On Refuge and the Growth of Sangha

By Taiso Hannya Byron Bartow Roshi, ZRS Head Priest, excerpted from the September 2017 ZRS newsletter

We have recently engaged in some discussion about our community and how we might grow and deepen. This column shares some thoughts about this.

The three refuges or jewels of Buddhism and Zen are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These appear as three distinct entities, but it is useful to focus on the unity or interdependence of these. These jewels can be understood as three perspectives on the Buddhist way of living. In this way, these jewels are three aspects of a commitment to Buddhism as a way or basis of support. Going for refuge means to look here for guidance. These jewels are sparkling gifts… a grace open to us if we will but choose to actualize this… to go for refuge.

What does it mean to go for refuge? We turn somewhere for meaning and guidance as we engage the experience of living. Where do we look for inspiration and support? And particularly, where do we turn when challenged? Where do we turn in the “dark night of the soul” when we face a challenge so existentially profound that our fundamental understanding of life’s “meaning” and our “personal” experience of identity is shaken? Here we face a slippery conceptual quandary. On the one hand, we appear to experience life through an idea of person and story constructed through culture, experience, and mental habits. On the other hand, Buddhism teaches that this identity is not fundamentally real. If we look carefully through our practice of meditation, it is clear that there is no real person to be found; rather, we may see an ever changing flow of experience and interpretation. Meditation is the jewel of Buddha, which in our practice is taken to refer to the realization of awakening to clear seeing, even as we understand this to be the teaching of the Buddha. Presentation of Buddhist teachings or ideas is one way of understanding Dharma, which can also be understood as Truth (literally law, but something more akin to natural law than rules and regulations).

In this way, Buddha and Dharma are interdependent aspects of going for refuge. And this is also the case for Sangha. Sangha is the place where we turn for spiritual support, companionship, and inspiration in practice together. Although some definitions of Sangha refer to monks and nuns, in common usage in the west Sangha has come to refer to the community that practices together. The broadest community of our practice-life extends, transcendent, throughout all being.  

Recently, we have renewed our contemplation and discussions of just how we can grow as a community or Sangha. “Who” do we wish and choose to be? There is a perception that we may be able to further enliven our community as a basis for our support and growth and for “others” who may yet become part of this community. There is a desire to take steps to move this Sangha in a positive direction.

Perhaps most important is sustaining our existence so that the jewel of this community remains available and viable as a refuge. The right kind of growth and change is an important element of sustaining our Sangha. Many of us are enthusiastic about increasing the scope and variety of dharma-related activities as opportunities for growth in our practice and as opportunities to invite others to practice with us. Similarly, there are opportunities for increasing social activities within our community. It is interesting to watch this unfold, and we also have the challenge to practice patience and mindfulness as we do so. As a relatively small spiritual community, we may need to be careful with our energy and not disperse and burn ourselves out by taking on too much, too fast. Perhaps existing and supporting our basic practice is the primary activity for sustaining our community as a refuge. This requires a focus on meeting our obligations for maintaining our location with its economical and maintenance needs (including cleaning, supplies, and exterior). These help to welcome us to practice and set the tone.  While exciting new opportunities loom, these seemingly more mundane activities are essential to practice, as these are practice opportunities to chop wood and carry water… or to use a more contemporary phrase, stick to the knitting. Although we appear to be succeeding in these rather basic dimensions, we are just “getting by” not exceeding minimal needs.

Not only are these fundamental opportunities for the realization of refuge in Sangha, but to move into other arenas too quickly is to risk dissipation and burnout, and because our community is presently small, that could be disastrous for us. At our stage especially, we must be prudent and practice patience and balance. This is not to say that we cannot try new things and grow, just that we need to temper our appetite.

A word about social action: many of us are significantly engaged in a variety of social action, and this can be an actualization of the fundamental Bodhisattva vow: “However innumerable all beings are, I vow to serve and liberate them all.” Many of us have been members of larger spiritual groups with significant and varied social action activities, and these have been vehicles for manifesting the action implied by our vow. Can’t we as a Sangha take on a social project or social projects like this? We may not be ready for such endeavors for two reasons. The first has to do with the more basic challenge of our sustainability as suggested above. The second has to do with our size and the difficulty we would have in finding a project all comers would choose to support. Not only is there the risk of collective burnout, but we also risk squabbling about what project to choose. We don’t want to alienate people who might otherwise practice with us, as our projects present philosophical or political positions with which some are uncomfortable or even opposed. Larger groups can support and sustain a variety of projects, which helps with the concern of alienating people. At our present stage, we may be wiser to encourage those who are ready and inspired for social action to avail themselves of the many other opportunities that exist. If appropriate, the Sangha can be identified in these efforts as we affirm membership in Zen River.

Finally, as we are embarking on the adventure of a quarterly publication, for which I hope to continue to provide a column, please share your feedback and suggestions for topics. I would like to offer something you may find useful.