knowledge from the latest research and learning ‘practice wisdom’ from seasoned professionals. Nearly all human service professions require this process: lawyers, social workers and psychologists, doctors, nurses and other medical specialists, teachers, scientists, engineers, architects, even artists.
Wait. I know what you’re thinking. “Professional” practice communities? Ick. Ok, drop the nasty “professional” tag, what are you left with? Practice communities. So what are practice communities?
They are not a church, family or cult. You don’t marry them or organize your whole life around them. You go to them when you want to learn something new or brush up on skills. You might find a few friends in the process, but by and large these are ‘practice colleagues’, people who share your interests and want to learn new things. Practice communities are also not ‘therapeutic communities’ like 12 Step groups or group therapy, what most Buddhist sanghas have become.
In some cases, they are more like universities, offering courses, skills training and certification, even weekend workshops, but not ‘retreats.’ For example, dharma courses are being offered in online universities.
The goal of the practice community is not to reorganize your whole life around itself, creating co-dependence, but to teach you what you need to know so that you become proficient, capable of practicing on your own and with great skill. Once you’ve learned what you need to know, you go back into your own context and practice, to your family, friends, neighborhood, job, civic organizations, and share your skills with others.
Wait, but doesn’t that wreck the whole ‘sacredness’ of it, the spiritual aspect, the mojo? It doesn’t have to be that dry and ‘professional.’ I think about artist communities that I have been involved in. Artists often get together, in craft guilds or casually, to share their passion for art, to learn new skills, try new materials and styles, to discuss and debate aesthetics, politics, and the art world. Mostly they get together to inspire each other and to be inspired; to persevere in creating art in a world that doesn’t value creativity or appreciate the artistic process. There is a deep camaraderie amongst artists that is also magical and spiritual.
It’s time for a new model sangha. I contend that Buddhism is nothing more than a set of institutions for conveying the dharma, and that what we need is new institutions. The Practice Community is one that we should try as a new model for a life of independent, proficient dharma practice.
First we have to let go of the ways that we have been programmed to learn dharma and meditation. Let go of the need for a church, ‘family’ or cult that you have been conditioned to expect. If you have a deep need for that kind of emotional bonding, maybe you need to find a therapeutic group to address those particular needs. Then take a half step back and start to think about the sangha you are currently involved in differently. Begin to think of it as a guild of practice colleagues, a practice community.